Time for some Skeptic North #vaxfax

In Cambodia, rural children often die from preventable infection and disease. Vaccines change that. Picture from flickr user cambodia4kidsorg

Anti-vaccine advocates have declared November 1-6 to be Vaccine Awareness Week, and intend to use the week to spread unfounded fear about vaccines. Here in Canada, we already had our own Immunization Awareness Week, but Skeptic North will take up the antivax challenge. We will be joining other science advocates to counter-detail the fearmongering and outright misinformation that usually erupts from those indifferent to public health. Here’s an excerpt of the release from Mercola and the National Vaccine Information Center:

In a long-scheduled joint effort to raise public awareness about important vaccination issues during the week of November 1-6, 2010, Mercola.com and NVIC will publish a series of articles and interviews on vaccine topics of interest to Mercola.com newsletter subscribers and NVIC Vaccine E-newsletter readers.

The week-long public awareness program will also raise funds for NVIC, a non-profit charity that has been working for more than two decades to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and protecting informed consent to vaccination.

The November 1-6 Vaccine Awareness Week hosted by Mercola.com and NVIC will follow a month-long vaccine awareness effort in October that was recently announced on Facebook by parents highlighting Gardasil vaccine risks.

The six-week-long focus this fall on vaccine issues will help raise the consciousness of many more Americans, who may be unaware that they can take an active role in helping to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths and defend the legal right to make voluntary vaccination choices.

Keep an eye here and at Science-Based Medicine for content during the week. SBM is establishing an aggregator to collate articles, and we will link to it once it’s online. On Twitter, you can follow discussions with the #vaxfax tag. We’re inviting all of Skeptic North’s supporters to help: Please spread the word, and commit to sharing science-based information and resources on vaccines. And if you want to get started, friend of Skeptic North PalMD is responding to an article that attributes infertility to vaccines.

19 Responses to “Time for some Skeptic North #vaxfax”

  1. Mike says:

    What’s wrong with the excerpt above? Shouldn’t we all be interested in helping to prevent vaccine injuries? Shouldn’t we all want to get to a point where brain damage is no longer listed as a possible side effect of vaccination? I guess what I’m curious about is whether you’re implying that the ‘anti-vaccine advocates’ you mention are inventing the notion of vaccine injury or just exaggerating the actual risks of vaccine injury.

    Also, it would be nice in whatever future posts you make responding to the ‘anti-vaccine advocates’ that you draw a distinction between 3rd world countries, where children don’t necessarily have access to clean drinking water, proper nutrition, or proper healthcare, and 1st world countries. I would think that the arguments for and against a particular vaccination schedule would be different in a 1st world country vs a 3rd world country.

  2. Moderation says:

    Your kidding, right Mike? Perhaps you should go and investigate the NVIC and Mercola, before you attempt to defend them. I have to hope that you are so niave to the anti-vaccine movement that you are unaware of the history of these two. If not, then you are simply a shill for the anti-vaccine movement pretending to be uninformed. For me, I assume it is the second, after seeing your spewing of the “third world vs first world fallacy” as it concerns vaccination. It betrays a true lack of basic scienific knowlege and more specifically knowlege of vaccines and vaccination. If my assumption is wrong and you ARE just niave, I apologize, and I can recommend several blogs and websites (like this one) that you can use to educate yourself on the topic.

  3. Mike says:

    Moderation,

    The only thing you need to apologize for is your spelling.

    I’m not defending anyone in my post above. I’m simply defending the notion that preventing vaccine injuries is a good thing. I’m also not sure why you equate someone who wants to eliminate vaccine injuries as being ‘anti-vaccine’. Not everything in life is black and white. Instead of making assumptions about what I might be thinking, you can address the 2 issues raised in my original post:

    1) Are the ‘anti-vaccine advocates’ inventing the notion of vaccine injury or just exaggerating the actual risks of vaccine injury?

    2) As for the 1st world vs 3rd world thing, I don’t really want to get into a big back and forth on the issue. However, other than just saying “you don’t know anything about anything”, if you want to educate me on why access to proper nutrition/health is irrelevant when discussing childhood disease, feel free.

  4. Jordan says:

    Mike,

    I recommend listening to Skeptoid #180 for an objective look at the claims made by anti-vaccine advocates and the ingredients of vaccines.
    You should also do your own research from sites like cdc.gov and other non-biased sites. Come up with your own decision based on the facts.

    • Mike says:

      Jordan,

      I’m aware of the claims being made against the current vaccine schedule. That wasn’t the purpose of my post. I just wanted to know, from someone who’s offended by the notion of wanting to reduce/eliminate the incidence of serious vaccine injury, whether they believe the ‘anti-vaccine advocates’ are inventing the notion of vaccine injury or just exaggerating the actual risks of vaccine injury? Is that not a reasonable question to ask?

      • Erik Davis says:

        Mike, there’s no question that there are vaccine injuries, which is why the vaccine court exists, and why it operates on a no-fault system. Any intervention comes with certain risks, and the system is designed to compensate those who are injured in the name of public health. Set against those injuries are the immense public health benefits of immunization.

        The issue here is that the public is being led to believe (a) that there are connections between certain vaccines and certain diseases (e.g. MMR and autism) when study after study shows no connection, and (b) that the risk/benefit equation that the public health agencies claim for immunization is somehow fundamentally flawed, which is also simply not true.

  5. Mike says:

    Hi Erik,

    Thanks for addressing my question. So at least we agree that vaccine injury is not a myth. And it sounds like you’re saying that ‘anti-vaccine’ advocates are exaggerating the actual risks associated with our current vaccine schedule.

    Regarding one of your comments: “the public is being led to believe that there are connections between certain vaccines and certain diseases (e.g. MMR and autism) when study after study shows no connection”. Global brain damage is listed as a possible adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine in the actual MMR vaccine insert. And if you want to say that “yes, global brain damage is a possible side effect, but autism is something completely different” that’s fine. But I don’t know of anyone whose doctor has gone through the possible adverse effects of such a shot with a parent before injecting their child. Any drug being advertised on TV (in the US at least) has a long list of side effects that are communicated to the user along with the “ask your doctor if xxx is right for you”. But when it comes to vaccines, they’re deemed safe for everyone and one size fits all. If the public is being misled to believe anything, it’s that vaccines are completely safe, when in fact they are not completely safe.

    The only defense being offered by the medical community is “the benefits outweigh the risks”. And since the vast majority of kids who regress after a round of shots are dismissed as coincidence or a figment of their parents imagination, the benefits probably do outweigh the risks according to the currently available data. What bothers me is that the industry and the science folks are more interested in trying to ridicule anyone who dares to question vaccine safety, than they are in trying to understand the underlying mechanism behind vaccine-induced brain damage so that we can actually try to eliminate it. Currently, the notion that these children are an acceptable casualty of “the greatest medical achievement ever” is not something to be proud of.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Mike, two things:

      First, here’s the NIH website on adverse reactions for the MMR vaccine:

      Severe adverse effects may include:
      * Allergic reaction (less than 1 per million)
      * Long-term seizure, brain damage, or deafness (so rare that the association with the vaccine is questionable)

      The reason these risks aren’t routinely discussed is because they’re less than 1 in a million, which is generally where risk analysts put the bar for things we should care about. Put another way, Canada has about 380,000 births a year, which means about 760,000 MMR vaccinations a year. Based on the risk numbers above, we should expect one severe adverse reaction about every two years. This is the price we pay for a vaccine that has eradicated three virulent and deadly childhood diseases.

      Second, your last paragraph is highly inflammatory and I’ve been counseled not to respond. However, I’ll make you a deal. If you can substantiate the claim that “the vast majority of kids who regress after a round of shots are dismissed as coincidence or a figment of their parents imagination,” I’ll be happy to continue the debate.

  6. Mike says:

    Hi Erik,

    You have a team of people counseling you on what to write? Wow.

    As for substantiating my claim, I only have 1 statistic. It’s that there are roughly 5000 families in line behind Hannah Poling waiting for their cases to be heard (in the US). These are children who regressed significantly after a particular vaccine (not necessarily the MMR). These are just the ones who have enough documented proof to try and make a case before the courts. This doesn’t include cases where parents either don’t have enough documentation to try and prove their case in court, or don’t actually believe a vaccine played a role in their child’s regression. But even just sticking with the 5000 cases, if the odds of your child ‘disappearing’ after a vaccine is 1 in 1 million, then it would take 5 billion injections to generate 5000 cases like this. Assuming 10x the number of births in the US vs Canada, we’re talking 38 million births over the past 10 years. So if 5 billion vaccines were administered to children under 10 in the last 10 years, that would mean an average of about 130 vaccines per child. The numbers don’t add up. So if you are interested in continuing the debate, then you can either correct my math, or explain the phenomenon accounting for the 5000 cases.

    On a side note, here’s one of the contraindications listed in the Merck MMR vaccine insert:

    “Individuals with a family history of congenital or hereditary immunodeficiency, until the immune competence of the potential vaccine recipient is demonstrated.”

    Can you tell me that its common practice for doctors to examine the family history or the child’s immune competence before administering the MMR?

    Mike.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Mike – Hannah Poling was awarded damages in the vaccine court already. Which doesn’t prove vaccines cause autism, just that the vaccine court works on a “balance of probabilities”, which is a significantly lower evidentiary standard than we ask for when ascribing causality. So if anything, it’s further proof that the vaccine court system works, broadly speaking, in “protecting” children even when the evidence is murky. And murky, when it comes to vaccines and autism, is giving it the benefit of the doubt — despite numerous trials, there’s no evidenceof causality.

      As for the other 5000 cases – they may be proof that there are 5000 more Hannah Polings, or that there are 10,000 parents who’ve been given bad information, or simply that there are 5000 lawyers chomping at the bit for their contingency fees. Regardless, that’s more about how the court system works than the science.

    • ““Individuals with a family history of congenital or hereditary immunodeficiency, until the immune competence of the potential vaccine recipient is demonstrated.”

      Can you tell me that its common practice for doctors to examine the family history or the child’s immune competence before administering the MMR?”

      Do you have evidence it is not? If this is a contra-indication for the drug then a doctor who does not take a proper history, including family history, before prescribing a drug can be sued for malpractice if complications arise. Patient history-taking is standard practice, and includes family history of illnesses. Every level of health provider does it – I am a paramedic and I often enquire about family history, even when it does not impact my practice directly.

      This is a common tactic for people raising concerns about poor practice: they highlight all of the possible problems and then imply that they are all occurring without a stitch of evidence. If you know of a doctor who is practicing outside of the standard of care, which includes taking a good patient history, then you should report them to the college. If you do not, then stop implying that you do.

  7. Mike says:

    Hi Erik,

    Your argument is quickly falling apart. First of all, are you trying to imply that Hannah Poling was NOT vaccine injured? The word ‘autism’ doesn’t need to enter this debate. Yes, the fact that she might have regressed immediately after receiving her shots doesn’t PROVE causality. But you could use that argument in any such case and basically argue that vaccine injury is a myth. Is that what you’re doing?

    You previously said that the risks of such a serious injury are roughly 1 in 1 Million. You then got very offended when I said “the vast majority of kids who regress after a round of shots are dismissed as coincidence or a figment of their parents imagination”.

    And now, you’re saying “As for the other 5000 cases – they may be proof that there are 5000 more Hannah Polings, or that there are 10,000 parents who’ve been given bad information, or simply that there are 5000 lawyers chomping at the bit for their contingency fees.”

    Well, if there really are 5000 more Hannah Polings, then the 1 in 1 Million estimate is way off, and shouldn’t the medical community be very concerned? And if you think these 5000 cases are due to misinformed parents or overzealous lawyers, then aren’t you doing exactly what you thought was such an inflammatory thing for me to imply?

    Mike.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Mike, I never got offended. I merely asked you to substantiate the point, and then showed how the data you supplied could have many different interpretations, only one of which have you chosen to believe. On the legal issue of whether they’ve been injured as defined by the legislation, I actually have no position — it’s up to the courts to decide that. On the scientific issue of whether there’s a causal link between a vaccine and a specific condition, I’ll trust the overwhelming consensus of the scientific and public health community that the injury rates are extremely low, the risks from the diseases themselves significantly higher, and the current childhood immunization schedule represents a reasonable balance of risk. We can debate all we want, but that is indeed the consensus, and I’m not so presumptuous as to think I have sufficient technical expertise to credibly second guess that.

      • Mike says:

        Hi Erik,

        When it comes to the 5000 cases, there’s really only two scenarios. One is that children are in fact regressing as a result of the current vaccination schedule, and the other is that whatever these parents may or may not be observing has nothing to do with vaccinations. And for anyone who believes vaccinations have no role in this phenomenon, I’m not sure how you explain these cases with anything other than “coincidence” (for the cases where a child did actually regress shortly after a particular vaccine) or “Parental misinterpretation” (for cases where a parent might just be mistaken into believing that their child changed immediately after a particular vaccine. The ‘overzealous lawyer’ scenario would fall under this category as well).

        So in the end, I don’t think you’ve provided anything to contradict my previous statement of “the vast majority of kids who regress after a round of shots are dismissed as coincidence or a figment of their parents imagination”. So again, I’m not sure what was so inflammatory about it. I’m not trying to condemn people who agree with the ‘coincidence’ theory. I’m just trying to explain the thought process on both sides of the debate.

        As for whether there’s a causal link between a particular vaccine and a specific condition, I agree with you there’s no evidence to support that. But that was never the point I was raising. The point I’m trying to make is that when you look at the number of families ‘claiming’ their children regressed after a particular vaccine, you either have to admit that vaccine injury is a serious problem that warrants a lot more concern, or you have to find a way to dismiss all these cases. And if you believe them to be ‘coincidence’ (as I used to), then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with admitting that.

        As for your last statement “that is indeed the consensus, and I’m not so presumptuous as to think I have sufficient technical expertise to credibly second guess that.” I’m pretty sure you won’t want me to tell you how eerily similar that statement sounds compared to someone raising a Bible in the air and telling others not to second guess the word of God. One constant throughout history is that scientific consensus changes all the time, and we constantly learn new things that show us how wrong we were with what we previously believed. This may not be the case for the discussion we’re currently having, but I don’t think its presumptuous at all to be questioning a particular statistic that we really don’t have any great explanation for. And for anyone who wants to think of me as a fear-mongering anti-vaxxer intent on spreading misinformation, I can’t stop you.

        Mike.

  8. Leigh Ramsey says:

    @Mike: Our pediatrician, especially when asked but usually freely offered on its own, is always more than happy to distribute vaccine information sheets, which mention (even minuscule, statistically speaking) adverse events. So, your claim that adverse events are never mentioned does not hold true, at least in my anecdote (and what you mentioned was also anecdotal).

    As to “What bothers me is that the industry and the science folks are more interested in trying to ridicule anyone who dares to question vaccine safety, than they are in trying to understand the underlying mechanism behind vaccine-induced brain damage so that we can actually try to eliminate it”: I don’t think that science folks as a general rule try to dismiss those who question vaccine safety, for this is their life’s work (many of them, such as epidemiologists, real pediatricians not named Jay Gordon, pharmacists, and so forth); it’s that they, and I, question the misleading statements by the Mercolas, Loe Fishers, and Wakefields that would lead earnest parents astray. Do they not feel culpable when a child dies of a vaccine-preventable disease such as measles or pertussis or influenza? A child, for instance, who is immunocompromised and cannot receive a life-saving vaccination (e.g., a child undergoing chemotherapy for cancer); allergic to, for example, eggs and cannot receive the influenza vaccination; or who is too young (e.g., with the 10th newborn death from pertussis this year in California) to be fully vaccinated. For these children who so depend on herd immunity–them and their parents and other loved ones–your choice to not vaccinate greatly weighs on life-or-death matters.

    I think the scientists also react to the selfishness (in the aforementioned herd immunity) and rudeness of some antivaccinationists (who, in my case and in theirs no doubt, have accused those who vaccinate of “murdering” children by having them fully vaxxed). What I think also raises their ire is a series of straw men, red herrings, cherry-picking of data, moving goalposts, and ad hominem argumentation (as the aforementioned “murderer” comment that I’ve heard time and again as simply a mom who believes in the efficacy of vax), if not the outright science hatred of some, if not many, antivaxxers. One does not have to go far to see the hatred doled out to Dr. Paul Offitt or writer Amy Wallace to know that these people have received death threats–for what? The “evil” of trying to educate parents and save children’s lives, of course.

    Also, I have to again disagree with “Can you tell me that its common practice for doctors to examine the family history or the child’s immune competence before administering the MMR?” With our pediatrician, there again this is anecdotal but so is your mention of the 5000 figure (again, you are not citing any sources other than yourself–can you please cite the CDC, HHS, or some authority on the supposed 5000 waiting behind Hannah Poling–and even if they are, this proves only that they are claiming vaccine injuries), he and/or his nurse always asks whether there are any allergies or any reactions to previous vaccination(s).

    I’m afraid that your wholesale, one-size-fits-all dismissal of the efficacy of vaccines–something you take Erik and others to task for here–lacks facts and throws the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

    Finally, Mike, you might to take a look at some of these legitimate sources (but there are many others):
    1. History of Vaccines, Top 20 Questions about Vaccination: http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/top-20-questions-about-vaccination
    2. History of Vaccines, Misconceptions about Vaccines: http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/misconceptions-about-vaccines
    3. CDC, MMWR, Notifiable Disease & Mortality Tables: Nota bene the uptick in pertussis, HepC, and mumps: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5938md.htm?s_cid=tw_mmwr49
    4. CDC–a plethora of information here, including that under the heading of “Myths Busted/Common Misconceptions”–http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/spec-grps/parents.htm#question
    5. Every Child by Two, Immunization Success (stories and data): http://www.ecbt.org/advocates/immunizationsuccess.cfm

    I hope that you will find these data as useful for you and your family as I have for mine.

    Thanks for the article, Scott!

    • Mike says:

      Hi Leigh,

      It’s either my inability to communicate effectively or your desire to pigeon-hole anyone with a differing viewpoint on the subject, but I’m not trying to argue in favour of a one-size-fits-all dismissal of the efficacy of vaccines. Being concerned that the actual damage being done by vaccines may be greater than the medical community is willing to admit, and wanting to stop all childhood vaccinations are two very different things.

      • Erik Davis says:

        Mike – your point is very clear: you think the medical community won’t admit that certain vaccines are more dangerous than claimed. The problem is that you haven’t substantiated it. Until you do, you’re just spreading fear irresponsibly.

  9. Mike says:

    Hi Erik,

    You call it spreading fear, I call it asking people to take a closer look at the parts of this issue we don’t have a great explanation for. When you consider that these parents are not saying “the mmr causes autism” but are rather saying “my child suffered irreversible brain damage after one of his/her vaccines”, it becomes a very different question. And I don’t think we have enough substantial evidence to properly address that issue either way. Which is why its being left to the courts to decide.

    Back to the math, if your 380,000 births/year in Canada is correct, and we assume 10x that number for the US, then there were 38 Million children born in the US in the last 10 years. So what are the odds that a child will suffer irreversible brain damage from a vaccine? If it was 1 in 1 Million, there should be roughly 38 such children under 10. (Probably a little more since each child receives multiple vaccines). And perhaps that is a low enough number not to warrant additional concern. But when you look at the 5000 cases, if these cases DO actually represent children that were seriously vaccine injured, (and you yourself said that these children may indeed be more Hannah Polings) that works out to 1 in every 7600 children that have been permanently damaged. And that number would be even more dramatic if you consider the number of children who have suffered the same fate but are not hiring a lawyer.

    I just want to make sure that for anyone who is confident that vaccine injury is NOT something we need to be looking at much more closely (because the odds of permanent brain damage from a vaccine are around 1 in 1 Million), that they’re satisfied with the explanation that more than 99% of these parents are mistaken in what they claim to have observed.

    It basically boils down to a yes or no question. Are you satisfied with the notion that virtually ALL of these parents are mistaken? And the only real piece of scientific evidence to consider is whether the 1 in 1 Million statistic is actually correct or not.

    Mike.

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.