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Science Fiction Round 29: Vaccinations and Rage


I really hope that I’m going to be preaching to the choir on this one.

Nature (the big-time science journal) publishes a science fiction short story every week along with its articles about real science.  The one I’m concerned about is called “Vessels for destruction.”  It’s free to read online, and it’s quite short, so if you want to read it before I start murdering it, go right ahead.

I’ll wait.

Did You Really Just Say That??

The key line in the midst of the mess is the one where the prophet-martyr type character says the following:

“The Romans lined copper cups with lead because it made the wine taste sweeter. The European settlers in America farmed tobacco. You created vaccines for every ailment known to man, till your bodies could no longer defend against a live disease.”

The author has just equated vaccinations against deadly diseases with lead poisoning and tobacco.

Excuse me?  This is not true.  This is not true at all.  There is a lot of information about vaccines on Wikipedia, but I feel the point needs to be hammered home.  Vaccines DO NOT reduce the strength of your immune system, or make you more susceptible to diseases other than those against which you have been inoculated.  Sure, you’re more likely to get them than the diseases you’re vaccinated against, but no worse than before.  (And, in case it wasn’t clear, vaccines really do REDUCE the likelihood of getting the disease you were vaccinated against.)

Now, admittedly, this is a fictional world, and the above statement about vaccines being counter-productive appears true in that setting.

BUT THIS IS SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF DANGEROUSLY HARMFUL WRONG that supporting the idea, even in fiction, is dangerous.  There are no serious side effects to most modern vaccines — if something does go wrong for even a tiny fraction of people, the vaccine is recalled, like any other medication.  On the other hand, essentially everything that we vaccinate against has the potential for serious consequences.  A certain number of people die every year from things like measles.  Which is why we vaccinate against it — so that doesn’t happen.

Now, why is this fictional tidbit so wrong, do you ask?  After all, some folks say, if one person isn’t vaccinated, they’re just taking risk on themselves. No harm to everyone else, no foul.  Right?  Well, not really…

Herd Immunity

Herd immunity is very important.  Some people can’t be vaccinated for whatever reason — they’re too young to be vaccinated yet, they’re allergic to eggs or other items used to make the vaccine, their immune systems are too compromised to work because of illness or age, or they’re currently seriously ill with something else.  Such individuals depend on herd immunity to avoid contracting such debilitating and potentially lethal diseases as measles, mumps, whooping cough, and many others.  If a high fraction of the population is vaccinated, it’s difficult for a disease to spread — most people’s bodies just kill it on sight, essentially, reducing the potential to pass it on.  Thus, the smaller fraction who can’t be protected with vaccines are still at lower risk due to herd immunity.

But, if the fraction of unvaccinated individuals is too high… herd immunity fails.

In fact, the rates of measles (and deaths from it) have been going up since this anti-vaccine scare started going around.  This is horrifying.  Other illnesses (such as whooping cough) are also seeing a resurgence.  This doesn’t need to happen.

Vaccines are an easy target to blame for problems, such as autism, that tend to be diagnosed in children around the time when they’re scheduled to be vaccinated.  This is coincidence of timing, not causation.  Don’t confuse the two.

And many people seem to have forgotten that these diseases are deadly.  Why?  Because the vaccines they were given reduced the diseases’ prevalence so drastically that many people in the US and UK today are unfamiliar with them.  According to Wikipedia, measles alone caused roughly 345,000 deaths globally in 2005.  The number dropped to roughly 164,000 deaths in 2008, most occuring in southeast Asia.  Why the large drop?  MEASLES VACCINES.  And, of the few people who got measles in the US in 2013… nearly all were unvaccinated.

There’s a correlation for you.

Other Items

If you don’t like that summary, here’s a cute website commenting on Jenny McCarthy’s promotion of non-vaccination.  It also has some other information, like why vaccines are nifty.

And for good measure, the nonprofit Hug Me I’m Vaccinated does good work.

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  1. michaelbusch
    2014/02/24 at 10:24 pm

    Follow-up:

    Rachel wrote an opinion letter addressing the problems with the story described above and sent it to Nature. To their credit, they did publish it: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v506/n7488/full/506295d.html . But better that such dangerously wrong ideas not be presented unchallenged in the first place.

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