Bullying the Anti-Vaxxers

Father and babyImagine reading an article about cutting-edge new treatments for breast cancer, only the story isn’t actually about the treatments. It’s about the selfishness of women who receive these new treatments without ever having donated to breast cancer research charities.   The article then suggests that these “free-loaders” bear some responsibility for the deaths of thousands of breast cancer victims who might have been saved by a new therapy that just needed a bit more funding. Could you imagine finding such an article in a prestigious journal like The Economist?

Unfortunately this is exactly the sort of bully-like hate speech used by The Economist and several other well-respected journals when the target is so-called “anti-vaxxers,” or people who deviate in any way from the US government’s recommended vaccine schedule. Thundering Herd, California’s anti-vaccine brigade and the dark side of individualism, published in The Economist’s  Sept 26 issue, is a good example. It accuses “anti-vaxxers” of being “free riders” who are “hiding in the herd” and “simply selfish,” because they are supposedly the reason that herd immunity has not been achieved and diseases have not yet been eradicated. (Herd immunity occurs when a large enough percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune (source: Wikipedia).)

It’s hard to know if the author is ignorant or purposely telling only one side of the story. She/he fails to mention that vaccines are rarely effective enough to create a herd immunity. S/he also doesn’t touch on the long list of very valid concerns that many people have with the vaccine issue. The author instead makes the attention-grabbing blanket statement that these people are “most worried about the (thoroughly discredited) claim that vaccines cause autism.” Notice the choice of words. The Economist’s highly accomplished writers could easily have re-worded it in a less biased way, for instance: “[people are] worried about links between vaccines and neurological complications as well as the use of controversial additives, such a aluminum and formaldehyde.

Omitting critical information to paint a sensational sounding story is bad enough, but the bully-like name-calling is totally uncalled for. The term “anti-vaxxer” is where the insults begin because it’s a gross oversimplification of a much broader group of people, many of whom do vaccinate. This group does not blindly follow the advice of the “experts” who have a financial interest in them getting vaccinated. Instead, they evaluate the risk reward equation for each vaccine in the context of their (or their child’s) specific situation and then make their own decision on which vaccines to administer and when. For instance, a parent might decide to delay the vaccination for a sexually transmitted disease like Hepatitis B until after the child is past 2-3 years old and the blood brain barrier has been formed, thus decreasing the chances of any brain damage from the vaccines additives. I guess you’d call this a vaccine delayer rather than an anti-vaxxer. I’d call this person an independent thinker.

Aside from being ineffective, the problem with shaming people for their selfishness is that it’s inherent to most things we humans do – including even the most civilized behaviors that help all of us co-exist harmoniously. Although it’s supposed to be for the common good, a big reason I pay taxes, donate to charities, stop at red lights and pay for things in stores is to earn carrots (e.g. access to nourishing foods for my family, tax writeoffs) and avoid sticks (time in jail!).

Vaccination should, in theory, be a huge carrot in itself – the benefit of immunization without getting sick! If only it always worked and there was no downside. Unfortunately the reality is that many people do get injured by vaccines. Many vaccines aren’t all that effective or their effects wear off quickly. Vaccines do contain toxic ingredients. Vaccines are among the most recalled drugsPharmaceutical companies are not held financially accountable for the injuries their vaccines cause.  And the media’s reporting on these and the myriad of other problems with vaccines is censored.

So parents are faced with a difficult choice: One is to vaccinate. This means accepting the small but finite risk that their child is injured by the vaccine, possibly seriously. There is also a risk that the vaccine will not be effective or will quickly wear off. The other option is to not vaccinate but take the chance that the child gets sick and potentially also spreads the illness. The severity of each vaccine-preventable illnesses should also be considered, as well as the degree of immunity conferred by the vaccine versus natural infection. This is why the decision is not easy and tends to be questioned by even the most affluent and educated people.

So long as people are getting injured by vaccines, public shaming of people who opt out of vaccines will never work. It’s normal and biologically necessary for a parent to protect their child before enrolling their child in an unofficial safety trial just because someone deemed it to be important for the greater good. I question the ethics of a government who tries to combat that selfish but natural parental instinct through punishment (e.g. denial of access to school). Vaccinations are, after all, an invasive medical procedure. Forcing vaccination is not all that different from forcing soldiers to go to battle in jungles treated with Agent Orange during Vietnam. The “science” at the time did not show the chemical to be toxic to humans. Similarly, vaccine “science” never shows vaccines to be harmful…until they eventually are and get recalled, as has happened numerous times.

The better solution than shaming is to address the underlying issues head on and ultimately seek out a way to align the interests of individuals with the interests of the community. In this age of instant and widespread information-sharing, you just can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes for very long.  I’d like to see a civilized and constructive open debate on ideas like these:

  1. Make vaccines safer. Hold drug companies financially accountable for adverse reactions to vaccines. This way, they have a financial motivation to improve the safety of their vaccines. Governments and charity organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation could also re-allocate a portion of the money they give for vaccine development and distribution to studying and improving the safety of the vaccines. They should also fund much-needed research on the health of totally unvaccinated vs fully vaccinated populations.
  2. Focus on other ways of eradicating diseases in addition to vaccines. Vaccines have a poor record for eradication of diseases, with the exception of smallpox, which is sometimes debated. The current approach of adding more and more vaccines to the required list without ever rolling vaccines off just isn’t sustainable, both cost-wise or toxic load-wise. We should continue R&D into other methods of disease eradication as discussed in this Economist article, in which the author states, “measles, mumps and rubella are all the subjects of intensive vaccination campaigns that could easily be converted into ones of eradication.
  3. Hold doctors accountable for reporting vaccine injuries to the VAERS database. It’s estimated that less than 10% of adverse reactions are reported today. Penalties should be assessed when doctors don’t report a reaction. Without data, it’s difficult to figure out what’s wrong with a drug and how to fix it.
  4. Open up the Vaccine Market: The government should stop giving exclusive rights to one company to produce a vaccine, as they have done with Merck and the MMR vaccine, whose effectiveness the company is accused of falsifying. We should figure out a way to move toward a free market system that gives consumers a choice on vaccines. For instance, I know several parents who are uncomfortable with the combination MMR and DTaP vaccines but would willingly give a single-dose Measles-only or Pertussis-only vaccine, if only someone would develop such a vaccine and people had the option of taking it and still being allowed entry into school. Additionally, government subsidies for vaccines could be passed directly to consumers rather than pre-negotiated with insurance companies. That way, people could decide individually which vaccines to use. Consumers would come together to share their experiences and collectively we would vote with our dollars for the best vaccines based on our collective experiences around risks/side effects, ingredients, effectiveness, the likelihood of contracting the illness and severity of the illness.
  5. Reduce the number of mandatory vaccines. The list should be determined by considering all of the following: the severity of the disease, the likelihood of contracting the illness and the track record of the vaccine. This last point means that new vaccines should not be mandated until they’ve been sufficiently tested in the market. There also needs to be a way to contain the growth of the mandatory vaccine list so that, if a new vaccine is deemed important enough to add, perhaps another vaccine must move to optional, but recommended (and potentially still subsidized) status.
  6. Promote more balanced research. Stop crucifying researchers who attempt to study vaccine safety. This makes the public think that there is something to hide. It also makes the research lopsided because scientists are afraid to report results that cast doubt on a vaccine’s safety and journals are afraid to publish that research for fear of retribution from their paying customers (the vaccine manufacturers). More thorough and balanced research means that safety issue can be identified and resolved more quickly. The fewer people who are injured by vaccines, the more confidence the public will have in using them.