anti-vaxers: yelling "fire" in a crowded theater…

May 9, 2009

We’re all concerned about our children and their health. It’s in our nature. Long childhoods and parental care are key strategies to ensuring the survival of not just humans, but all mammals in general and it’s one of a number of reasons why we’ve been able to take over the Earth after the dinosaurs vanished. But sometimes, that concern turns into panic and that panic combined with a lack of information or lack of knowledge on the subject can turn malicious and harm the very kids we’re trying to protect. The current vaccination debate is a textbook case of that problem. Rather than protecting kids from bad medicine, anti-vaccine activists are really just scaring parents with misleading and unscientific data, and indulging conspiracy theories.

vaccine vialAs herd immunity drops because parents don’t vaccinate and kids are starting to die of preventable diseases, the anti-vaxers deny any and all responsibility while actively peddling fear, uncertainty and doubt rather than help the parents make informed decisions about vaccines. They yell “fire!” in a crowded theater because they think they’ve seen a spark and tell us that when people are trampled in the panic they create, it’s not their fault. Then, when the firefighters arrive and see no fire or evidence of one, they accuse the firefighters of being arsonists in disguise.

Discover Magazine recently ran a story which provides a brief account of how what was once a small group of parents blaming vaccines makers for giving their kids autism based on a fraudulent study by doctor Andrew Wakefield, became such a mainstream phenomenon thanks to celebrity activism of the worst kind. The core of the controversy was the vaccine preservative thimerosal which was supposed to prevent contamination by bacteria and make vaccines safer. Instead, Wakefield alleged, the mercury in it caused autism, particularly in the MMR vaccine. In 1999, thimerosal was removed from all vaccines except flu shots. If Wakefield was right, rising autism rates should’ve reversed. Instead, they climbed even higher. Subsequent studies found there’s no link between the preservative and autism but the anti-vaxers held firm. It would take a lot more than just science and peer-reviewed research to sway them.

So they responded by moving the goal posts and saying that “toxins” in vaccines were causing autism. On top of that, there are too many vaccines and infants are being overwhelmed with shot after shot, after shot. Now, fighting toxins in vaccines is all well and good, but what anti-vaxers do is throw out scary chemical names and use the names themselves as proof that vaccines are toxic. A lot of common, everyday things have a chemical name that sounds like a bio-weapon but in reality, they’re harmless. We also need to keep in mind that we’re exposed to small quantities of toxins every day but our bodies can deal with these contaminants. It’s also not true that infants’ bodies are overwhelmed by the quantity of vaccines they receive. Their immune systems are strong enough to deal with multiple vaccinations.

There’s also a problem with diagnosing autism. Some experts are starting to think that the increase in autism cases is being influenced by medical bureaucracy. Over the last revision to the DSM, criteria for diagnosing a case of autism have been greatly expanded and as a result, this complex condition is getting more and more prevalent in medical paperwork. Before, it’s very possible that autism was drastically underreported. To make matters even more confusing, signs of autism are now being identified in children just 12 months old, which is actually before the much vilified MMR vaccine is scheduled to be given. Could the seemingly sudden rise in autism over the last few decades be much more moderate than we think? And could the difficulty in making those diagnoses make the whole idea of an autism epidemic a matter of debate? Until we have some idea of what causes autism and how we can get better stats on the matter, we can’t go around randomly assigning culprits and and talking about epidemics and sudden rises, scaring people out of their wits.

It makes perfect sense we want to assign blame and find something or someone to hold responsible for big problems with which we don’t know how to deal right now. But what anti-vaxers have done borders on malice and shows willful obstinacy in light of facts. They know vaccines are evil and they’re not budging. At the same time, they flood the internet with information that flies in the face of science and conspiracy theories that vilify vaccine makers as immoral entities willing to slay toddlers as long as it brings them a dollar. Parents who need to find legitimate scientific data are being drawn into celebrity delusions and populist fuming from those who reject the scientific method, even when confronted with the harm they do firsthand. And to add insult to injury, they refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, no matter how many times they’re corrected by experts.

See: Hviid A, Stellfeld M, Wohlfahrt J, Melbye M. (2003). Association Between Thimerosal-Containing Vaccine and Autism JAMA, 290 (13), 1763-1766 PMID: 14519711

Shattuck, P. (2006). The Contribution of Diagnostic Substitution to the Growing Administrative Prevalence of Autism in US Special Education PEDIATRICS, 117 (4), 1028-1037 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-1516

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  • http://confutata.wordpress.com Diana Austin

    Nicely done. I just discovered your blog (via Reddit), and am happy to be able to add another skeptical blogger to my feed.