Anti-Vaxxers….Dangerous Ideas

Recently at a Legislative Town Hall there was a coordinated effort to bring the idea that vaccines are dangerous to the attention of MN legislators. It was performance art and devoid of rationality.

As a retired pharmacist, this raises all sorts of red flags. And unless we properly educate the public, I fear that we are setting ourselves up for a future pandemic problem.

Vaccines have saved countless lives but there is no means to quantify that because what is prevented can’t be counted. All the anti-vax community sees is the potential for side effects and deeply flawed correlations.

I am not saying that vaccines are not without side effects. Tylenol has side effects. Aspirin has side effects. Too much exercise has side effects. No drug is 100% safe. No surgery is 100% safe. Nothing in the medical field is devoid of causes and effects. But we try to make everything as safe as we possibly can and when a medical procedure can have long term benefits for a large group of people, well, we need to add those considerations.

Some anti-vax rhetoric centers on patient choice. And while that is a standard that medicine strives for and a laudible goal, the case for vaccinations has an added element. Protection of others. When you vaccinate your child, you are giving not only his/her own protection, you are protecting your family, future classmates, and maybe even a future sibling.

I hear this idea that measles is just a childhood illness that people have survived forever. But once again this is flawed logic when you consider this:

 Rubella (German measles) is caused by a virus that results in mild fever, runny nose, cough, and then followed by a generalized rash. … It is also very dangerous for pregnant women who are not immunized to come in contact with someone who has rubella because it may cause a miscarriage.

In addition, very young children who contract rubella are at a higher risk if they have not been immunized because their bodies are not ready to withstand the symptoms.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Autism. It is a parents worst fear. We do not know what causes it so we search for answers. It is important for us to find reasons for our fears. To find something to explain the unknown. Anti-vaxxers have latched on to a vague correlation with vaccines.

I cannot comfort a parent whose family is forever changed by severe autism. And telling any of the anti-vaxxers that vaccines are not the cause will most likely make them angry and defensive. But while we can never be 100% certain that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism, the evidence suggests this is not the case.

A JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) article published a couple years ago did an extensive study, the results:

In the largest-ever study of its kind, researchers again found that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine did not increase risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This proved true even among children already considered at high risk for the disorder.

But here is a discernible result from this controversy:

As of Saturday, there are 32 confirmed cases of measles in Washington — an outbreak that has already prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.  “Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease that can be fatal in small children,” Inslee said in his proclamation Friday, adding that these cases create “an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other counties.”

That is the real danger. And making an individual choice not to vaccinate can have real world consequences.

There are a few researchers who are using the anxiety over autism to exploit that community. Two suspect researchers, Christopher Shaw, PhD, and Lucija Tomljenovic, PhD, had a recent study published which has since been retracted by the journal because of flaws in their research.

We do not need this kind of confusion. And before the legislature makes any kind of decision on how to approach this, get the consensus analysis from the research commuity to properly evaluate what is brought forward.