Every now and then, I like to try something new on this blog to see if it sticks (or who clicks). So today I’m going to start something I’m going to call Skeptical Tuesday. You can hashtag that if you like. #SkepticalTuesday. The goal will be, on the occasional Tuesday, to talk about news in the skeptic community, and to promote and apply the methodology of skepticism, in order to make the world a little bit of a better place. So today, to get the ball rolling, I’m going to talk about folks who are against the use of vaccines, but check back from time to time as I’ll try to cover other topics, too.
As I’m sure you all know, I’m a major proponent of vaccination. But in the US right now there’s a very vocal minority preying on the poorly-informed and telling them not to vaccinate their children. When you try to figure out why, the reasons are generally predictable: there are those who know better but who are driven by motives like greed or ambition, there are those who don’t know better who are driven by things like fear and pride, and there are those who should know better but have put their trust in all the wrong people. I hate to actually link to one of these sites, so instead I’ll put up screenshots of one major anti-vaccine website to talk about.
Here’s a great piece of anti-vaccine writing, but first, just take a look at that setting! Look at all the free things you could be getting right now. A free “IMMUNITY Guide”, a free report on “How To Boost Your Immunity Naturally, NOW!”, a free “How To Rid Your Body Of Mercury” video — and if you look to the right, you can get a chapter of something that tells you how to “Kill Cancer Naturally.” No more chemotherapy, folks, someone on the internet has figured out how to cure cancer. Oh, and look at the top right — you can find out whether your vitamins work, just sign up for weekly health alerts. All of this can be yours, for the low cost of your e-mail address. It’s all free, right?
No. Nothing is free.
There’s a lot of money out there for lists of e-mails of gullible people. That’s what these things harvest and sell. Oh, they might promise to “protect your privacy” and that they won’t spam you, but it doesn’t mean someone else won’t when they sell your address. And since you’re not giving them your name (just your address) your privacy is protected, too. How about that? I can’t be 100% certain that’s what’s going on here, there’s always the chance that this is really a post written by a well-meaning guy who genuinely has no critical thinking skills and someone else is taking advantage of him in multiple, embarrassing ways. But the link to his book further down the page, on how to immunize your kids “naturally” (only ten dollars on amazon!) would suggest, once again, profiteering at the expense of the general public.
But fine. Just because it’s 21st century snake oil doesn’t mean we can’t have fun countering its arguments. And that’s how skepticism works: evaluating claims. If there’s evidence, a skeptic changes her position.
Claim one: ‘herd immunity’ is fake.
“When outbreaks arise among children, health officials are quick to state that it’s due to a breakdown in ‘herd immunity.‘ Doctors parrot it too, without even looking at the research. They say it’s happening more often nationwide as states make it easier for parents to opt out of vaccinations. Like argumentative apes, pro-vaccine parents and their physicians start pounding their chest in favor of such statements. They use them to attack anti-vaccine parents, accusing them of “putting vaccinated kids at risk due to a breakdown in herd immunity.” This is fuzzy logic. And it’s borderline stupid. After all, if vaccines truly worked, then why would vaccinated kids be at risk? …Plus, the spread of infection isn’t limited to coming into contact with another person! You can get sick without ever seeing another individual. Therefore, herd immunity is nothing more than a silly catch-phrase used to scare and bully parents into vaccinating their kids. Don’t fall for it parents, keep using the vaccine exemption forms to legally avoid them.”
Aside from all the insults woven in to make fence sitters feel stupid about not totally agreeing that herd immunity is dumb (argumentative apes, borderline stupid) this totally misses the point of what herd immunity is. Vaccines aren’t 100% effective, and even if they were, there’d always be people we couldn’t give them to: the very young, the already sick, and so-on. Having a majority of the population vaccinated actually means that even the unvaccinated have some protection. So that criticism is unwarranted. The bit where it says “the spread of infection isn’t limited to coming into contact with another person” is also deceitful — the infections you can be vaccinated against can, for the most part, only live for a short time outside of humans. So sure, maybe you can get mumps by coming into contact with saliva someone infected left behind, but that’s still person-to-person transmission. Here’s the worst part though: the logic. Read this:
“The World Health Organization (WHO) underscored this fact in their report titled, Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. They wrote that, “Children under two years of age do not consistently develop immunity following vaccination.” Therefore, vaccines can fly “below the radar” of our immune system.”
That’s right: the website literally argues that you don’t need to vaccinate your children because the vaccinated should be fine, and then a hundred words later says that vaccines aren’t 100% effective so why bother vaccinating. It boggles the mind.
Claim two: vaccines expose children to ‘toxins’.
Those who know me know how much I hate the word ‘toxins’. Pretty much any time someone says you’ve got ‘toxins’ in your body, they’re wrong. Or, they’re a doctor, and you’re very sick. You have this wonderful things called a liver and two kidneys, and if they’re doing their jobs, you’ll be free of toxins in no time. If not, you’re probably dying, on dialysis, or have a very particular medical condition I’m unaware of. A spirulina smoothie will not detoxify you. But I digress.
“Formaldehyde is just one of many chemicals found in vaccines. And according to the FDA, “Excessive exposure to formaldehyde may cause cancer.” Another ingredient in the cocktail is a chemical known as 2-phenoxyethanol. This comes with an FDA warning which states that, “It can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants.””
Number one, you need formaldehyde to live. Your body produces it on its own, and in much larger amounts than is in a dose of any vaccine.
There’s this wonderful thing called the NOAEL, or the No Observable Adverse Effect Level, and it’s of real, serious importance when talking about claims of toxicity. It’s the reason why a little fluoride in your water is a good thing, while a lot in there is bad. It’s the same reason why a little sugar in your coffee is probably fine, while drinking four big gulps a day is probably not. “2-phenoxyethanol” is not a toxin, any more than carbon dioxide is. In the amounts in a vaccine (its used in the inactivated polio vaccine, for instance), it’s just a preservative. Of course, maybe that’s just what “big pharma” wants you to believe.
You can go through every “toxin” listed on the site, and you will invariably find that either they’re simply not present (thiomersal, another “toxin” is almost never used in vaccines anymore, even though there’s no scientific reason not to put it in there, because doctors were afraid the anti-vaccine crowd would be able to use it to make their case — really, they can use anything to make their case. Even “monkey kidney cells”. You can’t make this stuff up.).
Claim three: you don’t need vaccines — you can build your children’s immunity ‘naturally’!
“The goal is to minimize risk by increasing our immunity, naturally. In Over-The-Counter Natural Cures, I showed how innate and adaptive immunity act as our God-given protection from biological nasties… But, you have to support these Gatekeepers of health with proper nutrition, hygiene, sanitation and natural medicine like andrographis.”
Hoo, boy. That word, andrographis, was a link to a special “supplement”. I’ve deleted it because the one page click from my research was one too many (but you’ll be able to find it well enough with google if you need to). This is actually genius — buy my book so you can learn how to keep your kids safe and healthy without toxins, but be aware that it’s not 100% effective, and so you should also take my special pills that “boost” your immune system.
Look, there’s no denying that the way our immune systems work is to learn, from exposure, how to fight off a threat. The problem is that it’s a one-to-one disease exposure to disease immunity ratio. To naturally acquire immunity to polio, you’d have to get polio itself. No herbal supplement, no proper hygiene, no “over-the-counter natural cure” is going to stop your child getting the measles, mumps, rubella, polio, or any number of other things we’re good at preventing with vaccines. There’s only two ways to acquire immunity to a virus: get the virus, or get vaccinated. That’s fine for things like chicken pox, which is rarely so bad, in the civilized world, to cause irreparable harm. It’s a little harsher for influenza, which still kills thousands of people a year in the US even in years where the vaccine is a fairly good fit. But mumps can render you sterile. Polio can cause paralysis. The risks of letting your child develop immunity to those things naturally are horrendous.
So I’m going to end this post with a link to a great little comic on vaccination by PopSci cartoonist Maki Naro that explains it simply and effectively in a way anyone can understand. Pass it along to the next person in your facebook feed who says they won’t vaccinate their kids. Until next time, stay analytical, and try (I know, I know) to stay civil, too.