More vaccination news, some good, some not so good

By Phil Plait | April 27, 2010 1:43 pm

Some vaccine news I missed in the past few days…

1) A pertussis outbreak in California has already killed two infants. This event resonates with what happened in Australia a year ago; vaccination rates are low, and the victims are too young to be vaccinated themselves. With herd immunities compromised, the littlest and most defenseless reap the effects. This is not necessarily caused by the antivaxxers, but it’s worth noting.

2) There is apparently a small outbreak of polio in Tajikistan. Vaccinations are critical, but so is sanitation.

3) PBS airs a documentary called "The Vaccine Wars" tonight. It’s about what you think it’s about. Check your local listings.

4) H1N1 is still out there, and still hurting and killing kids.

5) A bunch of kids got pretty sick after vaccinations in Australia. It’s unclear what happened, and officials are investigating it.

6) The good news? At least for Finland, it’s good: 97% of kids there are vaccinated. For everything. Amazing.

Tip o’ the needle to Antti Säämänen, Doug Troy, William Mount, and Greg Stitz.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Science, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: antivax, vaccinations

Comments (50)

  1. Looking forward to the Frontline episode. If their past work is any indication, it should be pretty good.

  2. timebinder
  3. Oh, this bears repeating at Facts, not Fantasy! Thanks for the tip o’ the needle folks. :) Great info to have at the least.

  4. truthspeaker

    Yeah, well a shill for big pharma would never mention the dangers of vaccines…

    5) A bunch of kids got pretty sick after vaccinations in Australia. It’s unclear what happened, and officials are investigating it.


  5. Michelle R

    97%! Surely you jest! I bet they must have a TON of autistic children over there, way more than everywhere else!

    I always get a bit saddened whenever I get a speech from my friend about her being so intelligent for not vaccinating her child and that anyway this isn’t the 20s and her kid would not die from benign things like measles and polio and how she’s being aware of the dangers of fluoride and all.

    It’s like a religion.

  6. WMGoBuffs

    Surely then we can look at autism rates in Finland and put another nail in the coffin for those that care about “facts” and “evidence”.

  7. Matt

    Anyone have good info on the Varicella (chicken pox) vaccine? I’ve heard many times that it’s not necessarily a good one to give your kids because the immunity granted may not be permanent, thus making you more likely to be able to contract it as an adult. Apparently chicken pox are much worse for adults than kids.

    Some say it’s better to just get the disease as a kid and not have to worry about re-vaccinating later.

    I don’t have any good sources on this info, though, so I’m wondering how much truth there really is to this:

    How often to kids have bad reactions to chicken pox?
    How long will a vaccine last?
    How bad is it really to get it as an adult?

    I figured my fellow skeptics on this blog could probably help me out with that. I get asked about vaccines somewhat frequently because I have strong opinions about the anti-vax movement, but this is one instance where I don’t have a good answer for people.

  8. Chris

    Matt, chicken pox is not fun. My three kids got it a year before the vaccine came out, and it was horrible. One was a six-month old infant.

    Now they are all eligible to get shingles when they are older. By the way, that vaccine as discussed at length during Episode 8 of this new podcast (I am just about to listen to Episode 9):

    Lots of vaccines have limited times of immunity, that is why there are boosters. Tetanus needs to be renewed every ten years (and as an adult you should get the Tdap to not spread pertussis to young children). If herd immunity in the community is maintained, then the chances of getting a disease is much lower.

  9. Travis D

    Someone who calls measles and polio “benign” doesn’t know what they are talking about.

    I guess we can expect the poor kids of Finland to be dropping like flies…..right?

  10. If you want to have sick fun, you can read “Age of Autism” — the most vocal anti-vaccination blog. They’ll be liveblogging their responses to the Frontline piece.

  11. #1 – My daughter is vaccinated

    #2 – If you hippie freaks don’t want to vaccinate your kids, you can just drive on down the street in your stupid prius, that gets worse gas milage than my all gasoline vehicle, past my girl’s school because if she gets polio because you think it’s cool to use your kids health as a status symbol, I’m gonna sue you for all you and your vegetarian sunken eye family are worth.

    #3 – See #2

  12. JJ

    Matt, I’m not entirely certain of the answer as to the effectiveness of the vaccine, but chicken pox is indeed worse as an adult, as are most medical conditions. Adults may also suffer from shingles, caused by the same virus I believe. Shingles are basically chicken pox that occur internally, under the skin. My aunt had chicken pox as child, but also suffered from shingles twice in her adulthood. I believe it depends on one’s immune system in adulthood, rather than the vaccine losing its effectiveness.

  13. Lol. There’s a “Vaccine Wars” google ad when I loaded this page. At least PBS seems to be promoting this. 😀

  14. Gib

    I’ve just had a baby last Friday. Yay me (and sorry to the person who used to have the cutest kid in the world, you’re now runner-up). I’m in the UK, and I’ve asked around my GP, travel clinics, midwives and pediatricians at A&E, but nobody has been able to tell me where to get an adult booster for pertussis. In Australia and I think the USA, they recommend adults get the pertussis booster to help protect the kids. Apparently the pertussis vaccine I had as a kid has worn off by now.

    My niece back in Australia recently got a mild case of pertussis, but infected my Mum, who had a very bad few weeks herself. So with that, and the story of little Dana McCaffery, I’m itching to get the booster for my wife and I.

    But in the UK, I can’t find anywhere to get a pertussis booster for adults. Help! Someone here has to know how I can get one without flying across the world. I’m even considering getting my Aussie doctor cousin to “acquire” a dose and mail it to me….

  15. Don

    Regarding – Varicella vaccine

    I just got it myself because as others have said Chicken Pox is bad news as an adult. I was tested for immunity before they gave the vaccine to make sure I did not have any immunity due to a very mild case when I was a kid. Basically, since there is a vaccine, I thought it would be a good idea.

  16. QuinnO

    re: point #1

    Despite the anti-vaxx movement, vaccination rates generally aren’t low – they’re at an all time high both worldwide (1) and in the US (2).

    As Gib @12 points out, the problem sometimes is not that vaccination rates are low, but that the vaccines’ effects wear off. According to one report, “Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is the only disease that remains widespread in California despite high levels of vaccination in early childhood.” (3) High rates of vaccination and the tendency for the vaccines’ effects to wear off have also been noted in relation to outbreaks in Australia. (4)

    Varicella vaccines aren’t always effective either. (5)


  17. QuietDesperation

    I figured my fellow skeptics on this blog could probably help me out with that.

    Happy to help. :-)

  18. Watoosh

    An important detail about the statistics in Finland: only roughly 0,3% of the children are left unvaccinated because of what their parents wanted. This means 99,7% of Finnish kids have parents that don’t follow the medical advice of Jenny McCarthy. A moment of national pride if there ever was one.

    We have our creationists, AGW-denialists and even some airheads who idolize the American Right Wing – in other words, plenty of morons to go around even here – but thankfully hardly any anti-vaccers can be found here (yet) and I hope this meme never does pollute Finland. But alas, we live in the age of Internet, and all it takes is one vocal enough activist group or a couple of loony Green Party representatives to spread public hysteria. I only wish the Finnish skeptical community was bigger and stronger to provide a preemptive vaccine of its own for this dangerous meme.

  19. Jamie

    has anyone looked at the age of autism blog? There isn’t one credible person giving a “keynote” speech at the american rally in chicago….its really quite laughable. Anyway, being a phd in immunology, i get very irked at/by the antivaxxers. No matter how much I argue, show them facts, published papers, product inserts from the vaccines, etc, they refuse to believe that vaccines are not the cause. My wife, who is a therapist, sides with me and argues that its the adjustment to the autistic scale that plays the largest role. That is, what would have been classified as mentally retarded years ago, now is classified as autistic or aspergers. Its a shame, because it is a growing group of painfully vocal people are are antivax. What they fail to realize is that viruses mutate faster than we can comprehend….if we let them comeback a vaccine designed against a strain prevalent 20 years ago could be ineffective against what has evolved today. That has dangerous and deadly implications for everyone. These people need to be reeducated as soon as possible. That being said…im going to Peru this summer and you know what? this friday im going to the Dr with my sleeves rolled up asking for all my exotic disease shots. Yellow or Typhoid fevers do not sound like a good summer present.

  20. MadScientist

    Finnish kids are vaccinated against everything? Does that include anti-stoopid vaccines?

    @QuinnO: vaccines are not 100% effective on the individual level; on the big scale they are effective enough to prevent the widespread infection of a population. This thing about “vaccines wearing off” (decline of the immune response) depends a lot on the type of vaccine. There are even some pretty damn useless things out there claiming to be a vaccine, such as the French originated ‘vaccine’ for tuberculosis. The USA never adopted it because it was never effective; sanitation (and antibiotics) is what drove tuberculosis from a common disease to a very rare disease in the USA (and incidentally, also in Europe, despite the popularity of the French snake oil).

    Vaccines are least effective (for individuals) where the virus mutates so much, such as the case of the various influenza viruses – which is why a new concoction is recommended every year (and you still have a pretty good chance of getting the disease – individually anyway).

  21. MW


    Your comment on tuberculosis vaccine surprised me – I’ve been vaccinated, and never heard there was a problem with it. So I did some quick web searching.

    On the basis of perhaps 10 minutes study, I’d say that the vaccine is puzzlingly inconsistent in its efficacy, but “never effective” and “snake oil” are not a fair representation.

  22. Just watched the frontline episode, it was very well done. But everytime certain people came up I was yelling at the TV, anyone who has not seen it yet remove all objects that might damage the TV.

  23. MadScientist

    @MW: I still stand by the “snake oil” TB vaccine; it’s one of those topics that really infuriates me because of the ghastly dishonesty of the people pushing it. The numerous inconsistent claims over the years is a very good indication of woo-woo. There are actually claims of 100% efficacy (suuuure – not impossible, but definitely not the case), while some studies in the USA (which may admittedly be biased) claim no efficacy whatsoever, and there are wildly varying claims in between, suggesting poor experimental control (and therefore insufficient grounds for the claims). Maybe my imagination is severely limited, but I can’t think of any experiment to demonstrate the woo-woo which would not be unethical, but the TB vaccine is a scam.

    @Matt #7: Chicken pox can kill very young children, cause deafness, etc. The overall rates of the really bad stuff is pretty small, but in a population the size of the USA that’ll still be an awful lot of dead or deaf and otherwise damaged kids. Anyway, to answer all your questions, look here:

    See the recommendations on who should get shots.



    But in the UK, I can’t find anywhere to get a pertussis booster for adults. Help! Someone here has to know how I can get one without flying across the world.

    Clinics in both France and Germany offer pertussis vaccine booster shots for both adolescents and adults, so as a UK citizen of the European Union, you may be able to get them (for a fee) for yourself and other adult members of your family.

  25. jcm

    The handy work of anti-vaxers: little children dying of preventable diseases.

  26. QuinnO


    My point is that the outbreaks in California and Australia were more likely due to waning immunity than to low vaccination rates. In both cases, vaccination rates were high. Immunity from pertussis vaccines is known to diminish after 5-10 years. The booster for adolescents and adults only became available in 2005.

  27. Lawrence

    @ 26. QuinnO – in most cases, these outbreaks start from an unvaccinated child being exposed (usually overseas) and returning to the States – where it can spread to the general population (and waning immunity can be a factor). Of course, if the child was immunized in the first place, these outbreaks could be avoided.

  28. Gib

    Thanks “IVAN3MAN AT LARGE”. Pity I have to leave the country to get a vaccine which is common in other countries.

    I’m not actually a UK citizen – just a resident (from Australia), but I assume that with appropriate amounts of cash I could get a vaccine across the channel. I’ll have to look into that if no-one else can suggest a UK supplier…

  29. coryy

    re: the varicella vaccine. My firstborn was a baby when the varicella vaccine came out. My pediatrician is a teaching physician and was doubtful that that varicella vaccine was worth promoting. He maintained a personal correspondence (and a bet) with one of the doctors studying and recommending the vaccine. His main “pro” for the vaccine was not to prevent chicken pox itself, but to eliminate the last childhood disease that caused so many open sores, as the open sores of diseases like chicken pox and measles leave the child vulnerable to virulent staph infections. Staph infections can be fatal to children within the space of a day. Also, the rise of MRSA was just beginning and was another consideration.
    The bet he made was that staph infections would *not* go down permanently based on vaccination for varicella. He expected that “nature would find a way” and simply find another way to infect kids, and that after an initial drop in infections due to the vaccine staph infections would rise again. Well, after 5 years, the results were against him…staph infections dropped and stayed down, and he and I decided to vaccinate my eldest (as well as the next two). This approach seemed like a rational reason to decide to vaccinate for a disease previously thought mostly harmless, and my physicians open mindedness and willingness to discuss the issue with me made a good impression.

    It is worth noting that both my older children managed to get chicken pox itself, anyway, despite the vaccine, but they had very mild cases.

  30. coryy

    @ Gib
    I’m pretty sure when I got my tetanus booster 2 years ago (stuck a pitchfork through my foot while cleaning out stalls), it was a combined stick with pertussis and diptheria. It’s very hard to get *just* the tetanus shot alone, even for adults.

    “Tetanus toxoid is available as a single shot (TT) but is rarely given that way as it’s best to also provide needed protection against other diseases at the same time. Tetanus toxoid can be combined with diphtheria toxoid as DT (for children younger than age 7 years) or as Td (for persons age 7 years and older). It can also be combined with diphtheria and pertussis as DTaP (for children younger than age 7 years) or as Tdap (for persons ages 10 through 64 years)”

    here’s a link:

    So, if you’re up to date on your tetanus shots, you’re probably good for pertussis, too.
    (every 8 to 10 years)

  31. Duski

    And also, here in Finland, where we have 97% of vaccination ratio, we have not noticed anything out of ordinary at all. So to my knowledge, most of vaccinations are safe.

    Also for people saying vaccinations do this and that etc, do notice that when there is a suspicion authorities do react fast, as is the case in Australia.

  32. Soren

    In Denmark kids aren’t vaccinated against chicken pox as part of the vaccination program.

    When my kid was about a year old we saw some adds for a trial of a new MMR vaccine with an added chicken pox component.

    We enrolled our kid and as a result he was fully vaccinated against MMR and chicken pox at an age of 1, when in the normal program there is no chicken pox, and you get an MMR booster shot at age 4.

    It gives me great satisfaction when I run into Danish antivaxers, they are not common, but they exist, to declare that not only have I exposed my kid to a vaccination outside the program, I have also caused him to get to MMR shots only months apart, and all as test payed for by big pharma.

    To some that borders on being criminal. I however have trust in the hospital and doctors involved in the trial, and of course I briefed myself on the information about the trial. Basically the vaccination have been available in the US for years, but is now being introduced in the EU. The only change is a new way of producing some of the components, using gene modified material in stead of using extracts fronm tissue.

  33. Soren


    I like your anecdote, your doctor seems a sensible man. I think it is important to weigh in multiple considerations when considering medical interventions.

    We recently had an outbreak of chicken pox in my kids kindergarten.

    Out of 32 children about 20 were sick. To my knowledge there were no serious complications, but it seemed that the kids were generally sick for aboout a week.

    Since they are in kindergarten (like most young children in Denmark), it is safe to assume that this meant that their parents had to stay home from work for about a week. This gives about 20 weeks of lost work, for this small kindergarten.

    So besides the not so small physical an mental cost for the children, by being sick, this one kindergarten experienced almost half a work year in cost because of the outbreak.

    If all kids were vaccinated at a cost of perhaps $100 pr kid, then the outbreak would have been smaller or milder, and a lot of inconvenience, money and suffering could have been avoided.

    So when people tell me that chicken pox is not harmful, that it is nothing, and it is silly that Nathan have been vaccinated against it, I weigh the cost of one weeks lost work, and the pain and inconvenience for Nathan against one small stab in the arm, and I know what I think is preferable!

  34. Jim

    If it weren’t for having a bad case of chicken pox, I wouldn’t have finished my high school senior dissertation. No, seriously, I wouldn’t’ve.

    That said, I now have a scalp that looks like the surface of Io and innumerable other scars.

  35. Adam_Y

    “The USA never adopted it because it was never effective; sanitation (and antibiotics) is what drove tuberculosis from a common disease to a very rare disease in the USA (and incidentally, also in Europe, despite the popularity of the French snake oil).”

    Woo woo woo goes the Jenny McCarthy train. Antibiotics is one of the primary reasons why you want a vaccine. The follow through rate of proper treatment of TB can become really atrocious which of course risks rendering the antibiotics useless. Its the primary reason why I haven’t actually treated myself for it yet.

  36. jearley

    I am very pro vaccine, but there is an article in the month’s SciAm that brings up some very disturbing data. In brief, the H1N1 vaccine does not decrease the mortality rate from H1N1. This sort of thing is out of my field, so I would like to hear from some of you who are in the medical field and get your opinions on the studies.
    J. Earley

  37. Daffy

    John Mark Harris (#11), WTF, does the anti-vax movement have to do with hippies?!?!?!

    Hippies have become the one group it is totally acceptable to hate…and for no reason. Grow up, junior.

  38. Alexander van Houten

    I was angered a on monday, I saw a head line that measles cases had been reported a suburb of Vancouver canada. Of all the places in the world a world class modern city like this has no reason non at all to have any cases of measles. With the exception that a travel from over seas could be a carrier.

  39. rick

    Regarding #3, the discussion going on at PBS is pretty disturbing

  40. Michel

    Can´t you sue those people who don´t vax their kids. And by doing so putting the rest at jeopardy.
    I mean, if someone drives reckless the law is against them.

  41. QuinnO

    Lawrence @27,

    “in most cases, these outbreaks start from an unvaccinated child being exposed”
    “Of course, if the child was immunized in the first place, these outbreaks could be avoided.”

    Do you have evidence to support either of these claims? While they may be true in the case of other infections, I doubt that they hold for pertussis. “Despite high coverage rates for primary immunization in infants and children, pertussis continues to be a global concern, with increased incidence widely noted.”(1) Childhood vaccination shifted the age distribution of those affected, leading to a predominance in infants, adolescents and adults. In highly vaccinated populations, adolescents and adults are the main source of infection for infants. (2) Waning immunity seems to be more of a problem than unvaccinated school age children.


  42. Chris

    Which is why the Tdap was added to the schedule.

  43. Chris

    Though in a more recent paper there was shown to be a correlation between vaccine exemptions and pertussis incidence:
    Geographic Clustering of Nonmedical Exemptions to School Immunization Requirements and Associations With Geographic Clustering of Pertussis

  44. QuinnO


    I’m not denying that childhood vaccine exemptions contribute to the problem; I’m saying that waning immunity is a bigger problem. Due to generally high rates of childhood vaccination, with diminished immunity after 5-10 years, adolescents and adults are now disproportionately vulnerable. Adults are also more likely to be the source of infection for infants, who have the highest mortality rates.

    Unvaccinated school age children are also vulnerable, but they comprise a relatively small group compared to the unboostered 12+ population. If we want to reduce the number of cases and outbreaks, encouraging people to get the booster will be more productive than blaming anti-vaxxers. The anti-vaxxers are a hard group to convince, but there are a lot of pro-vaccine people around who have no idea that they’re supposed to have a booster.

  45. Chris

    Actually, I believe that both strategies need to be employed. One must encourage the take up of the Tdap by adults and adolescents, PLUS encourage new parents with real scientific information about vaccines. Even if it means bringing out the stories of the babies who suffered from pertussis and have been disabled by meningitis.

    I have a child who started out life with seizures. Because of that his first pertussis vaccine was a couple of years ago when he was 18 years old. A bit over twenty years ago I had to deal with a medically frail child who had only had the DT vaccine at a time when our county was having a pertussis epidemic. I did only allow him near children who were vaccinated (especially important since this was a time when measles made a come back and killed over 120 Americans).

    I did run across one group of proud non-vaccinating parents, and was appalled at their attitude towards my concerns. I especially did not like their attitude towards anyone who did not adhere to their crunchy standards. Needless to say I never darkened the door of that mother/baby group.

    I participated in an online discussion group for my son’s disability many years ago. It went fine for a while, until the parents came in who I dubbed the “Mercury Militia.” Try as I could there was no reasonable way to say that the vaccines could not have caused my son’s seizures. One demanded that I be deleted from the group because I had the audacity to remind her that the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal. I kept trying to explain that testifying in front of congress did not make Rashid Buttar’s claims legitimate, and that chelation is a bad idea. So I left after finding out one of the lead anti-vax supplement and chelation pushers was actually working for a prominent DAN! doctor, Jeffrey Bradstreet.

    So I have a bit of a bitter history with those parents.

    The one good thing I got were emails thanking me from parents who felt they were not being good parents for not trying all the special treatments.

    I agree that the new parent who is questioning should not be blamed, the high impact anti-vaxers like Handley, McCarthy, Bob Sears, Jay Gordon, Barbara Loe Fisher, the Geiers, and Wakefield should be questioned and scrutinized. They are the ones influencing confused young parents. I think they have made an impact more than the science warrants. Flushing them out and exposing them can only be good.

  46. Gib

    coryy said
    I’m pretty sure when I got my tetanus booster 2 years ago (stuck a pitchfork through my foot while cleaning out stalls), it was a combined stick with pertussis and diptheria. It’s very hard to get *just* the tetanus shot alone, even for adults.

    Corry, I think that I did get something that sounded like “tdap” a year or two ago, but that when I investigated, I found that the “p” in what I got was polio, not pertussis. I’ll go back and check my records…

  47. Ausduck

    Quinn@26 said

    ‘My point is that the outbreaks in California and Australia were more likely due to waning immunity than to low vaccination rates. In both cases, vaccination rates were high.’

    In relation to the pertussis outbreaks in Australia, whilst the overall national vaccination rates are high (>90%), in the local areas where the outbreaks, and sadly the deaths, occurred the vaccination rates were below that of the national rate. In fact, in the North Coast area of NSW the vaccination rate is 88%, and within the North Coast area, in the immediate local area where one of the babies contracted pertussis and very sadly died, the vaccination rate is below 70%. I may also add that this is also the area in which the Australian Vaccination Network is located and very active in promoting the anti-vaccination message. In fact, the AVN president, Meryl Dorey, is very very fond of presenting the overall Australian national statistics for vaccination rates and stating that low rates are not responsible for the outbreaks, all the while ignoring the location/population set breakdowns for the states and the areas within the states.
    So, whilst I agree with you that ‘waning immunity’ can also be a factor in outbreaks, one cannot get away from the low vaccination rates in the immediate local areas where the pertussis outbreaks occurred as being a major contributing factor, as herd immunity was compromised.

  48. Gib

    I checked, and I got the “revaxis” vaccine, which was for diptheria, tetanus and polio.
    Unfortunately not pertussis.

    So, I still need to get the pertussis vaccine.

  49. QuinnO


    “So, whilst I agree with you that ‘waning immunity’ can also be a factor in outbreaks, one cannot get away from the low vaccination rates in the immediate local areas where the pertussis outbreaks occurred as being a major contributing factor, as herd immunity was compromised.”

    Even if local vaccination rates are 20% lower than the national average, waning immunity is a bigger problem. In a population where the childhood vaccination rate is 100%, everyone over 12 is still vulnerable. That’s a big part of the herd.

  50. aspiechildinaspen

    Why aren’t people thinking? Didn’t McCarthy say her child was an indigo child? Now, suddenly he’s autistic. Oh, no, sorry, now he’s cured of autism. Well, silly us. Don’t be fooled by McCarthy or the stupid people who back her. Notice how she NEVER advocates for epilepsy research? Why? Wasn’t that what made her call 911 in the beginning? Isn’t that the primary diagnosis of her son? Does he still have seizures? And WHY is she soooooo vague about what seizure medications he takes? Wouldn’t you want to share that to help others? After all, she seems so free to share her profound insight (regurgitated info from other’s lives) about autism. So why not seizure meds? WHY so vague? Could it be there is something she isn’t telling us? Yep, There is


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