Paracelsus' poison

Paracelsus' poison

In the vaccine debate, science is just getting its boots on

There is an old saying that a lie will be heard around the world while truth is still getting its boots on. This was brought home to me during a radio interview I did on Tuesday night in the wake of the Federal Government’s decision to remove the conscientious objection exemption for vaccination. I was astonished that in 2015, some of these pieces of misinformation are still out there, and still believed, if the passionate radio callers (and several posts in my Facebook feed) are any indication.

Here is a sample of some of the misinformation and misunderstandings I encountered on the radio show and on the internet in the past 24 hours (paraphrased slightly).

“Why should we inject our kids with polyethylene glycol/brake fluid?” We don’t. There is no ethylene glycol in our vaccines. We do have harmless traces of a completely different chemical, 2-phenoxyethanol, which is an antibacterial helping keep the vaccines sterile.

“Why are we injecting our kids with formaldehyde?” Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses in some vaccines. After clean-up, minute traces are left, but the amount you would get from a vaccine injection is much less that is circulating naturally in your blood. Yes, your body makes formaldehyde. If you are seriously worried about formaldehyde, don’t eat apples or pears, which contain much more formaldehyde than vaccines. For details see here and here.

“Why are we injecting our kids with mercury?” We aren’t, there has been no mercury in kids vaccines in Australia since 2000. Especially those in the vaccination schedule. Note that the amount of mercury in the Thiomersal preservative is less than what you would get from eating a can of tuna and no one seems to be advocating a fish free diet for kids.

“Why are we still giving kids small pox vaccine when small pox is extinct?” We are not. And I am astonished that anyone would think that we did, but this (paraphrased) was an actual question.

Measles vaccination conquers measles. Epidemiol Rev (2002) 24 (2): 125-136. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxf002

“But we don’t need vaccines, these diseases were going before vaccines”. Nope, see that graph? That’s the incidence of measles in the UK before and after the vaccine, note the strong correlation between the fall in measles and the vaccine coverage of the population. Similar graphs are seen for the US and Canada (see here for the most dishonest anti-vaccination graph ever).

Australia stopped collecting data on measles incidence so there is a big gap in our data, but the incidence of the disease was higher before the vaccine than after. Same goes for pertussis (we had just had an epidemic when the vaccine was introduced), diptheria and Heamophilus Influenza B (and if you want to claim it’s all hygiene and diet, the HIB vaccine was introduced in the ‘90’s where nutrition and hygiene was at modern standards). See the Australian Academy of Sciences “science of vaccination” for graphs and details.

“There have been no deaths from measles since 2000”, this is actually a false statement about US data. 2000 was the year that endemic measles was declared extinct in the US. In Australia, we haven’t has a measles death since 1995. Unsurprisingly, since vaccination has been so effective.

However, in the US the has been 8 deaths during the epidemics caused by unvaccinated people catching measles overseas and bringing it back to the US, where it spreads mostly amongst the unvaccinated. In the US, it is usually linked to the heinous meme “no measles deaths since 2000, hundreds of measles deaths from the measles vaccine”. This pernicious statement is untrue, there have been no deaths due to the measles vaccine.

“What about that study that showed vaccines cause autism”. No, just no. Andrew Wakefield’s study, since retracted for unethical conduct, was so sloppy that it was meaningless, and may even be fraudulent. This unethical study has caused thousand of people to forgo measles vaccines, with kids getting caught in epidemics that should never have happened.

UPDATE 22/04/15 see this article (Free) about a large study where they look at siblings of autistic children who were or were not given subsequent vaccinations. Vaccinated kids were slightly less likley to be autistic than unvaccinated kids.

In the debate about our response to under vaccination, it is assumed that people refusing vaccines are making rational choices, weighing up the pros and cons of vaccination versus side effects with the best available data.

The controversial Leunig cartoon that shows a mother fleeing a barrage of syringes inadvertently sums up what it is really about.

Fear.

As the talking points I’ve encountered show, people are coming up with objections that are either wildly distorted or flat out untrue but they all have one thing in common. They all directly stoke the fear that by vaccinating our children we will harm them. A rational choice is difficult to make in this environment.

That a lie can travel around the world before truth gets its boots on is never truer than in this debate. This recent article contains talking points not covered above that are either not true or wildly distorted (Fluarix does not contain foetal bovine serum, the virus for the vaccine is grown in eggs; vaccinations are not intravenous and so on). But I’ve already spent three days and over 1,000 words to cover the standard false or misleading claims and I have to stop at some point.

All the items I talked about have been dealt with long ago. But if you do an internet search for “Australian vaccine information” three of the top five hits are vaccine denialist sites. In this age of Dr. Google sites that play on fears will trump the more sober (and boring) official sites.

My approach to vaccine refusers (the people whose decisions have been influenced by misinformation and fear, as opposed to hard core vaccine denialists) is to provide them with better and more accessible information.

This may not work as well as it might be naively imagined, a study on the best way to provide accurate vaccine information to parents who had previously failed to vaccinate their children found that although the parents understanding of vaccine safety improved, they were no more likely to have their children vaccinated. Some parents became even less likely to vaccinate their children.

Even in the light of this somewhat depressing knowledge, we should not stop trying to get truth out there. One of the difficulties in communicating vaccine facts is that these may leave a gap in peoples beliefs (accounting for their reluctance to accept the facts). An approach I’ve mentioned before is replacing the gap with an alternative narrative. Whichever approach we use, we need to keep the facts front and centre.

Remember, this is not just abstract knowledge, or “cute science facts”, but information that will keep real kids out of hospital and in some case save lives.

Truth (and science) may take time to get its boots on, but those boots were made for walking, and the journey has just begun.

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