My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vaccinating Sebastian

My wife and I are at am impasse on something to do with our child Sebastian. I’m sure that it is not our last disagreement, but it’s the first big one. She does not want him vaccinated against anything and I would like him to get some vaccinations. I’ve conceded that there are some vaccines that are completely ridiculous. For instance, the chicken pox vaccine prevents children from getting the disease while they are young, but can come with a heavy consequence later in life. Adult chicken pox is called shingles and is extremely painful, whereas chicken pox in children is almost always treated with a couple days at home watching TV and eating soup. To me, this trade-off of a minor inconvenience for something worse at a later date speaks volumes of our culture, but that is another rant.

By training, I am a researcher. Too many years of school attendance in front and behind the podium will do that to you. I can spot sham research from a mile away and can become incredibly knowledgeable about minutia within several hours given the right access. So I decided to dive into this issue full-on to see if her argument for no vaccinations held up to scientific scrutiny. Afterwards, I talked with her briefly about her decision and reasoning. In the end I came to an understanding that her issue is one of faith in her gut.

Unfortunately, this puts her on the side with the hordes of mostly uneducated people who think that vaccines are controversial. Just by doing a couple of Google searches I’ve come to realize that that army of pseudoscience-believing anti-vaccine people immediately attacks anyone who points out the obvious holes in their unfounded ideas. To me, they appear to be the same type of individuals who are still arguing that the earth is 6,000 years old, Bush had a hand in 9-11, or that global warming doesn't exist.

You can always spot these people by their constant desire to fill gaps. If there is science out there that they don’t fully understand, threatens their current belief system, or just sounds bad to their limited knowledge, they work to find holes and point to those holes as proof that the lack of evidence that exists in these holes means that something bad must inhabit them. These people allow themselves to overlook the fact that a lack of evidence of something does not prove anything else.

So they look for holes, point to these unknowns as definite proof of something evil, and try to convince others of those evils. The anti-vaccine movement is much larger, and started earlier, in Europe. The fallout is already evident. Last year, the number of measles cases in England and Wales jumped more than 30%. This was the highest level since record keeping began in 1995 (BBC 2008). The Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) immunization rates drastically dropped after a now defunct paper was release that questioned whether or not the vaccine was linked to an increased risk of autism. The research was done by a man who was trying to sell an alternative to thimerosal (an ingredient in the vaccine) and every single person who was on the research team has since denounced the theory. This is the type of cold hard fact that some people choose to overlook in favor of wild guesses and unsubstantiated rumors.

What surprises me more is that despite a long history of being both successful and safe, vaccines still have very open and angry critics. There are a small cluster of parents and an even smaller faction of doctors that still question whether vaccinating children is worth what they perceive as risks. This anti-vaccine movement seems to be completely based on bad science and blatant fear-mongering of the unknown. Recently, it has even become openly vocal and very hostile.

Their original argument stemmed from the fact that mercury, which is a major component in thimerosal, is a poison to the brain due because it is a known neurotoxin. Every single argument that follows is an offshoot of this original argument linking thimerosal to autism. Almost everything is toxic in high enough doses. As many people have pointed out, too much vitamin C or even water can kill you. So the argument then comes down to dosage. Is the amount of mercury in thimerosal high enough to cause neurological damage?

The anti-vaccine side argues that the ethylmercury found in thimerosal exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) daily limit. But if actually do the math on the EPA’s website (EPA 2007) you quickly find out that there is an extraordinarily low amount in common vaccines and shots. For instance, there is 25 micrograms of ethylmercury in a flu shot, which, by those same FDA guidelines, would be safe to give to an individual every week for their entire life. By the more stringent EPA guidelines and using the same mathematic equation, it would be acceptable to give a toddler a vaccine using that same amount of ethylmercury every month.

To back up the claim that thimerosal does not cause autism, there have been a plethora of both epidemiological and ecological studies. Every single one of these peer reviewed studies showed that there was no correlation between thimerosal and autism (Parker 2004 and Doja 2006). The Institute of Medicine, one part of the United States National Academies, a not-for-profit, non-governmental American organization and part of the National Academy of Sciences, found in a review of all the available evidence of both the epidemiological and toxicological studies, that the evidence was conclusive and found no link whatsoever between thimerosal and autism (IOM 2004). And to drive the nail into the coffin of this argument further, Mitchell (2006) found that careful observations indicate that signs of autism are present much earlier, even before twelve months of age, before exposure to thimerosal.

This leaves those mercury alarmists facing an overwhelming amount of negative evidence and searching for some sort of rationalizations to keep their argument alive. What they are faced with is a solid scientific consensus. Multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing in the same direction: vaccines in general, and thimerosal in particular, do not cause autism, which rather likely has its roots in genetics. Furthermore, true autism rates are probably static and not rising.

Even despite the complete lack of evidence for any safety concern, the FDA decided to remove all thimerosal from childhood vaccines, and by 2002 no new childhood vaccines with thimerosal were being sold in the U.S. This was not an admission of prior error, as some mercury proponents claimed; instead, the FDA was playing it safe by minimizing human exposure to mercury wherever possible. The move was also likely calculated to maintain public confidence in vaccines. Since thimerosal has been removed from vaccines, autism diagnosis rates have steadily increased (IDIC 2007).

The only rationalization that the true believing anti-vaccine people had left to put forward was that there was a huge stockpile of thimerosal-laden vaccines—even though a published inspection of 447 pediatric clinics and offices found only 1.9 percent of relevant vaccines still had thimerosal by February 2002, a tiny fraction that was either exchanged, used, or expired soon after (CDCP/ACIP 2002).

With rationalization out the window, remaining stragglers have turned to desperation. A wild claim that the mercury from mortuary cremations had been increasing the environmental mercury toxicity and offsetting the decrease in mercury from thimerosal was purposed. Or that there is even more need for studies because the studies out there were part of a government conspiracy to not have to pay for damages to those who were injured by vaccines. But my favorite is that the drug companies wrote almost all of the scientific studies around the world, with different universities, and with thousands of different scientist, thereby making all of the previous studies fraudulent. Then the people who made this last outlandish claim asked for studies funded by non-scientific organizations run by lawyers who are suing over the fake vaccine controversy.

The anti-vaccines camp’s goal is to undermine public confidence in what is arguably the single most effective public health measure devised by modern science. This decrease in confidence will lead, as it has before, to declining compliance and an increase in infectious disease. The forces of irrationality are on display with this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple disrespect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence. Some of these anti-vaccine groups have since taken a more general, if not laughably absurd, stance that all vaccines are now evil because of a host of either ill-informed guesses or wild speculation. With their new points of contention coming in the recent formulation of the argument that the diseases vaccinated against aren’t really that bad and/or we already have a natural immunity to some of these diseases due to the fact that our forefathers lives through the eras where those specific diseases were rampant. Both of these arguments can and will easily be dispatched by using the previous research. But none of that matters for the anti-vaccine crowd. They are hell-bent on finding excuses to believe their side, no matter what harm it may cause their children or society.

The end of my research showed overwhelming evidence that, not only are the odds greater that your children could get sick from a disease than from the vaccine meant to prevent it, but the sickness itself would be more severe in those children whose parents decided not to vaccinate them. Those people who do not choose to vaccinate their children will have a much higher rate of harming their child, and all out of blind faith in themselves. What I have realized is that the argument to not vaccinate comes down to fear of the unknown and the hard task of admitting wrongness.

The arguments above have been presented to help anyone trying to figure out if there is any validity to the claims that vaccines are harmful. There is not and I hope that you have seen this. My wife is still steadfast in her belief that vaccines are evil. She will not waver, change her mind, or see the overwhelming scientific research as proof that she is wrong. And in the end, I have had no choice but to yield to her unfounded fear. It is not something that I am living well with. To me, it seems as if she’s found some sort of goofy cult that I can do nothing but mock in the vein hope that she’ll grow out of it. But, being that she is the mother of our child, I have had to yield to her intuition. My last wish for the argument is that our son never encounters any of these diseases, so that he will not blame her for her decision.


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Anonymous said...

So Brian, if it comes down to dosage, the problem is how do we know what dose these children are really getting? So too much water can kill you. Suppose your baby was in utero, unbeknownst to you, chugging back pints of water and after he was born, you gave him those last few 'harmless' sips that put him over the edge. I will tell you this. I suffered a horrible illness for the last 8 years which ended in a matter of a few months after a doctor recommended I get my silver fillings out. My blood disorder is gone too. I was skeptical, but am no longer. If mercury did that to me as an adult, what does it do to a baby? I did vaccinate my children, but am not convinced it was the right thing to do. My children have pretty noticeable attention problems as well as food allergies and strange myalgias - one has hand tremors (this is the child who was in utero when I had dental work removing one of my silver fillings). I have read the evidence on both sides of the argument. If I had to do it again, I would delay vaccinations for a couple of years, and then selectively vaccinate. While the scientists are dickering over the evidence, I think we need to listen a little more closely to mother's intuition.

Brian Hamilton said...

Wow, I'm not even sure where to being. Mercury in fillings cannot leach into your body because the chemical structure changes when mixed with the other metals that make up the majority of the fillings. Consumer Reports called the filling removal one of the biggest scams of the 80's in their book Health Schemes, Scams and Frauds.

Now the easy one: We know exactly how much dosage of every single thing that goes into our children through vaccines. It's a standard dosage, regulated by the government, and tested in hundreds of different scientific studies. Moreover, mercury was removed from almost all vaccines years ago.. …soo there is no real argument here anymore anyway.

Not vaccinating your children because of your lack of understanding of the science or because you “have a notion” is not only bad parenting, it’s just dumb.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to vaccinate my children because it isn't natural. I don't want anything put into my children that is made in a lab. Also I don't know what is in those vaccines, no one does. So my children can do without thank-you-very-much.

Brian Hamilton said...

I believe that I should have expected posts like these, but I didn't.

Again, we know exactly what is in the vaccines as it is highly regulated, widely published, and studiously researched.

Nothing natural? So you only eat fresh, organic, fruits, vegetables, and meats -- with nothing else at all? I find that hard to believe.

TheCourtJester said...

. . . Hey there Mr. Hamilton, reading your rationalization(s), one might wonder if YOUR parents ever had this discussion about vaccinations when you were a humanoid baby. Some say aging brings 'perspective' so I assume you asked and know your own history. Yes?

Again, we know exactly what is in the vaccines as it is highly regulated, widely published, and studiously researched.

. . . . If the government substantiated all this it certainly increases MY confidence! Ahem.

While I might agree (or not) with you, while knowing the ingredients of the vaccine versus having a complete understanding of what it actually does to the body is still highly controversial and for either point of view to attempt to invalidate the other might be a bit presumptuous.