Tragic vaccine stories – being empathetic while reporting the facts

Over the past couple of the months, this website has published three tragic vaccine stories – each involved the death of a child whose life was taken too early. Each of these grabbed everyone’s heart and made all of us empathetic to the pain of the parents. However, these stories were much more nuanced and complicated than what has been presented in some parts of the internet. And they put some of us in the crosshairs of the anti-vaccine world.

Whenever our side (you know, the pro-science, pro-vaccine side) writes about these stories, people invent strawmen claiming that we are not empathetic or sympathetic to the families whose child had died. Of course, every one of us who writes about these stories is incredibly affected by them. They make us cry. They make us hug our children.

Nevertheless, we still feel compelled to sort fact from fiction. We look at these stories with skeptical eyes, not because we want to attack the parents of these children. Instead, we want to make sure that the scientific facts are not ignored, which could lead to a false narrative about vaccines.

Of course, many of us wish we didn’t have to write these stories. I personally try to ignore them, because the stories are so incredibly complex, and I feel so incredibly sympathetic towards the parents, even if they are pushing an unfortunate narrative about vaccines. Eventually, these vaccine stories become tropes on social media, and, at some point, I feel like an analytical approach to the story is necessary. Which leads to this article – I want to make make it clear what I feel and how I react to these vaccine stories. 

Vaccine stories – Nicholas Catone

Like I mentioned above, this website published three stories recently that described the awful deaths of young people – and they all had some tie to vaccines, at least in the minds of some.

The first story, about Nicholas Catone, son of MMA fighter Nick Catone, who died suddenly in his sleep.  According to a story written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, young Catone had his DTaP vaccination on April 25. Then he contracted a cold, that was probably not related to the vaccine. Colds are not one of the risks of DTaP,  and, of course, toddlers contract many colds during their young lives.

Later, he contracted a one day fever almost two weeks after receiving the vaccine. Again, there is nothing linking this fever to the vaccine. The vaccine can cause a fever – but unlike MMR, which causes fevers 6-14  days later, DTaP fever is shortly after the vaccine – “[the symptoms] begin 1 to 3 days after the vaccine was given and last for 1 to 7 days.  Fortunately, fever and fussiness don’t last that long, typically going away after just a day or two.”

Irrespective of the long time period between the vaccination and the mild fever, it is considered a mild adverse reaction and is very rarely dangerous. this type of fever results from a child’s immune system working to respond to the vaccine, creating antibodies, that are part of the adaptive immune response to future infections.

At any rate, Nicholas’ fever resolved in a few hours, as Nick Catone pointed out, and appeared fine thereafter. He died in his sleep on May 12, 2017, 17 days after the vaccine. The death came with no warning, causing his family incredible grief and shock.

Soon thereafter, the family used social media to start blaming the vaccination for his death, despite a lack of any medical evidence that there was a causal link between the vaccine and any adverse events.

Professor Reiss concluded that,

In other words, there is not even a close connection in time between the death and the vaccine. There was what looks like at least one viral illness, maybe two, in between. Blaming the vaccine under these circumstances is not convincing.

Of course, that didn’t stop the anti-vaccine world from attacking Professor Reiss. There are nearly 3000 comments to her article about Nicholas, which probably sets the record for comments on this website. Most of them were supportive, but of course, the anti-vaccine activists attacked her mercilessly. Some of the comments (which we deleted immediately) were disgusting. Some even made sexual comments about her sons. Those were immediately deleted too.

One hateful, violent comment was posted by someone by the name of Warrior Mama:

You want to know what you did wrong, you worthless piece of shit? You went after people who lost everything. If you really believed in your cause this would be unimportant. You’d let it go. Something in your conscience would say, ‘not these people’. But you don’t have a conscience. Come after me, who has lost nothing. I have two healthy never-vaxxed kids who disprove your drivel every day. Every time you make a gross misstep like this one more comes to the truth. You’ve picked the wrong family. We’re stronger today because of you.

Reiss’ whole article stayed calm and was evidence-driven. She was empathetic to the sudden death of a child, something that no parent would want or wish on anyone. I always say that no parent ever wants to outlive their children – as a father to three daughters (and Reiss, the mother of two sons), we cannot imagine the death of children.

But we are also devoted to protecting children from dangerous and deadly diseases. And if there is a trend across the internet that “vaccines caused a death,” we have to respond. We’re not callous people, but we have a responsibility to defend children from vaccine-preventable diseases with scientific evidence, not personal attacks, strawman fallacies, and hate. We want to protect children with vaccines precisely because we do have a conscience.

Vaccine stories – Ryker Roque

The second of our vaccine stories is about six-year-old Ryker, a story that defines tragic. Ryker’s father found a sick bat while on a walk. In his first error in judgment, he brought the bat home to help it recover. His second error was to put the bat in a container while telling his young son to stay away. Of course, the curious child stuck his hand in the container, probably to touch the bat – he was bitten and scratched.

At this point, any public health official, emergency department physician or nurse would strongly recommend that Ryker receive the rabies treatment protocol prior to the onset of symptoms:

This led to the third error in judgment by the parents – little Ryker complained about getting shots, so his parents decided to not get the vaccine. He eventually became symptomatic, at which point the prognosis is extremely poor, and he died in the hospital. And just like the story with Nicholas Catone, this story breaks my heart. All it took was the parents doing the right thing, ignoring the complaints of their son, and heading to the hospital seconds after they realized that he might have been bitten or scratched by an apparently sick bat.

Of course, no one is blaming vaccines for this story. And no one is unsympathetic to the pain that the parents are experiencing. It’s just that the vaccine could have saved Ryker’s life. And he would have grown up to be a healthy boy.

I don’t know if the parents were vaccine-hesitant, hoping that it wouldn’t be necessary. I just know if the parents just made the worst choice ever. I didn’t write the article to criticize the parents – I wrote it so that if anyone is Googling a story about rabies, they will see this story and get to a hospital immediately. Because the scientific facts tell us that getting the rabies vaccine is the right thing to do.

Vaccine stories – Colton Berrett

The third of our vaccine stories is probably the most complicated emotionally. Colton was a 13-year-old boy in Utah who had received the third (of three) of the Gardasil cancer-prevention vaccine. Gardasil, which protects against the human papillomavirus which is causally linked to several cancers, is one of the most despised vaccines by many in the anti-vaccine movement.

A couple of weeks after his third HPV vaccine injection, Colton exhibited some signs of a serious issue that eventually led to a diagnosis of transverse myelitis (TM), an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease that can eventually lead to paralysis. This story is long and complicated, but recently Colton died, although it’s not clear how he died (his parents claim it was suicide, although I cannot find any independent story that supports that cause of death).

Colton’s mother,  with the assistance of the Vaxxed anti-vaccine bus tour, blames Gardasil for the TM, probably because she is in pain at the loss of her son. It’s difficult to fault her since there is a tendency for humans to need to place blame on something when they lose a child.

Nevertheless, the evidence that Gardasil is not involved with the TM is pretty close to overwhelming. There is almost no plausible reason to believe that Gardasil is involved with this tragic case. And numerous epidemiological studies have shown no links between the HPV vaccines and TM. The causes of TM aren’t well understood, but it is believed that it is caused by some sort of immune reaction due to infection and a few other causes.

Despite the claims of Colton’s heartbroken mother, there is a notable lack of evidence that Gardasil was in any way related to the neurodegenerative disease. Establishing causality requires a difficult bit of scientific sleuthing – maybe one could provide evidence that this is a rare, 1 in 100 million chance that a vaccine caused the transverse myelitis, but so far no credible source has provided that evidence.

Of course, soon after I published the article, I was attacked on Twitter for “making shit up.”

If that’s the worse comment I get, I’ll be OK. I tend to ignore social media comments about what I write unless it’s someone I trust or someone points out a writing error (which happened in that article).

On the other hand, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, who did not write this particular article, has been brutalized by some foul people who are angry that she points out the lack of evidence linking Gardasil to Colton’s TM. The combative Orac reviews some of that nastiness and points to a violent threat from an Elizabeth O. Warren:

HPV shots do not need to be given to children or anyone at all.. how dare you attack this boy and what happened to him b/c you are a paid shill DORIT!!!! No he didn’t die the other day from the shot he took his own life AFTER the shot destroyed his quality of life where he then felt like a burden to his family.

For someone that claims to be so smart how are you even still holding a job?

Im to the point Dorit if I ever see you in person you better pray your legs work and you can run the other way.

Liars never get far and your time is up. YOU CAN’T SILENCE US ALL!!! Especially with your week ass blogs filled with lies.

One commenter seems to think that she wrote an article for Orac (part of the grand conspiracy of pro-vaccine scientists I suppose) which brought us this comment by Laura:

Dorit is such a disgusting human being. From openly supporting the idea of forced vaccination as I saw in a panel discussion she did, and now trying to push blame of fear mongering onto the Vaxxed movement. Seriously?? Why is it that people will blame EVERYTHING in the world but NEVER the vaccines! You’d be more likely to hear a doctor or a shill like Dorit blame wearing the color blue or that the wind was blowing southeast that day than to hear them blame vaccines. Makes NO sense!! Too many kids and teens and hell, adults too for that matter are being injured or killed by vaccines. How do you sleep at night Dorit??!! Oh wait, you probably sleep fine with your money made from supporting Pharma and from the fatigue from all those vaccines you’ve had to be up to date. Cause I’m sure with you speaking so strongly about being current on vaccines, you’ve obviously gotten boosters for all the ones that are new, right?!

This is like 1% of the ad hominem personal attacks, violent metaphors, and threats that follow Dr. Rubinstein around the internet. I’ve had private conversations with her about Colton, and we both agree – the story breaks our hearts. Neither she or I can even imagine the pain of the mother of Colton.

That being said, the evidence is just not there linking the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine to Colton’s transverse myelitis. And if people believe this story, they may not vaccinate themselves or their loved ones against a virus that is causally linked to several dangerous cancers.

Let’s talk

I’m a scientist, so I think in scientific terms. Science is also black and white – either there is or isn’t evidence to support or reject a hypothesis. Now, we can argue about the quality of that evidence, which leads to an imaginary grey area of science.

Despite my black/white viewpoint about science, I realize that accepting or rejecting a hypothesis in science is always provisional – if there’s sufficient evidence, in both quantity and quality, to re-evaluate a hypothesis, then we do so. People seem to think that science is set in stone, that it is dogmatic, but in fact, it is self-correcting as new evidence is provided.

When I write about vaccines (or climate change, GMOs, evolution, or other scientific ideas), I may sound definitive, but I know many conclusions are necessarily tentative. But I’ve learned that some readers, who are not familiar with scientific nuance in writing, misinterpret qualified conclusions. If I write “there is little evidence that Gardasil is linked to transverse myelitis,” someone will say, “so there is some evidence?” There might be one mention of TM in a case report, which isn’t high-quality evidence – it does not mean we jump to a conclusion that Gardasil causes TM.

And even if I were to admit that Gardasil is linked to TM (and there’s no evidence that it is), what risk would there actually be? The risk of TM for all causes is 4.6 out of 1 million, making it an incredibly rare condition. And if one out of 1000 TM cases were caused by Gardasil, statistically, we may never observe it. Yet if I write such a nuanced sentence, someone will place more weight on this tiny risk (which probably doesn’t exist), making it feel like it occurs after every other Gardasil injection. Unfortunately, humans are somewhat incompetent in judging risk, not understanding that just because they observe one case does not mean it’s frequent.

So, when I write about these type of tragic stories, it’s not to shame the parents (although the rabies story just makes me want to scream). It’s not to dismiss the real pain that they feel. It’s not to deny the sorrow of a lost life.

My whole goal is to remind people of the scientific evidence so that someone reading about these stories are told what are facts (at least in a scientific sense) and what are emotions.

That won’t stop the hate. That won’t stop the strawman arguments that we’re attacking the parents, rather than the claims of the parents. They are two separate issues.

We care about all children – this is why I advocate for vaccines. I know that serious adverse events are rare, probably rarer than what we observe in almost every other medical procedure. There are no 100% guarantees of safety in medicine, except those pushing pseudoscientific alternative medicine.

And I know that these vaccines are extremely effective against dangerous diseases, but I also know that perfection only occurs in the delusions of those who practice pseudoscience – there is no 100% effective in real medicine.

I mourn for these three kids, Nicholas, Colton and Ryker, who recently lost their lives. These are tragic stories. However, I don’t want vaccine-preventable diseases to become rampant again because there will be more lives to mourn then.






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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!