The Absurdity of Anti-Anti-Vaxxer Propaganda

February 8, 2015

It is impossible to keep up with the deluge of words being written in denunciation of parents who opt against vaccinating their children against measles (and mumps and rubella, which tag along in that vaccination). The level of hysteria and name calling is unequaled, in my recollection, in recent history regarding any public health issue.



The role of the mainstream in perpatuating this hysteria is central, and it's dissemination of misinformation is, as usual, epic. I will go through just one article, published in Newsweek magazine, to show just how this absurd attack rides on an equally absurd collection of arguments. I'll go through this tediously, so the full scope of things is apparent.



The article starts by acknowledging two points made by those against vaccination, and it acknowledges that at least the first of the two is accurate: No one has died of measles in the United States in the past decade. So, just to be sure we are clear about the topic we are discussing: the disease proposed to be prevented by vaccination is not a lethal disease in the United States, or if it is the mortality rate is exceedlingly low. Many diseases that are not lethal in the US are lethal in places where nutrition and sanitation is much worse. But we aren't living in those places, we're in the US.



The second point made and contested by the article is a statistic: That 108 children have died of measles vaccinations in the past decade. In response, Newsweek makes two anemic points: first, that according to the CDC's database only 69 kids have been reported as dying after the MMR vaccination. That is hardly a solid argument for the vaccination's safety.



The second point made in the article is summarized thusly:



[E]ither 108 or 69 people (depending on whom you ask) died sometime after having been vaccinated against measles since 2004, but not necessarily because they were vaccinated against measles.



The point being made is that just because they died "sometime" after the vaccination, there is no way to say the vaccination is the cause of the death. The use of the word "sometime" is a sleight of hand. If an otherwise healthy child becomes ill and dies a year after an MMR vaccination, it will not be reportable. The CDC guildelines state this clearly:



"[Report] any acute complications or sequelae (including death) of [MMR vaccination] (interval - not applicable)" (emphasis added)



The word "acute" links the adverse event - death in this case - with the vaccination. The link cannot possibly be established as causal in this database, as that would require most likely an autopsy, and even then establishing causality would be difficult.



The grand irony is that the next sentence states:



"In some cases, their deaths were totally unrelated, or the patient had some undiagnosed congenital illness that meant he or she should never have been vaccinated in the first place."



First, after saying that causality cannot be established in the VAERS database, it is stating that there are deaths reported in the database "that were totally unrelated" to the vaccination. Funny how a database that can't establish causation can miraculously establish a lack of causation.



The VAERS database is easy to search. I did it, pulling up every reported death associated with a measles vaccination between 2005 and 2015. I got 59 death reports.


Were the deaths "sometime" after the vaccinations? Well, yes. For the large majority of deaths reported, the death happened "sometime" between the day of the vaccination, and 7 days later. Probably 90% of the deaths happened within 20 days of the vaccination, with symptoms prior to death strongly associated with the vaccination. A sporadic few of the deaths were longer after the vaccination, though having a plausible causal link to the vaccination (presence of measles antigen, a component of the live vaccine, in the deceased child's spinal fluid, for example).



To say the deaths occurred "sometime" after the vaccination is to deceive the reader.



The next mess of misinformation comes in the very next paragraph of the article:



"While it’s true some people may have died as a result of the measles vaccine, many more would have died without them. According to the WHO, the measles vaccine prevented about 15.6 million deaths from 2000 to 2013."



I have never read of a single parent suggesting that measles vaccinations should not be given in countries where sanitation or nutrition are poor. This whole debate is about personal parenting choices in the US, not global health policy. Parents in the US want choices regarding their children's health. To talk about deaths prevented worldwide by measles vaccinations is to appeal to heartstrings, but not to relevant information.



The article, predictably, ends with some derision:



"Those promoting this 108 number appear to be uninterested in widely accepted facts, and most don’t seem to understand the difference between correlation and causation."



The issue is not my disinterest in "widely accepted facts." Rather, it is my awareness that the fact this article touts as widely accepted are either skewed or not relevant to the debate at hand, but they are presented as though they speak to the debate. It is distraction at its finest.



Further, I actually understand very well the difference between correlation and causation. If my previously health child were to die within one or two days of receiving a measles vaccination (as did most reported in the database), I can certainly claim correlation, though could not prove causation without extensive investigation. But surely this reporter understands that lack of proof of causation is not proof of lack of causation, e.g.  it may still be causative and likely is, even if such proof is not documented.



I will write more on this topic as I have time, though not because I expect to change any minds. They have already been made up - on both sides - and the internet is hardly a medium disposed toward rational discussion. But the use of misinformation to ostracize, alienate and even criminalize a rational decision around personal health is ripe for more discussion.


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