If Only There Was A Vaccine Against Ignorance

Anyone with doubts about the merits of vaccinating their children should read this. Hopefully this heart-rending account of the effects of tetanus, a disease that, like measles, the anti-vaccination movement portrays as harmless, will succeed where statistics fail.

However, the fact that a scientifically qualified parent could make this mistake is evidence of just how much we are up against in the quest to get the message across.

I’m particularly struck by Williams’ repeated description of himself as “a hippie” and his attributing the decision to “the hippie” winning out. For a science communicator, I’m quite the hippy myself. I attend Confest, the ultimate hippy festival, most years. At least until friends intervened I tended to dress in clothes that would fit the label and anyone concerned about the environment is often branded as such.

Hippiedom is about a rejection of the mainstream values, originally those that led America and Australia into the disaster of the Vietnam War, racial oppression and environmental destruction. Some hippies seem to regard any science, certainly any science associated with large research labs, as part of those values and therefore to be rejected. For me, a far more important part of the value system we should be reacting against is dogma. The society hippies were rebelling against prized conformity over critical thinking, yet this is the central tenet of the anti-vaccination movement: For God’s sake don’t actually examine the evidence on the effects of these diseases, don’t look at the graveyards filled with child corpses from before vaccination was available, don’t consider that a child who dies within a few weeks of a vaccination might be the victim of something totally unrelated. Just TRUST US on how dangerous these things are.

The real hippy is the one who exercises their intellectual powers to weigh the evidence properly, which means actually listening to the doctors and public health officials as well.

The other thing to comment on is this quote, “I am seeing a very disturbing trend occurring more frequently among pro-vaccination groups – and that is the belief that it is OK for some children to die from vaccine reactions, so that others may be ‘saved’ by vaccines. If part of the risk of vaccination is that some might die, then that is simply not good enough. What ever happened to ‘First do no harm?”‘.

Lets stress; the rate of death from vaccinations is now really, really low. The article quotes an expert saying there is no proof of any vaccination-related death in New Zealand. I haven’t researched this claim, but Australia’s larger population means it’s probably not true here.

So is even a single death “not good enough”? In the sense that if any children are dying from vaccines work needs to be done to make them better yes, we should regard a vaccine that kills even one in ten million recipients as not good enough. Indeed this is the case, non-lethal reaction rates are falling because scientists are constantly working to improve vaccines. However, what the Immunisation Awareness Society is saying is that even  a single death from a vaccine is “not good enough”, but thousands of deaths from the diseases vaccines can prevent are just tickety-boo.

Every day around the world thousands of people are wheeled into operating theatres as a result of doctors advising, “If you do nothing this disease will kill you. If you have surgery you could die from the anaesthetic, or from complications, but the chance is much lower.” Depending on the condition the chance of being killed by the operation may be one in a thousand, or quite a bit higher. However, if it is lower than the risk of dying from the disease, and the chance of making a full recovery from the surgery is high almost everyone will take it. We don’t accuse the doctors of breaching their Hippocratic oath if one patient in a hundred dies as a result, so long as they are saving far more lives than they are ending.

Every surgeon on the planet wishes they could get a ratio of benefit to harm half as good as vaccinations. The IAS statement is simply cover for the fact that they don’t care about the agony of children like Alijah, and those whose lives are cut short by their activities.

Hat tip Chris Watkins of Appropedia

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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One Response to If Only There Was A Vaccine Against Ignorance

  1. Karen Jeans says:

    It’s OK I’m not a mad ‘anti-vaxer’ so I will only write once. This was to go on your other post (election preferences), but it wouldn’t let me.
    I actually read your post (on election preferences) for its content but was surprised at the unrelated ‘casual side-reference’ to delusional people concerned about the vaccine/autism link. I know you won’t like me saying this because you are a scientist and you pride yourself on working with evidence alone, but this was an ill-informed swipe made purely for the sake of sticking the boot in. It brings down the tone of your article. I expect your forthcoming post on MMR and autism will take a very long time. I have been researching it for nearly three years and still couldn’t land so firmly on one side. I do know, however, that it is a real concern and the Italian court case (and subsequent US cases), which relied on and investigated expert opinion, only serves to highlight that. Given that the public policy imperative is overwhelmingly to have all children fully immunised, such decisions are incredibly significant, and at the very least should make you think twice about calling concerned people delusional. When you really think about, what do you know?
    As I said, I’m not a mad anti-vaxer. But like so many others you appear to be a fairly fundamentalist pro-vaxer. And because you’re a general scientist you really believe you have the entire truth on your side, even though you probably know nothing about the things you need to know about to say the things you say. What books have you bought on the subject? Which independent scientists working in the area specifically have you worked with? Which peer-reviewed studies, not funded by pharmaceutical companies etc have you analysed? One of the many issues in the whole vaccination debate is that balanced information is not readily available, again because the public policy is to have all children fully immunised no matter what.
    I came to research many of these issues after my second child had a serious reaction to her 8 week shots. It was terrifying. I now have one child fully immunised, and other only partially, and every day I worry about it. I have spent countless hours scouring GlaxoSmithKline for the chemicals, heavy metals and viruses in each shot, and cross referencing the information with the information in the books I have accumulated on the subject. I have read pro and anti-vaccine books, and more fence sitting books. Among many things I have been alarmed to find mercury and formaldehyde in a range of shots. The pro-vaccination group says they are at safe levels to be injected into an 8 week old. Yet at the same time we are directed to not use kitchen benches or building equipment that contain formaldehyde because it is a listed carcinogen.
    In this post you seem mostly to take issue with what you see as the father’s misuse of the word ‘hippy’, but you don’t seem to have demonstrated any deep thinking or understanding about the subject. Your entire argument is boiled down to a simplistic idea of risk: ‘if you get tetanus (or any other disease) the results will be catastrophic; if you are vaccinated you will not get tetanus (or any other disease) and the results will probably not be catastrophic; the possibility of contracting any given disease is the same across the board for all diseases.’ I only wish the debate were this simple.
    Without going into detail, here are a few facts that muddy the waters in relation to the debate generally:
    – The risk factor for contracting diseases varies widely for each disease
    – The possible outcomes of contracting any given disease varies
    – The range of treatments for each disease varies. Some are more easily treated than others
    – Not all vaccinations are completely effective (for example the huge range of new strains of whooping cough is making the pertussis vaccine far less effective. The only people I know who have had whooping cough, have been vaccinated, including myself). You can still contract diseases after receiving a vaccine
    – Quite apart from the issue of immediate reaction, we are lacking in research on the long term effects of our now really comprehensive immunisation schedule (in terms of individual long term health, and in relation to immunity issues at the collective level). We haven’t been doing it to this degree for long enough to know
    – The public policy consideration is to immunise everybody and to foster an environment where people are more likely to immunise – this is why information is difficult to come by. The concern is not for the individual who gets vaccine induced polio or autism, or has a terrible reaction, or suffers seizures or whatever
    – Pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money from vaccines
    – In reviewing studies it is disconcerting to find that many have been backed by pharmaceutical companies and/or involved scientists with a conflict
    – In addition to the Italian case, the US Vaccine Court has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for MMR induced autism. Again, for public policy considerations, these decisions are not widely publicised
    Regarding autism, it is now also becoming apparent that there is a link with antibiotics. It relates to the development of bad bacteria in the stomach. Discussion of this has been met with open interest and been relatively controversy-free. We haven’t had the same lynch-mob reaction to these findings as we have had to the suggestion that vaccines may cause autism in some people, because there isn’t the same overriding public policy concern to give everybody antibiotics. In fact, to ensure their future effectiveness, we need to give people less antibiotics.
    As a political person I would have thought you would understand some of the political issues inherent in the vaccine debate. A lot of scientists on the ‘other side’ of the debate are essentially whistle blowers, and they are treated as such. I have a very strong feeling that many of your convictions on this issue will be called into question in coming years, and you may not feel so good about some of the assertions you have made.
    I meant to keep it just to autism. I hope that the cases I have mentioned alone cause you to think twice before calling people delusional, and equating people with such concerns to people who think windmill sickness is real. Really researching this issue is a difficult path to walk – I wish that I could still be an unaffected immuniser. How nice that would be.

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