Vaccine Myths and Conspiracies

Coupled with sanitation efforts, vaccines have proven to be among the most valuable inventions in the history of humanity, playing a vital role in the eradication of smallpox and the reduction in annual cases of polio, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, and many other preventable and potentially deadly diseases. Despite these clear benefits, there is an Anti-vax movement in the United States and other parts of the world that aims to discredit the benefits of vaccines and to remove public health programs that aim to promote the widespread vaccination efforts necessary to maintain a disease free society. At the heart of these anti-vax campaigns is a mix of misinformation, fear, and conspiracy that can obscure the truth and convince people that vaccines are a threat to life and limb. In this article, I will attempt to address many claims that have been made regarding vaccines and vaccination programs, in order to clarify the power (and shortcomings) of modern vaccination efforts.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Over 200 peer reviewed scientific studies agree that vaccines have absolutely nothing to do with the onset of autism. Despite this crushing burden of scientific evidence, a handful of anecdotal tales from celebrities is enough to convince fearful parents that their children will develop autism in response to the MMR vaccine or other vaccines. This belief began after Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet attesting to a direct link between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. It was soon revealed that Wakefield had falsified his study, and was in fact being paid by individuals that wanted to find legal grounds to sue vaccine companies. Despite the complete lack of scientific support and clear conflicts of interest, the notion that vaccines and autism are somehow intertwined has ever since thrived in the public consciousness. Part of the problem is likely the fact that no parent wants to risk doing something that could hurt their child, resulting in an excess of misplaced caution. It is essential for parents to realize that vaccines pose no risk of autism, but the failure to vaccinate places children at risk from whooping cough and other debilitating diseases that could seriously harm susceptible children.

While vaccines do not cause autism, there have been a few rare cases where vaccines have been linked directly to neurological complications. Both instances involve the annual influenza vaccine. In the first case, a very small fraction of vaccinated patients developed the peripheral neuropathic autoimmune disease Guillain Barre Syndrome. While the total number of cases was small and this has not happened aside from that one year, the vaccine has been contraindicated for those that have had Guillain Barre Syndrome ever since. In the second instance, the recent 2009 H1N1 vaccine caused a few cases of spontaneous narcolepsy in select Scandinavian populations. Why the vaccine caused these diseases is not known, but it does demonstrate that we do not fully understand vaccination at present. That being said, there is undeniable scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism, and the vaccines are far less dangerous that the diseases they prevent.

Vaccines Make Pharma Companies Rich

There often seems to be an inherent mistrust of pharmaceutical companies in the general public, owing largely to the fact that these are for-profit companies that are determining the course of human health, and there are thus concerns that they may not always be operating under the best practices to treat or eliminate diseases. Proponents of a particular brand of anti-vax conspiracy will often attest to the fact that vaccines are not very important and/or are detrimental to human health, but Big Pharma has invested large amounts of money into convincing the public that they need vaccines solely so that these companies can make money and without regard to their effects on human health. This point of view is nonsensical, as vaccine profit margins are razor thin for drug companies, and they will never be able to produce robust dividends by pushing unneeded vaccines. Vaccines are generally taken once in one's entire life, or once every several years at a maximum, and the cost of getting a shot is relatively nominal. Even vaccines that people need to get annually (namely the flu vaccine) are often offered for subsidized prices, and the annual development cycle requires companies to remake the vaccine each year ensuring that they never make any profit from these vaccines. Instead, Pharma companies make most of their profits from drugs that people need to take every day for them to remain healthy, such as cholesterol inhibitors - these are the true money makers for Pharma companies. While one can debate the conflicts of interest and ethics inherent in pharamceutical company operations, it is false to claim that Pharma is falsifying vaccine data in order to turn a quick profit at the price of human health.

Vaccines are Filled with Toxic Chemicals

The most common iteration of this myth is that vaccines are filled with Mercury or other compounds that are toxic to the human body, and as a result they cause brain damage or otherwise poison children. It is true that some vaccines contain Mercury in the form of the preservative Thimerosol, but the amounts in all childhood vaccines are less than in a single tuna sandwich, and no scientific study supports any form of danger posed by Thimerosol at this dosage. Even so, due to public outcries, many vaccine companies voluntarily removed Thimerosol from vaccines and replaced it with alternative preservatives, prompting some to claim that this confirms that Thimerosol was indeed dangerous, when nothing of the sort is true. Others may claim that vaccines can cause illness themselves, and are worse than naturally acquiring the disease. In truth, almost all modern vaccines do not contain any virus particles, and those that do contain particles that are completely inactivated to prevent any risk of viral outbreaks in response to innoculation. There is an exception in that the antiquated polio vaccine used in parts of Africa and the Middle East can cause a mild form of transmissible vaccine acquired polio, however this disease is rare, less severe than regular polio, and does not occur in any vaccine given in the United States (including the more standard polio vaccine that was used here).

Herd Immunity is a Myth

To understand the absurdity of this claim, one needs to first have a general understanding of the immunological concept known as herd immunity. Essentially, every person that is successfully vaccinated against a given disease will be unable to pick up that disease from someone who is sick with it, and as a result they will not be able to pass it on to another unvaccinated person that they encounter. As more and more people are vaccinated against a disease, it becomes less and less likely that someone who is sick with that disease will encounter any unvaccinated people. At a certain vaccination threshold that is determined based on mathematical modelling and is based on factors including method or ease of disease transmission and duration of infection, the population is said to have achieved herd immunity. At this threshold, which often requires >90% vaccination rates, it is predicted that any one person who is sick with a disease will likely not encounter anyone who is unvaccinated, and thus the disease will not be transmitted. In essence, high rates of vaccination create a buffer around those that are unvaccinated that makes it unlikely that they themselves will be struck by the disease. The truth of herd immunity should be rather obvious, and while herd immunity thresholds are over-simplified and are based on random human encounters, there can be no denying that having a large vaccinated population will help to quell the spread of disease. The objections to the logic of herd immunity likely stem from its implications - if getting one's children vaccinated protects not only them but also the other children next door that can't be vaccinated due to allergies, then vaccination becomes a matter of public health and not private choice. Indeed, this is part of why schools mandate vaccination, and is something that many anti-vax individuals fail to acknowledge or work to refute.


Science in Society | Conspiracy


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