The South Dakota State Medical Association put out this collection of essays and reports (PDF) on the history of vaccines. It makes for good reading. If you don’t have enough time to read it all, read the afterword, especially this part:
“Public health has faced resistance to vaccination for as long as it has been used to protect the public’s health, but today the scope of the challenge facing public health to address these challenges has grown, including the increasing dependence of consumers on obtaining health information online. For decades, public health has accomplished its mission using its most valuable currency – trust and credibility. The public’s trust in public health and our credibility in using the best scientific and outcome-based evidence to drive our policies have enabled the dramatic successes in vaccination. Maintaining that trust and credibility is key to the success of future public health activities. If, to counter resistance to vaccines, public health overstates vaccine efficacy and effectiveness, the risk of being infected, and experiencing serious illness as the result of a vaccinepreventable disease, or the safety of vaccines, we will ultimately lose public trust and credibility. Our ability to promote vaccines will then be seriously challenged.”
I’ll be the first one to confess that I have, at times, used some of the tactics that anti-vaccine activists have used. I’ve been a troll on their comments section. (This one being my latest, greatest coup.) At times, I have called people names, and I have been very short-tempered when others were exhibiting their stupidity. In short, I’ve been antagonistic, and I blame the anti-vaccine and anti-science forces for making me come off that way.
1. Don’t exaggerate. Anti-vaccine people will use exaggeration to try and prove their points, sometimes claiming that events that happen once in a thousand years occur often enough to be feared. They do this a lot with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). This syndrome happens between 3,000 and 6,000 times each year to people regardless of whether or not they received any vaccine. Yes, GBS is known to be one of the things that could happen with vaccines, but it is very rare, and you have equal odds of getting it whether or not you’re vaccinated. But that’s not true to the anti-vaccine activist. To them, there is a clear and present danger of developing GBS with any and all vaccines, and this danger is so high (to them) that you should not get vaccinated.
Likewise, there have been a handful of cases of polio vaccine-derived poliomyelitis. A handful! But the anti-vaccine activists make it sound like any polio vaccine will undoubtedly lead to full-blown polio. They will tell you that the polio vaccine in places like India has caused a huge number of cases of “acute flaccid paralysis”, and they will recommend to you — with a straight face — that you are better off just washing your hands and drinking bottled water if you go to India and are not vaccinated.
On the other hand, I’ve seen some vaccine advocates use exaggeration as well. For example, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a known complication from having measles. It happens to people, particularly children, who get measles and don’t quite clear the virus. (No, it doesn’t happen from the measles vaccine, despite the vaccine virus being live, attenuated.) This type of encephalitis is incredibly rare, but it debilitating and awful for a child to go through. In an attempt to get people to vaccinate, I have used it as an example of something that could happen if you did not vaccinate. Others have done the same thing. And I’ve noticed that we don’t quite do the due diligence of clarifying the risk. Henceforth, I promise to say something like this, “Listen, the chances of SSPE are incredibly small, but they are larger than the chances of adverse effects from the MMR vaccine. The MMR vaccine reduces your chance of measles to almost nothing, and the chance of encephalitis and other nasty things from measles to even less than that.”
I’ll try not to exaggerate.
2. Don’t smear. One of the favorite things that anti-vaccine people do is to try and smear their opponents or people they disagree with. To some, a certain vaccine researcher and quite awesome pediatrician working in Philadelphia is a “vaccine industrialist” because he spent decades of his life trying to develop a life-saving vaccine and got compensated for it. A journalist who wrote an excellent book on the anti-vaccine forces is a “Pharma mouthpiece”, and so on and so forth. Anyone who comments online in an attempt to set the fact straight is labeled a “Pharma shill” or a “paid commenter.” Very seldom will the anti-vaccine activist address the facts being laid before them.
I have as well failed to address the lies laid before me by anti-vaccine activists and just attacked their intelligence. I have done this for several reasons. First, you can only explain things to people so much before it gets old and exhausting. Second, the very act of using lies to prove a point makes people worthy of one’s questioning of their mental abilities. It’s easier to write, “Listen, you moron. You painfully, obviously did not study biology because of this idiotic statement you’re making.” On the contrary, I plan to have some “canned comments” to just paste to people that make a claim. Usually, “Wakefield committed fraud and none of his claims have been duplicated nor validated” should suffice.
I’ll try to keep my composure and not smear, and not call names.
3. Easy with the anecdotes. I’ll be the first to tell you that there is some use to anecdotes because they can give us a worst case scenario for things. If one of my friends goes to a restaurant and gets gnarly food poisoning 12 to 24 hours later, I’ll probably avoid that restaurant. If another friend goes down a dark alley at night in downtown Managua, Nicaragua, getting stabbed and killed in the process, I’ll probably not go down a dark alley at night in downtown Managua, Nicaragua. Know what I mean?
The problem is when we use anecdotes to say that they represent the majority of cases, or the average experience of every person around you. For example, I told you about the man who is convinced that his daughter has type one diabetes because she got the hepatitis B shot as a newborn. There is no other evidence out there that the hepatitis B vaccine causes type one diabetes, but he continues to claim that his anecdote represents the whole of human experience. That makes him sound
even more nutty unreasonable.
So I’ll keep anecdotes to a minimum and try to put them in perspective.
4. Be honest. There will be times when the evidence doesn’t back up what you deeply believe in, and you’ll be very tempted to lie or twist the truth a little bit. Don’t do it. That’s what the anti-science crowd does. They’ll look at the number of cases of a vaccine-preventable disease and how they plummeted after the introduction a vaccine and lie to you, telling you that it was hygiene, soap, or homeopathy that did it, not the vaccines.
You are going to see things that will shake your foundations on something that you believe to be true. I went through it just recently with the flu vaccine. As it turns out, the vaccine is not all that it can be. The injectable vaccine in the US doesn’t have adjuvants, so older people or people with malfunctioning immune systems will not react to the vaccine. Likewise, the intranasal vaccine doesn’t be very good at protecting adults. It does a good job with kids, though.
I had to present these findings to you and to my colleagues, and I didn’t back down because it is important to gain something from the truth, even if it’s a truth we don’t want to hear. It is necessary for science to grow that we correct our way and go on the path of knowledge, not the path of emotion.
I’ll continue to be honest, no matter where that takes me.