The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement


Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

As Dr. Noni MacDonald, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist, asked, in the Globe and Mail,

This is what I tell parents who are swayed by celebrities: If your child had a brain tumour, who would you choose to operate on your child – Jenny McCarthy or a neurosurgeon? You would pick the neurosurgeon. So I ask, why would you trust someone who has no training and has never studied [vaccines] extensively with a decision about immunization, when your child could die?

A recent article in Time Magazine had the headline:

Dear Anti-Vaxxers: You Want Pure Nature? OK, Die Young.

Which pretty much sums up the logic behind the anti-vax movement. Natural it isn’t. Stupid, yes; dangerous, yes; pro-diseases, yes; but neither natural nor healthy. The article opens with these lines:

Parents who oppose vaccines are not only misinformed, they’re spoiled, having grown up in a world that stands behind the berms built by the scientists and vaccine developers who came before them.

Not only are parents being misled, in many cases they are being deliberately lied to by people who hope to make a living by selling alternative medicines, products or therapies – none of which actually work despite being labelled “natural”:

The trouble is that there are horrible things that are also entirely natural. Nobody really celebrates freezing to death in January or being pursued by predators, as natural as they may be. But for skeptics of evidence-based medicine, “natural” is a handy go-to word to make the target audience share their skepticism. Modern medicine isn’t easily found in nature, the thinking goes, and so it is something of which to be wary at best.
This kind of rationale clearly undergirds the practice of a recently-profiled pediatrician who doesn’t vaccinate her patients routinely. “I think we’re just messing with nature,” says Dr. StaciaKenetLansman of vaccinating children on the standard schedule (or, in the case of several preventable illnesses, at all). We are then meant to imagine immunizations plowing, bulldozer-like, through the primroses of a child’s pristine immune system. (Never mind that the immune system is quite capable of handling all those vaccines and more.) Nature is not to be messed with!

“It is the natural course of type-1 diabetes for the patient to waste slowly to death, but nobody questions the benefits of exogenous insulin.”
What she doesn’t want you picturing is measles spreading like wildfire through her unvaccinated patients. Which, of course, would be a perfectly natural outcome.

Natural is synonymous in many people’s minds with “healthy” although the two are unrelated – the association mostly due to the strenuous marketing efforts of various corporations and agencies looking to sell “natural” products and services. The Black Death was natural. So is necrotizing fasciitis. But certainly not healthy.

As Russell Saunders notes, modern conveniences like sanitation, sewage treatment, sterilization, dentisrty and refrigeration are “unnatural” but healthy for us.

The anti-vax movement is heavily promoted by many who are “cashing in on fear” as Emily Willingham wrote in Forbes Magazine:

Measles had almost gone away in the US. It had almost disappeared. And then Andrew Wakefield exercised some callous disregard. And Jenny McCarthy spoke her Google-U-derived thoughts. And Dr. Bob published a book. In 1982, we were this close to eradicating “domestic” measles in the US. Vaccination uptake had brought the virus–and the complications, hospitalizations, and deaths–to an all-time low, almost to zero, and to domestic eradication in the USA. Elsewhere in the world, work remains.

And then the outbreaks started to grow, hitting 220 in 2011 and 189 in 2013 in the USA, up from domestic eradication in 2000.

Jenny McCarthy – whose major claim to fame is appearing nude in Playboy – is an anti-vax activist who has been pilloried by the scientific community and the media for her outspoken stand against vaccines on the mistaken belief they cause autism. She has made many erroneous and outlandish public claims, which have been debunked by authorities, but she continues her myopic, anti-intellectual and dangerous crusade. And the gullible give her credit.**

In another Forbes article about the anti-vax madness, Willingham quotes Barbara Loe Fisher, a “longtime campaigner against vaccines,” who says:

…most Americans are inclined to value freedom of thought and belief and resist being told what to think, believe or do.

Which is a tissue-thin political and ideological argument similar to those used by creationists and gay-rights opponents. It’s not about liberty or political ideals: it’s about science and the greater good. Willingham responds:

Of course, this shouldn’t be about belief. It should be about facts and data and the reality of viral and bacterial invasion of our bodies and resulting death and disease. But biologically, we’re also primates who depend heavily on social influence and the social alchemy of our interactions. Fisher stakes a claim in that quote to a kind of American exceptionalism, but valuing freedom of thought and resisting instruction from on high isn’t an “American” value. It’s a human inclination that repels people away from outside forces and inward to their social networks. And of course, she herself works very hard to influence people to believe as she does.

The anti-vax movement rose in parallel with the rise of belief in all sorts of foolishness, pseudoscience and quackery. Like homeopathy – the “ultimate quack” – and crystal “therapy,” – magic rocks curing illness: about as wacky as you can get.

Most of which are based on suggestion and superstition, not medicine and science. It’s a short leap from there to the anti-vax beliefs. On the Science Based Life site, Kyle Hill wrote (about crystal “therapy”):

The New Age community is steeped in pseudoscience like this. Combining scientific-sounding words with ancient “spiritual practices,” the New Age mindset has found a home with billions of people.

Read the Jenny McCarthy Anti-vaccine body count tally here. It shows the “total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened in the United States since this 2007 increase in speaking out against vaccines.” I can’t speak to its accuracy, but it does make a statement about consequences of our actions.

By some estimates, the lives of three million children are saved every year from vaccines – and two million die from not having one. But the anti-vax parents apparently prefer their children in the latter category rather than compromise their mindset or accept that they may be mistaken.

I’m not convinced they shouldn’t be charged with child abuse. Faith in quackery and superstition is not a sufficient reason to risk the lives of children.

This movement isn’t harmless, nor simply a curio of contemporary social activity like a sudden passion for sudoku or ukuleles: it’s dangerous, evangelical and driven by greed. It feeds on people’s fears and ignorance. It isn’t just a few wingnuts grumbling about alien abductions, vaccines and the lost Elvis. It’s a concerted, well-funded and destructive effort by a group of business people and celebrities who make money from the scare they create.

Bottom line: vaccines work. Period. Parents who won’t see that are willfully putting their children – and the lives of others – at risk.***


* Yes, a cult. Parents in the anti-vax movement behave exactly like those in religious cults:

…once a parent has drunk deeply of the antivaccine Kool Aid, she behaves in a rather cult-like manner… realizing that her belief in the cult of antivaccinationism has made it so that she doesn’t fit in with her family and prior friends, has made a new family and friends. Not surprisingly, these people share her beliefs. It’s the normal human mechanism for seeking solace put in the service of a harmful fixed idea that never changes, namely that vaccines cause autism. Having received that “truth” and joined a community of “truth,” these antivaccine parents become antivaccine evangelists, set to go out and preach the gospel of autism biomedical cures for autism and antivaccine pseudoscience as their preferred means of “preventing” autism, the cost to public health be damned.

** According to Wikipedia, McCarthy is a New Ager who claims to be an “indigo” person with special, even supernatural powers. That’s the colour of her “aura.” Her son, she claimed, was a “crystal” child with psychic powers. This loony-tune New Age movement sprang from the mind of a self-described “psychic” and has a significant resistance to any modern medicine and science. Jenny believes herself a magical child from another dimension. The words fruitcake and wingnut come easily to the mind when writing about her, but they disguise the fact her evangelical anti-vax campaign could kill children if their parents pay McCarthy any heed.

As Iris Erlingsdottir writes in the Huffington Post, McCarthy’s motives may simply be mercenary:

I’ll venture that McCarthy has no less a financial stake in the vaccine wars than Big Pharma and the evil “diagnosticians and pediatricians.” There is a lot of money to be made in snake oil pitching and crockpottery — long known lucrative side industries for aging celebrities — as she knows from personal experience selling books and the false cures on her website where her sponsors peddle hyperbaric chambers and useless supplements — in the US, a $24 billion industry annually — to desperate parents of autistic children. When you have a whole industry — books, TV appearances, supplements, merchandise — and the adulation of religiously devoted followers riding on your theory, the stakes are high. Having to admit you’re wrong is intolerable. (How’s McCarthy’s “quantum prayer wheel” working for your kid’s autism?) It is much easier to simply reject the truth, which as we know, the vaccine denialists don’t care about; it is irrelevant to them. Their attitude is that of Lord Molson: “I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.”

*** An interesting question: do New Age anti-vaxers get their pets vaccinated against rabies, parvo-virus or distemper? If so, why would they think their pet more important, more worthy of living a long and healthy life than their children?

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  1. Some of the blame for this idiocy falls square on the shoulders of some very public anti-vaccine pediatricians (how you can call yourself a pediatrician and be anti-vaccine is beyond me and, as a pediatrician myself, deeply troubles me). Emily Willingham as quoted by you refers to Dr. Bob–that would be Robert Sears, MD, FAAP, who has written a dangerously incorrect book about vaccines that has sold over 250,000 copies. Not so ironically, his pediatric practice is located in the county in California with the most measles cases for this year–22. Also Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP-who is the pediatrician for Jenny McCarthy’s son and who appeared standing alongside during many of her anti-vaccine rants deserves mention, too–as he sells an online webinar chock full of vaccine lies that I’m sure has also given false credence to the anti-vaccine movement. These two pediatricians need their medical licenses yanked and also need expulsion from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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