Miami residents know the countless threats to our city’s existence. A hurricane could come and rip the the place apart, man-made climate change could drown us in a generation or less, and our city is no stranger to criminal violence. Someone even ate a dude’s face once on the MacArthur Causeway which could mean we also have a zombie problem.
Obviously that last one is a sick joke. The undead won’t really invade Miami – but a few nasty bugs might. What bugs are these? Try measles, smallpox, meningitis, and a bunch more. We’re talking about preventable illnesses that were safely eradicated or drastically reduced… until recently. Residents in a city like Miami often travel abroad and that increases risk of contact with these diseases.
Nowadays those once-defeated preventable illnesses threaten our country once again. Especially our children and the elderly.
It’s because of an element more threatening to our vulnerable citizens than any pack of wild animals or hoard of flesh-eating monsters. It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement.
The anti-vaccination movement (whose followers are known as anti-vaxxers) is composed of misinformed parents and individuals with fear planted in them by discredited science… and now they’re endangering you and your children.
Let’s start from the beginning.
How did the anti-vaccine movement get started?
People have hated vaccines for illogical and fanatical reasons since long ago. Smallpox immunization was discovered in the 1800’s and from that point onwards people used religious, philosophical, political, and pseudo-scientific arguments to rally against it.
A lot of this vaccine-hate took place in the town of Leicester, England. When smallpox vaccination was made mandatory in England, protests were held in Leicester and other towns until the law was changed – even though an independent third party study found the vaccine safer than the illness it prevented, and deemed it effective in ending outbreaks.
It essentially worked the same as vaccines do today. Someone vulnerable to the disease (usually a child) would be purposely infected with cowpox, a virus similar to smallpox. The harmless cowpox exposure would then vaccinate a patient against the deadly smallpox. How did they actually do it? Well, this part is kind of gross: a piece of tissue from a previously vaccinated person was inserted into the arm of the person being currently vaccinated. This really freaked some people out back in the day when the internet didn’t exist and nothing was known to the layman about medical science…even now it would gross out just about anyone!
Christians thought it was unholy, regular parents feared this strange new medical concept, and a big chunk of people just flat out distrusted science and medicine. Another big chunk hated any perceived threat to personal liberty and opposed it on principle, especially after it was made mandatory.
Meanwhile in the United States, smallpox outbreaks during the later half of the 19th century drummed up support for vaccinations. Soon opposition arose citing the same religious, philosophical, and pseudo-scientific reasons as in England. Both in England and the United States the anti-vaccination problem ebbed and peaked throughout the years. Hysteria inevitably carried over when the Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine was introduced…
It involved a worldwide outrage during the ’70s when children in a London hospital were allegedly suffered neurological damage after DTP immunization according to preliminary reports. Vaccinations subsequently decreased which then resulted in major whooping cough outbreaks. Scientists sprung into action. The reduction in vaccinations prompted an independent study which found risks to be extremely low and declared the vaccine safe. As it turns out, correlation does not equal causation. The neurological damage could have been caused by a number of other factors from the environment or genetics. The original study that supported non-vaccination was profoundly flawed.
Still, ill-informed documentaries and television programs spread fear which again made its way across the Atlantic. Luckily, at that time the United States’ medical institutions campaigned hard against the anti-vaccination movement minimizing its impact.
Then in the late ’90s, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study in the UK medical journal The Lancet regarding the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, linking it to autism and colitis. Wakefield’s study ultimately claimed the autism and colitis link was worthy of further investigation. The public grew doubtful of the vaccine’s safety and panic erupted.
Almost immediately the Lancet denounced and retracted the study, saying they never should have published it in the first place.
It turns out Wakefield did the study after receiving money from a law board. What was that law board involved in? They were working on a case with parents claiming vaccines caused autism and colitis in their children. The Lancet said it was a “fatal conflict of interest.” As a result, Wakefield can no longer practice medicine in the UK.
In 2011 journalist Brian Deer (famous for his reporting on vaccinations and social issues in the UK) published a piece in the BMJ [formerly British Medical Journal] presenting evidence that Wakefield rigged his study.
Where does that leave us right now?
Well, since 2007 there have been over 9,000 preventable deaths because of non-vaccination. Spain just got its first case of diphtheria in 28 years (diphtheria is an extremely painful bacterial infection that kills 10% of patients). The affected child was extremely unwell and was treated with antitoxins that ultimately saved the kid’s life. The parents of the sick child are “devastated” and have now vaccinated their other one.
Famous comedian/actor Jim Carrey made the news again recently with his Twitter rants accusing vaccines of causing autism, however just to reiterate: vaccines are NOT linked to autism.
A lot of the people worried that vaccines cause autism seem to focus on a particular chemical, *thimerosal.* However thimerosal has been out of almost every vaccine since 2000. Not to mention, the human body itself produces a specific kind of mercury as a byproduct from thimerosal. We process that type of mercury quickly and harmlessly. The harmful mercury found in fish and other products we consume every day is very different from benign thimerosal.
There are countless logical fallacies that anti-vaccination people fail to recognize, one of which is this: “if your children are vaccinated they shouldn’t have to worry about falling ill or infecting other kids.” The problem here is that while vaccines are highly effective, they’re not 100%. There’s still a tiny chance that a vaccinated child could get sick (a bulletproof vest doesn’t ensure survival either). But that’s not the only reason the anti-vaccination logic doesn’t work. Some children must indeed NOT get vaccinated for legitimate health reasons. A suppressed immune system, for example, could make it dangerous for a child to receive vaccinations. Therefore, these kids could get sick and die as a result of other people not getting vaccinated. When large groups of people don’t get vaccinated because of personal choice instead of a legitimate reason, the phenomenon known as “herd immunity” is compromised. This increases the risk for outbreaks and endangerment of children with weak immune systems and other serious health problems. The security of herd immunity is compromised and diseases can be transmitted through larger networks.
Babies too young for vaccines are also at risk. Last year a measles outbreak at Disneyland infected six babies under the age for vaccination.
Last year saw the highest number of measles infections in the US for the past twenty years.
These factors are already leaving a trail of bodies due to the anti-vaccination movement. The problem is exacerbated when traveling out of the country or in places with a high transient rate such as right here in Miami.
Miami has a 98% vaccination rate according to a Miami-Dade Public School spokesperson, but my reporting has led me to some troubling realities. There are several Miami-Dade residents I have met personally who wish not to vaccinate their children.
While writing for a community newspaper one of my supervisors was an outspoken anti-vaxxer. He gleaned his “knowledge” from universally panned and ridiculed sources like Alex Jones’ InfoWars and other sensationalist, unscientific, “holistic health” blogs and publications. I’ve met at least 3 others just as badly misinformed on the issue. Two of these people have children.
It is indeed ironic. Science illiteracy is a growing problem in a society depending largely on technology and medicine.
The situation at the community paper troubled me. This anti-vaccine advocate was in charge of spreading information to thousands of people. He was otherwise intelligent but practically inept when it came to understanding medical science. Medical science, though, gets results. CNN reported that Nigeria just had its first polio-free year because of vaccination efforts led by local and humanitarian doctors.
My community news supervisor, like many other misguided people, looked uncritically at health scares and sensational news stories. Effortlessly (because the human mind craves ease of thought) he aligned them to his idea of “truth” – which may or may not involve unproven conspiracy theories and/or a hardline naturalist view of health. Then he shunned research and subsequent press which revealed those sensational claims to be false.
This is a recipe for misinformation and utter failure of critical thinking. It happens to almost every almost every day. No one likes it when the facts go against their vested worldview. It doesn’t help that an average person is sometimes confused by medical and scientific studies. The confusion tricks anti-vaxxers into believing that science proves their point.
Let’s revisit the whooping cough situation in 1970’s England where faulty studies were used to link the DPT vaccine to neurological damage. The studies made sense to laypeople at face value. However in the years following, their legitimacy was examined time and time again… and time and time again they were revealed to be hogwash. In some cases, information was gathered years after the initial incidents. Some of the parental testimony was found to be partially or completely untrue. Analysis that determined some of the children to be “vaccine victims” was marred by discrepancies. By the end of a third party investigation the study was exposed as a total disaster.
As in that case and many others, one important thing is overlooked: a lot of neurological and other health problems surface in children at around 12 months – also around when vaccinations begin. This makes for a lot of timely “coincidences.” Since controlled, peer reviewed studies show no indication of vaccines causing deadly and incapacitating reactions, the timing of vaccination and disease onset could very well be coincidental. Once again, correlation does NOT equal causation.
Tropicult sat down with one young man who explained why he is against vaccinating his own *hypothetical* children. With utmost respect, the things he said were a textbook example of the need to spread more awareness and education on the importance of vaccines.
First he spoke about a sinister pharmaceutical industry, then segued into a rant on the importance of a baby being covered in its mother’s vaginal fluid at birth (he also claimed C-sections were harmful to a child’s immune health – a misguided conclusion on a controversial scientific matter that definitively proves nothing about the direct effect of C-sections on a child’s immune system).
The man continued, “When you get sick, that is you getting an immune system,” adding, “we’re supposed to get these colds and coughs.”
This is a misguided thought process held by anti-vaccine people. The way our immune systems handle the common cold is different from the potentially crippling effects of polio or the notoriously deadly smallpox.
For the anti-vaccine individual we spoke to, the choice was a matter of personal beliefs. When asked if vaccines should be mandatory he said, “I don’t believe I should be forced because a number of people think it’s right.”
The “I don’t believe in it so I don’t have to do it” attitude has been damaging humanity for a long time. An ironic twist comes when someone, for example, bashes the requirement to get vaccinated but criticizes a county clerk for citing “personal beliefs” when refusing to marry a gay couple. Are personal beliefs valid when they cause unnecessary harm to vulnerable innocents? What’s the difference between the emotional harm of denying a gay marriage, and the physical harm of someone else’s baby dying because a parent opted out of vaccination?
The interview continued and our subject said the corruption of pharmaceutical companies was to blame for this perceived “vaccine problem” (the depth of this theory was ambiguous – I couldn’t tell if he thought they ineptly rushed out haphazard vaccines or had a solid plan to control the population).
This argument is a common misconception. Vaccines are not nearly as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry as popular drugs like Lipitor. While the industry is certainly imperfect, a grand conspiracy is unlikely. The idea that there is some “mind control” or “population thinning” plan to dumb down/kill Americans is simply an unfounded conspiracy theory – a theory used by countless people to achieve countless ends. It’s sometimes used as an attack on FEMA, or an accusation towards the government about the spread of AIDS… or yet another bunk argument against vaccinations. Sometimes it’s even used to sell movie tickets.
I asked where our anti-vaccine subject had gleaned the science informing his stance as an anti-vaxxer, and he said “just really you know…stuff that I’ve read. Not too in depth research.”
I asked him whether it was worth vaccinating his own (hypothetical) children to prevent the possible deaths of more vulnerable kids.
“No,” he said.
There is a dangerous problem when the lives of children are in the hands of desk chair doctors who maybe spent an hour or two reading holistic health websites and a few scary, misleading headlines.
He cited experience as a biochemistry undergrad to back his claims: he took an undergraduate organic chemistry class, “a couple labs,” and an undergrad biology class. Having taken these classes, however, is no indication of being specifically knowledgeable on the subject of vaccines – or even possessing the scientific literacy necessary to partake in such complex, grave deliberations. Countless dropouts took undergraduate science classes and labs and they are no more knowledgeable for it.
A lot of people do even worse, reading a panicky blog post online and making their minds up on the spot. They vow never to vaccinate their children. They shun reviewed medical science for easy-to-understand, sensationalist arguments against vaccination.
So far, good science has proven these people wrong. Vaccinations are important for the safety and health of our most vulnerable populations. Accurate information and dialogue on such a matter is crucial, because the moment pseudo-science and flawed thinking comes into play disaster is waiting to strike. As we’ve seen, in some places like California it already has.
So let’s try to think more skeptically of the anti-vaccination movement and talk to the doctors, the experts, the professional science journalists, and the researchers before we trust some non-peer reviewed, nature-obsessed website with our critical health decisions. Let’s try to save innocent lives by being responsible human beings that care about the health of others. Let’s try to keep Miami from being the next location of a terrible outbreak.
WELCOME, friends, and neighbors, to our new Skepti-Cult series. I’ve been a lover of science and skeptical thinking for some time now and I’ve decided to bring truth to the people of Miami and beyond.
With each installment I’ll be tackling and debunking various topics and issues ranging from the entertaining (yet false) hoaxes of the world, to potentially dangerous and misled practices and belief systems
Critical thinking and skepticism are important to grasping the world around us. These disciplines enrich the sciences and technologies that brought us: the computer or smartphone or tablet you’re staring at right now, the modern medicine keeping you alive today, and the knowledge that this very Earth we stand on is a big ball of matter looping around the sun.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said world-famous astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan (whom I’ll quote time and again).
In this wonderful age of the internet we are unfortunately plagued by fast and easy access to inaccurate information. People are swayed by faulty evidence too often. This not only leads to silly misunderstandings, but also to horrific mistakes that cost lives and spark catastrophe.
I’ll be taking on the anti-GMO movement, astrology, holistic medicine, UFO’s, organized religion, and more.
Let’s come together and make the world a brighter place by gaining a deeper understanding of science, critical thinking, and therein the truth.
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark