The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Monday, November 11, 2013

Vaccines Work

Rich Stossel of NaturalNews posted an article titled Historical data shows vaccines are not what saved us in which he argues:
If you look at the historical data on vaccination efficacy, you'll see that they are not responsible for the decline in disease in the last hundred years at all.
He is echoing an argument by Andrew Weil (a quack who got busted selling fake flu remedies) that vaccines are ineffective because the diseases they aim to prevent were already on the decline when each vaccine was introduced. Since none of the below vaccination programs were the first attempt at eradicating their respective diseases, this trend should not be surprising.

However, we don't have to look at historical data to learn the effectiveness of a vaccine. Clinical studies test vaccine effectiveness. Ineffective vaccines aren't given to the public. Weil's argument is contradicted by every clinical study showing vaccines to be effective!

Anyway, Stossel goes on to cite a list of anecdotes copied verbatim from a 2002 anti-vaccination website by Ian Sinclair. This plagiarized evidence is supposed to convince the reader that vaccines played no role in the decline of certain infectious diseases.

In addition to debunking most of these claims, I'll try to explain the rhetorical tools used by Sinclair.

The first tool in Sinclair's deception tool belt is taking big numbers out of context.
In 1871-2 England, with 98% of the population aged between 2 and 50 vaccinated against smallpox, it experienced its worst ever smallpox outbreak with 45,000 deaths...
This argument calls into question the efficacy of the smallpox vaccine. After all, how did so many vaccinated people die? Actually, from this argument, we can't assume any vaccinated people died.

The cited document actually reports 44,800 smallpox deaths and that 97.5% of the public aged 2 to 50 were vaccinated, leaving 2.5% unvaccinated, conspicuously ignoring old people.

The population of at the time England was 31,629,299, so there would have been 17 unvaccinated people for every one that died from smallpox! Sinclair expects his audience to miss this numerical slight of hand, as not everyone has an intuitive grasp on large numbers.

Smallpox vaccine is now 95% effective, though it may not have been so effective in the past.

In his next point, Sinclair again relies on the ignorance of his audience.
In Germany, compulsory mass vaccination against diphtheria commenced in 1940, and by 1945, diphtheria cases were up from 40,000 to 250,000.
When I see "Germany" and "1940" in a sentence, I immediately think of WORLD WAR II. Don't you? If you saw Schindler's List, you probably aren't surprised by the diphtheria outbreak.

In fact, the mass movement of children to camps and neglect of immunizations were the actual cause of this tragic epidemic. Lou Minatti also has some choice words on this topic.

Next, Sinclair performs a different sort of magic trick, conjuring someone out of thin air.
In 1967, Ghana was declared measles-free by the World Health Organization after 96% of its population was vaccinated. In 1972, Ghana experienced one of its worst measles outbreaks with its highest ever mortality rate. (Dr. H. Albonico, MMR Vaccine Campaign in Switzerland, March 1990)
This claim is completely made up! "Dr. H. Albonico" is not a real person. Apparently, he's a fictional character who supposedly self-published an article titled Vaccination campaign against measles, mumps, and rubella. A constraining project for a dubious future? which does not exist.

In reality, the measles vaccine works. Even in Ghana.

Sinclair seems to have been on quite the fictional roll, so he made up another fact, but this time, he also invented a whole new organization!
In the UK between 1970 and 1990, over 200,000 cases of whooping cough occurred in fully vaccinated children. (Community Disease Surveillance Centre, UK)
There is no such thing as the "Community Disease Surveillance Centre" in the UK, or anywhere.

In reality, the whooping cough vaccine is highly effective, but the protection decreases over time. That's why it's important to get a booster shot every few years.

Now, Sinclair moves on to special pleading.
In the 1970s, a tuberculosis vaccine trial in India involving 260,000 people revealed that more cases of TB occurred in the vaccinated than the unvaccinated. (The Lancet 12/1/80 p73)
The BCG vaccine for tuberculosis had variable efficacy, depending on geography. Not every attempt at vaccine making is a success. Nobody claims that vaccines saved us from TB. Antibiotics did!
In 1977, Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, testified along with other scientists that mass inoculation against polio was the cause of most polio cases throughout the USA since 1961. (Science 4/4/77 "Abstracts")
The polio vaccine is one of the greatest vaccine success stories! There was a small risk of infection with live virus vaccines, which are no longer used. For a thorough explanation, see the Rogue Medic.
In 1979, Sweden abandoned the whooping cough vaccine due to its ineffectiveness. Out of 5,140 cases in 1978, it was found that 84% had been vaccinated three times! (BMJ 283:696-697, 1981)
The most important and effective way to control pertussis is vaccination. Following suspension of immunisation there was an increase in reported cases of pertussis in Sweden. That is why Sweden is highly involved in development of improved pertussis vaccines.
The February 1981 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 90% of obstetricians and 66% of pediatricians refused to take the rubella vaccine.
This study of hospital workers in Los Angeles concludes that means must be found to ensure greater employee acceptance of vaccine. Why? Because vaccines work.
In Oman between 1988 and 1989, a polio outbreak occurred amongst thousands of fully vaccinated children. The region with the highest infection rate had the highest vaccine coverage. The region with the lowest infection rate had the lowest vaccine coverage. (The Lancet, 21/9/91)
The case of Oman demonstrates how response to the oral vaccine can vary widely within individual countries. Yes, vaccines efficacy can very due to a number of circumstances. So what? Everywhere you see decline in polio (most of the world), vaccinations are the cause.
In the New England Journal of Medicine July 1994 issue, a study found that over 80% of children under 5 years of age who had contracted whooping cough had been fully vaccinated.
By the 1980s, whooping cough incidents in the United States were almost zero. Vaccination is what saved us. In recent years, however, opting out of vaccination has lowered many states below the herd immunity, which is 92%. No surprise, those are the states in which outbreaks tend to occur.

This is why anti-vaccine misinformation is so dangerous. It only takes one out of ten gullible people to ruin heard immunity for a disease that is difficult to control, like whooping cough.

Please, don't be fooled by Rich Stossel, Andrew Weil, or Ian Sinclair into being that gullible person.



  2. While you do make some valid points about the original article I'd like to take you up on your numbers seeing as you attack those used by the original author.

    For example population of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 30 million in 1870. Author says deaths from epidemic were in England. Population of England (and Wales) at that time around 23 million. 2.5% of that is 575,000 unvaccinated people. With a death rate of around 30% from variola major that would mean around 133,500 cases from a population of 23 million (0.58% transmission rate).

    But... in the epidemic of 1714 2810 people died from smallpox in London out of a population of approximately 630,000 people Using the 30 % fatality rate again that’s 9,366 cases of smallpox and a transmission rate of 1.49% within the city of London.

    So, while admitting that some of these historical numbers may be slightly dodgy and epidemics can vary, it can be said considering that urban areas are more susceptible to epidemics that there was very little real change in smallpox transmission rate between the epidemic of 1714 prior to immunisation and the epidemic of 1871 during the era of mass vaccination.

    Vaccines of the 20th century are a different matter to be debated.

  3. Yes, viral transmission rates depend on urban densities.
    What's that got to do with my point about our unintuitive grasp on large numbers?

    Fine, let's use a 30% mortality rate and a population of 23 million.
    Does that change the conclusion? No.

    Vaccines of the 20th century work, and that's a matter of fact, not "a matter to be debated".

  4. ok, ok, ok; vaccines are a cornerstone of modern policy - fine.

    But going back to the data you mentioned, its just that assuming data from past epidemics is accurate not everyone in a given population catches smallpox. If we take a 1% transmission rate then of those 575,000 unvaccinated people only 5,750 people would have caught smallpox. Substantial numbers of people who were vaccinated must have caught the disease themselves. So in a sense 44,800 people would be roughly (perhaps a bit less) the right amount of expected deaths from a 23 million population mostly vulnerable to smallpox. But, elsewhere, I did search for the Ghana thing and didn't find anything.

  5. I can play that game, too. If we take a 26% transmission rate then of those 575,000 unvaccinated people, using the 30% fatality rate, 44,800 would have died from smallpox [1].

    What you're doing is called "circular reasoning" or "begging the question", because the efficacy of vaccines is measured by the different transmission rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups, and it's the efficacy of vaccines that's in question.

    In reality, the the transmission rate was something more like 1.5% for vaccinated people compared with 7.5% for unvaccinated people [2].

    The vaccine worked. Without it, the 1870 epidemic would have been worse because, without antibodies to fight the infection, the average transmission rate would have been higher.

    2. see table 2