When Vaccination Backfires


An acquaintance of mine, lets call her Ruth, has been saturating my Facebook ‘news feed’ with pictures of her child. It started slowly. Photos of backpacking trips with her future husband and nights out at the bar, turned into pictures of a bridal party and a recently purchased home. Overnight a henna painted belly and links to articles about underwater births, veganism, and PETA (let me emphasize – acquaintance) were replaced by a grainy Instagram image of a living breathing California raisin. Soon the raisin was given a name. As it began to grow into a little girl, photos of Ruth and her husband became quite rare. Although I’m not very close to the parents, I along with approximately 620 other ‘Facebook friends,’ have seen this child grow day in and day out on the Internet. We all know when the kid has ice cream smudged on her face, goes to the zoo, or takes to cutting her own hair. And although the child has been regularly displayed for all her friends to ogle over, Ruth has taken every measure to keep her child from the elements she deems harmful. For Ruth, your average college educated, Nor-Cal, eco-groovy, hip-mama this means her child is not given any processed foods, non-organic products, or vaccines. Ruth undoubtedly loves her child. However, while it’s true that if you’re privileged enough to avoid processed foods you should do so, Ruth’s failure to vaccinate her child is not only a ghastly danger to her progeny -- it's a potential hazard to countless others. Ruth isn’t alone in her fear of vaccinations; the anti-vaccination front has gone viral. Despite staggeringly few legitimate cases of children experiencing complications from vaccines, parents of all stripes are refusing to do their part to prevent disease. This epidemic of irresponsibility is not partisan, nor is it one-dimensional.  Unvaccinated children are still the minority, though they're increasing in number and dropping some communities under  "herd immunity" (preferably 90% of population vaccinated). People like Ruth see vaccines as unnatural and more harmful than the diseases they’re meant to prevent. Such an outlook stands in stark contrast to the evidence, yet it’s becoming evermore common in liberal coastal cities where yoga and farmer’s markets thrive. In the pockets of “Real America,” where the Tea Party’s “Don’t-Tread-On-Me” and “we don’t want no Obamacare” rhetoric is exquisitely misspelled on neon poster board, it is also strongly believed that everything coming from the government is not to be trusted; vaccines, all that science stuff, it's of the devil I'll have you know.

Up until the late fifties there were more than 20,000 annually reported cases of Poliomyelitis (Polio) in the US. Many of the cases led to paralysis or death. According to the Center for Disease Control, less than 20 years after the creation of the Polio vaccine, cases of the disease dropped to under 10 a year.  The 1971 licensing of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine had virtually wiped out the diseases. By the late 90’s vaccinations nearly eradicated small pox, meningitis, rinderpest, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough) in the US. Globally vaccines have dramatically reduced dracunculiasis, yaws, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). With thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Malaria is also in steady decline.

However, in 2012, diseases that were nearly eradicated by vaccines have been on the rise. In 2011 there were 156 cases of measles reported in the US. The CDC reported that in the cases of measles More than 90 percent of those infected had not been vaccinated, or their vaccination status was unknown. And today cases of whooping cough are approaching a fifty-year high. Nine children have already died form the disease this year. Although whooping cough vaccination rates have been around 70 percent for children, due to a spike in adolescents with the infection, many medical professionals are concluding that the new Dtap shot may not be as effective as it once was. Infected adults are also on the rise and may be responsible for a larger portion of the epidemic than previously thought.*

Vaccines work by infecting the body with a minor bout of a disease so antibodies can be developed to fight a full-blown infection if one is exposed. Although it is possible to grow immune to vaccines themselves, and some diseases do cyclically rise and fall, these scenarios  fail to solely account for the rising amount of new infections. The viral nature of misinformation on the Internet has also played a part.

In 1998 the English medical journal, The Lancet, published a dubious article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, which stated that based on rigorous research there was a direct correlation between the MMR vaccination and Autism.  The article started a flood of anti-vaccine websites, and according to the Associated Press, by 2007 Immunization rates in Britain had dropped from 92 percent to 73 percent. In some parts of London immunization rates were down to 50 percent. After nearly a decade of damage done by his report, it surfaced that all the medical histories of the mere 12 children in Wakefield's study had been altered or misrepresented. London Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer revealed that Dr. Wakefield received payments in excess of £435,000 (approximately $674,000) from lawyers who were preparing lawsuits against drug companies that manufactured the vaccines, creating "experimenter bias" even before the study, which no other researcher has been able to duplicate with the same results, began. Worst of all, Wakefield subjected children to tests for which he falsified results.

The falsehood of Wakefield’s study is old news, yet the trend of anti-vaccination continues to grow. Those who believe big pharm is out to get them, that it’s all about money, miss the genuine con of the pharmaceutical industry. As Arthur Allen states in his book Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, vaccines, which make up 2% of pharmaceutical revenue, are issued only a handful of times, and as a preventative measure. The pharmaceutical industry makes the bulk of its money via prescriptions for chronic disorders such as high cholesterol, depression, blood pressure, etc.

Those who think the contents of vaccines are dangerous, mercury being one of the ingredients typically sited, are sadly misinformed. Many vaccines used to contain mercury in the form of a preservative called thimerosal. As a safety precaution based on Wakefield’s crackpot study, thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 1999. And even when thimerosal was a component of vaccines, all a child's vaccines combined equal less than .09 of the mercury found in one tuna fish sandwich.   Aluminum has also raised concerns with the nutty Jenny McCarthy’s of the world, however a single ant-acid has far more aluminum than any vaccine and no one has called harm nor foul.

In our hyper polarized, self-gratifying, Internet addicted society, it’s easy to fall victim to misinformation. What's more frightening is that once sufficient evidence is provided to expose a source of misinformation for the farce that it is, if that misinformation supports one’s ideology, such a person is more likely to believe that it is true - despite the evidence. To simplify, people are less likely to accept contradictory information, even if it’s correct, than misinformation that reinforces their existing beliefs. According to a study, "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence Of Political Misperceptions"  by political scientists Brendan Nyhan of University of Michigan, and Jason Reifer from Georgia State University, this phenomenon called the “backfire effect” is more often the rule rather than the exception.

Nyhan and Reifer did a series of experiments (that have been successfully replicated) in which subjects were presented with mock news articles on political issues that included demonstrably false assertions like: Iraq possessed WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion, Tax cuts lead to economic growth, and Bush banned stem cell research.

With the Iraq-possessed-WMD-immediately-before-the-invasion assertion, participants were shown articles supporting the unfounded Bush administration claim and then provided the Duelfer Report, which refuted such claims with authoritative details documenting the lack of WMD’s, or even an active production program, in Iraq directly prior to the invasion.

But instead of changing the minds of ideologically committed Bush supporters, Nyhan and Reifler found that most clung onto the misinformation while a few only slightly modified their view with the unsubstantiated claim that, “Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived."

So dare I repeat myself for fear of persisting misperceptions -- THERE ARE NO VACCINES OF MASS DESTRUCTION. To which many undoubtedly turn deaf ears.

*According to the New York Times: Though close to 70 percent of adolescents are vaccinated, a 2010 survey found, only 8 percent of adults have gotten a Dtap booster.