Vaccines represents one of the biggest public health victories in human history. Vaccines were responsible for eradicating smallpox and greatly reducing the incidence of new infections of diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles, rubella, rotavirus and many others. However, vaccines have to some extent been the victims of their own success: when they work, the average person do not come into contact with those diseases anymore, which can lead to complacency and sometimes outright science denialism.
Despite this enormous public health success, irrational anti-vaccine sentiments based on ignorance and fear mongering continues to exist. Often, they appeal to fraudulent studies or to safe but scary-sounding names of vaccines components. Sometimes, they even succumb to grand conspiracy theories involving vaccines and world domination based on nothing but misunderstood quotes taken out of context.
In reality, vaccines and general improvements in health care availability increases the living standards of individuals. As people become better off, they tend to have fewer children. A society having fewer children will reduce the population growth i.e. reduce the rate at which the human population is increasing. This bares no resemblance whatsoever to the irrational conspiracy theories who posit and evil and draconian plan spearheaded by Bill Gates that is somehow going to cause massive depopulation. This post examines and clarifies the quotes by Gates that anti-vaccine cranks take out of context.
Vaccines increase living standards, which correlate with fewer children
When people enjoy higher living standards (by vaccines, higher education, better health care infrastructure, better economy, access to reproductive services etc.), the average women tend to give birth to fewer children in their lifetime. Am article in the Economist called Fertility and living standards: Go forth and multiply a lot less explains:
Macroeconomic research bears out this picture. Fertility starts to drop at an annual income per person of $1,000-2,000 and falls until it hits the replacement level at an income per head of $4,000-10,000 a year (see chart 2). This roughly tracks the passage from poverty to middle-income status and from an agrarian society to a modern one.
The link between living standards and fertility exists within countries, too. India’s poorest state, Bihar, has a fertility rate of 4; richer Tamil Nadu and Kerala have rates below 2. Shanghai has had a fertility rate of less than 1.7 since 1975; in Guizhou, China’s poorest province, the rate is 2.2. So strong is the link between wealth and fertility that the few countries where fertility is not falling are those torn apart by war, such as Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where living standards have not risen.
This is the central flaw in the conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, vaccines and depopulation: they confuse vaccines leading to a higher living standard which in turn lead to fewer children being born due to social factors with the notion of a shadowy conspiracy attempting to commit mass murder on a global scale.
In their attempts to back up their anti-vaccine fear mongering, these conspiracy theorists make use of a classic denialist debating tactic called quote mining. It involves taking a segment of communication out of its surrounding context to distort its meaning. As we have seen, when societies increase their living standards, they tend to give birth to a lower average number of children. This makes reduces the population increase and can even make it level off. Keep this in mind when we look at the two most common quotes by Gates taken out of context.
Bill Gates as a TED speaker
The first comes from a TED talk delivered by Gates in 2010 called Innovating to Zero, where he discusses various ideas on how to reduce global carbon emissions to zero. He shows an equation for the global carbon emission, which states that the global carbon emission is related to the number of people on earth, the number of services used on average per person, the amount of useful energy consumed per service and the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit useful energy. He goes on to look at ways to reduce each factor in the equation and his ultimate conclusion is that the amount of carbon dioxide per unit useful energy is going to have to come down a lot for humanity to strongly reduce carbon dioxide output.
Here is the quote from the TED talk (04:33 to 04:50):
First, we’ve got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent, but there we see an increase of about 1.3.
Bill Gates is obviously not claiming that vaccines, health care and reproductive health services will somehow magically lead to the mass murder of almost a billion people. Quite the contrary, health care in general and vaccines in particular saves lives. It is also worth noting that Gates is saying that world population will continue to rise despite vaccines contributing to better living standards. So vaccines will only reduce the increase in population growth, not reduce the absolute number of people.
The Gupta interview on CNN
Anti-vaccine cranks repeat the same tedious quote mining with respect to an interview Gates participated in for CNN called Bill Gates: Vaccine-autism link ‘an absolute lie’. In fact, it is the exact same misunderstanding: confusing “reduce population growth by promoting health” with “mass murder”.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Ten billion dollars [pledged] over the next 10 years to make it “the year of the vaccines.” What does that mean exactly?
Bill Gates: Over this decade, we believe unbelievable progress can be made, in both inventing new vaccines and making sure they get out to all the children who need them. We could cut the number of children who die every year from about 9 million to half of that, if we have success on it. We have to do three things in parallel: Eradicate the few that fit that profile — ringworm and polio; get the coverage up for the vaccines we have; and then invent the vaccines — and we only need about six or seven more — and then you would have all the tools to reduce childhood death, reduce population growth, and everything — the stability, the environment — benefits from that.
Gates is stating that new vaccine inventions could further reduce the tragic deaths of children due to infectious diseases and dampen the population growth. Not by some evil plot to kill people, but by the fact that communities with better health care and higher living standards tend to have fewer children.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with the notion that vaccines cause depopulation is that throughout the 1900s, the century were most vaccines has been invented and included into public health, the planet has been characterized by an incredible population growth.
When people believe that conspiratorial thinking and ideology trumps rational science, they rarely let mere facts stand in their way.