In my very first substantive post I discussed how stories about some “thing” with extraordinarily improbable but very dire personal consequences will spread hysteria like wildfire, especially on social media sites. Today’s post is dedicated the sheer idiocy and scientific illiteracy of the anti-vaccine movement. Before proceeding further I must make a quick disclaimer: I am not a doctor and do not have any formal medical training, so before making any decisions regarding vaccination you should discuss both the risks and benefits with your doctor as well as doing some independent research through reputable institutions.
One motivation for this post is the Facebook post my wife encountered recently about the link between vaccines and autism. The participants of that discussion exhibited textbook examples of logical fallacies (post hoc ergo procter hoc and confirmation bias among the more prevalent) and active rejection in considering evidence that contradicted their views (a phenomena blogger David McRaney calls The Backfire Effect). I initially intended to write something right away, but other things distracted me.
Then a new study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine over Thanksgiving weekend and I saw a number of stories and twitter links about it. Orac, over at his blog, Respectful Insolence, wrote a most excellent post about the findings as well as a general discussion about the misinformation being peddled by the anti-vax movement, and evidence to rebut their claims. Go read it now, I will wait. Seriously, I’m not kidding, go read it. It puts a staggering perspective on the overwhelmingly positive impact vaccines have had in improving human health: Smallpox eradicated, polio on the verge if the remaining few troubled regions can be dealt with, and millions of lives either saved or improved by disease prevention among other points.
The basis of most anti-vax arguments is that some compound(s) within certain vaccines are a causal factor in autism and sometimes other conditions. Other dubious claims about vaccine effectiveness and the rarity of many diseases in modernized areas are also made. These claims often rely on pseudoscientific analysis, anecdotal evidence, and other abnormal argumentative techniques. Another “proof” often bandied about is the now thoroughly-debunked Andrew Wakefield study that attempted to link autism with the MMR vaccine. The problem with all of these methods is the rejection of rational analysis, because for something to be proven* there must be both an abundance of evidence directly supporting it and a dearth of evidence opposing it. None of the anti-vax assertions I have ever encountered have met both criteria.
Consider these two claims:
- My daughter was diagnosed with autism thirteen days after receiving her MMR vaccine.
- My son was diagnosed with autism thirteen days after eating a DiGiorno stuffed crust pizza.
The anti-vaxxers will swear by the first claim, but I’d hazard a guess that even they would be skeptical of the second. Upon critical examination, both claims are equally (un)convincing. Neither demonstrates any form of causation, only the correlation of two events close together in time (there’s that pesky post hoc ergo procter hoc again). Does going to the restroom cause autism? Does riding in a car? What about decorating a Christmas tree? Or getting stitches for that gash on your forehead? Or taking Tylenol for a fever? Did you feed your baby formula? Maybe that’s the cause. Did you breastfeed? Maybe that’s the cause. I could go on ad infinitum, but I expect by now you get my point: one can choose any number of events within a short window of time and form an irrational causal linkage between them.
The anti-vaccine movement has gained momentum with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F Kennedy Jr. (and apparently now Katie Couric) taking more activist roles in the movement. There are people who actively push this snake oil on the public, and then there are folks that accept this garbage as truth without knowing better because it is being delivered by sources they trust. I am far more infuriated by the former than the latter for it is one thing to actively reject overwhelming evidence, but quite another to be ignorant of its existence. Ignorance is far more easily cured than stupidity.
Anti-vaxxers pose a threat to themselves and to others. Not everyone can be vaccinated due to medical conditions like allergies or compromised immune systems. Vaccines are also not 100% effective, meaning that even when vaccinated, you still have some chance of being susceptible to some diseases. When these factors are combined with a sufficiently large number of people voluntarily declining vaccination, the effectiveness of the whole system tips on its side and these previously rare diseases resurge.
Eradicating infectious disease through vaccination frees money, resources, and manpower to pursue other health issues like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Resisting vaccination based on unfounded fears not only puts those resisting at risk, it sets back the progress of eradication and future research into other problems. I suppose I should not be entirely surprised given the human predilection to act in ways contrary to our best interests, safety, and health.
I vaccinate myself and my children. I do so because I believe the benefits far outweigh the risks. I do so because I believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to those that due to allergies or other complications cannot be vaccinated. I do so because I know that no vaccine is 100% effective and believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to those people for whom a vaccine is not effective. Finally, I do so because I believe I have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading debilitating diseases to the children of idiots who refuse to vaccinate based on erroneous beliefs or irrational fears. After all, I would be completely devastated if the choice to not vaccinate my child resulted in the infection and subsequent death of the little girl down the street with a compromised immune system or the boy who is allergic to most vaccine compounds. Only a monster would believe otherwise.
*A technicality: nothing can be 100% “proven” in the scientific sense, only disproven. Once sufficient evidence is accumulated to support an assertion, we generally accept it as “proven” for all practical purposes, at least until evidence is uncovered that alters or confounds our understanding.