The “anti-” prefix has a negative connotation, so instead of anti-vaccination, perhaps we should call those in that camp pro-disease.
That might seem a little harsh, but let’s check the results whenever preventable diseases aren’t vaccinated against. In Japan, the vaccination rate for whooping cough dropped 70 percent from 1974 to 1976, leading to a 30-fold increase in the disease. Whooping Cough killed no one in Japan in 1974, then 31 persons died from it two years later. After anti-vaccination movements gained steam, France experienced a measles outbreak of 15,000 cases in 2011, and the next year, the United States saw 50,000 cases of Whooping Cough.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider the results of a strong vaccination program. Smallpox killed an estimated 500 million people before being conquered. Until Jonas Salk, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans annually. Measles once killed 3,000 children per year in the United States.
Being a skeptic means more than taking potshots at Tarot cards and magic crystals. One must continually question and analyze everything, including sacred tenants of the skeptic movement. When assessing the above numbers, one must consider correlation/causation and post hoc reasoning. For instance, Dr. Robert Mendelssohn has noted that rates for some diseases dropped in United Kingdom without immunization.
However, we can know vaccinations work because of how the immune system operates. The system detects pathogens and differentiates them from the organism’s healthy tissue. Vaccines mimic diseases by posing as a pathogen, thus prepping the body’s immune system to attack if it detects the real thing.
No vaccination is without risk, but outbreaks of contagious diseases are a far worse danger. Also, consider the comparative risk factor. Serious complications from the measles vaccine are about one in a million, while a child with the disease has a one in 20 chance of developing a serious complication, according to the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University.
Much of the anti-vaccine movement is centered on thimerosal, a compound that contains mercury and is in many vaccines. It is most associated with the Mumps Measles and Rubella vaccine, and the claim it causes autism.
Dr. Boyd Haley said of thimerosal, “It’s too toxic. If you inject thimerosal into an animal, its brain will sicken. If you apply it to living tissue, the cells die. If you put it in a Petri dish, the culture dies. It would be shocking if one could inject it into an infant without causing damage.”
But pouring chemicals into a Petri dish is different from exposing it in vaccine form to a human because of the body’s defense mechanisms. Haley’s opening words are true, but as he never mentioned vaccines, patients, or dose levels, his conclusion is a non sequitur. In fact, many promising antibiotics and medicines fail because they work on cells but not on people. Furthermore, the toxicity of mercury compounds in fish oil pills exceeds that of thimerosal.
One key element of the anti-vaccination movement are anecdotal tales, many of them the result of post hoc reasoning. Some parents of children with autism believe there is a link between it and the MMR vaccine. This is because the vaccine is administered at the time autism signs are usually first noted, when a child is 12 to 15 months old.
The anti-vaccination movement owes its success to celebrity endorsers, the fear of harm to children, and a science most people can’t understand.
A pro-vaccination campaign exists to counter this. While pamphlets, public service announcements, and science are helpful, the best way to win converts is for them to become diseased. In August 2013, a member of the Eagle Mountain church in Newark, Texas, contracted measles in Indonesia, then spread it through the congregation. All 21 afflicted persons had refused vaccines. Following the outbreak, church members reconsidered their stance and were inoculated against other diseases. It may take the current rise in preventable diseases among the First World population to stem the anti-vaccination movement.