“I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject. You know, I have a theory — and it’s a theory that some people believe in — and that’s the vaccinations. We never had anything like this. This is now an epidemic. It’s way, way up over the past 10 years. It’s way up over the past two years. And, you know, when you take a little baby that weighs like 12 pounds into a doctor’s office and they pump them with many, many simultaneous vaccinations — I’m all for vaccinations, but I think when you add all of these vaccinations together and then two months later the baby is so different then lots of different things have happened. I really — I’ve known cases.” – Donald Trump
Welcome back to Foiling Fallacies – the series where I explore the red herrings and straw men that are brought up to derail debates. These anecdotes represent such rare possibilities or exceptions that simply bringing them up is a logical fallacy and causes science lovers like me to mutter for fuck’s sake, like I did when I read the Trump quote above.
Today, I examine the vaccine-injured child (not literally, as I do not have one in my vicinity). It seems like every anti-vaccination advocate or zealot either has or knows a child who was harmed by vaccines or who they believe was harmed by vaccines. Before you jump in with your personal anecdotes, let me assure you that I understand that vaccine injuries occur and can be serious and that for the children and families who are impacted, these injuries are horrible. In fact, one of my closest friends had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine as a child. However, despite how terrible vaccine injuries are when they actually occur, they are not prevalent enough to make the risk of an injury a reason to not vaccinate your children or to argue against the safety and efficacy of vaccines for the population as a whole.
Because vaccine injuries are rare and the idea of a hurt or sick child is so emotionally charged, bringing them up is not only an anecdote, but often also an appeal to emotion, a red herring, and naturalist fallacy. It’s like fallacy soup, peppered with emotional manipulation and served with a side of fear. To make matters worse, celebrities, including Dr. Bob Sears (who should fucking know better), Jenny McCarthy, and Donald Trump, to name a few, chant the chorus: “We just don’t know what might happen. Do you really want to take the risk with your child?” [Cue ominous music]
It’s normal to be concerned or even alarmed when you hear about an adorable baby transforming from perfect to damaged – especially if you are a new parent or expecting your first child. Baby Chris was perfectly normal until they got their measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A day, a week, or a month after their shot something seemed wrong. They got a fever, got sick, started having behavioral issues, died, or worst of all, got autism. (This is sarcasm – I don’t think that autism is a fate worse than death, and anti-vaccination advocates shouldn’t either!)
What these examples don’t mention or perhaps what these individuals don’t understand is 1.) correlation does not equal causation, 2.) the age when a child receives the MMR vaccine is a time of significant growth and development and a time when the markers and symptoms of autism and other conditions manifest. Although countless studies have shown again and again that there is no link between vaccine and autism (or vaccines and any severe reaction for that matter), the belief persists. And after hearing these stories and anecdotes every time vaccines are discussed, for some parents, it becomes a risk they’d rather not take with their children.
Research examining why people don’t vaccinate their kids reveals that many people who don’t vaccinate avoid it because they have a lack of confidence – confidence in vaccines, in health care providers, and in the systems that promote vaccination. Anecdotes about vaccine injuries can cause an individual’s confidence to waver or if they are already anti-vax, cause a serious case of confirmation bias, and even when there is clear evidence to the contrary, many people still believe (or fear) that there is a link to autism or other risks to vaccination. The public health system can address other barriers to vaccination, like awareness and access. They can provide more information about research and risk to people who are weighing pros and cons, but it’s hard, if not impossible, to change the mind of someone who doesn’t trust what science says, because they lack confidence vaccines, their doctor, or the government.
And although we are now seeing deaths from vaccine preventable illnesses, the risk of measles or pertussis or hepatitis B seems like a chance you are willing to take, because you believe that the risk of harm from the vaccine is greater, and you don’t trust the people (doctors and researchers) and systems (CDC, FDA, Health Department) that present the information that can prove otherwise. And, after all, your special snowflake will not go to day care, public school, or ride public transportation, you’ll breastfeed and boost their immune system and cultivate their gut biome by giving them probiotics…. But in reality, none of this will perfectly protect your child, not even close to what vaccines can do (and it will do nothing for the people who can’t be vaccinated, you selfish fuck).
There are the extremely sad cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) that grieving parents are sure were caused by vaccinations. Heartbreaking, but correlation, not causation. Research evidence shows no connection between childhood vaccines and SIDS other than timing. These examples represent our worst fears as parents, but when you look at the evidence and allow yourself to do a real risk analysis, the thought of deadly childhood diseases coming back should be way scarier.
Then, there are ongoing reports about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil. The vaccine has been blamed for a variety of conditions, including Lyme disease, infertility, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and death. Again, the clinical research prior to and since the vaccine came on the market has been significant and over 80 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the United States with relatively few reported injuries. All safety research seems to find the same conclusion, the rates of these health conditions do not differ between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. An analysis of reports of “vaccine-related” deaths made to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) shows no connection between the reported deaths and the vaccine. In fact, several of the deaths reported to the system were due to other causes altogether, including motor vehicle accidents and suicide.
People fail to recognize that the VAERS system is just a reporting system and not a verification system. In fact, an analysis of reports made to the system regarding a variety of vaccines showed that only 3% were found to be definitely causally related to vaccine received, and over 53% of reports were found to be unlikely or unrelated to a vaccine. And while VAERS staff follow-up on all serious adverse event reports to obtain additional medical, laboratory, and/or autopsy records to help understand the concern raised, numbers and conditions in the system do not reflect data collected during the follow-up processes. But the drama of the personal anecdote – the picture of a young woman now in a wheelchair following her Gardasil vaccine – shuts down the science.
And what about the side effects and adverse reactions that can be linked with vaccines? Things like fevers, lethargy, pain at the injection site? Not even close to as scary or damaging as a vaccine-preventable illness. And yes, serious reactions do happen.
Reporting vaccine reactions is important. It’s important that the CDC follow-up on even the most rare and unlikely reactions and that safety research be ongoing and improvements be made. Important discoveries have been made about the oral polio and rotavirus vaccines through this type of reporting that have allowed scientists to make vaccines safer. The tricky part is investigating these concerns quickly before trust is lost, because once that happens, years and countless studies won’t be enough to trump the anecdotes and fear.
It’s difficult to challenge upset parents, especially those who are convinced that vaccines harmed their children. What kind of bitch would do such a thing? I would. Because I think of the thousands, if not millions, of children who would die if it were not for vaccines, and I love science.
So, how do I respond? With empathy, but also with logic and reason:
I’m so sorry that this happened to you, but that is actually quite rare. Millions of children get their vaccinations each year without getting hurt and the consequences of not vaccinating are so grave, not just for your child, but for people who can’t receive vaccinations. I would hate for other parents to make decisions about whether or not to vaccinate, based on something rare that happened to one child, when the evidence shows that vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary.
Wow, that’s too bad! You should definitely stay on the same page with your health care provider about what vaccines you can and should continue for your child. For other children without a family history of reactions, the medical community and all major health organizations, including the World Health Organization, recommend universal vaccination.
Of course, if this is Donald Trump speaking or someone claiming second- or third-hand knowledge of a vaccine-injured child or citing an Mercola article or David Avocado meme, I advocate calling them out on their bullshit. Stupidity and fear-mongering doesn’t deserve empathy. You might even start your comment with, “for fuck’s sake,”