Defending The Term ’Anti-Vaccine’

By Darcy Cowan 17/10/2011

I have spent some time recently labelling the IAS as anti-vaccine. They themselves categorically state that they are not anti-vaccine. Who am I to say that I’m right and they are wrong?

Well, nobody really. I can’t read their minds, although if I could would that change anything? All anyone can do is examine their output, and that of others, and try to make a determination as to whether it is more consistent with an impartial, or simply safety concious, approach to vaccines and vaccination or an anti-vaccine stance.

I hope that my previous posts have demonstrated that the IAS in particular produces anti-vaccine rather than balanced vaccine safety material.  The mission of the IAS is to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines not to educate responsibly about the real concerns and limitations of vaccine use. If this was their aim they could do a much better job. Look at the articles produced on their website and you will see many that promote the “dangers” of vaccinations, try to discredit health campaigns and generally aim to undermine public confidence in vaccines.

An organisation concerned about vaccine safety and promoting responsible use of vaccines might write about reducing wide-scale vaccination in favour of targeted vaccination of at risk populations. Perhaps They would also try to work with health authorities to examine ways in which vaccine production can be improved (better production techniques might avoid allergy issues mentioned below), or ways in which the distribution of vaccines can be made more effective and thereby reducing the need to preservatives that are thought by them to be harmful.

It is important to note that someone can be concerned about the safety of vaccines while not being anti-vaccine at the same time. I alluded to this above, but there are legitimate safety issues surrounding vaccine use and vaccines should indeed be closely scrutinised prior to mass roll-out via safety and efficacy trials and post roll-out via surveillance systems and doctors reports. It is a valid complaint that procedures are not always carried out effectively.

Sometimes though they are carried out quite effectively and in a follow-up post I will look at a couple of examples of this. The trouble is that often when a “danger” of vaccines is reported more coverage is given to the sensationalistic claims than the eventual explanation. Also (perhaps because of this) these claims have a tendency to hang around and affect public sentiment long after the coast is clear from a safety standpoint.

As I mentioned there are real risks associated with vaccine use, there are known side effects that can have implications for the health of a small number of vaccine recipients. One of the more obvious being allergic reactions to the vaccine ingredients. Those with egg allergies are urged to use vaccines cultured via chicken embryos with caution and may be unable to receive the vaccine at all. There can be other serious and not so serious or transitory side effects for specific vaccines and effects that are general to vaccines (such as redness, soreness, syncope etc).

As such there are a variety of non-histrionic ways that vaccine safety can be discussed, without impugning the general safety of vaccines. Likewise reasonable conversations may be had regarding relative efficacy of vaccine preparations against the myriad of infectious agents that we are exposed to as well as discussions about cost effectiveness of mass vaccination for low incidence infections.

Serotype replacement (or replacement disease) is another issue that can be raised. As infectious strains are targeted by vaccines there is the possibility that other strains that were less important in the pathology of disease become more prominent once the “Top Dog” has been removed.

Encouraging the production and research into more effective vaccines that give better or more long lasting protection could also be a fruitful line of approach. Perhaps we could focus on immunogenicity, better adjuvants would give a vaccine the ability to provoke a stronger immune response, possibly with fewer antigens – as has already been achieved with modern vaccines. If vaccines are improved in this way then there will likely be more local reactions with the inclusion better adjuvants. This again is a reasonable discussion to have.

The lack of large RCTs on all vaccines and the challenges of working around this (for example ethics prohibit withdrawing a measles vaccines then trying a new one against a placebo). The types of studies required or currently used to give us the appropriate information to act upon is something that we can all try to resolve together.

All these things are such that reasonable people may disagree and we should be able to marshal evidence based (rather than emotive) arguments to discover the optimal us of vaccines in society. To my reading of the IAS, their output appears limited to vitriolic and divisive attacks on health authorities and other informational agencies, vilification of pharmaceutical companies, fearmongering over the alleged dangers of vaccination and downplaying the risks of infectious diseases.

Where we start treading into anti-vaccination territory is when we start to become entrenched in a view that sees vaccination as an evil unto itself, perpetrated in the name of profits by immoral pharmaceutical companies and carried out by unethical doctors who are either ignorant dups or willing accomplices. Those who take this stance may make all of the reasonable arguments that I outline above but also be resistant to evidence that contradicts their views and committed to a general non-vaccine outlook.

In discussing this it is very difficult to convey the range of views that may be represented. Obviously we all exist on a spectrum – from fully pro-vaccine to recalcitrant anti-vaccine. It can also be very difficult to determine the views of people in conversation. I prefer to err on the side of caution and assume people are generally well intentioned and open to evidence until proven otherwise.

One of the defining characteristics of the anti-vaccination crowd, it seems to me, is the hyping of dangers far beyond what the evidence supports. As can be seen in some of the attacks on vaccine ingredients, lists of ingredients are given and scary information accompanies them with the toxicological effects of these compounds on living organisms. In these cases  though the dose is often ignored. Dose response is one of the corner stones of medicine and the dose makes the poison. Drink large quantities of formaldehyde and you’re in trouble, but in the tiny doses found in vaccines your body can easily handle it. as noted in a previous post our bodies actually make formaldehyde as part of normal metabolism and the amount found in vaccines is far smaller than that made by the normal process of living.

When it comes down to the bottom line – Vaccines work, and they actually perform that holy grail of CAM, “boosting” the immune system and allowing the body to heal itself. Not in some vague, feel good alternative medicine way but in real objectively measurable and observable ways. Your immune system is primed to react to infectious agents in such a way as to reduce the amount of time that it takes for an effective immune response to be mounted against the pathogen.

With this priming your body can fight off infections much more efficiently and this translates into keeping us healthy, or reducing the severity of diseases. While we can debate the finer points of vaccine safety and efficacy in the end we have a system that works and has saved many lives. I see that as a win.

[for more on this topic see this post from David Gorski of Science-Based Medicine published last year]

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Filed under: Alternative medicine, Medicine, Psychological, Questionable Techniques, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: anti-vaccine, antivax, health, IAS complaint, Immunization, Science, Science and Society, Vaccination, Vaccine

0 Responses to “Defending The Term ’Anti-Vaccine’”

  • Well said, Darcy. I think it’s very disingenuous of the IAS to claim that they’re not anti-vaccine. Of course they are. There used to be some really shocking literature recommended on their website – I wrote a letter to the editor about it, it included titles such as The Blood Poisoners, Vaccination Roulette, Medical Mafia, The Poisoned Needle, and How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of your Doctor. If it’s still there now it is much better concealed. I think they must have made a strategic decision to tone down the crazy stuff so as to appear more moderate.
    I had a bit of a run in with some IAS people on another forum a few years ago. It’s interesting how they see themselves as sceptical and independent and not sucked in by Big Pharma etc. For people who claim to be sceptical, they sure don’t like being challenged, or seem open to self-doubt.

    • Thanks Carol,
      It’s telling that they’ve shut down comments on their site. Although I would not have found it especially odd if they had been disabled from the start, a group dedicated to disseminating information has no obligation to give a public forum like that.

      Its’ the fact that discussion was allowed and then stopped.

      Otherwise you’ve hit on one of the psychological hooks for anti-vaccine thinking (and conspiracy thinking in general) they consider themselves part of the elite. They are in the know and not just accepting authority.
      Unfortunately they are ignoring the authority they should be listening to.

  • [A bit off-topic and ruminative…]


    Reading your thoughts here, I found myself comparing that I made no mention of ‘anti-vaccine’ in my criticism of Michelle Rudgley’s words to the journalist* and why you have to.

    You are looking at the whole beast, so you have to show it for what it is and with that give to it what ever descriptions or labels that might apply.

    I was looking at individual claims, and didn’t want my examination of these to be distracted by whatever the ‘whole beast’ might be. (Or, perhaps more accurately, not have my readers distracted by one label or other.)

    Perhaps that’s another element of it – ?

    Individual claims on their own won’t necessarily show the whole beast well (and there is a case for putting this aside when looking at individual claims), but to look at the organisation you, or the Charities Commission have to take what they offer as a whole, along with the ‘references’ offered to support their argument.

    * Here for those that haven’t read it; it’s a bit on the long side, so don’t bother unless you’ve time! 😉

  • Grant, I think that’s true. I’m attempting to give an overview of the situation rather than focus on a single claim (otherwise I’ve tried to steer away from the antivaccine label in the past).

    Especially as it’s generally best to stick to the claim itself rather than focus on individuals. People are anti-vaccine, claims aren’t (although you could start to get cliché anti-vaccine arguments).

  • It’s also ironic that when IAS folks try to conduct their own ‘research’ the results are laughable. This is an excerpt from an IMAC rebuttal of a silly IAS pamphlet full of misinformation including a statement that “Unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children”.

    IMAC said that “The evidence supplied suggesting that unvaccinated children have fewer heath problems than vaccinated children is just plain silly. A survey conducted in the manner described has so much potential for bias that the results can only be described as nonsense. The survey by Mike Godfrey invited readers of Healthy Options magazine (unlikely to be a representative sample of the New Zealand population) to send in a completed survey asking parents if their children had been vaccinated and whether they suffered from a number of health problems. This is used as a teaching example to undergraduate medical students of how not to conduct meaningful research. Mike Godfrey has never published any research on vaccination in a peer-reviewed forum. A survey such as this would not meet the strict criterion for proper unbiased research.”

  • I think their shutting down discussion in itself isn’t either way, but why they have shut it down might be revealing. (For example, I know a least one excellent blog that closed comments, but because the blogger didn’t have time to manage them.)

    One-paragraph short story time 🙂 Carol said she thought IAS has toned down their stance. (Some of Michelle’s references in response to my article seem fairly ‘lively’ all the same!) Recently Michelle Rudgley thought it appropriate to offer her (or was it IAS’s?) views on Erwin’s Facebook page, which is along the less-than-toned-down lines Carol refers to. There Erwin deleted all all my comments – simply because they were ‘pro-vaccine’ (his term).

    The point is his reason why isn’t because I was being impolite (I was very polite) or relevant (most of my comments were to address points made or questions raised by other commenters), but—by his own words—simply because he disallows views that differ from his. He at least makes no bones about it, I suppose.

    Personally I don’t think they think they are an ‘elite’. I hope not – perhaps a few do, but I don’t think ‘followers’ do. My own feeling is that they rally against ‘authority’ telling them what to do, thinking that they can work it out for themselves, and the core promoters get too carried away with their views.

    All of this seems a bit tied-up with the ‘natural health’ and it’s claims.

    Writers like Hilary Butler (who I believe founded IAS) write emotive stories that encourage people to (paraphrasing) “do it themselves”.

    In the past I’ve termed this type of ‘natural remedy’ activity ‘medical DIY’, comparing it to a women listening to her wishful unskilled husband’s DIY plans and envisaging the potential impending disaster. I wrote an article with this as the theme, the point being that you have to acknowledge when your own skills are limited and that others know better. The builder does a hell of a better job that I could hope to; the smart thing is to judge when the projects or judgement calls are more wisely passed on to those with better backgrounds than you.

    [Now, maybe I ought to have made that a blog post. Sigh.]