Apparently the Tribeca Film Festival will feature a documentary on the disgraced anti-vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield. Unfortunately, the film is probably not discussing the history and facts on the vaccines & autism controversy. Instead, it’s likely a positive portrayal of Wakefield and similar doctors. Wakefield’s original paper asserting that vaccines increase the risk of autism was retracted several years ago after it was found that there were various ethical and methodological errors (including outright fraud), yet much of the anti-vaccine movement still doesn’t seem to have realized it yet. His supporters seem to now just be crackpots ranting about how his groundbreaking research is just being suppressed by the establishment. (If you have ever seen physics crackpots, this kind of thinking is one of the telltale signs that they have no interest in actually learning anything and only want to pontificate about their pet “theories”). Even among people who stop talking about autism, there seems to be significant fear that the vaccines are overwhelming children’s immune systems ( 1) ludicrous & 2) there is actually less exposure with more modern vaccines than with fewer earlier vaccines), among other concerns
The film festival already responded saying that their film choices are supposed to foster “dialogue and discussion.” This makes sense when there is a valid controversy. There is no known link between vaccines and autism, so there is basically one side that is doing research and showing that there doesn’t seem to be any problem, and another one that just asserts that the data is wrong. Similarly to the evolution/creation controversy, there is no academic controversy here. Worse, even if the vaccine opponents are right, it is almost certain that giving vaccines still does far more good than harm.
Well, we’ve survived Republican primary debate #2. Unfortunately, it was not a great day for science. Late in the debate, Trump went on a rant about how the vaccine schedule should be changed because it is causing autism. In fact, he’s even seen a small child with autism, which makes him an authority on its etiology. There were even two candidates who come from the medical field who were there: Rand Paul and Ben Carson, but neither gave a satisfactory response.
Carson correctly pointed out that there is no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism. The infamous Wakefield paper originally claiming this has been debunked and retracted by the journal, with Wakefield seen as a disgrace to his field by everyone with any credibility in medicine. Unfortunately, Carson also decided to pander to the anti-vaccine crowd by agreeing with Trump that the the vaccine schedule should be changed. He should have just stopped when he said that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. Trying to please everyone may be optimal for gaining supporters, but it’s also quite dangerous since it lends those with an unfounded claim far more credibility than they deserve. Rand Paul made a similar comment supporting delaying some vaccinations.
Surely one of the eleven candidates is knowledgable enough to know that Trump’s comments are quite dangerous and should be challenged. I suspect that at the very least both Carson and Paul know this but maybe were unwilling to give such a direct challenge as that might lose them some supporters (although it might gain some too). So, while Trump was the one to actually make anti-vaccine arguments, the silence or partial support from the other candidates means that no one really looks good here. Our immune systems can do many things, and there is basically no reason to think that a small number of vaccines would have any real affect on us considering how much bacteria we encounter every day. As the cliche goes, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, yet we don’t even have any ordinary evidence.
The Atlantic has a new article on how people get drawn into the anti-vaccine movement. Ultimately, the reason why many parents end up opposing vaccinating their own children seems to be that people are terrible at judging risk in a rational manner. The parents end up weighing the generally rare threat of dangerous disease against the even more rare but also more immediate threat of vaccine complications and decide that the minuscule threat from the vaccine is more dangerous. A more rational result would be that while the threat of disease is low, it is generally higher than any threats from the vaccine. Additionally, the only reason why the threat of disease is low is that nearly everyone is vaccinated, preventing many dangerous illnesses from spreading throughout the population. While one child not getting vaccinated does not change this, too many children going unvaccinated could allow for diseases such as measles and whooping cough to return. This has already been happening in a number of places. With the vaccination program, society has decided to accept a very small number of serious complications in order to prevent a much worse outcome from allowing these diseases to spread.
The article highlights the fact that many people place more weight on personal anecdotes than actual evidence (i.e. blinded studies using statistical analysis). In the words of one parent “data could be flawed … but someone’s story … I trust that more.” Obviously, data could be flawed, but scientific studies have at least attempted to remove biases and will almost always be better than talking to some non-random sample of people (by construction a flawed dataset). There’s even a doctor who uncritically accepts his patients’ beliefs about what caused their children’s medical problems as evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Doctors are supposed to listen to their patients, but also need to correct patients when they make unfounded claims. Just because someone says a vaccine hurt their child doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t make it untrue either, but the number of people claiming to have encountered vaccine complications is vastly higher than what would be expected from the scientific literature.
The article does a decent job of juxtaposing the arguments of the people opposing vaccines against some of the reasons why their views are (if we take the most charitable explanation of their views) misinformed. Too often the media prefers to frame every controversy as a debate between two equal sides when in many cases there is only one side with any significant supporting evidence.
Io9 has a chart from the CDC showing the number of measles cases in the US in recent years. There have been hundreds of cases so far this year. Many recent outbreaks seem to be associated with places (like schools) having unusually large numbers of unvaccinated people. Opposition to vaccines has been growing in recent years, with much of it ultimately due to discredited papers claiming a link between vaccines and autism. Even if that link were true (it’s not as far as anyone has been able to tell), vaccines save enormous numbers of lives every year. Vaccines don’t work for everyone, so a high vaccination rate is needed to prevent outbreaks from occurring. While one person can avoid vaccines without causing problems for everyone else, if too many do that you end up with the current situation where diseases that were nearly eradicated come back. So, in summary, get your vaccines and vaccinate your children.