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 Further fueling this myth is a study repeatedly cited by anti-vaxxers, even though it was retracted due to findings by a British medical panel that the publishing doctor "had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a 'callous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 ineffective. WRONG. 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.