If you’ve seen some of the arguments from the anti-vaccine groups out there, you’ve probably seen their claims that the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) is some kind of a cornucopia of “evidence” that vaccines are bad. I’ve examined VAERS for you before, but mostly having to do with the HPV vaccine. VAERS is a reporting system to which everyone and anyone can report. You can go file a report right now if you want to. You can tell them that you turned into the Hulk after you got your vaccine or something.
Does VAERS give clues that something is happening because of a vaccine? Yes. Does it give evidence that a vaccine is bad or has caused death and destruction? No.
VAERS is what is called a “passive surveillance system” because those on the other side of the system don’t need to spend time and energy in looking for cases. It’s a cost-efficient way of doing surveillance for adverse events. However, once they get enough blips on the radar (enough reports that are similar), epidemiologists get to the task of looking deeper into the cases, looking for more cases, and then conducting a case-control study to see if odds of being vaccinated are different between cases and controls of a particular outcome. If the case-control study says that there is evidence that the vaccine is strongly associated with some sort of outcome, more evidence is gathered and a decision is made to act.
Contrary to anti-vaccine zealots’ claims, people at CDC really do care, and they really do want vaccines to be as safe and effective as they can be. This although they know that nothing is 100% safe nor 100% effective.
In recent days, there has been a claim on the internet that the MMR vaccine has been responsible for 108 deaths since 2005 while measles hasn’t killed anyone in the US since 2000. First, let’s look at the claim that measles hasn’t killed anyone in the US. Remember that measles was eliminated in the US around that time, so it stands to reason that there haven’t been that many cases of measles overall, so there wouldn’t be that many deaths. But what do the data say?
According to table #2 in this document, there were two deaths from measles in 2009. There were other years with deaths as well, but, for the purposes of the claim that there have not been deaths from measles in the United States in recent years, it’s case closed.
So what about the 108 deaths from the MMR? Let’s look at VAERS with the knowledge that, one, the reports can be put in by anyone at any time and for any reason, and, two, a report is not evidence of causality between vaccine and the outcome. A report is merely a “signal” in the “noise” that there was some sort of an event after a vaccine, not necessarily because of it.
After asking for all reports with an outcome of “death” going back to 1990 and associated with all known measles vaccines, I received 235 reports. Here are some of the details I found:
“On 05/07/1990 patient went to the Doctor and had a physical, which the doctor said he was in good health and doing well for his age and he also received 2 vaccinations MMR and DPT. He was congested and had a fever after receiving his shots. I gave him infant Tylenol during the day and before I put him to sleep. At 7am approximately 12 hours later I found patient in his bed not breathing and without a pulse. I performed CPR but patient died. The coroner determined that the cause of death was SIDS.”
That one had a one-day onset, but not much more information was given. Is this one report enough? Remember, there have been tens of millions of doses of MMR given in the United States. Let’s look at some more reports:
“On 31DEC90 experienced shock, renal failure, fever, convuls & pneumonia. Hospitalized & lab testing revealed a positive assay for toxic shock synd, septic shock, & disseminated intravascular coagulation. MD stated pt’s sxs not d/t vaccinatn”
This one happened 9 days after the vaccine. Could it have taken that long for such an outcome to happen? Let’s keep looking:
“Infant febrile morning of 5/18/2006 around 5:30 a.m. No other S/S per parent. Parent administered tylenol. Midday infant began seizing, mom called 911, infant transported and later pronounced dead at hospital. 7/19/06 Received death certificate which stated COD as pulmonary edema due to protracted febrile seizure. 7/28/06 Received tag-2 report from PCP. Family had moved to another state. Records accompanying report included vax records, Death Summary from ER & Autopsy Report. COD stated as non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema as the result of febrile seizures/ss”
This one happened six days after the immunizations. It’s interesting to me because so many anti-vaccine parents have stated that they want their children to have a fever, and even a febrile seizure, because it’s the “natural way” to deal with infections. Still, let’s keep looking:
“[Name] was given DPT/MMR/OPV while still on anitbiotic Pedizole and tassii organdin for otitis & bronchitis. He appeared happy & well until he died in his sleep. Shots were given on 5DEC89.”
This one happened 24 days after the immunizations. Could it have taken that long for the death to happen? Or was this child given the vaccine and then, about three weeks later, sick with otitis and bronchitis that got complicated? We’ll never know because we will never have access their private medical information. So let’s keep looking:
“adm to hosp 31AUG95 w/3wk hx progressive non prod cough,SOB & fevers;devel abd pain,diarrhea;lost 30lbs;pt had multiple diagnostic studies,devel pleural effusion,viral pneumonia & measles pneumonia;”
Oh, measles pneumonia? After receiving the MMR vaccine? This must be a red flag, right? Well, no… The rest of the report tells us that, sadly, this person had a CD4 count of less than 10 due to advanced HIV/AIDS. They were a hemophiliac, and that was likely how they were infected with HIV. (It’s the 1990’s, after all). Also, the vaccine was given four years earlier. It is very possible that this person’s immune status allowed them to catch measles at a time when measles was very active in the United States.
This one is interesting:
“”Brother states patient developed “”Transverse myelitis”” from the MMR vaccine then the patient “”Fell down and died””. Developed paralysis in legs one week after shot. 8/11/08-records received for DOS 12/12/07-1/6/08- DX: Paraparesis secondary to transverse myelitis. Death secondary to pulmonary embolism. Admitted for evaluation of lower extremity weakness for 2-3 weeks, with shooting pain in feet on 12/14/07-balance difficulties noted, tingling in left upper extremity prior to hospitalization Upgoing plantar reflex noted on right side, lower extremity reflex loss at ankles and left patella. Autopsy refused by family.””
Was it the MMR? It was given in September of 2007 and the person died in January of 2008. I mean, since the brother says so, it must be true, right? Let’s look at the rest of the evidence:
“Lung cancer 2 years with chemotherapy 8/11/08-records received- NCV abnormal evidence of primary muscle disorder. Glucose elevated, AST and ALT elevation of 144 and 177. MRI normal. CSF leukocytosis. Culture negative. on 1/6/08 began hypo” (Report cuts off.)
Do you think that maybe, just maybe, the lung cancer may have caused a pulmonary embolism? Is it possible that the cancer may have metastasized and caused the nervous system injuries that led to his condition? Nah. It was the MMR vaccine.
Here’s a 49 year-old male:
“Per translator client died 2 to 3 hrs. after receiving vaccines on 7/2/09. Autopsy is pending to determine cause of death. Due to language barrier unable to get more information.7/21/09-Nancy with Med Exam office called with preliminary COD: Coronary Artery Disease with no other significant conditions contributing to death. 8/13/09 Cause of Death: Coronary artery disease. Manner of death: Natural. Autopsy report summary of findings: I. Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. A. Calcific coronary artery disease, marked, involving three major vessels and left main. B. Aortic atherosclerosis, mild to moderate. II. Nephrosclerosis. III. Right rib fractures consistent with resuscitation efforts.”
It wasn’t the clogged arteries, ladies and gentlemen… It was the vaccines. It’s always the vaccines.
I could keep going, but you know where this goes. Someone had a vaccine, then something bad happened to them, and then someone filed a report because it must have been the vaccine, nothing else. Anti-vaccine activists will tell you that this is all ignored by CDC. However, if you look at the reports, you can see that the names of the vaccine manufacturers and lot numbers, when available, are presented right in the reports. Furthermore, you can see from the reports that CDC personnel took the time and made the effort to follow-up on all of these cases, even the ones where someone called them and had a chip on their shoulder. Why? Because they care. They wouldn’t be doing the work that they do if they didn’t.
Look, there are going to be times when someone will have a bad reaction to a vaccine, any vaccine. But these reactions are extremely rare. If they do happen, it is even more rare that it ends in death. Has someone ever died from a vaccine? I’m sure someone has. It is not unreasonable to think that it has happened. But it is unreasonable to think that it is so common that it is going to happen to me or you tomorrow or the day after if we get a vaccine. What is more likely to happen is the death or permanent injury of a child if we don’t vaccinate, if we don’t protect the herd.