By Grant Jacobs 29/01/2019

For new parents or parents-to-be the wildly different opinions about vaccines must be very confusing. This one’s for you.

It’s also for people who pass on vaccine messages to their parent or parent-to-be friends.

(If you’re concerned about the apparent length of this article, the main body of the article is short.)

Half of all parents with small children are shown what people or groups opposed to vaccines say. That finding is from a report by Royal Society for Public Health in the UK. I imagine it’ll be same here. There’s a lot of misinformation out there; they miss the real comparison.

The real comparison

The two options are, vaccine or no vaccine.

So the real comparison is: are you better off with the vaccine than without it?

What we all want is the safest of the two options. That’s all of us. The medical health professionals, doctors, people everywhere; the lot.

You can be assured that vaccines are always much better than not taking them because that’s how they get on the schedule in the first place. The schedule is not controlled by companies, but by public health – from the World Health Organisation down.

Similarly, cost-benefit analyses show the value of vaccination programs.

With the vaccine there are a very small number of rare effects.

Without the vaccine you’re got the illness. There the adverse effects are in much greater numbers than the (very) rare effects for the vaccine.

Good risk management says you pick the one with least risk. The risk of serious effects with vaccines is very low. The risk of serious affects from the illnesses they prevent is (very) much higher.

The Western Australian Dept. of Health has a side-by-side list comparing the risks of the illness and the vaccine for most of the common vaccines.

That’s the real comparison. If a website you read isn’t doing it, it’s not looking to the real world.[1]

Emotion and facts

You won’t see it see on websites opposed to vaccines present a comparison of vaccines v not because an honest comparison shows you’re invariably better off with the vaccine. What you will see a lot of dramatic and emotional calls. If you look past the drama and emotion, you’ll see they’re missing the decision you want to make.

Emotional pictures or stories have a lot of impact. It’s why science communicators talk about a ‘call to emotional appeal’. By contrast, ‘the facts’ are mostly boring.

Often you’ll see a claim that someone’s illness was caused by ‘the vaccines’. It makes for great emotional appeal. Aside from that many (most) of these claims are wrong, what they’re not doing is comparing vaccines and not. They’re distracting you with emotional appeal.

Vaccines are monitored in an ongoing way using reports of possible affects. If potential problems emerge, they’re looked into. If there’s an issue medical ‘detective’ teams are on to this early because they get the data first. Best to hear from them than from speculation online.

Know your limits

(And the limits of the people you’re reading.)

It’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to know more than the experts.

Likewise it’s also extremely unlikely an ‘I read it on the internet’ education—common in groups opposed to vaccines—is going to be better than the medical scientists. Read Alison’s post Measles outbreaks and the role of anti-vax misinformation for more on this.

Like she says, there’s no shame admitting you don’t know the science – it’s damn complex stuff. Try the game she has at the top of her article.

It’s understandable that people want to make their own decisions. But know your limits.

As I’ve written previously,

I’ve been doing biological science for decades, and it takes me time to check things, lots of it.

It’s much more sensible to make use of the people who know this stuff. It’s the same reason we call up plumbers, electricians, and other skilled people. They know their patch.

You know what a DIY disaster looks like? That’s what popular opposition to vaccines looks like to a biologist.

What to read

There’s a lot of misleading ideas opposed to vaccines. The quickest, easiest advice is to simply use better sources. It’ll take a lot less of your time and spare you a lot of anguish you don’t need.

If you must read what groups (and people) opposed to vaccines say I’ve listed some common ‘bad arguments’ in the Appendix. You’ll want to set emotion aside—not easy to do–and focus on the logic (illogic, really).

Realistically you’d also want an depth knowledge of science. You’ll never get that in time for your kid; it takes many years. A ‘trick’ these groups do is sell the idea that you ‘must’ learn this or that, when you have no time to check (properly), and don’t have to really. Vaccines scientists already have this covered. You’re better to read their summaries written for you.

It helps to remember that people with no formal training speaking confidently most likely don’t actually know much. This has been formally studied: the loudest voices opposing a thing tend to know less. This effect can be seen in people opposing GMOs or climate change, as well as vaccines.

It might help to remember why your great grandparents or people in poorer nations today so much wanted vaccines. Perhaps read some history or global health issues.

This Lao woman walked for 6 hours carrying her grandkids to get them vaccinated. Reading this sort of thing puts Westerners complaining about vaccines into perspective in so many ways.

It can help to remember that your kid getting a vaccine isn’t just for your child. It’s also for those who the vaccine doesn’t work, or who can’t take vaccines, like those whose immune systems don’t work well enough or have cancer or other serious illnesses. Vaccines are public health initiatives, to help everyone.

Talking to (qualified, sound) science communicators can help, too.

You’re really better to just use better sources of information. After all, doctors and medical scientists are parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts too and want what is best for their little ones too.

A sad, recurring theme

This baby is being treated for pertussis, a vaccine-preventable illness

There’s a repeated theme where parents are hippies about vaccines, their child gets hurt—or worse—then they regret it badly. I can’t imagine anyone wants to be that parent.

Another recurring theme is misleading ‘concerns’ by indulgent Western thinking bringing these diseases back. These ideas spread and now even the World Health Organisation has put ‘vaccine hesitancy’ on their Ten threats to global health in 2019 list.

I imagine the original hippies would be horrified.

Other articles about vaccines in Code for life

Appendix: some of the bad arguments used against vaccines

  • Pointing at a rogue doctor or scientist Trust science—all of science taken together—not a handful of rogues. Qualifications say someone trained but people still have to use knowledge soundly.
  • Seeking perfection We’d all like perfect medicine. It’s not an argument against vaccines and avoids the real comparison.
  • Leaving out what the diseases really do You’d be surprised how common this is. You’ll also hear claims the diseases are mild. If they’ve got vaccines for them, they won’t be – that they cause serious harm is why the vaccines were made in the first place. Making vaccines is a huge, expensive job. They’re not made for trivial illnesses.
  • Claiming lots of adverse effects and or deaths This is almost always based on claims databases. Those are claims, not confirmed cases. Once examined the claims of large numbers of serious effects don’t hold up.
  • Ingredients A great way to worry yourself is to look at a list of ‘possible’ problems you don’t understand. Best advice: leave this to vaccine specialists.
  • Large company conspiracies As I wrote earlier, vaccine schedules and tracking are not controlled by companies but by public health.
  • Games with numbers You’re best to avoid these unless you know what to look for. See Vaccine battles for an example mixing absolute counts and relative risks. Another is large data explorations ‘trying to find’ something. They invariably will: it’s if what they find is meaningful that matters.
  • Vaccines cause autism They don’t. This has been studied to the death. Autism is dominantly genetic and starts before any vaccine, prenatally.
  • Too many vaccines We get many more immunological challenges naturally. This has also been studied.
  • Riding coat tail on the latest fad For example, glyphosate.

There’s many more. You can waste a lot time figuring out these are wrong. It’s easier and more sensible to use better sources.

This little kid has rubella. (I’m also a rubella kid.)


I’ll try update my resource pages one day.

1. A silly mistake made in some arguments opposed to vaccines is to put up statistics for observed affects during a vaccine trial, but not compare it to the rate that those affects occur anyway. To give an extreme example, if you take 10,000 people and watch them over, say, 6 months, some of them will die. That’s just because people die. You have to compare them against what happens to people anyway.

About the featured image

Oral polio vaccination in India.

Smallpox is no more, eradicated by vaccines. The last smallpox case was in 1977. Polio is another human illness caused by infection that is close to being eliminated through vaccination.

Source: Wikipedia, originally from CDC. Public domain. Image cropped.

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