Five dangerous myths about vaccines

Dec 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

When asked to blog here a few weeks back, I thought it would be nice to write a thoughtful post about vaccines and why people should get them. Then I realized how silly this was, since most anti-vaxxer trolls don't have the patience to consider a reasoned, sensible, scientific argument. Instead, I decided to write a post refuting the most dangerous lies used by the anti-vaxxer nutjobs I've run into on the internetz, in the hopes that a worried parent may find comfort in some sound science when s/he sits down at their computer before their child's first immunization appointment. If you believe in this quest, please tweet, email, link, and visit the hell out of this page, so that it eventually appears at the top of every "vaccine safety" google search. If you've found this page by a google search, I hope you find comfort in the information, as well as the fact that I am a microbiologist and a mother, and my son will get all of his recommended vaccinations.

Now, for dispelling the myths:

1. Vaccination causes autism. WRONG. This is possibly the most pervasive myth about vaccines, instigated by two unfortunate correlations. Firstly, brain disorders, including autism and epilepsy, are often diagnosed the same age as the administration of certain vaccines. Secondly, the rise in autism rates over the past few decades follows the increase in vaccine development and availability. As a result, many studies have investigated the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism, yet found none. Further fueling this myth is a study repeatedly cited by anti-vaxxers, even though it was retracted due to findings by a British medical panel that the publishing doctor "had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a 'callous disregard' for the suffering of children involved in his research." Evidently, the doctor had his own vaccine that would have been implemented upon MMR being taken off the market in Britain - no conflict of interest there or anything.

2. Vaccine additives are linked to autism and other neurological disorders. WRONG. Many vaccines used to contain small amounts (0.001 to 0.03%) of thimerosal, a vaccine preservative composed of ~50% mercury, to prevent the growth of microorganisms, which can and have caused lethal infections in vaccine recipients. Opponents of vaccination proposed that the levels of mercury in thimerosal caused epilepsy, autism, and other neurological disorders in vaccine recipients. No data has yet supported or refuted this claim, as correlative epidemiological findings are often difficult to prove or disprove. However, the elimination of thimerosal as a preservative in many vaccines in 2001 has not been met by a reduction in childhood autism rates, reducing support for this claim. Other theories have since been proposed by anti-vaxxers, NONE of which are supported by ANY existing scientific evidence.

3. Not vaccinating MY child won't hurt YOUR child. WRONG. Vaccines work by challenging your immune system, with a harmless bug or bug component, so that your body immediately recognizes and destroys the corresponding virulent bug later on. Thus, an active immune system is necessary for vaccine function. Vaccines are less effective on infants, elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems. Additionally, some individuals are allergic to components of certain vaccines (eggs, for instance, in the case of the flu shot). Therefore, vaccine efficacy depends on herd immunity, the vaccination of a certain proportion of the population (about 90%), to prevent the spread of disease to those who are unable for any number of reasons to be. Herd immunity only works if all the people who CAN be protected by vaccination GET vaccinated. Otherwise, my young son, who won't be vaccinated against measles, mumps or rubella for another few months, is at increased danger of getting sick with a very nasty and deadly disease.

4. Vaccines are ineffectiveWRONG. I don't know how the hell this ever became a thing, but I've actually heard this statement spewed in numerous comment threads of late. Vaccines prevent disease, plain and simple. It's because of vaccination that we no longer have to fear diseases as deadly as smallpox, and it's due to the refusal of anti-vaxxers to immunize their children that infants are dying from measles and whooping cough. Our toddler has a LOT of vaccines on his immunization schedule over the next few years, and that, my friends, is a miracle. The scientific cooperation, drive, and and ingenuity that has made possible the prevention, and even eradication, of certain infectious diseases gives me hope in humankind. Our little Monkey will get every last one of those immunizations, one tear and blood drop at a time.

5. But I keep reading and hearing about all these people who got their child vaccinated and all of a sudden they started having seizures and acting weird and they've never been the same since! ANECDATA IS NOT THE SAME AS SCIENTIFIC DATA. The most dangerous aspect of the internet is its microphonic property for fervent believers in pseudoscience. A cancer patient starts taking some homeopathic snake oil and subsequently finds out s/he is in remission. An coworker's family doc gives him/her antibiotics on the third day s/he is suffering from a mild cough, and two days later s/he is feeling much better. Your child gets the MMR vaccine, then weeks or days later begins displaying characteristics of autism. Isolated, these coincidences are powerful for the individual. In an internet chat room filled with other cancer patients, victims of the common cold, or parents of autistic children, the power of these stories is amplified. The fact is the cancer patient was also receiving life-saving chemotherapy, the employee's immune system could have cleared the infection in the same time frame without antibiotic intervention, and your toddler would have begun showing symptoms of autism regardless of MMR vaccine administration. Anecdata is powerful, especially when amplified by internet forums and tangled with the ever-echoing fears of parents. But anecdata does not compare to scientific evidence. One desperate mother's story on a parenting forum may sound convincing, but it can't, hasn't, and won't stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific method.

30 responses so far

  • Jagannath Chatterjee says:

    This is the most pathetic trash I have ever read. Obviously written by a pro-vaccine troll or a media management agency hired by Big Pharma. I had autism at 17 after the MMR. Does autism "usually" occur at that age? It's time for the medical establishment to own up its fault and scrap vaccines. Our survival is at stake here.

    • tideliar says:

      And note to all curious who get here and read this excellent post by Dr. O: when in doubt the opponent of vaccination resort to ad hominem attacks and accusations that us scientists are the pockets/on the pay roll of some mythical "Big Pharma". Not only is this a malicious slander, it's patently absurd. Vaccines don't make any bloody money, and it's a struggle to get pharmaceutical companies to keep investing. Shareholders want a return on their investment.

      Educate yourselves and beware Dr. O's maxim #5 - anecdotes aren't data. Vaccinations are utterly safe, and utterly essential.

      Ignore the anecdata and anti-vaxx trolls for what they are - dangerous and ill-informed liars at best, frauds and "altmed" advocates (those really on the payroll of alternative medicine vendors) at best.

    • Dr. O says:

      Interesting. You say you got the MMR at age 17? Was this a second immunization due to an inactive first vaccination? Or had you never received it as a child when it normally is administered? Also, I'm curious as to where you lie on the autism spectrum. You seem to be pretty high functioning, so I wonder whether or not you have been autistic for a much longer time, but were just more recently diagnosed? Diagnostic tools for autism spectrum disorders have improved drastically over the past 10-15 years.

    • "Jagannath Chatterjee" has no credibility and his or her shrill testimonial smells of fakery. You "had autism"? Or maybe it was your best friend? "I know this woman who..." All these fake pseudo-science and non-science anecdotes sound the same. I'm no fan of "Big Pharma" but anyone with a 5th grade knowledge of vaccines understands that they are not the cash cows which would justify Mr/s Chatterjee's paranoid ideation and Henny-Penny cries of alarm.

      Bravo to Dr. O. It's bizarre to me that basic tenets of science and medicine would need defending, but the dynamics of fear-based rumors and paranoid conspiracy theories are often surprising.

      I've re-posted the basic five and pointed back here from my website. Year's end is a perfect time for listmaking, and this cause is a noble as any I can think of.

      • EPJ says:

        Well, one of the reason for doing biomedical science is to improve or cure the current status of the health problems. And therapies or preventive methods are needed, so are reliable diagnosis. But endless fights yield nothing more than cummulative problems. Matter of fact, isn't that what we are seeing? the question is, why?

        So, how about doing a joint review of data as well as a 'settling set of practical science' that will decide on this critical issues? have the different views represented (people, methods, etc). One team working on the same issues ought to yield the best results. Film it at every step, report jointly, repeat it as many times as needed.

        It ought to be done at least for the most used medical approaches and of most impact.

        But the fact that it all goes into fighting doesn't look 'reliable'.

        I'm appalled at all the negative criticism after a long run of medical advances, but it seems to me the problems involve more than that.

        Is it the limited portion of the money pie? the economic system? laws, regulations? unnecessary technology crowding everything?

    • Edmund Benedict says:

      jagannath, please provide proof that you got autism at the age of 17. Preferably by a reputable gov hospital. By the same measure you use, I can also claim that I was a Hep B carried and was cured at the age of 25 after receiving a Hep B vaccine. Would my claim hold water?

  • Niall says:

    I have Asperger syndrome. I was vaccinated as a child with all the usual childhood vaccines.

    Thank you for some intelligent commentary on this subject. Most of the gene cluster responsible for autism spectrum disorders has now been identified. There is some fascinating research now being published on why these genes have persisted in human populations (specifically, that under the correct circumstances, they confer evolutionary advantage). I've written on this (I had to take the link out, because it got the original post I made blocked), but very much appreciate someone debunking the myths surrounding autism and vaccination.

    This helps deal with two problems. The first, as you correctly point out, is that it restores herd immunity to our social groups. The second is that it goes some way towards depathologising disorders that are only pathological because of the way our societies function. The problem is not many of these disorders: it is society.

  • Joe G says:

    Hi Dr. O,

    Methinks the problem is lay-people do not understand the science and they do not trust scientists who they think are running trial & error tests using their children.

    And yes this is perpetuated as you say- via chat-rooms and such.

    That said people may have also heard of epigenetics and figure these vaccines fit into that cat- their kid's autism is an epigenetic effect from the vaccines.

    The point being lay-people will take a little information and then run the wrong way with it.

    What needs to be done is somehow science needs to step-up and start studying the cases in which people are saying the vaccinedidit- for example take you first responder and try to figure out what caused the autism- was it triggered by the vaccine(s) or what was it?

    • tideliar says:

      Hi Joe G - you point out exactly why Dr. O has written this post. The very best scientifically proven information must be made available to parents.

      For your information, there is a large body of well funded research into the causes of autism (etc.). There are some very strong genetic components under investigation by teams of excellent researchers around the globe.

      Science is moving forwards on this and we're fighting hard to discover the causes of AND CURES FOR neurological problems like autism. We need parents and advocates on our side - help spread the message and help support the research. And in the meantime, don't let fear-mongering and lies put your children at an even greater risk of death or sickness by not vaccinating.

      • Niall says:

        An Aspie writes:

        A cure is the last thing we need.

        Look, the genes that code for Asperger syndrome and many other "disorders" have persisted in the population because, for various reasons, they confer an evolutionary advantage (see Spikins: Cambridge Archaeology Journal, Vol 19, p179 for example). Spikins theorises that it was people with Asperger syndrome, long before anyone had heard of vaccines, who may have been responsible for many of the technological developments that now distinguish us from other animals.

        If you go "curing" Asperger syndrome, or any of many other neurological "disorders", everybody loses the assets that are provided to society by neurodiversity.

        Why do you think there are clusters of Asperger syndrome known around Silicon Valley, Oxford, Cambridge and the tech centres around Eindhoven? People able to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else are still driving technological development. If anyone is going to come up with the solutions we need to solve our hideously complex environmental problems it's likely to involve some sort of alternative mind being applied to it.

        The eugenics research (and that's what it is: these scientists are looking for tests to identify ASDs in utero!) needs to be stopped immediately.

        What is needed is a more nurturing society. Those individuals prone to extremes of mood tend to end up pathologised in non-nurturing societies (like ours). In nurturing environments we tend to be much more capable of achieving things, for everyone's benefit.

        Personally, I don't think this is likely. Human societies are inherently hierarchical, and those in a position to bully others will do so - and politics and business are run by people who score very highly on measures for Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Continued talk of vaccine (or other cause) of autism merely plays straight into the hands of those wanting to stay on top of the heap (and make money from snake-oil "cures").

        If we overcome our current environmental crisis, who do you think will be the ones designing starships? Aspies, or neurotypicals incapable of concentrating on one thing for more time than it takes to change the TV channel?

        • Joe G says:

          Good point- in a perfect world we wouldn't need science- everything would be just like in Pleasantville


          • becca says:

            Are you equally worried about selective termination of pregnancies that would produce people with DS? What about pregnancies that produce babies with anencephaly?

            Look, I have struggled with clinical depression my entire life. There are very good reasons why depression, and the traits it correlates with (including ruminating thinking), may have been advantageous under some evolutionary circumstances.
            Read David Dobb's piece on Orchid vs. Dandelion children. If they developed an in utero test for the SERT gene, or 5-HTTLPR, people might use it to selectively terminate pregnancies that would result in people more like me.
            There might be fewer people who have depression, but also fewer exceptionally creative people.
            Alternatively, people might use the test to determine via clinical trials if there are in utero conditions that can give people with 'orchid' type genes the best possible start in life.
            The technology- the knowledge- isn't the problem; it's some applications that are problematic. Which is no excuse for researching it if you think that it's the Worst Thing Ever to selectively abort ANY pregnancies. But if you think of it, perhaps asking what it would be like to parent a child, not a child who is neuro-atypical spaceship designer, but one who struggles with a very severe autism where NO human contact is ever welcome and verbal development is basically completely absent... maybe you can see some grey zone. And maybe you can find reason to advocate for research that can help us figure out how to get a rich neuro-diversity in society, without people who suffer needlessly.

          • Niall says:

            (This post is a reply to Becca's, which is probably below: there is no reply button to Becca's post)


            Actually, I do advocate a neurodiverse society where nobody suffers needlessly. I've struggled with depression, and spent time resenting my parents for having brought me into a f-ed up world without my prior consent.

            The problem with the research is how it would be used - do you really think the world's neurotypicals would have any reason to build a nurturing society if the only reason people were different is because chose not to take a cure for being different? Look how many sick excuses for humanity still want to "cure" homosexuality, even long after the rest of us realised that it's a perectly natural expression of human (and non-human, for that matter) sexuality.

            There is no way I am that optimistic about human nature!

            The solution, then, cannot be eugenics, because that's what this research is about. The solution must be to change society.

            When I think about what drives me into the pit of wanting to no longer exist, it's nt about me, or who I am, but how society treats me and anyone else who is a square peg that they want to hammer into a round hole. The solution is not to make sure all the pegs are round (or, more to the point, all the pegs are squares!) but to make sure there are square holes and round ones.

            As anyone who has even the simplest grasp of ecosystems will tell you, monoculture is a bad idea.

    • Michelle says:

      Look in the ingredients of the vaccines, themerisol and mercury, after all, they are just toxic metals that the government is putting into your body, and what do you think it does to the body?????? Is that just a bunch of bull as well??
      I am one of the healthiest people around and the vaccines that I "received" wasn't actually given to me. My son will no longer get vaccines, does that make me a bad parent because I don't want any foreign substances in his developing body?

      • tideliar says:


        There is no thimerisol in vaccines.

        Educate yourself before you selfishly put my children at risk by allowing your own to get sick.,

      • Dr. O says:

        does that make me a bad parent because I don't want any foreign substances in his developing body?

        First off, if this is really what you mean, then yeah, I have a pretty big problem with your parenting. Vitamin D is a foreign substance. Food is a foreign substance. Water is a foreign substance. Antibiotics when your child has strep throat are a foreign substance. Not giving our children some foreign substances is cruel. I seriously doubt this is what you meant, but it's important to speak specifically about science if you want to argue about it.

        Secondly, toxic chemicals are found everywhere. Mercury is in all seafood, to varying degrees. Several household seasonings can make you high. Radiation is found everywhere; you should see what Fiesta dinnerware does to a geiger counter. You can't avoid putting toxic materials in your body. Instead, regulating agencies try to control how much we are exposed to.

        Third, the levels of mercury that used to be included in vaccines, especially considering they are given once every few months and not every day, are considered safe. Otherwise, they never would have been included in the first place. As Tideliar already rightly pointed out, thimerosal is no longer included in most vaccines, so not giving vaccines to your child based on this fear is completely off base.

  • [...] over at the Scientopia Guest Blogge about vaccination and the dangerous myths anti-vaxxers employ. Come check me out! Share this:ShareTwitterRedditFacebookEmailLinkedInPrintDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  • Good summary! I doubt it will convince the faithful, but hopefully it will help nudge the waverers in the right direction.

  • becca says:

    Our little Monkey will get every last one of those immunizations, one tear and blood drop at a time.
    Well, sort of.
    To be honest, as a microbiologist/immunologist, one of the few scary arguments about vaccines that actually gives me pause is "well, we don't know what giving all these many new vaccines together actually does". I've tried Pubmeding it, of course, and there's some interesting evidence where some antibody titers seem to go up with co-immunization, and some go down.
    Obviously, they do test combinations to make sure side effect rates stay within acceptable parameters, and most imaginable combinations of common vaccines have been tested (cynically, I've gotta point out that pharma companies can patent combinations of vaccines with particular schedules, so they do all get tested in their own rights. Probably good, but also profitable). But I feel like if I have trouble understanding this stuff, it's not reasonable to expect jane-coming-from-a-google-search to get it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    becca, this is like saying it is not reasonable for voters to get what the GOP has been pulling with the fox news drumbeat and finely honed talking points. at some point people can be held responsible for engaging their brains.

  • becca says:

    Yeah yeah, DM. We know you go into CRUSHKILLATTACKDESTROY mode whenever you see anyone making an argument that remotely sounds like something The Enemy would make.
    Meanwhile, back in reality and not on fox news or DM land, there is nuance.

    Is someone who is totes convinced their childs autism was caused by vaccines and who spends their every waking moment trying to prevent people from getting vaccinated worthy of derision? Sure. Is a worried parent who wonders what all these freaking new vaccines are for, and why they have to give Hep B so young, a vile traitor to the cause? Not so much.

    • Dr. O says:

      I don't think someone who asks questions about the vaccines their child is receiving is a bad person. Hubby and I ask questions, and I know a LOT more about this crap than a large portion of the population. Still, I don't understand all the *nuance*, so I ask questions, and choose to trust the large number of scientists and pediatricians out there who say there is overwhelming evidence that the specific vaccines my son is receiving are safe and effective.

      As for whether or not a vaccine protects quite as well (or better) in combination with other antigens is a question that is very difficult to test, as you well know. But I remember a very eager young undergrad, in a pathogenesis class I TA'd as a grad student, asking why some vaccines were given in combination. The overwhelming answer from the professor (and brilliant researcher): "Have you ever been a parent to a baby getting a shot?" As a mom, I'm sure you understand that rationale.

      Epidemiologically, all the data demonstrates that vaccines, even multivalent ones, prevent infectious diseases, and there is NO credible evidence that they are dangerous. Children in other parts of the world are dying because they can't afford these vaccinations. Here in the grand ol' US of A, some parents believe they are above science, and henceforth immunizations. For most, I chock this up to obstinance more than confusion, and it angers me to no end that these individuals are harping their egocentric views to others who may not have the tools to make better decisions. They've put my son and other young infants in danger, and I have absolutely no patience for that type of madness.

  • Pascale says:

    Vaccines are a miracle. Within my professional lifetime (got my MD in 1985) I have seen bacterial meningitis go from a routine hospital admission to something the residents rarely encounter (see Even in modern times with aggressive supportive care and antibiotics, meningitis causes significant mortality and morbidity (especially deafness).

    And now it's pretty much gone. This is not due to any changes in sanitation or diet or anything else the anti-vaccine folks like to invoke for polio or diptheria or smallpox. Those conditions really haven't changed in the past 26 years. No, the vaccine is the answer to this phenomenon.

    Yes, my own children have been vaccinated for everything (OK, my son is due for his last HPV over this vacation). Yes, I am a doctor, a product of "the system" that has resulted in these miracles. Unlike most parents, I have seen the results of forgoing vaccines, including meningitis, whooping cough, measles, mumps, and other diseases. They are not pretty, even if they are "natural."

  • Joe G says:

    To becca,

    I believe you misunderstood my post about science and a perfect world.

    The point I was trying (albeit badly) to make is that we need diseases- genetic and otherwise as they help us learn.

    I am more for selective termination of people who advocate for the selective termination of pregnancies. I hope that clears that up.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "The Enemy", becca? Lord Voldemort is an antivaccaloon? Huh.

    • becca says:

      DM-Ha! Nah, Lord Voldey is a pitbull fan. Wait... maybe he's BOTH an antivaccaloon AND a pitbull fan!! Explains EVERYTHING!

      Joe G- Well, it happens I'm a strong advocator for women to have the right to terminate any pregnancy they want (up to viability of the fetus- if we're willing to remove a viable fetus upon request). I feel like it's either that, or move to a society where all organs, not just uteruses, are collective property that get distributed according to the collective good.
      That said, as a moral position, I'd never advocate terminating pregnancies, provided the mother wants to continue, if she just had enough resources to deal with a special needs situation. Moreover, I will join you in advocating to help get her those resources.

      @Niall upthread-
      you have a point that there's a lot of societal engineering we could, and probably should, prioritize over a lot of research. That said, that's a reason I work on immunology and infectious disease instead of reproductive screening. I think the moral calculations are about as clean as you can get in the real world, and I choose my life's work with that in mind. I probably am not alone, which is one reason anti-vaccination advocates piss us off so. Most scientists are among the last people who would want to sell poison to babies, or whatever nefarious way they picture us.
      I suspect people who didn't take a 'cure' for autism would be looked at radically better than anti-vaccinationists. For one thing, it really is their own choice - much moreso than choosing not vaccinate your baby to prevent something contagious. I think we've actually got some precedents for the type of choice it would be- people who choose not to take antidepressants, and deaf people who have chosen to refuse cochlear implants... I've seen both of them get some flak, and they cause a lot of confusion, no doubt... but our society doesn't treat them nearly as badly as I might fear.
      The kind of sad thing is, because perhaps of a 'just world' logical fallacy- people are already 'blamed' for having conditions they have no choice over. I don't think introducing an authentic choice increases the blame that much, because I think 'blaming' people for having a particular condition has a lot more to do with blind fear of that condition than it has to do with any logical assessment of whether people have an obligation to society to be normal.

      Additionally, it's highly unlikely we'll have a perfect cure for every form of autism anytime in the forseeable future (just as antidepressants have their limitations and there are perfectly understandable reasons for not wanting to take them). There is *nothing* that prevents us from making society more nurturing and accommodating for people with any of these conditions and researching science that would give them a choice about it.

  • [...] Five dangerous myths about vaccines 1. Vaccination cause autism. WRONG. This is possibly the most pervasive myth about vaccines, instigated by two unfortunate correlations. Firstly, brain disorders, including autism and epilepsy, are often diagnosed the same age as the administration of certain vaccines. Secondly, the rise in autism rates over the past few decades follows the increase in vaccine development and availability. As a result, many studies have investigated the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism, yet found none. Further fueling this myth is a study repeatedly cited by anti-vaxxers, even though it was retracted due to findings by a British medical panel that the publishing doctor “had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a ‘callous disregard’ for the suffering of children involved in his research.” Evidently, the doctor had his own vaccine that would have been implemented upon MMR being taken off the market in Britain – no conflict of interest there or anything. [...]

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