Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Anti-vaccination

Winning The Fight Against Bacterial Meningitis With Immunization

Bacterial meningitis pathogen

Bacterial meningitis is often, but not exclusively, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus). It involves the inflammation of the membranes of the central nervous system (including the brain) and depending on the stage of the disease, the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion and severe pain. If the bacteria invade the bloodstream, it can damage the blood vessels and giving you internal bleeding. This is a potentially life-threatening disease and even if you receive antibiotic treatment, about 10-15% of people will die. According to the WHO, almost 1 million cases have been reported during the past 20 years in the so-called meningitis belt (ranging from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east).

Yet, there are important improvements occurring thanks to large-scale vaccination campaigns against meningococcus serotype A (the other most common serotypes are B, C, Y and W135). The number of cases of meningitis reported annually has been declining since 2010 and in 2014, it was down to 11 500. CNN recently ran a news item on the struggle against meningococcus serotype A in Africa that is worth examining in greater detail. We will also look at the aftermath of a recent meningitis death of a toddler due to anti-vaccine parents using alternative medicine for two and a half weeks before attempting to seek real medical attention.

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Mailbag: Real Vaccine Risks?

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Nothing in the world is 100% safe or 100% effective. Everything you do carries some degree of risk: you can get hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, choke when drinking water, accidentally fall when walking on gravel and so on. The challenge is to figure out if the benefits of something outweigh the risks, and if that is the case, then the product is reasonably safe and effective. It the risks clearly outweigh the benefits, the product is unsafe or ineffective.

These challenges are given substantial attention in the research and development of all medical products and certainly vaccines. This is due to several reasons: a dangerous product would be unlikely to pass the stringent regulatory checks and safeguards, a dangerous vaccine would just be pulled of the market, there is a very small profit margin for vaccines compared with other products (since most vaccines are only given once or a couple of times during life compared with other products that need to be taken every day) etc.

There are real risks with vaccines (as with any medical product), but these are either mild or very, very rare. However, what greatly irritates scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics is that anti-vaccine activists make up imaginary risks that are either enormously scientifically implausible (that smallpox vaccines turned people into cows) or have been repeatedly refuted by a massive amount of scientific research (such as most modern anti-vaccine claim). Read more of this post

How Pseudoscientific Quacks Defend Child Abuse

Natural News defend child abusers

Few things are more provoking to a scientific skeptic than when pseudoscientific cranks and quack exploit those who are not in a position to defend themselves. For instance, some HIV/AIDS denialist attempt to convince people with the virus to stop taking their medications or not using protection. Some anti-psychiatry proponents tell people with serious psychological conditions that they caused their own situation by “thinking too negatively” or “eating too much acidic food” and that all they need to do is “think positively”.

It is even more agitating when these quacks are exploiting and harming children. You might be able to argue that adults have personal responsibility and that they therefore should be allowed to do what they want, but this is not true for children. They are innocent and the quackery of the parents should not be imposed on their offspring. This post explores four such examples: chiropractors who perform dangerous spinal manipulations of very young children and even newborns, anti-vaccine activists who defend child abusers by falsely claiming that shaken baby syndrome is somehow a vaccine injury, fake therapists who subject children to coercive “rebirthing therapies” based on wrapping children in blankets and making them fight their way out to establish emotional attachment (that has led to fatalities) and finally autism quacks that force autistic children to drink bleach or take bleach enema.

Chiropractors: dangerous neck manipulations of newborn

Chiropractic is an alternative medicine pseudoscience that posits that most diseases are caused by misalignments in the spine called subluxation. In reality, these supposed misalignments cannot be seen on x-rays and had they been real, the person would be in excruciating constant pain, not have diffuse symptoms such as tiredness.

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When Anti-Vaccine Activists Falsely Dismiss Polio and Measles Harm

Vaccine Outliers

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.

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Flawed Swedish Anti-Vaccine Article Rejected and Retracted

Anti-vaccine post

Anti-vaccine activists allegedly failed to get an opinion piece dishonestly titled “Our children should not be forcibly vaccinated” published in a major Swedish newspaper called Dagens Nyheter. The provided reason was supposedly that it did not include sufficient sources for their anti-vaccine claims. They attempted to publish it on the debate section on the website of the newspaper, but it was retracted a short while after. They will likely play the martyr card and claim that the mainstream media is oppressing them, even though the newspaper just declined publication and retracted a pseudoscientific opinion piece that promoted many scientific falsehoods.

The letter to the editor was published (webcite) a day later on the alternative news website Newsvoice that have supported many different conspiracy theories before. Although many of the claims made have been disproved thousands of times before, it is important to provide credible scientific information in a time where dangerous pseudoscientific myths are gaining ground and so this post will serve a point-by-point refutation.

It turns out that the authors of the opinion piece (Boo, Tips, Ahlm, Karlström och Zazzio) based their case on confusing mandatory with compulsory, butchering a quote from the Sweden National Board of Health and Welfare, spreading fear and uncertainty about vaccine safety and efficacy, claimed that knowledge about the prevalence of vaccine side-effects relies only on spontaneous reporting rather than active monitoring. Finally, they are betrayed by their own ignorance on why infants are vaccinated and even go so far as to propose that vaccines constitute “premeditated attempted murder”.

Mandatory vaccination is not the same as compulsory vaccination

At its core, Boo and co-authors confuses mandatory with compulsory in an effort to spread fear and doubt about vaccines. If something is mandatory, you pay a societal cost for not doing it. For instance, if you fail to show up for a mandatory lab session in a university chemistry course, you will not pass the course or you may not be able to send your child to your favorite candidate school if they require children to be vaccinated. If something is compulsory, on the other hand, it means that things something will be carried out under the threat of violence. If you fail to show up to a compulsory police interrogation, the police will come to your home or job and ask you to come with them. If you decline, you will be put in handcuffs and taken to the police station. If you resist, they will use violence against you.

Mandatory vaccination is not the same as compulsory vaccination. Compulsory vaccination was tried in e. g. the 1800s, and it arguably did not work. That is why countries like Sweden and the United States do not have compulsory vaccination.

Serious side-effects are very, very rare

The CDC has a lot of information about possible side-effects. For the MMR and DTaP vaccines, there is a 1 in 1 million risk of a severe allergic reaction. Other reported side-effects are so rare that if they are real, they cannot be reliably measured (risk much less than 1 in 1 million).

The risk from getting the disease is much worse. The risk of death for diphtheria is 5-10% and for tetanus it is about 10%. For measles it is 2%. Other complications of measles disease is brain inflammation, pneumonia, seizures and several others.

If you compare the risk with the vaccine versus the risk of the disease, the disease is much, much worse.

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How SVT Debatt Botched the Vaccine Issue

SVT Debatt

SVT Debatt is a Swedish studio debating program on public television that discuss a couple of current topics each week. Issues range from immigration and feminism to soccer violence and diet trends. Unfortunately, science experts are far and few between and extremists are often given considerably more time to spew their nonsense. This is because the format of the show consists of short back-and-forth exchanges between invited guests and other audience members that are often interrupted by the show host (who serve as a moderator), thus promoting quack one-liners while penalizing careful scientific arguments.

This became abundantly clear during the show aired on 9th April that dealt with childhood vaccines. They had invited several anti-vaccine activists that were given ample time to spread their pseudoscientific misinformation, such as promoting measles parties to intentionally give children measles and the absurd claim that vaccines are supposedly just placebo treatments.

This is a point-by-point refutation of the pseudoscientific claims delivered by anti-vaccine parents on the show.

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When Creationism and Anti-Vaccine Activism Mesh

Creationism and anti-vaccine activism

One of the more frightening conceptual aspects of pseudoscience is known as the crank magnetism effect. It occurs when someone, who promotes one kind of pseudoscience, becomes more likely of promoting other kinds of crankery. Someone who promotes HIV/AIDS denialism may also promote alternative medicine, someone who promotes conspiracy theories about 9/11 might also believe that chemtrails are real, someone who are against vaccines might advocate for conspiracy theories about condoms and so on. This might occur because of similar core beliefs, such as the alleged severe deceitfulness of the government or because of extreme religious beliefs, or perhaps because of the similar themes and content of many kinds of pseudoscience.

Cornelius Hunter, an intelligent design creationist associated with the Center for Science and Culture (previously named the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) at the Discovery Institute, is a good illustration of the concept of crank magnetism. In two recent blog post, he promoted a number of classic anti-vaccine talking points, but these were not completely unrelated to his intelligent design creationist activism. Instead, he appears to see both of the conflicts as part of a larger culture war between mainstream science (that he calls “scientism”) and various religious and anti-scientific groups and individuals.

Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanation for the origin of biological diversity

It is extremely common for creationists of various stripes to mischaracterize evolution as something it is not. Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanatory framework for the origin of biological diversity. It is not about the origin of life (abiogenesis), it is not a worldview, it does not assume philosophical naturalism with respects to the origin of life.

The opposition to science by the forces of pseudoscientific is a fact

Hunter, in an effort to tarnish the combat against pseudoscience, intentionally conflate the current opposition to science by pseudoscientific groups with the historical conflict thesis. The historical conflict thesis, advanced by Draper and White, was the notion that there has been a continuous war between science and religion throughout European history. This turns out to be an inaccurate view of history as the authors cherry-picked and exaggerated their examples. To be true, there were groups of religious individuals who opposed various scientific models and medical advances, but it was rarely the official position of large religious organizations. However, the falsity of the historical conflict thesis does not disprove the true claim that here are currently many conflicts between science and various religious and non-religious groups today.

Denialism is not “thoughtful disagreement”

Hunter writes that:

If you disagree with “science” (as if there is such a monolithic thing), you are not a concerned or thoughtful citizen, you are a denier. In this “we versus them” world, the negative connotation is obvious.

Promoting conspiracy theories about scientists or the scientific community is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Spreading dangerous myths about how vaccines are harming millions of people or that genetically modified foods cause cancer is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Cherry-picking 1998 as a starting point in surface temperature graphs because it had a strong El Niño event in an effort to make it look like there has been no global warming during the past 17 years is not being “thoughtful”. There is a world of difference between being concerned and thoughtful and being a denialist. People are more than welcome to question scientific models and claims. In fact, this is encouraged since science grows by the rejection of ideas that do not work and by the tentative acceptance of models that do work (in terms of making accurate predictions). However, they should not be expected to be treated with silk gloves when they promote anti-scientific ideas that have been debunked thousands and thousands of times before. If you genuinely want to be part of an intellectually honest discussion on scientific topics (such as vaccines, GM foods or evolution) at least try to do some actual reading of credible scientific sources, whether technical or popular.

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Mailbag: Countering Miscellaneous Pseudoscientific Nonsense

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

This round-up installment of the mailbag series will take on a three separate crank comments that were recently submitted to this website. I declined to publish anyone of them because they did not address any of the arguments or evidence that were presented in the articles, they repeated the same old pseudoscientific canards that been refuted thousands of times before and some of them promoted genocide denial.

First up is an anti-vaccine activist going by the name of Bomac. A little later, we will examine the falsehoods promoted by Holocaust denier Jeffrey Stafford and the belief that transgender people are delusional promoted by Obarryon King.

Vaccines are, in general, very safe and effective

Bomac starts off by claiming that:

Many of the claims of vaccine’s success are not true, but for the sake of discussion, presuming they are all true; that was then and this in now. Vaccines have changed today. Manufacturers include all kinds of toxins that are extremely harmful.

This is a common anti-vaccine tactic know as the toxin gambit. Either anti-vaccine cranks refuse to specify what these alleged toxins are, or they list essential vaccine ingredients that are not toxin at the concentrations used in vaccines. Polysorbate 80 is a nonionic emulsifier and is present in higher amounts in common ice cream. Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses to prevent them from causing disease and there is more of it occurring naturally in your body. Aluminum salts are adjuvants that increased the effectiveness of vaccines and have been safely used for 70 years. These are not the same as elemental aluminum and aluminum salts in the concentrations used in vaccines do not cause brain damage. Thimerosal, which is not the same as environmental mercury, has been removed from vaccines over a decade ago and only occurs in some multidose vials of seasonal influenza vaccine to protect against contamination. These are just a few examples of anti-vaccine misinformation about vaccine ingredients. Reliable information about vaccine ingredients can be found at the CDC and the FDA.

Just ask 47,000 paralyzed Indian girls that Bill Gates gifted.

The cases of paralysis occurring in India was caused not caused by the polio vaccine or even polio. According to The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there was no reported cases of polio during the time these individuals became paralyzed. In reality, these cases were caused by non-polio enteroviruses, primarily Coxsackie-B and various echoviruses. This shows that anti-vaccine cranks seem to have little issue with exploiting human tragedy in their efforts to vilify vaccines.

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Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

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When Vaccine Promotion Fails

ResearchBlogging.org

Vaccine hesitation

Despite the fact that the fraudulent (and now retracted) Wakefield paper from 1998 has been soundly refuted by modern medicine, vaccines are still socially controversial among some parents and communities. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine-exemptions, delays in vaccinations, the erosion of herd immunity, and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. How can scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics effectively respond to parents hesitant about vaccines?

How do you convince parents who are hesitant to vaccine their children? Do you debunk common myths about vaccines causing autism with facts? Do you explain that vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous? Do you show them graphic imagery of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases? Do you present a gripping narrative about a child who almost died from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles? As an added complications, some effort to correct irrational beliefs are counterproductive. Due to various backfire effects, correction can actually increase confidence in mistaken beliefs. Therefore, it is enormously important to research effective strategies for vaccine promotion.

A recent paper by Nyhan, Riefler, Richey and Freed (2014) examined this issue by randomly assigning a nationally representative sample of parents to one of the four interventions above or to a no-information control group for comparison. First, parents were asked to complete a pre-intervention baseline survey on child health, vaccine attitude, trust in medical authorities and child vaccine coverage. After they had been exposed to their respective interventions, they were asked questions to gauge their level of vaccine misinformation about side-effects of the MMR vaccine as well as their level of intention to vaccinate their children.

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