The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for February 13th, 2009

Good News: Anti-Vaccination Nuts Lose, Big Time

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 13, 2009

One of the more recent & despicable forms of woo that has come out over the last few years is that of anti-vaccination or vaccine denial. It all started back in the late 1990s when a researcher named Dr. Andrew Wakefield claimed that he had discovered a connection between administrations of the MMR vaccine and incidence of autism in young children.

mmr vaccine

At this point, I think it is very important to note that Wakefield’s work has just recently been shown to have been the product of fraud. Here are some key points at that link…

The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found.

Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.

So the original research which supposedly showed an autism-vaccine connection was faked! And this revelation comes as no surprise considering as how literally a decade of medical research since then has clearly shown there is no connection between the incidence of autism and vaccination.

But this evidence matters little to some people who have used this supposed “connection” as a way to further their anti-science ideology – which is what is particularly disturbing about Wakefield’s fraud. When his work was publicized in 1998, it started what Dr. Steven Novella of Skepticblog refers to as the “Mercury Militia” – a pseudoscientific movement to ban all mercury (in the form of the vaccine preservative thimerisol) from vaccines. Worse yet, it also helped to spawn something even worse – the modern Anti-Vax movement which maintains that vaccines don’t work, are not necessary, and are just part of a conspiracy by “Big Pharma” and the government to get our money.

Unfortunately, the anti-vaxxers have some star power on their side. A good example is Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey – McCarthy has drunk the anti-vax Kool Aid big time and is thoroughly convinced that her son’s autism was caused by him getting vaccinated. So she has become the de facto celebrity spokeswoman for promoting the anti-vax nonsense, appearing on talk shows like Oprah, Larry King Live, etc. But despite the level of righteousness she feels in her cause, Jenny McCarthy is dead wrong!

jenny mccarthy

Thanks to the efforts of idiots like McCarthy and other anti-vaxxers, the rates of childhood vaccine use have dropped significantly in both the United States and United Kingdom – with predictable results. In areas where parents refuse to vaccinate their kids, out of the false fears spread by the anti-vaxxers, diseases that were once basically wiped out have started to have a resurgence. Here’s two articles on this point…

In the United States
Vaccine refusals fuel jump in measles outbreaks

… and in the United Kingdom
Rise in measles ‘very worrying’

This is bad, folks. This is bad because this is a perfect example of how accepting pseudoscientific nonsense can actually adversely affect the health of people or even possibly get them killed.

Fortunately, in addition to the recent revelation of Wakefield’s fraud, there is some other good news. It seems that an anti-vax parent lobby was recently attempting to sue in federal court for compensation from the U.S. government because they claimed that getting their children vaccinated through government programs led to their kids’ autism. They just lost the argument – the special court, after a thorough review of all the scientific & medical research on the question of an autism-vaccine link, concluded that no such link exists…

The evidence “is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive,” concluded Special Master Denise Vowell. “Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding” of autism.

So there you have it. The anti-vax nuts have lost in two big ways: the creator of their movement has been publicly discredited as a fraud, and they have lost in court cases to push their claims. And we know why – because there is nothing to their claims, however heartfelt they may be, that vaccinations cause childhood autism.

However, I think the reaction from the anti-vaccination true believers such as Jenny McCarthy is predictable. Rather than accept the findings of the scientific & medical communities, as well as the federal courts, on this subject, the hardcore anti-vaxxers will likely spin the renewed scrutiny of Wakefield’s fraud and the court findings as part of a vast, widespread conspiracy – which is usually the last resort of true believers when their backs are against the wall.

Hopefully, those parents who are on the fence will evaluate these findings in a rational manner and get their kids vaccinated. Let’s hope so, for their kids’ sake.

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