Dr. Spirograph says no to Vaccines

Vaccines save countless lives every year. Whether it is the MMR vaccine, Flu shots or the Polio vaccine, people are afforded immunity to otherwise potentially dangerous diseases. This practise, backed by rigorously tested scientific principles, should really be uncontroversial and you would imagine the obvious benefits would be apparent to all, regardless of cast or creed. This unfortunately is not the case and the objections are coming from many different regions.

In the United States, there is a movement dedicated to ignoring the scientific evidence and raising ill founded concerns about the safety of the vaccine programs. These AntiVaccers are blessed with the convenience of not being subject to the facts around the efficacy and dangers of vaccines and like all well organised true believer organisations, they are usually just ignorant marketing machines. They also usually have one or more public figures that represent their fear mongering pseudoscientific nonsense.  They range from celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who, with no scientific background or training, feels free to bandy about ‘facts’ with no regard  for their truth value; to disgraced doctors like Andrew Wakefield who holds a privileged position in the movement due to his fraudulent and unethical paper and work on the MMR vaccine.

In other countries the problem stems from a very different place. The house of god also apparently takes exception to vaccination in the form of Muslim fundamentalists in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. You may scoff and say that to expect to have healthcare available properly in countries that are suffering through war is unfeasible, but the truth of the matter is that vaccination programs were in place and Polio was essentially on its knees. This program could have eradicated the disease and confined it to the annals of history but this western influence however was seen as a threat by the Muslim fundamentalists who, in their eyes presumably saw a threat to their privileged position of shepherd to their flock, issued fatwas denouncing vaccination. They claimed it was an American plot to impede the will of allah and that it was a means of covertly sterilising the population. Fear tactics were also employed to scare away those administrating the vaccine and this was the catalyst for Polio resurgence in those areas and its liberation from the influence of those trying to remove it.

Both of these influences, you could speculate, are driven by a similar desire but in very different ways. That drive is the need for power and influence. The desire not to be displaced from a position of influence might explain the religious objections while a need on the part of those like Jenny McCarthy to absolve whatever undeserved guilt may come about from having a child stricken by a developmental disorder like autism is a way to reassert a similar kind of influence. I imagine that at the root of the agenda of those like Jenny McCarthy there is a genuine belief that her cause is just and righteous but her approach genuinely leads to death and suffering that could easily be avoided. To be so passionate about the topic may speak to her desire to do justice for her son but it’s irresponsible to do it from a perspective of ignorance. The other side of the Jenny McCarthy story is the mechanisms by which she sells her position. She regularly invokes her ‘Mommy Instinct’ as though this gave her a privileged position that allowed her to circumvent all the scientific evidence that stands against her. This emotionally provocative tactic is unfair to the science and those being manipulated by its misinterpretation and dismissal.

These well funded Anti-Vac groups are selling the false claims in the shape of sophisticated arguments that create false controversies very similar to those put forward by creationists and their ilk. The main campaign which was spearheaded by Jenny McCarthy and her equally deluded partner in crime Jim Carrey was the one for ‘Green Our Vaccines’. This admittedly brilliantly word campaign is designed to illicit fear using the naturalist language that is so often bandied about to give an impression of a communion with mother nature which is rarely a view held with regard to the pharmaceutical industry. Claims of mercury poisoning from the preservative thimerosal were given as reasons for the alleged outbreaks of vaccine related autism and after sufficient pressure it was removed from the majority of vaccines. This was the first major claim and it lent itself to scientific scrutiny because if it were the cause of the autism incidents then its removal should coincide with a sharp drop off in the diagnosis rates of vaccinated children. This was put to most advocates for thimerosal’s removal and they all mostly agreed that this drop would be found. The drop never happened however and unsurprisingly this had no effect on the AntiVaccers who merely made the highly improbable claim that the benefits seen from the removal of the mercury preservative was perfectly counteracted by other toxins in the vaccines which had a similar effect. This is the logic employed by these people and this is the irrational approach that we have to fight against. Evidence isn’t something to be considered instead it’s just a resource from which they can cherry pick the data that they can sufficiently misinterpret to bolster their bullshit claims.

One of their other provocative claims is that there is a right for the individual to abstain from the vaccines that are mandated by governments and that to prevent people from opting out is an infringement on individual rights. This argument holds sway especially amongst Americans, with the concept of freedom being so integrated into their vernacular. The argument is remarkably short-sighted, however, as it ignores, once again, the science. The function of vaccines is not only to prevent the infection of those receiving the vaccine but to also to prevent the infection of people who, for some reason or other, cannot be vaccinated. The immune-compromised rely on the vast majority of those around them being free from dangerous diseases that they themselves are ill equipped to deal with. Herd immunity, where a group is statistically immune to a disease to the point where it is unlikely to spread successfully, is dependent on 9 out of 10 individuals in that group being vaccinated. This gives those most vulnerable members of the group the opportunity to avoid risks that they would be otherwise susceptible to. This is why in areas around the world where vaccine programs are being undermined there are outbreaks and subsequent deaths happening with alarming regularity. The argument that you child should be free from vaccines with which you don’t agree, doesn’t only have implications for your child, and as a result the laws surrounding immunisation need to reflect that.

Post Vaccines Ergo Propter Vaccines

The whole issue of vaccines and autism recently attracted fresh attention when Donald Trump, on the Fox News channel, came out against vaccines with what was essentially an anecdote about a friend of his which was completely divorced from the scientific facts around vaccines. He claims that he is not ‘anti-vaccination’, but then goes on to betray his ignorance on the subject he is about to publicly undermine. Firstly, he alludes to the increase in autism diagnoses that have persisted in the last ten years, and commits the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (after this therefore because of this) logical fallacy to say that this is related to increases in the vaccine schedule. His nostalgia tinted view on the good old days when doctors just tossed your hair playfully and sent you on your way with a lolly pop so he and your father could share a pipe and mid afternoon brandy, ignores the fact that there are no ties between these changes. Autism rates are increasing because of the change of criteria for diagnosis and the vaccine schedule has no effect on this. This is a difficult point to accept, admittedly, for any parent dealing with autism who wishes to find reasons behind their circumstances, but it’s tantamount to saying that ice cream and drowning are causally linked even though you are ignoring the fact that ice cream sales and swimming both go up in summer time. This is the kind of reasoning that reminds me of the crazy scientist in the old building who says to Bart in an episode of the Simpsons “Wait: did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity? Think about it”. As with Dr Spirograph this needs to be treated in the same way, dismissal. Being a victim of your own stupidity is one thing but keep your misconceptions to yourself, preferably locked away in an abandoned factory like Dr Spirograph.

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 Bart visiting Dr. Spirograph or Jenny McCarthy, I’m not sure.

The main problem I have is with the media handling of this and the fact that Donald Trump, Jenny McCarthy, and other Dr Spirographs are given equal time to spout their nonsense. This false balance added to the fact that it’s broadcast on a ‘news’ network as powerful as Fox’s creates the false impression that there actually is a controversy. The video I watched of Trump (http://bit.ly/HHsw1Q) has streams of supportive messages for his stand against the dangers posed by ‘Big Pharma’ and its child killing drive for profits at any cost. The informed and scientifically literate do arrive to save the day and do a great job of lining out the facts and figures in a reasonable way. The problem doesn’t lie however in there being no answers to these questions but more in the fact that we have a culture that respects the anecdotal opinion of celebrities more than scientific consensus and furthermore we have a global mainstream media that exploits this to bolster ratings and drive controversy for cheap ratings and to give an impression of standing up for the little man. Unless this is tackled, diseases that have been of late exclusively confined to history books will re-emerge, and the fallout will be the death and suffering of innocent people. At the minute, we could be compared to the fervent pen of Dr Spirograph. We are mostly turning in circles and getting nowhere and in the end all we end up with is a pretty picture for Fox to pin to the fridge.