Debunking vaccine myths

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 9:30 am

My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.

We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.

Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.

Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.

What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.

We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.

Related Posts:

Washington pertussis outbreak is very, very bad
UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
Stop antivaxxers. Now.


Comments (47)

  1. James Evans

    Get vaccinated for shingles, too, people. I just got over a bout, and, trust me, you do NOT want it.

  2. kirk

    No one dies from legitimate pertussis, their bodies just naturally shut that down.

  3. alfaniner

    Great article, but I really dislike it when one presents a list of myths and then proceeds to negate them. It’s always easier to remember the headline, rather than the retraction. Just state the facts up front!

  4. Wzrd1

    @James Evans, if people have their children vaccinated against chickenpox, eventually, the incidence of shingles would move to zero.
    The shingles vaccine is only a larger dose of the chickenpox vaccine, as shingles is a reactivation of the dormant chickenpox virus.
    Today, we can totally eliminate SO many contagious and preventable diseases, it boggles the mind why some refuse to do so.

  5. countfloyd

    #2 Kirk: Fry sees what you did there.

  6. Michael Wallis

    I think Meryl Dorey may have a point …

    “no one dies from these diseases any more” … when they are VACCINATED!

  7. James

    seems my post was ignored by the system….perhaps too much swearing?

    this fiasco just gets me so mad!

  8. Mark Derail

    Get this in other official languages. Like Spanish & French.

    It is the uneducated, easily scared & influenced, that need to know this. Repeating in English is NOT enough.

    Translators are cheap enough to find.

  9. anon

    You missed several vaccination points.

    If herd immunity is achieved, it protects those individuals who can’t have the vaccine safely (too young, egg allergies or very poor health).

    If you go to the effort to be vaccinated, don’t forget to get your booster shots.

    Anyone to be vaccinated should be in good health and any side effects of the vaccination should be reported promptly. As with any medical procedure, there are risks, no matter how small.

    Track your vaccinations. You don’t want too many vaccinations against Tetanus, for example.

    Concerned about mercury,

    Make sure your vaccine is being properly stored

  10. Daniel J. Andrews

    Mark @8….in case of antivax, it seems there is a large contingent of them who are educated. Often not educated in any sciences, mind you, but they do have higher levels of education. Interesting paradox.

  11. You are absolutely correct, and anti-vaxxers do need to be squashed – but the pertussis outbreak is more a function of a changing disease and new understanding of booster schedules, than it is of vaccine avoidance. Even with 100% vaccination under accepted protocols there would still be spikes in the numbers- unlike with measles and other diseases, which are entirely manmade outbreaks.

    I know that makes it complicated and a route for anti-vaxxers to muddy the waters (“see – vaccines don’t work!”) but truth must, as they say.

  12. Michael Yao

    I glad that you’re spreading awareness. I wish Discover Blogs had a separate blog dedicated to medical stuff.

  13. J. Wong

    It seems strange that so-called progressives and liberals are the ones buying into the anti-vax myths:

    The reality is that to most people even in our modern society it’s all just “magic”, i.e., they really don’t understand how things work.

  14. BB5

    Interesting that this vax story came out on NPR today as well. California is weird in so many ways, yet I still remain living here 😮 It must be the weather.

  15. A recent (well, this year) Reuters story indicates that a lot of the pertussis cases are happening in people that got the vaccine. Antivaxxers are taking this to mean the vaccines are dangerous, or even cause whooping cough…. Any take on that? Beyond the usual “they are unable to read a simple study correctly”, which came to mind as soon as I saw it the first time…. []

  16. Savino

    This is a poster from the national vaccination campaing here in Brazil. The character represented here is known as “Zé Gotinha” or Johnny Drop and his is almost a hero here. His name was choosen in a contest in the whole country, schools, public assossiations, everybody with kids took part to promote this idea. So, you can imagine the level of commitment here.é+Gotinha+em+versão+3D.jpg

    You guys in US should do something like that… Because its amazing…. Even religious ppl who believe that we came from the wood dont skip a vaccine here!!!

  17. Unsettled Scientist

    Also a wonderful article.

    A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars

  18. Avi Chapman

    What’s with the rubber gloves? I get shots every month and the nurse never wears gloves. Is it because it’s a vaccine? Or is it just a difference between US and Australian healthcare? I notice that I’m never required to get a blood test before a surgery here. Plus, not only do they not wheel you out of hospital afterwards in a wheelchair, I’m not allowed to be. (They figure if I need a wheelchair after anesthetic, it’s not yet time to release me.)

  19. Rick

    Checked with my doctor about the shingles vaccine recently, particularly because I am under a regimen of immunosuppresants (for Crohn’s disease) that makes me more susceptible to the condition. Turns out I can’t get the vaccine because the same medication regimen that makes me more susceptible to the condition also disqualifies me from getting the vaccine. Kind of an ironic catch-22, I guess–a group that needs it more than most can’t have it because of the reason they need it. Now my head hurts.

  20. Jason

    Amazing how your all latching onto an article that claims that vaccines are bad science, and offers only stories of dead babies and overblown outbreaks to back up this assessment of the science. WAKE UP.

  21. Again, it’s a vaccine post, so I have to pimp Facts, not Fantasy. 😀

  22. Rob P.

    Rick – that’s exactly why the rest of us need to get the vaccine. So we don’t infect people like you who can’t have it. See anon’s comment above.

  23. Kathy A.

    Also, not all healthcare providers are up-to-date about vaccine myths. I was chatting with a doctor (not my regular one) who had to sit with me to make sure I didn’t have a reaction to my latest vaccine (required for grad school, egg medium, I’m allergic to eggs). I had just done a paper at school debunking a lot of myths, and she was grateful to get some of this info to be able to discuss with parents. (I wound up emailing her my paper later, at her request, so she’d have the sources.)

  24. Ray

    @ #11 Daniel,

    Not a paradox at all. I’ve met lots of people with college educations who can’t construct a proper sentence. The sad reality is that many people learn nothing college except how to cooperate and graduate.

    And don’t even ask these people to display any critical thinking skills. Just makes their heads hurt.

  25. Nigel Depledge

    Jason (21) said:

    Amazing how your all latching onto an article that claims that vaccines are bad science, and offers only stories of dead babies and overblown outbreaks to back up this assessment of the science.

    Leaving aside – for the moment – that what you claim is the opposite of what is actually happening here . . .

    [Emphasis mine]

    From the article to which the BA links:

    Since 1998 there have been countless large and comprehensive studies looking for a link between vaccines and autism, but the evidence keeps coming up negative. The largest study was done in Denmark and covered all children born from January 1991 through December 1998. A total of 537,303 children of which eighty-two percent were vaccinated for MMR were examined and there was no association between vaccination and the development of autistic disorder.

    [I omitted the URL linking to the Danish study]

    Jason, either your reading comprehension is on a par with that of my 16-month-old son, or you are a lying scumbag.

  26. Nigel Depledge

    Jason (21) said:

    Amazing how your all latching onto an article that claims that vaccines are bad science,

    Actually, no.

    First, no-one here is “latching onto” any single source of information, except perhaps you.

    Second, vaccines are not bad science – they are the single greatest success of medical science. Vaccines, all by themselves, have saved hundreds of millions of lives, mostly among infants and small children.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Ray (25) said:

    I’ve met lots of people with college educations who can’t construct a proper sentence. The sad reality is that many people learn nothing college except how to cooperate and graduate.

    Sad but true.

    I have interviewed candidates for a science-based job who, on paper, look pretty good for the role. After all, surely you must get a pretty good understanding of biological science when you get an MSc degree in it, right? No. Some of these people could neither adequately describe nor even approximately explain what they actually did in their MSc laboratory project.

  28. Horatio McSherry

    The point about the UK’s cases of measles doubling is a good one. A lot of those cases can be put down to that angel of virtue Tony Blair. When the anti-vaccine people were getting lots of media coverage about the MMR vaccine’s possible link to autism, parents in the UK looked to a Prime Minister whose child was at the age to have just had the MMR vaccine. However, when asked (on dozens of occasions) instead of just sayin “yes, of course my child has had the vaccine” he refused, leading parents to assume his child had not had the vaccine and hence the anti-vaccine people might have a point. Therefore thousands of parents were then genuinely concerned that the MMR vaccine could well be linked to autism after all.

  29. @Dave Brooks (#12)

    but the pertussis outbreak is more a function of a changing disease and new understanding of booster schedules, than it is of vaccine avoidance.

    While waning immunity from the vaccine is a bit more to do with these outbreaks than vaccine avoidance, avoidance does still play a role. In a rather ironic turn, the reason we see efficacy waning with the acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP and Tdap) can be traced back to people like Barbara Loe Fisher and the National Vaccine Information Center; with apparently greater incidence of neurological issues following whole cell pertussis vaccines (e.g., DTP), there was a push for “safer” vaccines. Well, that’s just what they got, the much safer, but also less effective, acellular vaccine. So, in some sense, anti-vaccine activists like Loe Fisher are still responsible for these outbreaks we’re seeing around the country.

    Oh, and then there’s the whole issue with large numbers. In terms of raw numbers, there are more immunized people getting pertussis than unimmunized because of the simple fact that there are more vaccinated people! However, the attack rate is higher among the unvaccinated (i.e., a greater percentage of the unimmunized are getting sick than the percentage of vaccinated getting sick).

  30. Rain

    I have had terrible reactions to every vaccine I have ever had. Yellow Fever was especially fun, I thought my guts were going to come out of my ears.

    That said, I never skip a vaccine that is needed. (nor do I bother reporting my side effects.. I am neither allergic nor sensitive to vaccines, it is simply my immune system having its day with whatever is going on)

    People who skip vaccines though whatever deluded logic are not only hurting themselves, they are hurting all of us.

    Junk science is just that, junk science.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Avi Chapman (19) said:

    What’s with the rubber gloves?

    Phil has molecular acid for blood.

  32. DrB

    Wow, a thread on vaccines with only one person claiming the myths are true. That’s got to be a good sign, no?

  33. Kathy A @ #24 said: “…I had just done a paper at school debunking a lot of myths…”

    Wow! Excellent work. There’s hope yet that sanity will prevail.

  34. Infinite123Lifer

    Anon @ 10 said:

    “Make sure your vaccine is being properly stored”

    I read that link and it gave no information about any type of protections an individual can take to protect themselves against improper storage. I am serious when I say this. Just how exactly am I supposed to make sure the freezer at my public Dr.’s office is “properly” working? Maybe you were speaking in general to employees who work around vaccines?

    It is tough to get through Life without trusting some people from time to time. For me, situations like getting a vaccine is one of those times. There is just no way I can ensure everything is proper . . . is there?

    Ray said:

    “I’ve met lots of people with college educations who can’t construct a proper sentence.”

    When pointing that out you should at least try and form a couple yourself innit?

    ” Some of these people could neither adequately describe nor even approximately explain what they actually did in their MSc laboratory project.”

    Naturally, biologists . . . always so selective 😉

  35. @Infinite123Lifer

    Just how exactly am I supposed to make sure the freezer at my public Dr.’s office is “properly” working?

    There’s not really any meaningful way that patients can ensure this. Like you said, this is where trust comes in. You have to trust that the doctor and any other personnel with access to the vaccine freezers/refrigerators handle them properly and don’t break the cold chain, not to mention that the equipment is properly maintained so as to avoid fluctuations in temperature, etc.

    I wrote a little more in depth on this topic here.

  36. Steve Metzler

    @Unsettled Scientist (#18):

    Yes, that is an excellent article that you linked to. Unfortunately, though it demonstrates that the science behind vaccines is solid, it also highlights a lot of problems that scientists have had relating to the public over the years.

    And also, more unfortunately, you’ll never get an anti-vaxxer to read past the first paragraph of that article. After more than 5 years of active on-line skepticism (ETA: always on the side of science!), I’ve found that the people who most need to read the articles we link to are the ones who won’t – either due to ideological reasons or ‘made up minds’ (in fact, this may be the same thing).

  37. Jonathan

    I normally stay clear of the whole autism/vaccine thing but I find myself wanting to comment. Myth 1: Vaccines cause autism. You say there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism and I’ve read the 2002 FDA report on it which says the same but why on earth did the Tripedia vaccine package insert have Autism listed under adverse events reported during post-approval use when like everyone and the experts say there is not even a causal link between vaccines and Autism, so under scientific understanding it should not even be there, but it was!

  38. Chris2


    why on earth did the Tripedia vaccine package insert have Autism listed under adverse events reported during post-approval

    Because their lawyers told them to. It is a cover your rear disclaimer. If you look closely is says “reported adverse reactions.” But they don’t show the numbers, nor if the reports were confirmed.

  39. @Jonathan

    Manufacturers are required by law to include in the list of “reported adverse events” all adverse events reported to them, whether confirmed to be causally related or not. As Chris2 said, it’s basically CYA language.

  40. The Master

    My personal experience is this. My son changed after his first series. I saw it with own eyes. Now he’s in special education classes to relearn the social skills he had be the shots.

    My girlfriend got a chicken pox shot in her 30’s because she never had it as a child. She wanted to work in Neonatal as a NICU nurse so, they required she have the vaccine. 1 year later she develops type 1 diabetes.

    Guess what my opinion is of the 84% increase in male autism in the last 20 years?

  41. Nigel Depledge

    @ Jonathan (38) –
    What you have found there is an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”).

    Just because some people (and it might only be a handful of people out of millions) report the onset of autism shortly after vaccination does not imply a causal link.

  42. Jonathan

    For Chris2 (39) – Again if there is no link not even a casual link then there is no real need for a lawyer to say anything nor any need of the vaccine maker to seek one out. … Todd (40) I thought that might be the case so I waded through some 20 other vaccine inserts and nothing not one, not even the MMR vaccine has anything about Autism and if any of the vaccines were to have it listed for the reasons I am given then at least that vaccine should have it but to date I have only found one the Tripedia vaccine! Just to check things out though I waded through the VAER’s data and found reports spanning most vaccines saying Autism was reported afterwards (time frames involved) so if what I am been told here is true then just about all inserts should have it listed. Hence the mystery for me here.

  43. Jonathan,

    I suppose I should revise my earlier statement, as there’s a bit more nuance to it and I was working from recall before. Here’s the regulatory language regarding inclusion of adverse reactions/events in drug labeling, from 21 CFR 201.57 (emphasis added):

    Adverse reactions . This section must describe the overall adverse reaction profile of the drug based on the entire safety database. For purposes of prescription drug labeling, an adverse reaction is an undesirable effect, reasonably associated with use of a drug, that may occur as part of the pharmacological action of the drug or may be unpredictable in its occurrence. This definition does not include all adverse events observed during use of a drug, only those adverse events for which there is some basis to believe there is a causal relationship between the drug and the occurrence of the adverse event.

    Note that it does not specify that there is solid evidence, but enough to make the person(s) responsible for the labeling believe that there might be some causal connection. This could be because of timing, the number of reports to the manufacturer (note that while manufacturers are required to report all AEs of which they become aware to VAERS, not all reports to VAERS have necessarily been made to the manufacturer), some studies that may or may not have been replicated or validated, etc. There is room for manufacturer discretion, then, as to whether or not they list an event that is not conclusively causally connected.

    The FDA provides further guidance on this in their guidance “Adverse Reactions Section of Labeling for Human Prescription Drug and Biological Products — Content and Format”. About selecting adverse events to include, they state:

    Decisions on whether there is some basis to believe there is a causal
    relationship are a matter of judgment and are based on factors such as: (1) the frequency
    of reporting, (2) whether the adverse event rate for the drug exceeds the placebo rate, (3)
    the extent of dose-response, (4) the extent to which the adverse event is consistent with
    the pharmacology of the drug, (5) the timing of the event relative to the time of drug
    exposure, (6) existence of challenge and dechallenge experience, and (7) whether the
    adverse event is known to be caused by related drugs.

    The guidance also provides advice on how and when to update the Adverse Reactions section of the labeling. The Tripedia insert looks to have been last update in 2005, so the adverse reaction section may not have been updated to remove autism, yet. Other package inserts may not have been updated to include autism after all the brouhaha, or there was insufficient cause to include it (e.g., lack of sound scientific evidence to support its inclusion). While I can’t know what Sanofi-Pasteur was thinking when they added it to the list of reported adverse events, my guess is that they felt it was sufficiently plausible that they could get in legal trouble and decided to cover their asses. Merck (maker of the MMR vaccine) apparently did not consider the evidence sufficient to include autism in the list.

  44. Unsettled Scientist

    > My personal experience is this.

    Fortunately personal experience isn’t the way scientific understanding is created. If it were, we’d never be able to find the truth about anything. It is very easy to see mistaken correlations in our own lives. Science is about trying to not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

  45. CB

    We don’t know much about autism, but we do know that it’s a developmental disorder. In other words it is literally impossible that receiving a vaccine can be responsible for a non-autistic child displaying autism symptoms a week later. There simply isn’t enough development in that time frame.

    Also, we know that a child that appears to be developing normally but “suddenly” starts showing symptoms is fairly typical. Symptoms do exist before this and a trained professional would probably be able to tell well before the parents could, but few parents take their seemingly normal children to specialists to see if they are autistic.

    The unfortunate coincidence here is that the age where obvious symptoms start appearing and the age where we begin vaccine schedules are very similar, thus enabling the now understandably distraught parents to conclude the two are related.

    It doesn’t hurt that there’s Oprah and McCarthy and other idiots pushing the idea into parents’ heads in the first place. Can they please start believing that soda and McDonald’s cheeseburgers cause autism so at least then parents will at least be helping their kids out rather than endangering them?

  46. Steve Metzler

    Very well said, CB. Especially the driving home of the fact that a child can’t develop autism in a week, or even a day as some parents would have it.


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