Monday, July 13, 2009

Effects of the Anti-Vaccine Campaign

Anyone out there thinking about going to merry old England for a summer excursion? Well, think carefully before you go--especially if you head to the northeast of that storied country, where they are experiencing the largest measles outbreak in nearly 20 years. A local public health official noted that "the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR." MMR is the acronym for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, which has been around for decades and is one of the safest vaccines known to man.

The vaccine rate for MMR was quite high in England until 1998, when a gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield held a press conference where he presented research that indicated the MMR vaccine was linked with autism. The "findings" were trumpeted by the British press, and the vaccination rate fell over the next several years from 92 percent to below 80 percent. Alas, Dr. Wakefield's research was later found to have massive financial conflicts of interest; by March 2004 a dozen of Wakefield's co-authors, including some of the preeminent names in medical research in the UK, withdrew their names from the paper. But by that time the horses were out of that particular barn, and the effects are still being felt there today. And the problem has spread to our shores as well, with any number of otherwise educated people spouting about the vaccines-autism connection as if it were fact. Newsweek magazine provides the whole story in all its sordid details here. They did a commendable job of providing crucial context and essential details; would that mainstream journalism produce this kind of work more often.

Since most Americans--or for that matter most anyone who lives in a relatively developed country--hardly give it a thought, a couple of facts about the measles might be worth sharing. It is one of the most highly contagious viruses known to humans; consequences of infection can range from mild (a few days of generalized illness and the famous facial rash) to serious (among other things, a slowly progressive brain disorder called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, which is as ugly as it sounds), to death. In fact, in countries where the MMR vaccine is not available due to adequate funds, refrigeration, or trained personnel to administer the vaccine, it is an all-out killer: in 1999 it had killed 873,000 children (and a smaller number of adults) in just one year. As part of a massive vaccination campaign in the areas where the children are not immunized or given boosters (mostly India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the distant rural provinces of China), the World Health Organization has been trying to get the number under control, with the annual mortality down to under 250,000 children in recent years. To give you some sense of perspective, in any given year just a bit over 10,000 children younger than age 14 die in the US each year. So this is by no means a trivial problem.

For further reading, you can peruse the information here (a guide to the studies about vaccines and autism) and here (stuff about vaccine ingredients), among other places. Also, Dr. Paul Offit, one of vaccine's greatest and most lucid proponents has written a book about the whole controversy entitled Autism's False Prophets, which I have not read but it is on my reading list. I am, however, working my way through journalist Arthur Allen's tome Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, and it's been a very good read thus far.


  1. Just got this email from a friend in cardif
    This may be cobblers . . . but better safe than sorry..

    Pass on to anyone who may be offered a swine flu jab

    >Hi everyone!

    >Anyone that knows me well will know that I don't believe in much. I don't believe in ghosts or all that, and if I get one of those "Pass this email on to 50 million people and you will be rich, if you don't you will die etc etc" emails, I just delete them. I want you all to pass this email on to as many people as you know, its not a chain email, but pass it on all the same.

    >Right then, I got home from work last night and went round to my best mates. The first words his mum said to me even before she said hello was "don't get the swine flu Jab".

    >She explained to me that a woman from her work was in Birmingham on saturday afternoon, and she was in one of those cash and carry warehouses where you can buy cheap stuff, and anyway, there was an guy in a white lab coat in front of her who was struggling to get enough money together to pay for everything in his basket, so she gave him a pound coin so he could pay the 68p or whatever he owed.

    >When she left the shop he was waiting for her outside. He asked her for her name and address and said that he would give her the money back, but she told him not to worry about it. He then said "Ok, you have done me a good turn today so I shall do you one back, dont get the Baxter Flu shot when it comes out"

    >She didn't take much notice of him, but like me, the more she thought about it, the more she worried, so she looked Baxter up on google ( ) and found that they are being investigated on biowepon charges after sending Deadly birdflu conatminated vaccines to europe.
    >they were only found out after a lab Ferret died. really scarry stuff.

    >So, i'm just warning you, if you or offered the experimental flu vaccine be very carful,
    wasn't going to send this because I didn't want to worry people/look stupid when nothing happened , but I thought that if I didn't say anything and something happened then I would never forgive myself, so its worth the risk of looking a bit daft.

    >Please pass this on to anyone you think might be offered an experimental jab.

    >Jennie p

  2. Leave it to the limeys.

    Okay, where to start, anonymous? First, I work pretty hard at writing my own thoughts and not simply repeating someone else's blather; I humbly ask the same of my readers when they comment, because Cut & Paste doesn't impress me a great deal.

    The letter you quote from "Jennie p" is your typical viral internet nonsense, and although I cannot tell whether or not it is a hoax, it certainly has features in common with a hoax, such as personal stories that can't be verified, a "pass this on" imperative so that people may save their lives, and a fuzzy-at-best logic that's rich on scare tactics and low on reasoning.

    That said, "Jennie p" does include a link to a Toronto Sun article about the contamination of an experimental vaccine produced by Baxter International, a corporation based in Illinois though the contamination occurred in plants in Europe. The vaccine was supposed to have components of the H3N2 strain (which is a common human strain) and the H5N1 strain (this is the Avian Influenza strain), which it did, but the H5N1 component was apparently a live virus (it should have been either dead or "attenuated," but was not). A few lab ferrets died, though the vaccine was not given to humans. I can't say I find the whole episode terribly reassuring, and insofar as that I share Jennie p's and Anonymous's concerns.

    However, fear induces a scattered mind, and poor Anonymous is all over the place. The experimental AVIAN flu vaccine (H5N1) is not the same as this year's SWINE flu, or the vaccine they are working on for it. Just because there have been some serious errors in the production of one vaccine has nothing to do with the other. Alas, Jennie p's letter discusses avian flu, and Anonymous has grafted that onto the current swine flu scare. Anon. may wish to take his or her chances with the virus; for my part, while I consider the risk of dying from avian flu pretty low, I strongly encourage everyone to have seasonal influenza shots, and the current "swine flu" is just a new variant of the H1N1 strain that humans see year-in-year-out. Recall--in the US, 40,000 people each year die from flu, and that's just an average year. We don't know if the new strain's going to be more dangerous, but even if not, it still is likely to kill at least this many.