The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part X: Measles

Note: This is the tenth and final installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will slash through her false claims about the MMR vaccine and measles. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Bliss on measles

We have now reached the final part in this series on the pseudoscientific nonsense promoted by model and freelance writer Stasia Bliss (who calls herself a “master alchemist” and “a High Priestess of Qi Vesta”). In previous installments, several of her claims have been refuted, such as her claim that individuals with cystic fibrosis caused their own disease by eating acidic food and thinking negative thoughts, that colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements are effective against HIV/AIDS, that staring into the sun for long periods of time allows for astral projection and unaided human flight, that DNA has twelve strands, that a vital life force exists, that eating genetically modified foods makes you less humans, that dark matter does not exist, her promotion of quantum woo and her belief in human shape-shifting and death as the result of a psychological conditioning.

In this tenth and final part, the claims made by Bliss with regards to measles and the MMR vaccine will be critically examined. Despite her beliefs, measles is a dangerous disease and not a “natural cleansing” or “adventure” and the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Her misguided reliance on the National Vaccine Information Center (a pseudoscientific anti-vaccine organization) and VAERS dumpster-diving will be exposed. Contrary to Bliss, the Vaccine Court provides individuals who have experienced genuine adverse events from vaccines with compensations in a way that is easy, cheap and fast for those individuals. Like many other anti-vaccine activists, Bliss has difficulty grasping the concept of herd immunity. Her promotion of quack treatments (that lack evidence of efficacy) is based on a misunderstanding of physiology and evolution. She even goes so far as to claim that childhood diseases are a result of too much “toxins” from modern life (thereby embracing germ theory denialism), apparently not understanding that measles existed many hundreds of years before present and the fact that the body has robust systems for elimination actual toxins from the body.

Measles is a dangerous disease, not a natural cleansing or adventure

According to CDC (2011), measles causes pneumonia in ~6 out of 100 individuals, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in ~1 out of 1000 individuals and kills ~2 per 1000 in developed countries. In developing countries, the fatality rate is close to 30% (Orenstein et al., 2004). Bliss does not mention any complication besides death and even get the math wrong: 2 per thousand is 0.2% not 0.02% like Bliss claims. Measles is not an “adventure” or a “natural cleansing”. It is a vaccine-preventable disease that causes a lot of harm and suffering.

The vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella is safe and effective

In comparison, the major risk with the MMR vaccine is that 1 in 1 million can develop encephalitis or severe allergic reaction to a vaccine component. That means that a thousand times more individuals will get encephalitis from measles than from the MMR vaccine. While it is true that better living conditions reduced the incidence of measles, it was not until the vaccine was licensed and used that we started seeing the large drops in the number of new measles cases. CDC (2011) provides us with the following graph:

Measles incidence

This is not a post hoc fallacy as we have a well-tested mechanism for why vaccine prevents disease: it induced an immunological memory so that when the body is exposed to measles in the future, it will be able to response directly against the virus without having to spend weeks developing an adaptive immune response.

Data from CDC (2012) indicates that the measles component of the MMR vaccine has an efficacy rate of around 95%.

NVIC is a pseudoscientific organization that lacks credibility

In her post, Bliss cites the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) for statistics of adverse events from the MMR vaccine. However, NVIC is not an independent medical association, but a powerful anti-vaccine organization lead by Barbara Loe Fisher. Fisher, being the grand dame of the anti-vaccine movement, has spent many decades trying to undermine childhood vaccinations (Specter, 2009). References NVIC on adverse events from vaccines is like citing Answers in Genesis for facts about evolution. The problem with the claims made by NVIC and cited by Bliss is that they are almost entirely based on VAERS dumpster-diving.

VAERS dumpster-diving is not a scientifically valid approach

Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) is an American surveillance system were people can report adverse events following vaccination. However, VAERS is not intended to give accurate estimates for the incidence of vaccine adverse events. Rather, they have other goals in mind:

The primary objectives of VAERS are to:

Detect new, unusual, or rare vaccine adverse events (VAEs);
Monitor increases in known adverse events;
Identify potential patient risk factors for particular types of adverse events;
Identify vaccine lots with increased numbers or types of reported adverse events; and
Assess the safety of newly licensed vaccines.

Adverse events reports submitted to VAERS are not the same as actual adverse events that has been established by scientific research. This is due to many factors, such as underreporting, correlational fallacies, distortions by litigations and biases in what kind of adverse events gets reported. VAERS makes this fairy explicit in the data section of their website:

When reviewing data from VAERS, please keep in mind the following limitations:

VAERS is a passive reporting system, meaning that reports about adverse events are not automatically collected, but require a report to be filed to VAERS. VAERS reports can be submitted voluntarily by anyone, including healthcare providers, patients, or family members. Reports vary in quality and completeness. They often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors.

“Underreporting” is one of the main limitations of passive surveillance systems, including VAERS. The term, underreporting refers to the fact that VAERS receives reports for only a small fraction of actual adverse events. The degree of underreporting varies widely. As an example, a great many of the millions of vaccinations administered each year by injection cause soreness, but relatively few of these episodes lead to a VAERS report. Physicians and patients understand that minor side effects of vaccinations often include this kind of discomfort, as well as low fevers. On the other hand, more serious and unexpected medical events are probably more likely to be reported than minor ones, especially when they occur soon after vaccination, even if they may be coincidental and related to other causes.

A report to VAERS generally does not prove that the identified vaccine(s) caused the adverse event described. It only confirms that the reported event occurred sometime after vaccine was given. No proof that the event was caused by the vaccine is required in order for VAERS to accept the report. VAERS accepts all reports without judging whether the event was caused by the vaccine.

Thus, it is not legitimate to automatically interpret a VAERS report as evidence that a given vaccine causes a given adverse event. Such a claim has to be corroborated by scientific studies.

Vaccine court provides quicker, cheaper, easier compensation for real vaccine adverse effects

Vaccine court is a system established by the American government so that those rare individuals that has gotten hurt by vaccines can get financial compensation. Compared with a civil suit, the process is quicker, cheaper for the plaintiff and more often rewards compensations. The burden of evidence is also reduced. Contrary to the claim made by Bliss, the vaccine court and VAERS demonstrate that vaccine adverse events are not swept under the rug.

Vaccine rejectionism threatens herd immunity and immunocompromised individuals

A key concept in immunology and epidemiology is herd immunity. It arises when a sufficiently high proportion of individuals in a population are immune to the pathogen. This means that the average number of new cases cause by an infection drops below 1 and the spread of the disease decreases. When vaccine rejectionism cause the decrease in the proportion of unvaccinated, this provides a ready-made breeding ground for infectious diseases to spread. Because no vaccine is 100% effective, living in a population with a low proportion of vaccinated individuals can be dangerous. Also, some individuals cannot get all vaccines needed. They might be too young to get vaccinated or have a suppressed immune system from e. g. taking immunosuppressant for transplantation or autoimmune diseases or have HIV/AIDS. They rely on people around them being vaccinated. They rely on being produced by the herd. Throughout her post, Bliss repeatedly ignores and misunderstands herd immunity. The decision to not vaccinate is not just something that can hurt the person himself or herself. It can also hurt the people around him or her.

Evolutionary arms race between host and pathogen, not “body designed to heal”

Bliss naively argues that the humans are designed to “heal themselves” and if you just leave the body to fight the disease without medical intervention, a lot of illnesses would make the body “release toxins” and “leave the body better than before”. This flies in the face of much of physiology and evolution: diseases often have harmful impacts on the body, and humans and their pathogens are involved in a continuing evolutionary arms race. Since the pathogens have shorter life-cycles than humans, they can typically evolve to exploit their hosts faster than the hosts can evolve defenses.

The body can effectively eliminate most “toxins” from the environment

A lot of anti-vaccine activists and proponents of quack treatments talk about how most health problems are caused by “toxins”. However, these are usually not defined and little attention is paid to the fact that the human body has robust systems for eliminating actual toxins, such as the liver and kidneys. The human body usually maintains homeostasis and the internal environment does not just passively follow the external conditions.

Childhood illnesses are much older than alleged modern toxins

Bliss promotes the flawed notion that childhood illnesses are just the body’s way of trying to eliminate all the “toxins” of modern society. However, childhood illnesses such as measles and polio has been around for many hundreds of years and their evolutionary history spans a lot longer. Therefore, it makes no sense to speak of the corresponding disease as something that is caused by “modern toxins”. This is yet another display of her germ theory denialism.

No evidence for the efficacy of quack treatments for measles

Instead of discussing the modern medical approaches to measles infection, Bliss promotes a number of quack treatments for measles. She believes that things like olive leaf and oregano oil “are helpful in warding off the virus”, yet she provides no evidence for these claims. Presumably, she is parroting the standard line that some “natural products” can “boost the immune system”. However, there is really no solid evidence for such claims (Harvard Medical School, 2005). In addition, the immune system is a large and complicated system and it is not really clear what “boosting the immune system” even means. Boosting what? A quick search on PubMed for “olive leaf measles” and “oregano oil measles” do not return a single hit. The quack treatments that Bliss propose are completed untested.

Conclusion

The MMR vaccine is safe and effective, whereas measles is a dangerous disease. The arguments made by Bliss rests on the VAERS dumpster-diving by a major anti-vaccine organization and she cannot even get the math right with respect to the case fatality rate. Bliss fails to understand the importance of herd immunity and the relationship between hosts and pathogens. She continues to reject the germ theory of disease and promote untested quack treatments.

References

CDC. (2011). Basics and Common Questions: Some Common Misconceptions about vaccination and how to respond to them: Accessed: 2013-09-16.

CDC. (2012). The Pink Book: Measles. Accessed: 2013-09-16.

Harvard Medical School. (2005). How to boost your immune system. Accessed: 2013-09-16.

Orenstein, W.A., Perry, R. T., & Halsey, N. A. (2004). The Clinical Significance of Measles: A Review. Journal of Infectious Diseases, 189(Supplement 1), S4-S16. doi: 10.1086/377712

Specter, M. (2009). Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. USA: Penguin Press HC.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

4 thoughts on “The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part X: Measles

  • Pingback: The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Introduction | Debunking Denialism

  • September 16, 2013 at 14:19
    Permalink

    Stasia Bliss is why I stopped reading ANYTHING from Guardian, and my doctor colleagues have followed suit in the boycott of that website. They’re all crazy over there, and are kidding themselves if they think that’s “health news”. That woman has no business giving any information to the public, unless perhaps she’s spouting it on a street corner with a sandwich board and a change cup.

    • September 16, 2013 at 18:01
      Permalink

      The sad part is that while I have written these ten articles, she has put out several dozen more blog posts spreading misinformation and quackery about everything from chemotherapy to urine.

  • September 17, 2013 at 03:14
    Permalink

    Thank you! In reading through many of these sites on natural medicine and homeopathy I have been seriously concerned about the lack of a basic understanding of science many of these people have. I don’t understand how intelligent college graduates could possibly buy this – while not a scientist, Biology 101 and Stats are basic required courses. Why then the appeal that directly conflicts with even an elementary understanding of Biology?

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