When Anti-Vaccine Activists Falsely Dismiss Polio and Measles Harm

measlespolioharm

Russell Blaylock is a brain surgeon, but also a proponent of a whole host of misguided pseudoscientific claims about aspartame, MSG, water fluoridation, vaccines, medications for high cholesterol and he also believes in chemtrails. He even goes so far as to argue that modern medicine is not in the business of preventing disease, only treating it with expensive medications, despite the fact that vaccines are the pinnacle of preventative medicine and are very cheap compared with treatments for e. g. chronic diseases.

A long quote attributed to Blaylock is being circulated on social media originating from a website called “Vaccines by the Outliers”. The name refers to a closed Facebook group with over 5000 members. They call themselves “vaccine education and awareness group”, but readily admit that they consider that “much of what is heard about vaccines and vaccination within the mainstream, corporate media, the government, the medical profession, and certainly within the vaccine manufacturing industry is not the whole truth, and in many cases is just plain false.”

In reality, Blaylock borders on germ theory denialism, systematically attempts to dismiss the dangers with measles and polio, ignores the realities of importing vaccine-preventable diseases by travel, makes a common mistake of conflating death rates with incidence data, claims better sanitation got rid of measles and polio, despite the fact that this occurred in different decades, claims polio is a harmless summer flu and that vaccines overwhelm the immune system. More infuriating, he attempts to falsely tie the horrible tragedy of malnourished children dying to vaccines without any evidence whatsoever.

Germ theory denialism is wrong

The post claims that the reason people die from measles has very little to do with the virus itself:

[…] because in Africa, yes, millions will die from measles. Why? Because they’re war-torn countries, mass nutritional deficiency, and parasitic infections. So these children can’t react normally to the viruses, so they die. It has nothing to do with the fact that measles is such a killer.

People die from measles because their bodies cannot “reacts normally” because there is war, not enough nutrients and parasites? Although not explicitly stated, this hints at germ theory denialism, which is the flawed belief that it is not the pathogens themselves that causes illness, but that vague “imbalances” in the body causes diseases and then either produces microorganisms as a consequence, or allows the microorganisms to enter the body. From the latter perspective, these microorganisms are like vampires from an episode of the 90s hit show Buffy the Vampire Slayer: you have to invite them in, otherwise they cannot harm you.

To be sure, not having access to modern health care and intensive care units will increase your chances of dying from measles. But this is a lot different from saying that it “has nothing to do with the fact that measles is such a killer”.

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Measles harms and kills

Right now, global vaccination programs have been pushing back measles, yet according to the WHO, approximately 115 000 people died from measles in 2014. They estimate that vaccination prevented 17 million cases of measles between 2000 and 2014. In total, there was an 80% reduction in the number of people who died from measles as a direct result of these global vaccination initiatives.

What about before vaccines? In the United States, the CDC estimates that about 3-4 million people got infected with measles per year. In the U. S. alone, about 50 000 hospitalizations, 4000 cases of encephalitis and 500 deaths. Imagine what the figures looked globally.

Thus, without a shadow of a doubt, measles is harmful and it can kill. Do not trust pro-disease activists who look at the past through their rosy-colored glasses and claim that measles was no big deal.

Measles is rare in the U. S. due to measles vaccination.

The world is a global village and you can import measles easily

It is often said that we live in a global village, and this is especially true in the case of infectious diseases. Seasonal influenza circling the globe every year, pandemic influenza about three times per century and with the recent Ebola outbreak spreading to multiple countries before it was under control.

With easy access to intercontinental travel with airplanes, unvaccinated individuals from countries with very little measles, such as U. S. or Sweden, can travel to a country with measles, get sick and bring it back. If he or she live in a community with low vaccine coverage, an outbreak can get started and infecting dozens or even hundreds.

One such example is discussed in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC:

The index patient was an unvaccinated boy aged 7 years who had visited Switzerland with his family, returning to the United States on January 13, 2008. He had fever and sore throat on January 21, followed by cough, coryza, and conjunctivitis. On January 24, he attended school. On January 25, the date of his rash onset, he visited the offices of his family physician and his pediatrician. A diagnosis of scarlet fever was ruled out on the basis of a negative rapid test for streptococcus. When the boy’s condition became worse on January 26, he visited a children’s hospital inpatient laboratory, where blood specimens were collected for measles antibody testing; later that day, he was taken to the same hospital’s emergency department because of high fever 104°F (40°C) and generalized rash. No isolation precautions were instituted at the doctors’ offices or hospital facilities.

[…]

Two generations of measles cases were identified. The first generation (eight cases) included the index patient’s two siblings, two playmates from his school, and the four children from the pediatrician’s office. The second generation cases included three children from the index patient’s school: a sibling of a child from the first generation and two friends of one of the index patient’s siblings

This is why you continue to vaccinated against vaccine-preventable diseases even though the incidence in that particular country is low. The disease can quickly return.

The Disneyland measles outbreak

During 2014, the U. S. experienced a large surge in measles cases. Here is how the CDC describes it (my bold):

The United States experienced a record number of measles cases during 2014, with 667 cases from 27 states reported to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). This is the greatest number of cases since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000.

  • The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.
  • Measles is still common in many parts of the world including some countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa.
  • Travelers with measles continue to bring the disease into the U.S.
  • Measles can spread when it reaches a community in the U.S. where groups of people are unvaccinated.

Although the total number of cases dropped the next year, 2015 saw a measles outbreak in Disneyland in California that spread to several U. S. states. The CDC summaries the event as follows:

The United States experienced a large, multi-state measles outbreak linked to an amusement park in California. The outbreak likely started from a traveler who became infected overseas with measles, then visited the amusement park while infectious; however, no source was identified. Analysis by CDC scientists showed that the measles virus type in this outbreak (B3) was identical to the virus type that caused the large measles outbreak in the Philippines in 2014.

When anti-vaccine activists claim that measles is no big deal anymore in the U. S. and that we should therefore not vaccinate against it anymore, they are reveling in their own epidemiological ignorance and expose themselves as the pro-disease activists that they truly are.

Vaccines prevent infection, do not lower death rates among unvaccinated

Anti-vaccine activists like to claim that vaccine-preventable diseases were already going away before vaccines began to be used and, in particular, that the death rates were on their way down. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what vaccines are for.

Vaccines prevent you from acquiring the infection in the first place. It does nothing to reduce the risk of death from the diseases for the unvaccinated population. In other words, pointing to death rates is intellectually dishonest. Instead, we should be looking at incidence data.

According to the CDC Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (2015) and its chapter on measles, we can find the following graph for number of measles cases before and after vaccination started:

Measles cases in the U. S.

Thus, it is clear that measles vaccines work. Now, pro-disease activists may claim this is a post hoc fallacy, but this is not solely based on measles incidence dropping after vaccinations started, but that we know the mechanism of how measles vaccination protects against measles.

Better sanitation cannot explain why infectious diseases plummeted at different times, but vaccines can

As a last-ditch case, anti-vaccine activists claim that the decline in infectious diseases such as measles incidence was merely due to better sanitation. This can easily be disproved by noticing that if it was just a matter of better sanitation, the decline in incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases should occur at the same time and not be associated to the corresponding vaccine. This is not the case.

Browsing through the different chapters of the CDC Pink Book, it can easily be seen that measles dropped in the mid-60s, diphtheria in the late 40s, tetanus in the early 40s, polio in the mid-50s, pertussis in the 40s, Hib in the late 1980s and so on.

How odd that “better sanitation” initiated the major decline in diphtheria in the late 40s, but wait over 40 years before doing the same with Hib! And that all of these drops coincided with the launch of large-scale vaccinations. Clearly, there is something very, very wrong with attributing it to merely “better sanitation”.

Malnourished children often die from nourishment, not vaccines

Perhaps the most vile assertion made in the post is that vaccines kill malnourished children:

What we even see is that if you vaccinate malnourished children, you get a high death rate. You know, they had this big idea that we could go to Africa and to the aborigines in Australia, and they were going to vaccinate mass numbers of them. And what they found was almost half of them died when they got the vaccine. And they discovered it was because they were zinc deficient and they were deficient in vitamin A. When they gave them vitamin A and zinc, the death rate fell precipitously. So it shows the enormous effect of malnutrition on dying from infectious diseases or even vaccination.

So the claim is that some children who are malnourished die after given vaccines. Did it ever occur to the writer than malnourished children die because they are malnourished regardless of vaccine status? Nowhere is evidence presented that vaccines were the direct result of those supposed deaths. Not a single citation to a scientific paper or even a mention of a specific decade or place when this supposedly happened.

Instead, pro-disease activists prefer to fear-monger about vaccines regardless of the cost to human health and life.

Polio is not a harmless “summer flu”

In a continued effort to dismiss the horrible consequences of serious infectious diseases, the author claims that polio was merely a summer flu and that it was the vaccination that started making polio worse:

Actually, the polio epidemic really didn’t cause any problems until they started using the DPT vaccine. … Polio existed forever, but it never really caused death in infants, in any numbers, until [the 1940s]. Suddenly, it changed, for some reason. [They didn’t] know why, but there was suddenly, for some reason, it started causing a lot of paralysis and death, cause normally it was just sort of a summer flu… you just felt bad for a day or so and you got over it. And still 90% of the children who are exposed to polio virus, that’s their reaction, they just have a mild reaction and get over it. There’s no paralysis, there’s no weakness. And they don’t die.

Almost all of this is false.

Before the polio vaccine, there was between 13000 and 20000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States per year. While it is true that most polio cases are asymptomatic, twenty thousand cases of paralytic polio per year is not “just sort of a summer flu” or “just feeling bad for a day or so”. In fact, the period during which symptoms occur is between 2 and 21 days depending on severity.

Polio vaccine does not overwhelmed the immune system

The writer puts forward a version of the false claim that vaccines overwhelm the immune system by claiming that “the DPT vaccine was altering their immune function ability”.

In reality, the polio vaccine has about 15 distinct antigens. In comparison, a single bacteria can have anywhere between 2000 and 6000 antigens. Had vaccines overwhelmed the immune system, a single bacterial would have annihilated it. But this, of course, does not happen.

Polio escape mutants are rare, and only means we improve the vaccines

The final claim made in the post is that polio vaccination caused a ton of escape mutants that made polio more virulent. This, too, is false. Firstly, this was already managed when the first polio vaccine was made by choosing three polio strains that were of different virulence and severity. The worst one was the so-called Mahoney strain. This ensured that you would not simply vaccinate the least virulent strains away and leave the most severe forms untouched that could then reign free.

Polio escape mutants in the wild is rare, and if they should become an issue, scientists and medical researchers would just improve the vaccine.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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