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Jun 12 2013

Anti-vaxxers are as bad as creationists

In Australia New Zealand:

It started when seven-year-old Alijah got a small cut on the bottom of his foot in December 2012.

"Of course we didn’t think it was too serious, it was just a little cut but a couple of days later he started getting symptoms like a stroke on the side of his face," Mr Williams says.

"A couple of days later during the night he started to get cramps across his face. His face would contort and he was in a lot of pain."

After 24 hours in Auckland’s Starship Children’s hospital, the doctors diagnosed Alijah with tetanus, and he was taken to intensive care.

His parents didn’t get him a tetanus shot because they were afraid of vaccines.

In California:

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, has claimed the 10th victim in California, in what health officials are calling the worst outbreak in 60 years.

Since the beginning of the year, 5,978 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of the disease have been reported in California.

All of the deaths occurred in infants under the age of 3 months, says Michael Sicilia, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health. Nine were younger than 8 weeks old, which means they were too young to have been vaccinated against this highly contagious bacterial disease.

"This is a preventable disease," says Sicilia, because there is a vaccine for whooping cough to protect those coming in contact with infants, and thereby protect the infants.

However, some parents are choosing to not vaccinate their children. In other cases, previously vaccinated children and adults may have lost their immunity because the vaccine has worn off.

Ignorance kills, and we’ve got people promoting ignorance.

People like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likes to talk. When he calls you to discuss vaccines, he talks a lot, uninterruptably. He called Keith Kloor after Kloor wrote a story for Discover about RFK Jr.’s keynote address to a convention of people who think vaccines cause autism. You can read about their conversation at Kloor’s blog. Phil Plait wrote a story about RFK Jr. for Slate last week, pointing out that the idea that vaccines cause autism is a crackpot theory that has been thoroughly debunked, that it is dangerous, and that RFK Jr. is one of its most effective proponents.

Kennedy claims that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, causes autism. No, it doesn’t. This has been tested out the wazoo, and there’s no connection between autism and thimerosal, or autism and vaccines, for that matter. In order to back up his claim, Kennedy is reduced to completely misrepresenting the scientific evidence.

For a guy whose family has such a distinguished record of public service, Kennedy says some pretty awful things about government employees: “The lies that you are hearing and printing from the CDC are things that should be investigated.” He spoke to one scientist (he named her but I won’t spread the defamation) who, he said, “was actually very honest. She said it’s not safe. She said we know it destroys their brains.”

I asked the scientist about their conversation. She said there is in fact no evidence that thimerosal destroys children’s brains, and that she never said that it did.

There’s a pattern here.

When RFK Jr. challenged the university scientist about a study of the biological activity of thimerosal in vitro, which “everybody accepts because journalists hadn’t read it,” the scientist said, “ ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right about that.’ He backpedaled.” That’s because “now he was dealing with somebody who wasn’t afraid to read science.”

I talked to the scientist, who would prefer I not use his name because he gets death threats from unhinged anti-vaxxers. He said, “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”

I don’t know why Kennedy is bothering to misquote scientists and trying to get scientific authority to back him up, though, because he doesn’t believe in scientists anyway. He’s got a gigantic conspiracy theory in which all these scientific organizations are lying.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s elaborate conspiracy theory is just as delusional and dangerous. Rather than accepting the findings of the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kennedy says the scientists are lying. He says vaccine-makers are intentionally poisoning kids and giving them autism. Only he and his fellow activists know the truth because journalists, although they may report aggressively on the National Security Agency, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency, are cowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Apparently hereditary political lineages are a really bad idea. The UK has Prince Charles, and the US has Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

50 comments

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  1. 1
    sugarloaf

    The first story’s from New Zealand (that’s not to say it couldn’t happen here, but at least this time it didn’t).

  2. 2
    100word

    The first story’s from New Zealand (that’s not to say it couldn’t happen here, but at least this time it didn’t).

    It’s just the sort of mistake you’d expect from a Texan like PZ :P

  3. 3
    oolon

    You wait when Brian is on the throne he will be even worse. I’m sure the queen is holding out to limit the damage as much as possible. Homeopathy will be pushed more than ever, including their “vaccines”. his disgraceful attempt to get researchers sacked who exposed the ineffectiveness of homeopathy would have got him kicked out if it had been possible to.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    Dunc

    Anti-vaxxers are worse than creationists. Creationists aren’t (so far as I know) responsible for anybody’s death or long-term health impairment, nor are they inflicting pain and suffering.

  6. 6
    Darkling

    It’s just the sort of mistake you’d expect from a Texan like PZ :P

    I think you mean Canadian.

    Unfortuantley I saw a friend of mine post on Facebook that his kid had chickenpox. Another one of those preventable diseases, although not as bad as tetanus but I understand that there are occasional complications. Another New Zealander there as well

  7. 7
    raven

    Kennedy claims that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, causes autism.

    Thimerosal was taken out of virturally all vaccines a decade or so ago.

    The incidence of autism just kept going up, most likely because of changes in diagnostic practices.

    You couldn’t have a clearer experiment or result if you tried.

    RFK jr, is quite the disappointment. I was a huge fan of his father as a kid and, like most, shocked when he was assassinated.

  8. 8
    fredbloggs

    Vaccination has been the victim of its own success – if these people had relatives still dying of Smallpox or being crippled by Polio, maybe they’d think twice.

  9. 9
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ ^ thunmper : They’re everywhere these anti-vaxxers. And they kill.

    Kill through willful ignorance, stupidity and dishonesty.

    Just ask the parents of Dana McCaffery :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/02/04/dana-mccaffery/#.Ubg7bOdHJRY

    It is in her memory that we must all stand up to unreason. It is in her memory that we must never tire, and never fail.

    See also :

    http://www.danamccaffery.com/

    Born perfectly healthy, Dana Elizabeth McCaffery died in March at 4 weeks of age from Pertussis (Whooping cough). Sadly, she is one of eight babies that has died from this totally vaccine preventable disease in Australia since 2008.

    I cut and paste that and now my eyes are moist.

    Fuck anti-vaxxers!

    Also this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1xw0Ob5bqs

    ‘The Vaccine Song’ which sums this issue up perfectly in my view.

  10. 10
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Sorry typo fix : Thumper; Atheist mate. Apologies.

  11. 11
    Emrysmyrddin

    Not only is measles spreading through Wales like wildfire due to low uptake of the MMR (Thanks, Dr. Andy!), but people are actually deliberately infecting their kids with things like chickenpox by posting to each other lollipops, pre-sucked by infected infants, wrapped in damp washcloths and zipped into Jiffy bags, in lieu of Teh Ebil Vaccinations. Because that’s a natural process, see? Therefore goodz.
    .
    I need to go off and watch videos of manatees. /depressed

  12. 12
    Lars

    Yeah, creationists are stupid and occasionally evil, and do damage to people’s minds and educations, but antivaxxers are killers. First and foremost evil, and stupid only secondarily and when it suits them. My contempt for creationists pales in comparison to my feelings against antivaxxers.

  13. 13
    Dunc

    ot only is measles spreading through Wales like wildfire due to low uptake of the MMR (Thanks, Dr. Andy!), but people are actually deliberately infecting their kids with things like chickenpox by posting to each other lollipops, pre-sucked by infected infants, wrapped in damp washcloths and zipped into Jiffy bags, in lieu of Teh Ebil Vaccinations. Because that’s a natural process, see? Therefore goodz.

    Yup. And not only is that a dreadful idea in its own right, it probably won’t even “work”… You might manage to pass on all sort of other horrible infections that way, but probably not chickenpox.

  14. 14
    trouble

    Unfortuantley I saw a friend of mine post on Facebook that his kid had chickenpox. Another one of those preventable diseases, although not as bad as tetanus but I understand that there are occasional complications. Another New Zealander there as well.

    Chickenpox vaccine isn’t on the fully funded schedule in NZ. I just shelled out $140 for my kids to get the first shot, and I’m procrastinating on the booster as there’s talk of putting it on the schedule so it’s free.

    NZ has a lighter hand when it comes to enforcing vaccination than the US or Australia I think – there’s nothing here about religious or otherwise exemptions, since it’s not compulsory for anything, but unvaccinated kids can get excluded from school if there’s an outbreak. More info at http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2013/04/17/vaccination-rates-in-nz-and-what-do-those-that-delay-infant-immunisation-think/
    We had a Member of Parliament who spoke a lot against MMR, Gardasil and other immunisation campaigns, but she’s since retired. Anti fluoridation is currently our national lunacy of choice.

  15. 15
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    See also Penn & Teller on this subject here – especially the first minute and a half :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0IvM8c-Pew

    Yeah, Penn and Teller are Libertarians (a philosophy I disagree with and think is badly flawed), and get a number of matters horribly wrong. On this particular issue tho’ – they are spot on.

  16. 16
    David Pearce

    To be fair to PZ, the ‘Australian’ story was a report on a Perth (West Aust) new site, and I never saw any local new source reporting on it. That said, I think PZ’s penance should be to get around to finally visiting us here in NZ to learn the local places and customs!!

  17. 17
    peptidix

    In the Netherlands measles is spreading right now in our (traditionally non-vaccinating) conservative christian population. Their voluntary segregation from the vaccinated majority here does tend to make things worse every time a preventable diseases hits that community.

  18. 18
    vaiyt

    Anti-vax tires me to no end. Half of their arguments fizzle when confronted with basic reality outside of developed countries.

  19. 19
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    See also :

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3769539.htm

    Childcare centres in NSW will be fined up to $4000 if they accept children who have not be vaccinated.

    Video clip & transcript – recent Aussie developments covered on the Lateline current affairs program

  20. 20
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    In addition to :

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2010/s2951651.htm

    The NSW Health Care Complaints Commission has compiled a damning report after examining Australia’s most prominent anti-vaccination group, the Australian Vaccination Network.

    The commission accuses the AVN of providing inaccurate and misleading information and selectively quoting research out of context to argue against vaccination.

    It’s also noted accusations that the AVN harassed the parents of a child who died of whooping cough last year, after they’d advocated the importance of childhood vaccination.

    More via Lateline available too on searching.

  21. 21
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @SteveoR

    No worries, typos happen :) Just Thumper will do.

    Yes, they make me very angry. They don’t seem to get that their selfish paranoia causes real harm. Not only to their own child, but to everyone else’s kids too through the reduction of herd immunity. And what about those people who simply can’t have whatever vaccine for whatever reason? They rely on herd immunity to keep them safe and healthy. The whole movement is fucking infuriating, and it’s probably my most hated form of pseudoscience.

  22. 22
    w00dview

    What really annoys me about anti vaxxers is their self righteousness*. They are convinced they are boycotting the poison of Big Pharma/Gubmint and they occupy the moral high ground but then they rally behind an unethical scumbag like Andrew Wakefield who wanted to make some money by putting children through tremendous pain simply so he could use something to sue vaccine makers with.

    *Well that, and children dying of easily treatable diseases.

  23. 23
    marcoli

    Great post, and loved that video StevoR. Sad thing there is the number of anti-vacc videos next to it on the sidebar. This issue is one of my passions.

  24. 24
    khms

    How about, when someone dies of a disease we routinely vaccinate against, and people who did not take those vaccinations without good reason (and no religious exemption here, please) were in significant contact with them, we go after them for manslaughter?

  25. 25
    madscientist

    The story with Pertussis in Australia is pretty bad (no, not New Zealand – I don’t know what’s going on there). In Canberra the rates went from something like a few hundred cases per year 10 years ago to well over 5,000 cases per year in the past few years. That’s for a fairly small population of maybe 300,000. I can’t find the statistics at the moment, but here’s an old study over all of Australia up to 2005 (reported infection rates went soaring from about 2006):

    http://www.quitnow.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/cda-cdi3102g.htm

    Other reports I see claim ~15,000 reported cases in Australia each year ca. 2011 – if that’s true then Canberra’s the whooping cough capital. At any rate, the infection rate today is about 10x higher than a decade ago. Also, the infections tend to be in the 30y.o. who get the disease because they never had a booster as an adult.

  26. 26
    A. R

    Want to piss off a virologist? Say that childhood diseases aren’t dangerous, but vaccines are. Seriously, I’ve reported parents who refuse to vaccinate to CPS. Often gives the parents the scare the need to properly care for their children.

  27. 27
    ekwhite

    Thank you PZ. As someone who worked for the “evil vaccine industry” back in the 90′s, anti-vaxxers infuriate me. As other people have pointed out, as vile as Ken Ham and his ilk are, they don’t have the same body count that anti-vaxxers do.

    I remember when vaccines had Thimerosal in them as a preservative – it was at a 1:100,000 dilution or so – practically not there. When Wakefield’s fraudulent “research” hit the scene, the industry’s response, prompted by the FDA, was to take the preservative out of vaccines. Vaccination is probably the most cost-effective disease prevention. People like Kennedy who argue against overwhelming evidence that vaccines are dangerous have blood on their hands, period.

  28. 28
    machintelligence

    Part of the problem appears to be the switch to the acellular pertussis vaccine, which has fewer side effects, but is turning out not to give as enduring a resistance.
    At least locally, it is now being given along with the 10 year booster for tetanus on a routine basis.
    For those into alphabet soup, DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) was replaced by DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis.)

  29. 29
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    Thumper

    They’re in the UK too :(

    And the result…. Some well-made points in comments there, too, regarding the press’ complicity in spreading scare-stories in the name of “balance.”

  30. 30
    Sastra

    wOOdview #21 wrote:

    What really annoys me about anti vaxxers is their self righteousness. They are convinced they are boycotting the poison of Big Pharma/Gubmint and they occupy the moral high ground …

    QFT. And their self-flattering self- portrait as “Warrior Mothers” — freethinking rebels bucking the System because they care — appeals to a lot of people who are okay with vaccinations themselves, sure, but still seem to think that the issue comes down to a personal matter of conscience. Thus ALL views need to be ‘respected.’

    It’s like religion. Start explaining why the anti-vaxxers aren’t just people with a different opinion and are actually wrong and my experience is you’re met with a self-righteous chorus advocating the need for tolerance and keeping an ‘open mind.’

    Iow the Diversity Smorgasbord is dragged out and the diverse Problem-Solving Group put away. Anti-vaxxers feel deeply? They’re against The Man? Well, then, this is who they are. The facts are simply dressing up the moral issue of identity choices. Good for them, fighting for a Cause.

  31. 31
    otrame

    A close friend had a baby boy who spent months 2 through 5 of his life in the hospital and very nearly died twice in that time. Pertussis.

    I have an idea. How about insurance companies refusing to cover anyone who is not vaccinated (except those rare cases where there are medical reasons for not doing it). Whoever it was that did not vaccinate and allowed my friend’s baby to suffer like that cost his insurance company something like 2 million dollars (the kid spent weeks at a time in the pediatric ICU). Seems to me they have a vested interest in making people vaccinate.

    Wouldn’t work in most civilized countries, I know, since said countries are not owned by insurance companies, but here in the US….

  32. 32
    The Mellow Monkey

    Kennedy claims that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, causes autism.

    The thing that absolutely fucking enrages me about all the bullshit autism/vaccination claims is that the subtext here–the thing they never say and yet are clearly fucking thinking–is “better dead than autistic.”

    They’ll come up with all sorts of claims about how vaccines don’t really work, getting the diseases is “natural”, etc., but the genocidal bigotry of preferring their kids dead rather than on the spectrum is always lurking there under the surface if you push hard enough. Look at the abusive shit that the hardcore anti-vaxxers do to their kids who are diagnosed on the spectrum (bleach enemas, anyone?). This isn’t just about fearing science. It’s no accident that the dangerous “cure autism with abuse” parents are often also anti-vaxxers.

  33. 33
    gigantor

    @24

    I live in canberra and despite having had a recent (within previous 12 months) pertussis vaccination I was unlucky enough to get whooping cough. It was 4 weeks of torturous coughing where every cough bought pain through my entire body. I coughed so violently I ruptured both my eardrums causing even more pain and most likely a permanent reduction in the strength of my eardrums such that I can no longer scuba dive and feel pain in my ears when more than a metre under water while snorkelling. I was told by the doctor that I was lucky to have been vaccinated as my illness was reduced and could have been much worse otherwise.

    The thought of babies suffering through this to the point of death fills me with anger. In my eyes, not vaccinating children is a form of child abuse.

    While I don’t like creationists i absolutely despise anti-vaxxers

  34. 34
    Pierce R. Butler

    Apparently hereditary political lineages are a really bad idea.

    Prince Charles Schmince Schmarles – just about everybody in the US had figured that one out by 2008 (except, damnit, the majority of Kentucky voters).

  35. 35
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @ekwhite

    As other people have pointed out, as vile as Ken Ham and his ilk are, they don’t have the same body count that anti-vaxxers do.

    Nitpicking, but I feel it needs to be pointed out that creationism the ideology may not kill people, but creationists the people often do. I see your anti-vaxx deaths and raise you the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Taliban.

    However, Anti-Vaxx as an ideology directly causes death. As I said, nitpicking.

  36. 36
    w00dview

    @Daz:
    if you ever wanted the numero uno example of why false balance reporting is not just sloppy journalism but dangerous to society, then the MMR-autism link madness in the UK fits the bill perfectly. Kooks like the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips have blood on their hands.

    @Sastra:

    It’s like religion. Start explaining why the anti-vaxxers aren’t just people with a different opinion and are actually wrong and my experience is you’re met with a self-righteous chorus advocating the need for tolerance and keeping an ‘open mind.’

    Open minds only apply to purely subjective matters like musical taste. It does not mean that a medical professional and Jenny McCarthy are similarly informed on vaccines, FFS. When it comes to dealing with facts, your mind should be a little more selective and filter out the obvious bullshit. If an open mind is too open it becomes a credulous mind.

    By the way, your guest article on the Diversity Smorgasbord was a great explanation for why atheists are perceived as intolerant and close minded. Will keep it in mind for the future!

  37. 37
    Leslie Rosenblood

    It’s not just politicians. There are several books, looking very professional, that purport to review the scientific literature for non-scientists. One such, called Vaccine Safety Manual, references hundreds (perhaps thousands) of scientific studies. Unfortunately, they are not accurately represented in the text of the book. But you’d never know it simply by reading the book itself. There are many avenues that people can be, and are, misinformed about the value of national immunization programs.

    Read an analysis of Vaccine Safety Manual here.

  38. 38
    grumpyoldfart

    How about that Kennedy crew? All the way from Joe’s shady stockmarket deals up to a 21st century antivaxxer, with a couple of ratbags in between.

  39. 39
    ironflange

    I’d like to point out that the family in NZ has totally repudiated their anti-vax stance.

  40. 40
    francesc

    Well, it seems that the canadian government is more rational, they just approved(?) some new homeopathic vaccines http://www.stopnosodes.org/
    Uhm… wait… two wrongs don’t make a right?

  41. 41
    R Johnston

    @30

    It’s like religion.

    No; it is religion. It’s faith based belief that demands the deliberate rejection of the concept of evidence. Anti-vaxxers have the exact same mode of flawed reasoning as do other religionists and should be classified along with them.

  42. 42
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    I seem to remember that the AVN is even coming up with a fake ‘religion’ to claim to have so that they can try and claim ‘religious exemption’.

  43. 43
    rachelriley

    I’m a babysitter, so anti-vaxxers tend to hit a sore spot with me because I can imagine what it would be like if my little buddy weren’t vaccinated and caught something. So many parents, who thought they were honestly doing the right thing, end up becoming pro vaccination due to tragedy. And it shouldn’t happen, all it takes is some research…or a doctors visit.

  44. 44
    cervantes

    We are so bedazzled by hereditary royalty in this country that RFK Jr.’s name was bandied about to be director of the EPA when Obama was first elected. All of Daily Kos was excited by the idea; a few of us weighed in to point out that he is a lunatic and a crank — he’s been accusing officials of CDC, leading pediatricians, and researchers of being liars and mass murderers for years now, this goes back a long way. The response was largely a rush to defend him, he might be right or he might be wrong but he was doing his best to protect children, yadda yadda.

    Remember, none of these people knew anything about him except that he was RFK’s son. BTW he is, as far as I know, still the chief counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. They should have fired him when all this started but they will never acknowledge that he’s a wacko.

  45. 45
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    fredboggs @ 8: …if these people had relatives still dying of Smallpox or being crippled by Polio

    Give it a little while, and they may well. Fucking anti-vaxxers are horrific killers.

    Seriously, why aren’t the “Right to Life” organizations all over this, on the grounds of it killing actual children with names and shoes and toys?

    Oh, wait, I remember now, they don’t actually give a fuck about life as soon as it’s got out of its subhuman incubator mother.

  46. 46
    feralboy12

    Rather than accepting the findings of the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, or the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kennedy says the scientists are lying.

    He used a similar defense when he got busted for heroin.

  47. 47
    willym

    What I don’t understand is how someone who has an education beyond h.s. could be so self-deluding regarding the science of vaccines and the science which has refuted the claims of autism. J.P. Kennedy has degrees from both Harvard and Stanford. How could he be so obstinate? What is he gaining from such a position?
    I can understand the behavior of our dimwitted politicians who take positions which either support a corporation which is giving them money or a voting bloc which offers the pol votes. But I just don’t get folks like Kennedy.

  48. 48
    dongiovanni (Now onto Wagner)

    Seconded for getting PZ to come here as penance. As far as anti – flouride lunacy in concerned…

  49. 49
    Ichthyic

    Glad I’m not a Kennedy.

  50. 50
    Jerry

    @willym, #47,
    While I have high respect for the US public school system, don’t be overly optimistic about “education beyond h.s.” as far as teaching enough science. A high school education in science might include just *one* biology course that only covers the basics of life. A college education in, say political science, only requires one or two choices of some kind of science, i.e. Geology 001 Rocks for Jocks/Pols or Physics 009.81 Measuring Gravity Sixteen Different Ways, none of which exposes you to any more biology. A person could conceivably miss just a few days of schooling in their life to lose out on any formal training on vaccination whatsoever.

    Now, this does not excuse strident anti-vaxxers like Kennedy, who present themselves as experts over people who have medical degrees or even doctorates in biology or public health. It may give you an insight as to why _other_ people who have some kind of college degree in, say, marketing or engineering, could be misled. They don’t know enough biology to realize for themselves just how much crap the anti-vaxxers are spewing. Good science is sometimes hard to read, but the anti-vax junk is deliberately written at a lower level to convince everyone. As people said very well, above, anti-vax is much more like religion and faith than science, built on lots of lies, fear and self-righteousness.

    What does Kennedy gain? Maybe fame for being a rebel who “helps” people? (Free and useless pop psych- Anyone would be hard-pressed to outshine his father and uncles’ fame.) Unless he gives motives other than “helping people”, then some version of “follow the money”, i.e. follow the ego, might apply.

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