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Adventures of a stay-at-home, skeptical, homeschooling dad (etc.)


Hi anti-vaccination friends!

Hi anti-vaccination friends! How are you? Didn't we have fun chatting the other day? I liked those cookies too. Great. But, there is something I didn't mention. I went quiet for a bit when a few topics came up, and later I didn't respond to your related Facebook post, either. That's what I want to talk about.

Smile Vaccine I homeschool in a lefty-loopy area (proud lefty and a bit loopy, myself), and I know many of you don't vaccinate your children. I accept that, and it's your right to make those kinds of health-care decisions for your children. Though many arguments can (and have) been made on how you should be required because it's not just your children affected (for example, my newborn son who is not yet fully vaccinated), I won't make those arguments. I just have a request: Stop trying to convince me that you are right on Facebook and in person.

I know you're responding in anger to people yelling at you in anger. I get that. But your yells are getting to me, too. I don't think you're "idiots", "sheeple", or any other insult some have thrown about recently. I just think you have a wrong idea. That's it. I merely think your thinking on this topic is incorrect. It's OK for me to think you're wrong (just like it's OK for you to think I'm wrong), and I don't think any amount of yelling and name-calling will change your mind. I just ask that you do the same for me. I'm not even sharing this article on Facebook.

If you're OK with that, great! Let's just be friends and chat about something else while our kids play. Just let me know if your kids were potentially exposed to any illness and we'll be OK. You can stop reading this article now and I'll see you at the next playdate! [1]

. . .

Still here? Darn. Well, if you still want to convince me, there are some things we need to talk about: You'll need to get much better arguments.

I've heard plenty of "skeptical" anti-vaccine arguments, and trust me: I'm a skeptic… about everything, especially health. I'm hugely skeptical and critical of modern medicine. I've dismissed my doctor's advice on many occasions after finding out better information. I've turned down antibiotics for me and my daughter on several occasions because there wasn't good enough evidence of bacterial infections (we got better). My old doctor kept pushing statins and I refused (my current doctor is better informed and is not asking me to take them). We fought our OB over unnecessary prenatal testing. Yeah, I get it: drug companies are for-profit and doctors are often guessing, wrong, or money-grubbing. But yet we vaccinate.

I'll briefly discuss some of the arguments I hear most commonly, but not in great detail because all of this has been said many times, and if you're really interested you can check out the CDC website and Wikipedia etc and read all about it for as long as you want. If you don't think those sources are reliable, then let's just have that beer and talk about something else?

To be clear: I'm not attempting to strawman anyone here: I'm not claiming all anti-vaccine people make all of these arguments. These are just the ones I, personally, have seen people make or link to in agreement. And I'm not trying all that hard to convince you: I'm just listing these to explain why I don't find your arguments convincing.

Lately I've seen everything from simple "the diseases aren't so bad", to "vaccines aren't safe", to complete denials of germ theory and nefarious conspiracy theories involving every government and scientific body in the world.

It will suffice to say I think the evidence is pretty clear that many diseases are caused by viruses and bacteria, and some of those can be prevented with vaccination. If you don't believe that, we really have no common ground for a conversation of the topic, so let's just have a beer instead.

The same goes for the conspiracy people: I don't think a giant conspiracy with vaccines at the center is evident or even feasible, so how about we just talk about something else?

Note: I've decided that I won't provide much in the way of reference links. As I mentioned, all of this has been gone over many times on other sites. If you want the official sources it'll take you a few seconds to find it on the CDC's vaccine pages, the WHO's vaccine pages, the APA's vaccine pages, the NHS's vaccine pages, or just Wikipedia. There are also many pages specifically set up to respond to anti-vaccine arguments which provide copious specific links and references. If you don't think the information provided on those pages is trustworthy, we don't have enough common ground to discuss this, so let's just skip the discussion… Are those homemade paleo cupcakes? Can I try one?

The Arguments

"Vaccines don't work at all!"

OK… Cases of each disease have gone down dramatically and emphatically after the wide-spread use of each vaccine. Some people say the decline of cases of the diseases for which we have vaccines are due to "better hygiene" or "less pollution". To that all I can say is, "what?" Has hygiene really improved that much in the past few decades? Measles got its vaccine in the 60s. Did we get better handsoap or something? Chicken pox has declined rapidly after the introduction of the vaccine in the 1990s. Have we cleaned things up so much since then? Rotavirus hospitalizations followed a similar trajectory in the past few years since routine vaccinations. Why haven't all diseases gone away at the same rate due to the same changes that apparently caused measles to hide away? Why hasn't the flu or colds decreased at the same rate?

At this point, if you say vaccines don't work at all, there's no need to continue: let's talk about something else. Have a glass of wine, perhaps?

"Vaccines aren't 100% effective!"

Yeah, no one beside some anti-vaccinationists seem to think they're supposed to be. Still, some some vaccines are better than others: The flu shot is a best guess, and the pertussis vaccine has been less effective than most. But unless there's a huge risk from getting the shot, which there does not appear to be, the gamble is vastly in favor of getting the shots, in my book.

"The diseases aren't that bad!"

The "diseases aren't so bad" people always bring up chicken pox. Chicken pox does have a low complication rate, true, but the vaccine's serious complication rate is far, far lower, and back when nearly everyone got chicken pox, tens of thousands of people were hospitalized for those complications every year, not to mention the standard weeks of suffering and missed work and school. If for just a few bucks I can prevent a possible hospital visit, facial scars, or even just a week or two of illness and isolation, sign me up.

Same with mumps, measles, and flu, but the complication rate is much higher.

"When did measles become ebola?" It didn't, but measles kills far more people every year than ebola. Ebola killed about 9000 people in 2014. In 2013, measles killed 145,000. It used to kill millions, before the vaccine. Also, the non-death hospitalizations were much more numerous.

"The risk of serious complication from disease X is small!"

For most diseases, the complication rate is small, but if nearly everyone ends up getting a disease, that could still be tens or hundreds of thousands of people with serious complications. Plus, previous to vaccinations, there were a dozen or so such diseases, so it was a dozen small risks added together, over a large population: that's a lot of people. It's true that, in industrialized countries today, your individual risk of getting the disease is very small, but that's only because of the vaccinated population around you. If too many people choose your path, that risk will grow. In many countries where the vaccination rate is low, lots of people do die and many more get seriously ill or are hospitalized.

"If your children are vaccinated, why worry about mine getting sick?"

Ideally, I'd like no child to get a potentially life-threatening disease, yours included. But also, my infant son is not fully vaccinated yet. And people with certain allergies or immune system problems cannot be vaccinated, and some people's natural- or vaccine-induced immunity is suppressed due to disease (like my mother who has multiple myeloma). And, vaccines aren't 100% effective. So, if a bunch of people intentionally choose to not get vaccinated, they really do put those people at extra risk. It's still your choice, but I can be legitimately worried.

"How come in most outbreaks there are more vaccinated than unvaccinated who get sick?"

Again, no vaccine is 100% effective, but they still work. Suppose you had a school with 1000 vaccinated and 50 unvaccinated students. There's a measles outbreak. If the measles vaccine were 90% effective (it varies) there might be 90-100 vaccinated kids who get measles. But about 40-45 of the unvaccinated kids will get it. Some people see those numbers and conclude that since more vaccinated than unvaccinated kids got sick, the vaccine doesn't work, but it actually shows it works pretty damn well. Plus, the vaccinated kids who got sick probably had less severe symptoms because of partial immunity.

"Deaths from the diseases were already decreasing before the vaccine!"

Yeah, because medical care in hospitals improved and we could keep the incredibly sick people from dying. IVs and medicines improved and could better deal with the complications from measles. The invention of the "iron lung" decreased deaths from polio, but that's hardly the best-case scenario. Again, I'd rather my child not get so sick that he needs to go to the hospital in the first place.

"Vaccine-induced immunity fades, but disease-acquired immunity lasts forever!"

Yes and no. Vaccine immunity does usually fade over the years, true. However, "natural" immunity also fades. The consensus seems to be that previously, people who had, for example, naturally-occurring measles would continuously get re-exposed to wild measles which would keep the immunity for it working. This worked for vaccinated people as well. But now wild measles is rare so people aren't exposed very often, if ever, so the immunity fades. So if I need to get a booster every few decades to keep kids out of the hospital until it's eradicated, so what? Again: sign me up.

"There's a database of thousands of people who were injured by vaccines!"

That's VAERS (the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System). It's there to try to identify side effects or problems with a vaccine batch. All adverse symptoms people have after vaccinations are supposed to be reported. There is no cause/effect relationship established. If I get a flu shot, then a day later get appendicitis, that's supposed to be reported to VAERS. It is designed to catch cases where a vaccine batch is release, and suddenly multiple newly-vaccinated people have a health problem. So just because a person experiences a problem after vaccination and it is reported, that doesn't mean the vaccine caused that problem, especially when you consider that millions of people are vaccinated every year: some of those people are, by chance, going to experience unrelated problems after vaccination. VAERS is designed to investigate reported problems and to find those problems that are greater than chance.

"Vaccines aren't safe!" (see above)

There is a risk with any medical intervention. I do not deny that. Vaccine reactions can be minor and expected: fever, soreness, tiredness, fussiness in children, etc. Very occasionally they can cause a high fever, and sometimes even a seizure. And sometimes people are allergic to a vaccine ingredient and don't know it. And sometimes, there are deaths (though these are so extremely rare that it is mostly impossible to say the vaccine was at fault). Some of those can be scary, yep, and I'm always secretly extremely anxious it'll happen to my children at vaccination time. (See also #6 under "General Information"" on the VICP page.) However, in each case, the severe reactions or possible permanent damage are extremely rare: hundreds of times rarer than the severe complications of the diseases prevented, even if all the claims of vaccine injuries were true.

"Why, if vaccines are relatively safe, is there a compensation program?"

That's the VICP. Just like the VAERS, there is no cause-effect relationship inferred because of a compensation. It was set up because vaccines were deemed so important to the country, so that vaccine manufacturers wouldn't get scared off from making vaccines by the threat of lawsuits in which cause would be unprovable. Sometimes, extremely rarely, vaccines do cause a unforeseen reaction or aggravate an undiagnosed underlying health problem. And the VICP exists to pay compensation if one of any of the listed conditions occur, even if it can't be shown to have been caused by the vaccine. Given that millions of people are vaccinated each year, it would be extremely odd if no one ended up sick due to happenstance. Some of the people awarded compensation through the program were undoubtedly injured by a vaccine, but many probably were not. Either way, the vaccine injuries would be many many times smaller than the serious complications from the diseases were no one vaccinated.

"But vaccines contain mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde, and other poisons!"

Yes, I've heard that. Almost all childhood vaccines have had the mercury-based preservatives removed because of the bad PR whipped up by vaccination opponents. But it, like the other "toxins" present, were/are in such small amounts that they don't cause problems, and are less than you'd get from other sources (such as diet and even your own cell metabolism).

"My perfect diet and/or supplement regime will protect me from getting the diseases!"

Probably not. If you are already unhealthy or have a serious nutritional deficiency, your immune system will be suppressed and you will be more susceptible to getting contagious diseases, that is true. But good health and diet only goes so far: once your immune system is functioning properly, it probably can't work any better, no matter how much natural food, vitamin D, vitamin C, or rosemary oil you use.

I'm not ruling anything out: It's possible a particular food or herb or alternative treatment will prevent or cure a communicable disease, but I'll need a few real studies which document that it works: anecdotes or guesswork won't cut it.

That's all for now. I've heard other arguments too (and don't find any very convincing), but these are the main ones.

Anyway: no, I don't think you're evil or dumb, just incorrect. Can we play now?

2015-02-14 #science   #school