It’s no great secret that the anti-vaccine movement is rife with scientific inaccuracies and logical fallacies, but a few of their claims are so extraordinarily erroneous and demonstrably false that I have difficulty calling them anything other lies. There are several of these falsehoods that I considered writing about, such as the blatantly false claim that vaccines contain mercury and aborted fetal cells, but I ultimately decided to focus on just two dangerous and pervasive assertions: the claim that the safety of vaccines hasn’t been tested, and the claim that measles isn’t a dangerous disease.
The safety of vaccines hasn’t been tested
This claim is something of a rallying cry for the anti-vaccine movement, and I repeatedly see it on anti-vaccer blogs and memes. If it was true, it would indeed be a serious problem, but it is demonstrably false. There are literally hundreds of papers on the safety of vaccines, and they are easy to find. Get on Google Scholar or PubMed and search for papers on the safety of vaccines. In mere seconds, you will be rewarded with numerous safety trials. That is why I consider this claim to be a lie. It’s not a debatable claim about the toxicity of a chemical, experimental results, etc. Rather, it is a simple factual statement. Either these papers exist or they don’t, and they clearly and undeniably exist. Therefore, anyone who tells you that the safety of vaccines hasn’t been tested is either lying or willfully ignorant. Either way, they clearly aren’t a trustworthy source of information.
Now, some people will object that I am being too general. They’ll say that although a few safety trials have been done, these studies are limited and don’t address all possibilities. This claim is usually followed by an example of a specific type of study which they believe has not been conducted. I clearly can’t make a blanket statement that none of these claims are true, but the vast majority aren’t, and it takes only a few seconds to discredit them. So, again, the people making these claims are either dishonest or willfully ignorant.
Here are just a few examples of studies that supposedly don’t exist.
Claim: There are no double blind, placebo controlled studies on the safety of vaccines
Reality: Yes there are. I entered, “vaccine safety double blind placebo controlled” on Goggle Scholar and got 62,000 results. Granted, not all of those are going to actually be relevant, but many of them are. For example, Zhu et al. 2010 and Cutts et al. 2005 were among the first three results. Again, the claim that the anti-vaccers are making is absurdly easy to test. It takes mere seconds. So the fact that they don’t bother to test it should be extremely disturbing to people.
Claim: “There are no studies comparing the health of the vaccinated and unvaccinated”
Reality: Yes there are.
Claim: There are no studies on the effects of the large number of antigens in vaccines/the effects of multiple vaccines
Reality: Yes there are.
I could keep going, but hopefully by now you get the point: scientists have very carefully studied the safety of vaccines from multiple angles and the result has consistently been that they are safe. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either deceptive or simply doesn’t know what they are talking about. Either way, you should not be getting medical advice from this person.
Measles isn’t a dangerous disease
This claim has been around for a long time, but it gained recently popularity after the Disneyland outbreak. In response to the accusations that they were responsible for the spread of the disease, many anti-vaccers argued that measles is a “harmless childhood disease” and isn’t really that serious. I have seen this claim on innumerable anti-vax blogs and memes, and there is even a truly horrifying children’s book based around this notion. The reality is completely different. During the supposedly harmless Disneyland outbreak, for example, 20% of patients were hospitalized. Anything that requires hospitalization deserves to be called “serious.” You don’t take people to the hospital for harmless childhood diseases. You take them to the hospital for serious medical conditions that require expert intervention. I have never once seen a parent stand beside their child’s hospital bed, shrug their shoulders and say, “it’s just a normal childhood illness.” Further, just because these children recovered doesn’t mean that the illness wasn’t serious. Many people recover from heart attacks, but that doesn’t make cardiac arrest a “minor illness.”
Now, let’s look at some general data rather than data from a specific case. On average, 1 out of every 20 people who get measles will develop pneumonia, which can be deadly in young children. In fact, 1 out of every 1,000 measles infected children will die as a result. Something that kills children clearly should be taken seriously and is not harmless. Further, even if your child doesn’t die from the measles, there is a 1 in 1,000 chance that he/she will develop encephalitis, which is a swelling of the brain that can cause fun side-effects such as seizures, permanent deafness, and mental disabilities. Again, those are not the side effects of a harmless disease.
At this point, you may be thinking, “fine, measles can be dangerous, but for most children it’s not that big of a deal.” That’s all well and good until it’s your child lying on a hospital bed or the cloth padding of a coffin. In my opinion, 1 in 1,000 is still far too many deaths for a disease that we can eliminate. To be clear, I’m not committing an appeal to emotion fallacy here, because hospitalizations and even deaths are very real possibilities from measles infections. For example, although 1 in 1,000 may sound small, realize that thousands of children die from measles annually. In 2013, for example, 145,700 children died from measles. Harmless childhood disease? I think not.
You may be tempted to ignore numbers like 145,700 based on the fact that you live in a luxurious, developed country while most of those deaths came from third-world countries, but do you know why most of those deaths came from developing countries? It’s because they don’t have good access to vaccines! As vaccination rates increase, the death toll decreases. The only reason that we don’t have hundreds of children dying from measles in the US is because we have relatively high vaccination rates. If those rates drop, measles will come back and children will suffer and die. That’s not fear mongering, that’s a scientific fact. For example, low vaccination rates recently caused an outbreak in the Netherlands which resulted in 147 complications (14.4% of cases) including 90 cases of pneumonia and 82 hospitalizations. Fortunately, no one died during that outbreak; however, a recent outbreak in France (which also centered around unvaccinated communities) claimed 10 lives and caused almost 5,000 hospitalizations and over 1,000 cases of “severe pneumonia.” Does that honestly sound like a mild childhood illness?
Finally, let’s back the clock up to 1953, 10 years before the first measles vaccine. By any reasonable standard, American was a devolved country with high health and sanitation standards in 1953. Yet in the absence of a vaccine, 462 people died from measles. Similarly high numbers continued until 1963 when the first measles vaccine was introduced. With the introduction of this vaccine, the number of deaths began to drop, and no year since then has had a death toll that was higher than the average for the 10 year period prior to the vaccine (mean = 440.3 deaths from 1953–1962). Further, in 1968, a more effective live vaccine was introduced, and 1968 set a new record low of only 24 deaths! This clearly demonstrates two things. First, the vaccine clearly works. Our sanitation practices didn’t magically improve in the late 60s. The decline was unambiguously from the vaccine. Second, measles is a serious disease. For the 10 years immediately prior to the vaccine, an average of 440 people in the US died from measles each year. There is no universe in which that is a “harmless childhood disease,” and anyone who tells you that measles isn’t serious is either dishonest or delusional.
A note on appeal to emotion fallacies: It’s worth pointing out that appeals to emotion are only fallacious when all that they are doing is appealing to emotion rather than making a rational argument, or if they make some irrelevant appeal to emotion (they are often associated with straw man fallacies). There is, however, nothing wrong with a logical, factual argument also evoking emotions. In the case of this post, all of the death rates, hospitalizations, etc. are facts, and they are facts that should evoke a strong emotional response, but simply evoking an emotional response does not automatically make them appeal to emotion fallacies.
Let me give an example of an actual appeal to emotion fallacy to show the contrast. Have you ever seen those anti-vaccine pictures where a screaming child is receiving a massive shot that is filled with a sinister looking fluid? Well those images are perfect appeal to emotion fallacies. First, the fact that a child cries from a shot is irrelevant because children also cry when you tell them that they can’t have ice cream for breakfast, tell them to go to bed, etc. So a child crying is clearly not a good indication of whether or not something is ultimately good for them. Second, these images also make an irrelevant and dishonest appeal to fear (this is where the straw man comes in). By showing you a horse needle filled with a colored fluid, they are deliberately playing into your emotions to make you scared of the vaccine. In reality, the tiny needles and clear fluids used in vaccines are far less frighting. Do you see the difference between images like that and simply presenting facts that happen to evoke emotions? One is deliberately misrepresenting the situation for the express purpose of playing on your emotions, whereas the other is presenting an accurate portrayal of the situation, and that situation just happens to be horrible.