Debunking myths about vaccine testing and safety

The goal of this article is to respond to a number of recurring myths raised by anti-vaccine activists regarding vaccine testing and safety – a common trope used against vaccines.

The bottom line is that vaccines are extensively and carefully tested for safety, and that vaccine safety is shown by many, many studies from a variety of sources, reinforcing each other and all pointing to the same result – serious problems from vaccines are possible, but extremely rare. And those small, rare risks are far outweighed by the benefits vaccines provide by protecting us against much larger risks.

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Disneyland and measles–some real scientific facts and simple math

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Unless you’ve been living on an interplanetary spaceship lacking Earth news services, you probably are aware of a serious outbreak of measles at the Happiest Place on Earth, that is, Disneyland (in Anaheim, CA). The park hosts about 40-50 thousand people a day, the bulk of which are children and parents of children, so if there could be a ground zero for a vaccine preventable pathogen outbreak, Disneyland would be the almost perfect place.

According to the California Department of Public Health (as of 30 January 2015), there have been 91 measles cases statewide since the beginning of the new year, with 58 of those cases related (either primarily or through secondary or tertiary contact) to a visit to Disneyland. About a third of those positive for measles are over the age of 20, an unusual statistic (and more on that later).

Some of those infected may have carried the disease outside of the state, but those are being tracked by their home state, so it makes it a bit difficult to get an actual number, but the CDC is monitoring the situation and will give updates weekly. The total number of those who might have contracted measles from Disneyland could be as high as 70-90 individuals.

Continue reading “Disneyland and measles–some real scientific facts and simple math”

Dr. Robert Sears vaccine info misleads parents about measles

This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

Today, on Friday, January 16, 2015, Dr. Robert (Bob) Sears, a California pediatrician and author of a controversial book on vaccines (critiqued here, pdf, or here by the fine folks at Science Based Medicine) wrote in his Dr. Bob’s Daily and published on his Facebook page that measles is only rarely fatal in developed countries and that serious complications are rare. (In the likely event that Dr. Sears decides to delete his misleading comments, it’s archived here permanently.)

Dr. Sears’s comments were false. And they were irresponsible. In a way that can put people – including children, including his patients – at serious risk. This is not the first time Dr. Bob Sears has made inaccurate claims about a vaccine preventable disease, but on the background of the current measles outbreaks, the risk from his behavior is more imminent and more obvious. It is appropriate to react. Continue reading “Dr. Robert Sears vaccine info misleads parents about measles”

Hey vaccine deniers–a huge study says measles vaccines are safe

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Unless you’re a serious science denier, who thinks that the measles vaccine is more dangerous than measles, we have ample evidence that the measles vaccines have just about eliminated measles, although an uptick in measles this year probably can be tied to the antivaccine crowd. We have boatloads of evidence that vaccines have prevented morbidity and mortality from measles. We don’t have to look back 100 years, we can look back 20 years–measles cases dropped from 55,000 in 1991 to 189 in 2013This sudden drop happened because of the Vaccines for Children Program.

The measles vaccine, usually a part of the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) or the MMRV vaccine (MMR plus varicella, also known as chickenpox), successfully prevents measles, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. Measles starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, and sore throat, similar to common cold. However, the initial symptoms are followed by a rash that spreads all over the body.

Many people think that measles is a minor disease, that’s because they weren’t around 30 years ago, when measles epidemics hit children in school. The CDC estimates that approximately 3 out of 10 adults or children who get measles will develop one or more complications including pneumonia, ear infections, or diarrhea. The myth that measles is “nothing” is just that–a myth, lie and bad science. Continue reading “Hey vaccine deniers–a huge study says measles vaccines are safe”

One unvaccinated child was patient zero of a measles epidemic

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Wakefield-fraudDespite what you think is happening when you read antivaccination blogs, most people in the developed world vaccinate their children. And in the relatively undeveloped world, they are demanding more vaccines so that their children will live longer. In the USA alone, far less than 1% of children, 19-35 months, are completely unvaccinated. The problem, at least in the USA, is that those unvaccinated children tend to be clustered in small geographical areas where individuals who share the typical characteristics of many vaccine deniers tend to live.

The complication is that the herd immunity can break down rather quickly when the vaccination uptake drops below 80-90% in these clusters. And all it takes is one person carrying a vaccine preventable disease from an area, where it is endemic, to then start an outbreak or epidemic very quickly in one of these low vaccine uptake clusters. For a disease like measles, which is very contagious, it jumps from an infected person to unvaccinated individuals quite rapidly, sometimes before public health authorities can contain it. Measles is easily prevented with the MMRV vaccine (which also protects children against mumpsrubella, and chickenpox).

In a recent article published in Pediatrics, researchers investigated a measles outbreak in Minnesota in 2011. The authors, lead by Pamala Gahr of the Minnesota Department of Health, determined that the outbreak began when an unvaccinated 2-year-old travelled to Kenya, where he contracted the measles virus. Upon returning to the United States, the child developed a fever, cough and vomiting, some of the early signs and symptoms of measles. Unfortunately, prior to a diagnosis of measles, the child passed the virus on to three children in a child day-care center and another household member. The measles then spread from individual to individual within a low vaccine uptake area, a Somali immigrant community in the Minneapolis area. Eventually, more than 3,000 people were exposed to the disease. Continue reading “One unvaccinated child was patient zero of a measles epidemic”

Hey antivaccine lunatics, here’s simple math about measles vaccination

MeaslesOneInTenThis easy-to-read, easy-to-understand explanation in response to the antivaccination trope of “if your child is vaccinated, why are you worried about my unvaccinated kid.” It was published on the Facebook pro-vaccination page, Embarrassed Cousins of Proud Parents of Unvaccinated Children.

And once again, this is simple, third grade math. Let’s see if the typical antivaccination cult member can understand this!

The AV nuts are always asking, “If vaccines work so well, why are you concerned about my unvaccinated kid? Aren’t yours protected?” For this discussion, let’s leave out the usual list of people who cannot be vaccinated, the list of people the AV’ers will callously consider not their problem. Let’s not get into the idea that maybe it’s OK for me to worry about their kids too, kids who through no fault of their own are the poker chips these parents are waging while they confidently try to call a bluff on virtually every expert on the planet. Let me, for a moment, be as thoughtless and selfish as they are, and answer the question being asked. Is their unvaccinated child putting my child at risk, if the vaccines I believe in work so damn well?

No. Probably not. But they are putting somebody’s vaccinated child at risk.

Let’s do some real simple math here. The variables for infection rates and vaccine effectiveness vary by disease, and the equations get pretty complicated as they interact with each other, so I’m going to round off and keep it as simple as possible. Statistically, if you expose 100 unvaccinated people to measles, 95 of them will catch it. If you expose 100 people who have had one dose of the vaccine (MMR or MMRV), 5 of those partially vaccinated people will still catch measles. If you expose 100 people who have had two doses of the vaccine, 1 of those fully vaccinated people will still catch measles. Those are the numbers, roughly. Different diseases are different. Measles is on the extreme end of both factors: It is extremely contagious, but the vaccine also works extremely well.

Let’s say a child goes on a trip to some exotic place where measles is common due to low vaccination, like India or Southern California. If that child comes in contact with measles, an unvaccinated child will almost certainly (95% chance) catch the disease, where a vaccinated child will almost certainly not (1% chance) catch the disease. The vaccinated child comes back from his vacation with a statue of Vishnu or some Mickey Mouse ears, while the unvaccinated child comes back as Patient Zero.

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Let’s assume the kid has become contagious before returning from his trip. He gets on a Boeing 737 with 200 other people. Even if every single person on that flight is vaccinated, 2 of them will contract measles. Anyone who is unvaccinated will almost certainly (95% chance) catch it. You go through the airport, get your luggage, and possibly infect a few more on the way.

Monday comes around, and it’s time to go back to school. Let’s go with the national average, and say 90% of the students are vaccinated, and that child comes in contact with 500 students. Of the 50 students that are unvaccinated, 42 of them will catch measles. Out of the 450 students that are fully vaccinated, 4 of them will still catch measles.

You can adjust these numbers how you see fit: for how infectious the disease is, how effective the vaccine is, or how many people the child will come in contact with, but you will never come to an equation that justifies this kind of reckless endangerment.

I think we can stop there, and not get into shopping malls, taking a subway, visiting our newborn cousin in the hospital, etc. And we still have that list of people who cannot be vaccinated that I generously ignored for this exercise, but sure as hell would not ignore when one of them died in the real world. Statistically speaking, my kids are a hundred times more likely to be one of the 446 vaccinated children at that school who were protected than the unlucky 4 the vaccine did not work for. So yeah, I guess you got me there. I’m not worried your unvaccinated child is going to infect mine. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be pissed on behalf of the 46 students your bluff call did infect. I can be concerned about the people on the plane you infected who went off and started their own school outbreaks. And I can do everything possible to hold you accountable for the damage you’ve caused for absolutely no good reason. When you try to call a bluff like that and are wrong, you are expected to pay up.

 

Jenny McCarthy lies about vaccines. Surprise.

Jenny McCarthy is the erstwhile MTV drunk college dating game hostess, and current “journalist” on The View, an American daytime talk show on the ABC television network (owned by Disney). This transformation, of sorts, occurred despite widespread condemnation from scientists, journalists, and yours truly about her loud and annoying antivaccine rhetoric. Clearly, no one of any note supported her being hired on the View, except for websites like the Age of Pushing Nonsense To Harm Children.

This is old news. If you didn’t know, Jenny also has a newspaper column at the Chicago Sun-Times, where, I suppose, she can comment on anything she likes. I have never read it. Until I did. In her column of 12 April 2014, she wrote:

I am not “anti-vaccine.” This is not a change in my stance nor is it a new position that I have recently adopted. For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, “pro-vaccine” and for years I have been wrongly branded as “anti-vaccine.”

Wait! What? She said she is not anti-vaccine?

Again. Again. And again. Thanks Bill Nye.
Again. Again. And again. Thanks Bill Nye.

Continue reading “Jenny McCarthy lies about vaccines. Surprise.”

Measles, mumps, rubella outbreaks–the culpability of Andrew Wakefield

Wakefield-fraudThis week, writer Aaron Carroll provided a graphic depiction of the toll of the antivaccination movement, which itself comes from a Council on Foreign Relations interactive map of “vaccine-preventable outbreaks” worldwide 2008-2014. I narrowed down the map to just include measles, mumps, and rubella, three diseases that can and are prevented by the MMR (or more commonly in the USA, MMRV, which includes chickenpox) vaccine.

Even though the vaccine deniers champion the trope that these diseases are “not serious,” real evidence from real infectious disease medical specialists say otherwise. Measles, mumps and rubella can be dangerous diseases with debilitating complications, including death, for both children and adults. And as you can see in the map (click on it for greater detail), outbreaks of measles (in red), mumps (in olive) and rubella (in blue) are larger than it should be in both the developed and the developing world than it should be, given the easy access to the MMR (or MMRV) vaccines. Continue reading “Measles, mumps, rubella outbreaks–the culpability of Andrew Wakefield”

Delaying measles vaccination may increase risk of seizures

keep-calm-get-shots-bigThere is an unscientific myth, pushed by some parts of the vaccine deniers (more accurate, vaccine delayers), that parents should delay vaccinations based on the unsupported belief that “too many vaccines” could overwhelm the child’s immune system. This belief is utterly unscientific and thoroughly debunked

That belief is unfounded, as Paul Offit summarized in Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Multiple Vaccines Overwhelm or Weaken the Infant’s Immune System?:

Current studies do not support the hypothesis that multiple vaccines overwhelm, weaken, or “use up” the immune system. On the contrary, young infants have an enormous capacity to respond to multiple vaccines, as well as to the many other challenges present in the environment. By providing protection against a number of bacterial and viral pathogens, vaccines prevent the “weakening” of the immune system and consequent secondary bacterial infections occasionally caused by natural infection.

Continue reading “Delaying measles vaccination may increase risk of seizures”