Four Ways Vaccine Skeptics Misinform About Measles and Other Diseases

Measles cases are increasing in the United States. In the first quarter of this year, the figure was on average almost 17 times higher than what was recorded during the same period in the previous four years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Half of the infected people, mostly children, have been hospitalized.

And the forecasts are not encouraging at all. The number of cases is expected to increase as more parents decide not to vaccinate their children against measles and other diseases such as polio and whooping cough.

Unvaccinated people, or those whose vaccination status is unknown, account for 80% of measles cases this year. Many parents have been influenced by an avalanche of false or misleading information, spread by politicians, podcast hosts and influential figures on television and social media. These personalities repeat outdated ideas that erode trust in the science behind routine childhood vaccines.

We explain some of the ideas that are being spread and why they are wrong.

The idea that 'nothing happens'

Many think that vaccines are not necessary because the diseases they prevent are not very dangerous or are too rare to be a cause for concern. Cynics accuse public health officials and the media of fear-mongering about measles, even as 19 states have reported cases.

For example, an article posted on the website of the National Vaccine Information Center (a common source of vaccine misinformation) argued that a resurgence in concern about measles “is a 'the sky is falling' hype.” falling down'”. And he went on to call measles, mumps, chickenpox and influenza “politically incorrect to contract.”

According to the CDC, measles kills approximately 2 in every 1,000 infected children. If that seems like a bearable risk, it's worth noting that a much higher proportion of children with measles will require hospitalization for pneumonia and other serious complications.

Additionally, for every 10 cases of measles, a child with the disease develops an ear infection that can cause permanent hearing loss. Another strange effect is that the measles virus can destroy a person's existing immunity, meaning they will have a harder time recovering from influenza and other common illnesses.

Measles vaccines have prevented the deaths of about 94 million people, mostly children, over the past 50 years, according to an April analysis led by the World Health Organization. Along with vaccines against polio and other diseases, it is estimated that vaccines have saved 154 million lives Worldwide.

Some skeptics argue that vaccine-preventable diseases are no longer a threat because they have become relatively rare in the United States. This is true, precisely thanks to vaccination.

This mindset led Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo to tell parents they could send their unvaccinated children to school amid a measles outbreak in February. “If you look at the headlines, you would think the sky is falling,” Ladapo said on a News Nation newscast. “There is a lot of immunity.”

As this lax attitude leads parents to refuse vaccination, herd immunity will decline and outbreaks will grow more rapidly. In 2019, a rapid measles outbreak hit an undervaccinated population in Samoa, killing 83 people in four months. And a chronic lack of measles vaccination in the Democratic Republic of the Congo led to the deaths of more than 5,600 people from the disease in massive outbreaks last year.

The 'you never know' mentality

Since the early days of vaccines, there has always been a group of people who consider them bad because they are not natural. In the 1800s, skeptics claimed that smallpox vaccines caused people to grow horns and behave like beasts.

More recently, detractors blame vaccines for problems from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to autism and impaired immune system. Research does not support those claims.

Vaccines are among the most studied medical interventions. Over the past century, massive studies and clinical trials have tested vaccines during their development and after their widespread use. More than 12,000 people participated in clinical trials of the most recent vaccine approved to prevent measles, mumps and rubella. Such large numbers allow researchers to detect rare risks, which are a big concern because the vaccines are given to millions of healthy people.

However, people who promote vaccine misinformation, such as candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., dismiss massive, scientifically vetted studies. Kennedy maintains that clinical trials of new vaccines are unreliable because vaccinated children are not compared to a placebo group that receives saline or another substance with no effect.

This is because it is unethical to endanger children by giving them a fake vaccine when the protective effect of immunization is known. In a clinical trial of polio vaccines conducted in the 1950s, 16 children in the placebo group died of polio and 34 were paralyzed, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of a book about the first polio vaccine.

Too many and too soon

Many of the best-selling vaccine books on Amazon promote the risky idea that parents should skip or delay vaccinating their children. “All vaccines on the CDC schedule may not be suitable for all children at all times,” writes Paul Thomas in his best-selling book The Vaccine-Friendly Plan. He backs up this conviction by saying that children who have followed his “protocol are among the healthiest in the world.”

Since the book was published, Thomas' medical license has been temporarily suspended in Oregon and Washington. The Oregon Medical Board documented how Thomas persuaded parents to skip CDC-recommended vaccines and reported that he “made a mother who disagreed cry.”

Several children in their care contracted whooping cough and rotavirus, diseases that are easily prevented by vaccines, the board wrote. Thomas recommended fish oil supplements and homeopathy to an unvaccinated child with a deep scalp laceration, rather than an emergency tetanus vaccine. The boy developed severe tetanus and was in the hospital for almost two months, where he required intubation, a tracheostomy and a feeding tube to survive.

The CDC-recommended vaccination schedule is designed to protect children at the most vulnerable times in their lives and minimize side effects. The combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is not given during the baby's first year of life because antibodies temporarily transmitted from the mother can interfere with the immune response. And because some babies don't mount a strong response to that first dose, the CDC recommends a second dose when the child enters kindergarten because measles and other viruses spread quickly in group settings.

The idea of ​​'they don't want you to know'

Kennedy compares Florida's surgeon general to Galileo in the introduction to Ladapo's new book on transcending fear in public health. Just as the Catholic inquisition punished the renowned astronomer for promoting theories about the universe, Kennedy suggests that scientific institutions suppress dissenting voices about vaccines for nefarious reasons.

“The persecution of scientists and doctors who dare to challenge contemporary orthodoxies is not a new phenomenon,” Kennedy writes. Her running mate, attorney Nicole Shanahan, has campaigned on the idea that conversations about vaccine harms are censored and that the CDC and other federal agencies are withholding data due to corporate influence.

Statements like “they don't want you to know” are not new among anti-vaccines, even though the movement has long had quite a bit of visibility. The most listened to podcast in the United States, The Joe Rogan Experience, regularly features guests who question the scientific consensus. Last year on the show, Kennedy repeated the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism.

Far from ignoring that concern, epidemiologists have taken it seriously. They have conducted more than a dozen studies looking for a link between vaccines and autism, and have found none. “We have conclusively refuted the theory that vaccines are related to autism,” said Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia. “So the public health system tends to shut down those conversations quickly.”

Federal agencies are transparent about seizures, arm pain and other reactions that vaccines can cause. And the Government has a program to compensate people whose injuries are scientifically determined to have resulted from them. Between 1 and 3.5 in every million doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. The risk of death from lightning over a person's lifetime is estimated to be up to four times greater.