Denialism seems to be on the rise. Be it denial of the moon landings, denial that HIV causes AIDS, denial that the Earth is four and half billion years old or a whole long list of other things. Although I find those who believe the moon landings were fake rather irritating, it nevertheless also elicits a certain amount of amusement. But if there’s one branch of denilasm that is really unforgivable, it’s those who deny the enormous societal benefits of vaccines (known as antivaxers).
There is a small but very vocal and sometimes influential group of people who are spreading the idea that vaccines cause harm. They use emotive language such as vaccines cause deaths in babies and, of course, they still hang on to the long discredited idea that vaccines cause autism spectral disorder (autism for short). I suspect that many antivaxers are sincere in their belief but they are nevertheless capable of doing so much harm by discouraging worried parents from having their children vaccinated. Trying to change the minds of many antivaxers is probably futile but they should still be challenged so others are persuaded not to swallow this dangerous nonsense.
Personally speaking I find it hard to understand how they come to their conclusions as the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favour of vaccines being one the greatest contributors to public health in history. There is a high level of scientific understanding of how vaccines function in the body, down to a cellular and molecular level as well as copious historical evidence. Take the example of poliomyelitis (or polio for short).
In the 1930-40s the summer months heralded the start of the polio season. Parents of the poor and wealthy alike lived in terror of the disease that seemed to strike at random. In 1952 there were 58,000 cases of polio in the United States which led to 3145 deaths. In the UK of the 1950s, there were an average of 8,000 cases of polio per year. The Salk vaccine became available in Britain in 1956, followed by the Sabin vaccine in 1962 which led to a dramatic decrease in cases of polio. In the USA there have been no year-round transmission of poliovirus since 1979. Polio was iradicated from the UK by 1988. Sadly like many diseases it has been the affluent west that has benefited most as polio still exists particularly in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, worldwide polio has been reduced by 99% and organisations such as the Gates Foundation are striving to rid the globe of that last 1%. The victory against polio alone is testament to the success of vaccine science.
I was born in 1953 and so I actually knew children who had suffered from polio and I remember the iron leg braces of that time. That is now a thing of the past thanks to Salk and Sabin, who incidentally refused to patent their vaccines and said they were a gift to mankind. It is a crime, I think, that some can deny this all within the memory of a single lifetime. If you have any doubts about the devastation polio caused then have a look at the BBC website on the subject.
Some claim that its not the vaccine per se that’s the problem but the adjuvants or preservatives used in them. The most controversial was the mercury-based vaccine preservative thiomersal which was claimed to cause autism. Thiomerisal was essentially removed from vaccines in the USA by 2002 but even 10 years later, this was not accompanied by a dramatic decreases in diagnosed cases of autism that should have followed. Indeed autism rates in the USA continued to increase. Similar data were acquired in the UK. By 2005 only two vaccines, hepatitis B and influenza, contained thimerosal but there has been no significant change in autism rates in the UK since 2000.
On the other hand publication of a paper in 1998 by the now discredited Andrew Wakefield, who claimed a correlation between the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles and rubella) and chronic enterocolitis and regressive developmental disorder led to a significant decrease in child vaccination by concerned parents. This was then followed by a corresponding increase in the respective diseases in a number of countries, including here in the UK. All causative correlations go in one direction, that vaccines have virtually eradicated many of the deadly diseases of the past.
Part of the antivaxination argument has a lot in common with the other branches of denialism - conspiracy theory. Now things start to get really strange. The big pharmaceutical companies are, apparently, colluding so they can sell vaccines to poison the public and make profits. This is not dissimilar to the NASA conspiracy to cover the moon landings. Anyone challenging the antivaxer’s nonsense is immediately dismissed as a saboteur of the truth paid by big pharma. This even goes to the extent that governments and the World Health Organisation are controlled by big pharma to spread their lies for profit. This is the point, if one were needed, where denialism turns into delusion.
Of course nothing is 100% safe and there have been side effects recorded resulting from vaccines. Given the millions and millions of inoculations then it would be statistically impossible not to see some adverse effects. The vast majority are minor and the rates are generally very low. Perhaps as much as 5% of children receiving the measles vaccine develop a rash. Serious effects such as anaphylactic reactions are somewhere between 3 and 10 in every million. That’s not far off the odds of being struck by lightening.
“Evidence” quoted by antivaxers is highly selective and often completely erroneous. But then Brandolini’s law comes into play: “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”