Vaccines are one of humankind’s best achievements, and we should all be shouting about it

science-fiction-1819026_960_720Imagine aliens finally get around to visiting our planet…

“About two hundred years ago,” explains the alien scientific advisor – let’s call him Spuck – “humans developed a way to prevent disease which they call vaccination. It’s really quite fascinating. They use a needle to place a tiny quantity of a fluid into the muscle under the skin of their arm or leg. The substances are then absorbed into their bodies and cause their highly-evolved immune systems to generate an immune response without, and this is really quite ingenious, Captain, their having to contact the actual diseases or suffer the symptoms. This simple procedure has saved millions of lives worldwide, and saved many millions more from having to suffer less fatal, but none the less still deeply unpleasant, consequences of serious illnesses.”

“Sounds great, Spuck,” says the Captain – let’s call him Birk – “is there a downside?”

“Not really, Captain. Side effects are rare and extremely minor compared to the seriousness of the illnesses themselves.”

“Fantastic. Why are you telling me all this? I’ve got some green-skinned action I’d like to get back to, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, it’s interesting that you should mention unusual skin tones, Captain. A leader has recently come to power who, amongst other things, has expressed concerns about vaccination.

“Valid concerns?”

“The scientific evidence suggests not, sir.”

“Sounds like an idiot, Spuck.”

“I couldn’t possibly comment, sir.”

“Huh. Sounds like he could definitely be detrimental to the future of their race, and besides, I’m bored. Let’s go and shoot some stuff in direct contravention of the Cardinal Directive. Set blazers to ki- I mean, stun. Beam me down, Dottie!”

***

Vaccination. It’s a hot topic at the moment, and one which is so important that I think anyone who has anything to do with science communication ought to be talking about it. I’m not a medical doctor, or an immunologist, or even a biochemist (for more qualified input on the subject, I refer you here, here and here), but I AM capable of recognising scientific consensus and of separating good-quality evidence-based information from conspiracy theory dross.

Vaccination is awesome.

Awesome is a word that is somewhat overused. But I mean it literally. As in, inspires awe. We should stop, for a moment, and just look at how bloody amazing vaccination is. Thanks to these simple, near-painless, injections – most of which we receive as young children and therefore don’t even remember – we are largely protected from the horrors of….

  • Poliosymptoms and complications include fever, vomiting, headache, back pain, joint pain and stiffness, permanent muscle weakness, permanent paralysis and death.
  • Mumpssymptoms and complications include fever, headache, meningitis, painful testicular swelling in males and ovarian inflammation in females, both of which can  result in permanent infertility, pancreatic inflammation and, occasionally, hearing loss. Death from mumps is rare, but does occur in about 1 in 10,000 cases.
  • Tuberculosis – symptoms and complications include fever, loss of appetite, severe fatigue, chest pain, coughing up of blood, scarring of the lungs, internal bleeding and death (death is considerably more likely if the patient does not have access to medical care).
  • Measlessymptoms and complications include fever, painful skin rash, diarrhoea, vomiting, ear infection which can result in deafness, eye infection which can result in blindness, laryngitis, pneumonia, bronchitis, liver infection, encephalitis, and increased likelihood of re-contracting diseases previously survived (measles essentially “wipes” your immune system). Oh yes, and death. As many as 1% of measles patients will die from the disease.

… and umpteen other, horrible diseases, the majority of which most people reading this will have never experienced. Because of vaccination.

Measles rash

A child with a measles rash. The disease can cause serious complications, including immune suppression.

The risks of vaccination are tiny. The most common complications are redness and swelling around the injection site and/or slight temperature which is easily treated with an antipyretic such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Very occasionally people suffer a serious allergic reaction, but this inevitably happens quickly after the injection is given. Since vaccinations are usually administered in a medical setting, any allergic reaction that does occur can be quickly managed. There have been a few other genuine cases of serious, adverse reactions to vaccines, but problems are still very rare (the swine flu-narcolepsy link, for example, affected 1 in 55,000) and specific to particular vaccines, and the vaccine in question has been quickly investigated.

Like Birk, if you’ve had nothing to do with the anti-vaccination community, you may be thinking this all sounds good. Benefits massive, risks tiny. Fab. Let’s go.

However, the anti-vaccination crowd – a real, and not entirely new, thing – will tell you that this is all lies. They will tell you this loudly, and at length, and repeatedly. They believe that vaccinations cause every health problem from acne to zygomycosis, but particularly the neurodevelopmental condition known as autism.

Vaccines do not cause autism. At all. As Spuck said, the scientific evidence is clear. It’s absolutely ice-from-a-moutain-stream-in-the-middle-of-nowhere crystal clear. Just for one example, a meta analysis published in the journal Vaccine in 2014 looked at studies involving over a million children. The data revealed no relationship between vaccination and autism. None. Nada.

Vaccines, you see, do not cause autism. And actually, it’s about time we stopped wasting precious resources proving that over and over and over and over again and instead focused on what does cause autism, because that would be a question worth answering.

Infection rates dropped enormously in the US after the measles vaccination was introduced.

Infection rates dropped enormously in the US after the measles vaccination was introduced.

Anti-vaxxers will often repeatedly talk about mercury in vaccines. There’s mercury in vaccines, they’ll say, and that’s nasty stuff, so even if we haven’t proved it yet, they must be causing something bad. One problem there: there isn’t any mercury in vaccines. There’s a preservative called thimerosal (or thiomersal) in some flu vaccines – which are not the ones usually given to children – but thimerosal is no more mercury than salt is chlorine.

The anti-vax crowd get whackier after this. Some of them will tell you that vaccinations don’t, in fact, protect against against disease at all – despite huge evidence to the contrary (see also here), not to mention the simple fact that many of our grandparents and even parents remember these diseases, and their complications, as horribly commonplace.

Anti-vaxxers often state that deaths from these diseases were dropping before the vaccines were introduced. This is true. Deaths did drop, because medical science was developing rapidly. A measles patient receiving medical care is, indeed, less likely to die than one left to her own devices. If I may say so, duh.

What vaccines did is to massively reduce infection rates. But just to state the obvious: if people don’t catch a disease, they also can’t die from it.

In short, if an anti-vaxxer shows you a graph, it’s smart to check to the axes labels.

After that they get really loony, and some of them will even tell you things such as smallpox wasn’t eradicated, it was just renamed acne. Or polio has been reclassified as Guillain-Barré syndrome. These ideas are so utterly ridiculous they don’t even deserve rebuke.

This has started up again in the last few days, particularly in the UK, because of the nasty deposit of conspiracy crap that is the film Vaxxed. It’s available online, but I shall not be linking to it here.

The film claims to reveal a massive cover-up at the Centre for Disease Control (the CDC) in America, and evidence that vaccines are generally evil and cause all manner of heinous negative health outcomes. Very little of it is true, and where a tiny nugget of true fact has been included it’s been so beaten and manipulated as to have lost all of its original meaning. There’s an excellent piece about it on Skeptical Raptor website, which I recommend reading before you google the term “vaxxed”. Consider it a sort of inoculation against the nonsense, if you like (hoho).

A Guardian article from 2010 reports on Wakefield.

A Guardian article from 2010 (click for link).

The main brain behind the film is Mr Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor who was struck off the General Medical Council in 2010, when the GMC said he had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” Wakefield was, it turned out, trying to patent his own measles vaccine. In an effort to further his own aims, he set out to discredit the widely-used MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) by fabricating results and, in particular, suggesting a link between the MMR and autism. He denied all this, of course, but a libel judge disagreed.

Wakefield is still pushing his message. He is not a particularly nice individual. Listen to him in this video clip, for example, where he responds to Bill Gates comment, made in 2015, that he (Gates) fears a pandemic could wipe out humanity in his lifetime. Actually, I’ll save you the trouble:

“Ho Chi Minh City, you may have seen this, an outbreak of [laughs] the plague in Ho Chi Minh City. The outbreak that they were not prepared for, they never prepared for, and that is the number of children with autism in Ho Chi Minh City has increased by nearly one hundred and sixty times over eight years. So, Bill, just for your edification, the plague that you’re talking about, the next plague, the next epidemic, it’s already here. It’s already here.”

Yes, you heard that right, according to Wakefield autism is a “plague”. Anyone reading this with an autism diagnosis? You have the plague. Nice, huh?

Andrew Wakefield describes autism as a "plague".

Andrew Wakefield describes autism as a “plague”.

For the record, the number of autism diagnoses in Ho Chi Minh has increased sharply over recent years, but this is may well be – as often turns out to be the case – largely due to to better diagnosis. Certainly there’s absolutely no suggestion that it’s linked to the introduction of a vaccine or vaccines. There might be an environmental factor – some sort of pollutant perhaps – but no one is certain at the moment. (To repeat myself: perhaps if we stopped wasting time endlessly disproving the link between vaccines and autism, we’d have a better idea.)

By the way, the woman in that video clip is Polly Tommey. She has an autistic son who’s now in his twenties. Back in 2010 she chose to try and raise awareness of autism by posing in a Wonderbra-style advert, and these days she follows the campaign trail with Wakefield, repeating the message that they “will win”. What exactly they’re going to win isn’t entirely clear. Would preventing vaccination, at the cost of many lives, really be a win?

Vaxxed was due to be shown at the Curzon cinema in Soho, London on Valentine’s Day. It was pulled after the cinema realised what the film was – they had merely leased their premises to private individuals and only realised what was going on when a number of science advocates started complaining.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Curzon Cinemas said:

“We do not wish to profit from a film that has demonstrably caused great distress.”

The heyevent.uk page on Vaxxed, explaining that the location will be "annnounced" two hours before the screening.

The heyevent.uk page on Vaxxed explains that the location will be “annnounced” two hours before the screening.

Tommey was predictably unimpressed by this outcome, which she blamed on “our little five trolls in England,” saying “Britain being who they are, being big wussy pussies, just strike it off.”

Unfortunately, the cancellation turned out to be less of a victory than it first appeared. The anti-vaxx crowd then set out to find a new venue. And this time, they kept it quiet. There are many, many places that will rent you a space to screen a film, and I’ll wager that few of them really check the nature of that film. So, the anti-vaxxers correctly reasoned, if we don’t tell people where it is, no one will be able to stop us. People who had previously bought tickets were told it would be in “Central London”, and that the venue would be revealed two hours before the show.

And so, it happened. At Regent’s University London, a private university which was, incidentally, recently identified as the most expensive place to study in the UK.

In hindsight, this might actually have been worse than a screening at an independent cinema. Dodgy film in a cinema – so what? “Official” screening at a university with Q&A sessions afterwards? Hm, sounds important and… academic. The press, naturally, made the most of it, with headlines such as “Disgraced anti‑MMR vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield gets invitation to university in London.” Sure, the first line of the actual article says the university has been criticised, but who actually reads beyond the headlines these days? Sounds like he’s being taken seriously, doesn’t it?

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Regent’s University’s response on Twitter on February 15th

Regent’s University responded pretty quickly to say that they hadn’t known what the film was, that they didn’t endorse its views, and that they would be revetting all their clients.

This provoked lots of complaints about freedom of speech, because many people seem to be under the misapprehension that freedom of speech means that any and all organisations and venues have a duty to allow them to repeat their nonsense. This is not what freedom of speech means. Freedom of speech means you can’t be chucked in prison for saying a thing (with some exceptions). It does NOT mean that everyone has to listen to you, or that you can say your thing wherever and whenever you like, whether the place renting you the space likes it or not.

More alarming still was the Q&A session at the end of the screening of Vaxxed. I watched some of it (one for the team, you’re welcome). There was much talk of “getting the message out there”, “sowing the seeds”, “people have to hear the message x times before they’ll start to accept it” and so on. In short, if you didn’t know it was all about vaccines it would start to sound an awful lot like…. well, at best a religion, and at worst a cult.

Wakefield was also asked if he would ever get his name cleared. This was his response:

Wakefield speaking at the end of the Vaxxed screening.

Wakefield speaking at the end of the Vaxxed screening.

“Well, cleared by whom? Here’s a… it’s a really important… cleared by whom? Do I want to be part of the medical profession again? [muttering from the audience] Do I want to be exonerated by the General Medical Council? Do I want to pay them an annual retainer fee? To be part of… Do I really? Is that… that takes time and effort. What is more important? Making films like this? Or trying to clear my name? [applause]

Hang on. If he really cared about getting the science right, about doing the right thing by patients, wouldn’t getting his name cleared and being reinstated as a medical doctor be of utmost importance? If he’s right about vaccines, particularly the MMR vaccine, and if he truly wants to prove it for the good of humanity, what better way than to be exonerated?

But as he says, “that takes time and effort.” What he doesn’t add, of course, is that making films like Vaxxed, travelling around the world spreading his message and hobnobbing with Donald Trump, almost certainly makes him a lot more money than being a doctor ever did. And I’ll bet it’s more fun. Why would he go back to the long hours and hard work that being a regular old doctor entails?

Wakefield is playing an extremely unpleasant and disingenuous game. The really worrying thing is that he and other anti-vaccination campaigners might be gaining ground. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro recently announced a $100,000 “challenge” to prove the safety of thimerosal vaccines. Thimerosal has already been extensively investigated – no evidence has ever been found that its inclusion in vaccines causes neurological effects, but anyway, it’s only in a few flu vaccines. Of course, the implication is that all vaccines are unsafe and that no one can prove otherwise – and now those headlines are out there, and that seed has been planted, will people really read further into it? Or will they just decide to skip the visit to the doctor?

The consequences of that are potentially serious. A mumps outbreak was reported in Washington State a week ago, and cases of mumps and measles have also just been reported in Salt Lake County. Last autumn the Guardian reported that the proportion of under-twos receiving their first dose of the MMR vaccine had fallen for the third consecutive year, and there were several reports of measles outbreaks in the UK. Flu outbreaks are also a real concern: years of hearing the phrase “mild flu-like symptoms” have created the misconception that influenza itself is a mild disease. It is not. There have been over 100 deaths from flu in Germany this year alone. People in Germany have access to good healthcare. People are still dying.

Outbreaks put everyone at risk: vaccination is effective, but nothing is 100% effective. In the midst of a full outbreak, even the vaccinated are at risk of catching the disease, and of course, those who are too young to receive the vaccine, or who can’t have it because of a genuine allergy, or because they’re immunocompromised, will be in real trouble. Let’s not forget: measles in particular is a disease with a host of horrible complications, not to mention the potential to reduce a person’s previously acquired immunity to other diseases.

Do we really want to see measles and mumps come back? Really? Because that will ultimately be the result of all of this.

And unfortunately, Captain Birk and Mr Spuck aren’t actually there to fix this mess for us. We need to see sense ourselves.


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15 thoughts on “Vaccines are one of humankind’s best achievements, and we should all be shouting about it

  1. T-H-I-O-M-E-R-S-A-L
    Thio = sulphur
    Mer = mercury
    Sal = salicylate

    Try Wikipedia – that automatically redirects from the common spelling mistake to the correct spelling in the title of the article.

    Great article by the way, thanks.

    Like

    • Thimerosal is the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) name. Now admittedly, I’m British, so I probably should be using the international nonproprietary name, which is thiomersal (and I’m going to put it in brackets after the first mention). I’ve tended to go with thimerosal because, rightly or wrongly, that’s what it’s most commonly called in the media, and as a result, that’s what most people search for. The ridiculous $10,000 challenge, for example, specifically refers to “thimerosal”. My other piece on this – https://chronicleflask.com/2015/08/04/elements-compounds-and-misleading-mercury/ – does mention both names.

      Like

  2. When reading this, I was at first slightly disappointed over the lack of chemistry in this article. As a nerd a.k.a. ‘plague victim’ — what with me enjoying Asperger syndrome and all — I very much like to get into the sordid details of hard science.
    There is so much interesting stuff to tell about chemical vaccine ingredients, even in the light (or should I say: darkness) of antivaccine sentiments — how even a newborn infant already has far more ‘toxic’ formaldehyde in its body from physiological processes than the amount in a vaccine, or that ‘neurotoxic’ aluminium hydroxide adjuvant is virtually insoluble in water and thus hardly leaves the injection site, let alone reaches the brain in any measurable amounts, and so on…

    Then I realized that your ardent, more general message is one that can’t be repeated too often, also given the fact that antivaccine people are doing their very best to disseminate their detrimental message in every conceivable way. And that the lack of ‘chemicals’ here in fact makes it easier to understand for a wide audience — in a way, debunking al sorts of details about ‘toxins’ in vaccines etcetera is acknowledging the scaremongers’ arguments, and may even serve to muddy the waters from the point of view of the ordinary man or woman.
    I’m almost sorry that I don’t use Facebook or Twitter(*), otherwise I could help spread this article far and wide much easier. So I’ll just express my compliments and support here!

    *: I’m not partial to handing my whole life to Googles and Zuckerbergs et al on a silver platter for their commercial use, and for other people to dig around in. I’m often still surprised about the details I can find about other people on the Internet with only a little bit of effort — details that I wonder if these people really want to have out there…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, there’s tons of interesting stuff there – and I have covered the mercury issue before – but if I went into all of it the post would’ve been unmanageably long. Maybe another time! Also nice to hear from a “plague victim” up and about, so thanks for commenting! 😉 Glad you enjoyed it!

      Like

      • No problem, you’ve kept the article nicely on-topic and at an acceptable length 🙂 (I know that I have this unfortunate tendency of losing myself in all sorts of trivial detail when writing stuff.)
        About me being a ‘plague victim’, well, actually I can’t be, at least not from MMR — that was introduced here in the Netherlands when I was three years old, and I was already known as ‘that weird kid’. But indeed I sometimes feel offended when people talk about supposedly evil vaccines causing autism/ASD, as if dying from infectious diseases is somehow preferable… No, it most definitely isn’t, and I find having a slightly autistic brain quite enjoyable for several reasons, thank you very much. Actually, I’m a sucker for brains, also other people’s… (erm, as in me liking science bloggers etcetera — not as in those zombie movies, of course… whoops, that was another compliment there, I think 🙂
        Anyway, gotta cut myself short here before starting on yet another embarrassing ramble… (remember Copolymer, ‘the greatest storyteller in the world’ …)

        Best regards, keep up the good work!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kat,
    I wish I hadn’t had Measles or Mumps. Neither were fun, fortunately I was lucky and had no lasting damage. I also wish I hadn’t had osteomylitis either. Fortunately rare and I was lucky to be treated early with large amounts of Penicillin.

    No one ever mentions autism statistics from countries that have no routine vaccinaton program. Obviously the loonies wouln’t want those figures published. But it may help convince ‘waverers’ or the gullible. to realise the loonies are really loonies. Wakefeild et al ought to be prosecuted for being, well, er, words fail. Surely there is something that snake oil purveyors can be done for?

    Like

    • Thing is, most countries DO have routine vaccinations. Vaccines have been a global success. 8 out of 10 children worldwide are vaccinated against measles. Downside is we’ve lost sight of how devastating it can be as a result.

      Like

      • So true, I did a bit of looking up, and to be honest those that do not have routine vaccinations seem not to have any numbers on any medical conditions. Not too surprising really.

        There isn’t much one can do really. Educating the wilfully ignorant is never going to make a difference. They are like those American red-necks…So proud to be ignorant “My lack of understanding is DEEPER than yours…”

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, you’re right, the wilfully ignorant will stay that way, BUT if people like me keep doing what we do, OUR stuff will be out there as well, for the “hmmm heard a thing, not sure…. maybe I’ll look it up….” people. THOSE are the people I care about. If they go searching and all they find is anti-vaccination propaganda, well, who could blame them for thinking there might be something in it? Whereas if they find “anti-vaccination is bonkers, and this is why” at the top of their search, they might fall onto the right side of the argument. We can hope!

        Like

      • And it’s not just measles. When antivaccine activists try dismissing childhood diseases as “innocuous”, or something that “only happens in third-world countries”, I often point them to this report from the Dutch National Health Institute: http://www.rivm.nl/Onderwerpen/R/Rodehond
        The gist of the message (at the end) for those who don’t read Dutch:
        “The rubella epidemic of 2004/205 mostly affected non-vaccinated, orthodox-protestant school children. During this epidemic, 32 pregnant women were infected, resulting in 2 spontaneous abortions, and 11 children with birth defects.”

        Like

  4. You really think vaccines are awesome? Well, I’ll give you the polio one, but that’s it. The other childhood diseases are there for a reason, to help strengthen your immune, to build it up. With the exception of polio and the hard measles, whooping cough and dyptheria (by the way, the hard measles, I had as a child, yes they made me sick for a few days, but after I got over them, I never got the mumps, chicken pox, measles or other types of childhood illnesses after that, even upon being exposed to other kids that had them! So how’s that for an immune system builder?!) the other childhood diseases do not kill you, only makes you stronger. Along with eating properly. Which is not such an easy thing to do anymore with the government forcing GMO’s on us!

    I’m curious, do you think they (GMO’s) are awesome also?

    The medical system, (other than having to go to the ER for stitches or the likes) DOES NOT CURE PEOPLE’S DISEASES AND SICKNESSES, THEY ONLY GIVE YOU DRUGS THAT COVER UP THE SYMPTOMS, (NOT CURE THEM) AND IN TURN, CREATE OTHER ILLNESSES, SO THEY CAN SELL YOU MORE MEDICINE! VICIOUS EVIL CIRCLE.

    Excuse me, please, if I don’t buy vaccines, flu shots, prescription drugs and gmo’s as “being awesome”.

    Like

    • Oh, I forgot to mention, when I was 6 I had a baby sister. She was 13 months old. The doctor gave her the measle vaccine. Within hours my mother was rushing her back to the doctor, only to have her die in the doctors office from the vaccine she received. He didn’t admit this fact. But after long hours of research and trying to find an answer to why her baby girl, who just had her first birthday a month before her death, died that day in the doctors’ office. She found case after case of many, many other children dying this same way after receiving the measles vaccine.

      So again, please excuse me for not finding the “awesome” within them.

      Like

    • But, in fact, there are many medical treatments which DO cure people. Antibiotics for infections, for example. Obviously this varies from country to country, but as I understand it in America vaccines are heavily promoted by insurance companies. The reason being that they have calculated that it saves them money – treating infectious diseases is far more expensive than paying for vaccinations. I can see how, if you live with privatised medicine, it could seem as though it’s in doctors’ best interests to keep you coming back, but insurance companies would surely rather everyone was healthy and not claiming from them, wouldn’t they?

      You were very fortunate not to get those diseases, all of which are pretty unpleasant. There is evidence that measles infection, in particular, can actually weaken the immune system, so previously-acquired immunity to other diseases may be lost (see this link for more info on this). The measles vaccine is a really important one, especially since measles itself can cause serious complications including permanent hearing loss, blindness, pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it. I think that if you accept the importance of the polio vaccination, you should accept the measles vaccine, too 🙂

      Like

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