Salient Notes on Antivax

Antivaccinationist claims are many and varied, and it would be impractical to try to address all of them thoroughly in one place. There are, however, a few recurring themes.

Someone recently asked me for a summary of the vaccine controversy; she knew few details, but wanted something to share with coworkers who had concerns about vaccinating their children. Therefore, I threw together this quick list of notes for her based on my memory of all that I’ve read since I started following this issue.

A more thoroughly researched resource by Todd W can be found at (via BA). This was just intended as an introduction to current topics in the antivax manufactroversy (manufactured controversy), a launching point (if need be) for more in-depth inquiry.

Rising autism rates: Antivaccinationists like to refer to the autism “epidemic.” It’s true that autism diagnosis on the rise; however, it’s unclear that this is because of any rise in actual autism cases. There are three more plausible factors to consider: (1) The definition of autism spectrum disorder has changed to encompass more people, (2) More people are being screened for ASD, and (3) We’re getting better at finding ASD when we screen for it.

MMR vaccine: The vaccine scare began with British researcher Andrew Wakefield in 1998, who published a study in The Lancet suggesting the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was responsible for causing autism in children. It is now known that a group of lawyers litigating against vaccine manufacturers had paid Wakefield vast sums of money to provide that study to support their case, and that Wakefield falsified the data in the study. It’s a disgusting case of scientific fraud, but at the time, the media in the UK blew it into a major health scare. No link has been found between MMR and autism.

Thimerosal: This is what kicked off the scare in the US. Some vaccines contained a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal. Environmental lawyers like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., noticed that thimerosal concentration in vaccines was way above federal limits on mercury in, say, drinking water, and raised a public stink about it to the point that the CDC eventually removed thimerosal from child vaccines in an effort to placate concerned parents.

However, there is no evidence that thimerosal was of any harm whatsoever. The first thing to consider is that the dose makes the poison. It isn’t just the concentration of mercury you have to worry about, it’s the volume consumed, so vaccines (a small volume) can safely allow a much higher concentration of certain chemicals than drinking water can. Second, the federal limits were based on methyl mercury (HgCH3). Thimerosal is a form of ethyl mercury (HgCH2CH3), a different chemical form with lower toxicity. The difference is comparable to that between ethanol (found in alcoholic beverages) and methanol (wood alcohol, which can kill you or make you blind if consumed).

Furthermore, after thimerosal was removed from vaccines, autism rates in the US continued to increase! Also of note: the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal.

Toxins: Many antivaccinationists claim not to be anti-vaccine, they only want “safe vaccines.” However, by their standards, there’s no such thing as a safe vaccine. This is the “toxins” gambit: providing a laundry list of scary-sounding substances to chase people away from vaccines. A few examples:

  • Formaldehyde, etc: A lot of steps go into vaccine manufacture. Antivaxxers have a habit of listing chemicals like formaldehyde that are used in one step, but which are purified out long before the vaccine is completed. Remember, the dose makes the poison. Even if the final injection contains very trace amounts of formaldehyde, it’s at a far lower concentration than the formaldehyde normally produced within our bodies by natural metabolic processes.
  • Antifreeze, etc: Other chemicals that they list were NEVER involved in vaccine production at all. Antifreeze is a common example. Antifreeze is ethylene glycol. Vaccines contain a chemical called polyethylene glycol. Similar name, but completely different chemical. Scientists have pointed this out scores of times, but just this week Jim Carrey repeated the antifreeze claim, which goes to show how intellectually dishonest these people are.
  • Thimerosal or Mercury: Even though thimerosal was taken out of vaccines, and even though there’s no evidence that it ever did any harm anyway, many antivaxxers still push the connection. There’s no teaching some people.
  • Aluminum: Meanwhile, others have turned to aluminum, which is added to some vaccines to increase effectiveness. I guess with one scary-sounding metal gone, they needed to find another.
  • Viral particles: Excuse my profanity, but no shit, Sherlock! This is the most glaring example of how the “safe vaccine” claim is a total crock. The antivaxxers won’t be happy with vaccines until you take out the very things that make vaccines work.

Speaking of toxins, in a case of supreme air-headed irony, antivax spokesperson Jenny McCarthy is apparently a huge fan and advocate of Botox.

Overloaded immune system: A common antivax slogan is “Too Many, Too Soon:” the idea that we’re giving children more vaccines than their immune systems can handle. But think about how many naturally-occurring antigens there are out there. Babies are exposed to approximately a bazillion viruses and bacteria before they even get their first shot. There is no evidence to suggest that the current vaccine schedule is putting any strain on children’s immune systems.

Hannah Poling: Last year, a court decision was found in favor of a family who claimed their daughter Hannah was injured by vaccines and developed autism. Antivaxxers heralded this case as confirmation of their claims, but the case is an anomaly that has nothing to do with the vaccine-autism hypothesis. Hannah had an inherited mitochondrial disorder and a history of ear infections; all the court decided was that a given vaccination MAY have exacerbated her condition, stoking a fever that caused brain damage.

Some people DO get injured by vaccines, and doctors do their best to screen people ahead of time. But rather than being an argument against the safety of vaccines, it’s precisely why it’s so important to vaccinate. Vaccines aren’t 100% effective, but if a certain percentage (usually over 90%) of the population is vaccinated, then you achieve herd immunity. The disease loses its ability to spread effectively, and everyone is protected, even those who cannot be vaccinated (ie. babies who are too young, people with immune disorders). Once herd immunity is lost, even those who have been vaccinated are put at risk.

Autism Omnibus: Meanwhile, roughly 5000 other lawsuits claiming vaccines caused autism in their children have been lumped together in a case called the Autism Omnibus. (Hannah Poling was originally part of the omnibus, but was removed precisely because her circumstances were unique and unrelated to the vaccine-autism hypothesis.) All the plaintiffs had to do was prove plausibility of a connection (51% or better) to win their argument. The case was decided just a couple months ago in favor of vaccine manufacturers.

Big Pharma: Antivaxxers often accuse vaccine proponents of being in the pocket of Big Pharma, of promoting vaccines just for the money. It’s worth noting that there is little to no money to be made in vaccines. It’s also worth noting that many prominent antivaccinationists profit heavily from serving as “expert” witnesses against vaccines, or are shilling their own dubious miracle cures for autism.

Mommy instinct: Jenny McCarthy is notorious for this. She accuses doctors of ignoring parents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Doctors have listened closely to parents, which is precisely why so many studies of vaccines and autism have been done. And those studies have all shown that the association between autism and vaccines is an illusion.

Meanwhile, between this and certain churches who refuse to vaccinate on religious grounds, vaccine-preventable illness is on the rise. Measles, once eradicated from the UK, is once again endemic to the country. A four-week-old baby in Australia, Dana McCaffery, just died of whooping cough thanks to lack of herd immunity.

Overall, the antivaccination movement is a clear example of a group of people who have a belief–that vaccines cause autism–and will look for any excuse to promote that belief, in total disregard of contradictory evidence. That’s in direct opposition to science, and a detriment to public health.