Posted by: Ticktock | December 27, 2008

This American Life – Vaccines

It’s no surprise to me that San Diego’s sudden outbreak of measles began with possible infections in a Whole Foods Market.  The well-intentioned shoppers at Whole Foods are concerned about buying “organic”, “free-range”, homeopathic, and “all natural” products, and they will clearly pay higher prices for these useless items for the purpose of avoiding chemicals and toxins.  Last week’s This American Life podcast sympathetically reported on the measles epidemic in San Diego, and the story shed light on the stubborn mindset of vaccine haters.

The lesson I learned from listening to the episode… that I’m probably wasting my time talking to these folks.  But, you know, I’ve got to try, I guess.

The antivaccine crowd have been raving about various “toxins” in the routine shots forced on their children, so it’s no surprise that a subset of crunchy suburban parents have bought into the over-hyped drama concerning vaccine safety.  It should be noted, though, that vaccines are not inherently toxic.  One example of a “toxic” lie is that vaccine haters claim that there are toxic levels of formaldehyde in vaccines, but they don’t say that formaldehyde is a chemical that is naturally made in the body, that it’s a chemical humans are exposed to daily via auto exhaust and items in the household, and that there are only harmless microquantities of this chemical in vaccines.  Still, Hillary on This American Life willfully subjected her child to three weeks of quarantine because she didn’t have the option of buying “organic” vaccines.

Parents are justifiably shell shocked from stories about children falling ill with autism just days after receiving the Measles Mumps and Rubella combination vaccine.  The hysteria actually started with a study by Andrew Wakefield that was published in the UK’s Lancet paper.  As was mentioned in the episode, Wakefield’s study has since been discredited, reproduced several times without an MMR-autism connection, withdrawn by the Lancet and the paper’s co-authors, and has relegated Wakefield to such a lowly position that he isn’t even considered reputable as a witness in court on the subject.

Even after Wakefield’s disaster of a study, people still think that MMR is harmful.  There are also folks who think that MMR has the mercury ingredient thimerosal, even though that particular preservative was never in the MMR vaccine.  I honestly don’t blame parents for having mixed emotions about vaccinating their children given the fear mongering going on by vaccine haters.

It might be unfair to say this to parents who truly believe that there children degenerated after shots, but there is no proof that the vaccines  trigger autism.  It just so happens that the schedule of the MMR vaccine (1 year) coincides with the average age children with autism begin showing signs of degeneration.  The law of averages says that a handful of reported cases of autism will be noticed after a routine vaccine, and that is where you get your scary anecdotes.

My personal opinion is that even if the microscopic antigens in vaccines caused autism (which they have not been proven to do in any way), the child would get autism anyway from the millions of antigens encountered in our every day environment.

This American Life covered non-vaccinating parents with a fair amount of empathy.  One of them claimed that she was bullied by a doctor to vaccinate.  Damn right the doctor bullied her; good for him!  This mother thought it was suspicious that a doctor would strongly persuade her to vaccinate her child for tetanus, but he was just doing his job trying to save lives.  Her daughter was bit by a dog, and the little girl could have contracted tetanus and had her jaw locked shut by a neurotoxin; you know, the type mom had been trying to avoid in the first place.  And these warrior moms, as they are sometimes described, are willfully endangering their grandchildren too.  14% of neonatal deaths in underdeveloped countries are caused when a baby has a wound that is infected by tetanus because she did not inherit immunity from her unvaccinated mother.

Even after this outbreak of measles in San Diego, the vaccine fearing moms who willfully put their quarantined children at risk of a fatal, highly contagious, and disgusting disease, were still adamant against immunization.  They would opt against an “inorganic” vaccine that isn’t “all natural” so that they can voluntarily choose a higher risk of having multiple diseases, including measles, in which their offspring could potentially contract an alien-like mutant skin rash, in addition to other ailments such as drastic weight loss, dehydration, and a boiling fever.

I understand that choosing to vaccinate in the face of this controversy is scary, but please consider that vaccines have prevented millions of diseases, saved lives, extended our life expectancy, and are continually monitored for safety.  Do you really want to put your child at risk of contracting a deadly disease because you wanted free-range vaccines?  The choice is yours, but you also owe it to your child (and your grandchildren) to make the choice that is best for them, and while you are thinking of your next of kin, remember that choosing not to vaccinate lowers the herd immunity and puts everyone at risk.

So, please, antivaxxers all over the world, don’t spoil it for the rest of us.  Wise up, and vaccinate your children.



  1. Well said! I have absolutely no respect for people who selfishly put others at risk by choosing not to vaccinate.

  2. […] Dad has a really good post up today about vaccinations and measles. Evidently the NPR show This American Life had a segment about a […]

  3. “All natural.” “Organic.” Bah. Humbug. The list of all-natural, organic stuff that can kill you would fill a library.

  4. I agree with you on vaccines, but why the slam at organic foods? Do you really think that organic foods are useless? Here’s information on pesticide residues.

  5. There are several loop holes in the laws that allow foods to be labeled “organic” when they are still actually farmed irresponsibly. Some of the “natural” ways to kill pests are just as dangerous to the environment as the chemicals being replaced.

    My opinion is that after you wash veggies and fruits, there is really nothing to worry about, no matter how the produce was farmed.

    I grant that this is all second hand knowledge based on frequenting skeptical sites, so I’m willing to change my mind about the topic. However, I doubt that regular fruits and veggies are that bad or there would be a noticeable effect on the entire population.

  6. Imagine bottle-feeding your child for the rest of his life because the CDC doesn’t investigate and prevent vaccine injuries… Consumer confidence increases when public health administrators and industry respond to complaints, rather than deny them.

    Court rules in favor of family in MMR vaccine case
    video 2:21

  7. […] SkepticDad over at Science-Based Parenting discusses the recent This American Life – This is the one I blogged about the other day (maybe yesterday?) that discusses the kid that died because they weren’t vaccinated. […]

  8. People act like the only issue is weather they get autism or not. This incident shows those that will listen that even if we concede all the BS about the MMR vaccine that the real choice is weather you gamble about getting autism or measles.

  9. I understand it’s hard to comprehend autism’s life-altering issues when your child can say “I love you,” doesn’t bite themselves and isn’t affected in the many other ways autism is devastating, but I did want to correct the term ‘anti-vaxers.’ We aren’t anti-vaxers; we are pro-SAFE-vaxers. It’s vastly different. It’s misleading terminology such as ‘anti-vax’ that makes it harder to see what we’re really saying. I respect both those who vaccinate and don’t, but it’s great to see us represented accurately and having our feelings respected equally.

    • I don’t think it matters either way whether a parent is antivaccine or pro-safe-vaccine because both positions reject current immunizations. The “Green Vaccine” campaign is a way to make the antivaccine stance more palatable to the media and to the public. I do understand the point you are trying to make… that you personally appreciate the benefit of vaccines but you don’t want them to be toxic. My argument is that they are not toxic, haven’t been proven to be remotely dangerous, and they certainly don’t cause autism.

      The truth is that vaccines are safe, with the exception of the listed side effects. Even the thimerosal was safe, and it was still yanked from vaccines as a precaution. Look at the statistics in any country that has eliminated thimerosal in vaccines (including our own); the rates of autism did not decline. The new bogey man is aluminum, but there is more aluminum in breast milk and formula than there is in vaccines. The arguments against vaccines are emotional… not rational. Having my child say “I love you” is extremely important to me, and it would be shameful for me not to acknowledge that every parent of an autistic child has unfair challenges that I don’t understand, but I defend science on this blog, and until there is an indication that vaccines are as harmful as claimed by activists, I will stand by my statements.

  10. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know if this is feasible, but has anyone considered changing the timing of the MMR vaccine? If it were routinely given later or earlier, with no corresponding change in autism rates or age of onset, that would prove there is no connection. I guess it’s a little unethical to leave babies vulnerable for a few extra months, but it’s certainly not possible to do a double-blind placebo trial. Based on the current evidence, I don’t believe that autism is caused by MMR or any other vaccine, but a test like this would be fairly conclusive with a pretty low risk. Also, if this were done routinely, it would reduce the coincidental timing of onset with vaccination, and uncritical parents would be less likely to jump to that conclusion.

  11. This is exactly was Dr. Sears has done, but his alternative schedule was not designed to prove any conclusion. He just proposed splitting up the MMR and giving it later so that parents who are worried will feel comfortable vaccinating. The only problem is that his decision isn’t based on any evidence, just emotion. Dr. Offitt recently attacked Dr. Sears’ alternative schedule in an article in pediatrics.

  12. wow, wait a second, I think it is very weird that you put people who are buying organic and free-range products automatically in the same category as people who are buying homeopathy. I’m a scientist and a skeptic who’d never buy homeopathic stuff, but I always go for free-range produce. The reason is not that I believe that it is healthier for me, but that I’m really against the cruelty against animals that is standard in conventional farming. This is a purely ethical question for me, and I know quite a few people who think the same way. Also, antibiotics are often used for prevention in conventional farming, which I believe to be a dangerous mistake, since we don’t want any more antibiotic resistant bacterias. (and yes, organic labels can be abused, it is necessary to inform yourself about things, I know that) Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I really feel that you are generalizing too much here.

    • I did not put them automatically in the same category. The story in This American Life mentioned Whole Foods and Trader Joes as places where the measles virus may have spread, so I feel like the connection makes sense, especially given the fact that a woman in the story stated that it’s a shame that vaccines aren’t “organic”. I just connected the references as a way to add context to my post.

      I don’t want to get too hypocritical because my family buys “Free Range” all the time (see my wife). But, if you’re really a scientist and a skeptic, you would know that “Free Range” means jack shit. All it means is that the chicken has access to the outside. Access… nothing else is mandated. There are no regulations on “Free Range” eggs, so any seller can put that label on their eggs without it meaning anything. If you have ethical problems with chickens being caged, you should buy your chicken and eggs from a farm. Honestly though, if you have an ethical problem with poultry being caged and treated cruelly, then I wonder why you would even eat them at all. This sort of moral equivocation is illogical.

  13. well, it’s good to hear that you don’t put them automatically in the same category. Some people from the new-age crowd do belong in fact in the same category, I just wanted to point out that this is not necessarily the case. However, I guess I have to derail this thread even further by answering some of your statements.

    If you have ethical problems with chickens being caged, you should buy your chicken and eggs from a farm.
    I did in fact used to do that, in a farm were you could actually visit and look under which conditions the animals were treated. However, since I moved to a desert, there are not too many farms around anymore. I am also from a country where there are much clearer and stricter regulations on these things than in the US, which made shopping much easier. However, even though you are right and access to the outside does not mean much, IMO it is still better than life in a battery cage.
    (you are right, free-range does not mean anything regarding egg production, however, the USDA label certified organic is in fact protected and has some humane treatment standards included, as has the certified humane label by the humane farm animal care society)

    Honestly though, if you have an ethical problem with poultry being caged and treated cruelly, then I wonder why you would even eat them at all. This sort of moral equivocation is illogical.
    You do realize that according to this standard the only logical way of life for me would be to be a vegan, right? Most of the decisions in life are compromises, and trying to eat the most humanely produced animal products I can get is mine.
    And by the way, doesn’t this standard mean that everyone who is concerned about global warming would be illogical for living in a house that is not completely solar heated, had a car, ever flew anywhere or used fossil fuels in any other way? I don’t believe that you can find a lot of people who actually live up to this standard.

  14. On the last point, I do realize that this may be an impossible standard for those not willing to be vegan, but it does seem odd to me that some people anthropomorphize poultry, assigning them feelings and rights, but then eat them. I would think that if chickens really have rights that they deserve, top on the list would be life itself. I guess my point is that I don’t think they have rights other than not being sadistically tortured. Although, I’m sure the term “torture” is relative in this situation. I’m talking about plucking out an eyeball and feeding it to itself or burning its wings and watching it die a slow flaming death… not small cages and the like.

    On the other hand, I can see that what it comes down to for some people is that humans should strive to be better based on the principle that we are capable of being better. I just don’t think that chickens really know or care one way or the other. However, if I saw how Tyson holds, kills, and dismantles their chicken, I would probably care a little more.

    Either way, thanks for the thoughtful response.

  15. I’ve listened to this episode a few times now and I’m genuinely perplexed by the suggestion that TMR covered the parents sympathetically. The ultimate point was that antivac people weren’t swayed by the danger their children represented, even when others became sick. The complexity of that fact can’t be responsibly conveyed unless the audience gets to know a few of the antivacs and the victims involved.

    Ultimately, the antivacs come off as potential murderers who are grappling with their definition of good parenting.

    • Maybe “sympathetic” was not the best term, but my intended meaning was that the reporter remained neutral on the facts of vaccine science and outright stated that she could understand where they were coming from. She gave their voices airtime and failed to judge the merits of their claims or to set the record straight on vaccine safety, and by that, she left their fears open ended and ambiguous. But, you are right – the program ultimately makes antivacs look stubborn and silly.

  16. I agree that the reporter left it more open-ended than is warranted. One of the things that really rankles is the repeated claim (in the piece, too!) is that aluminum is a neurotoxin. Not true, so far as I can gather.

  17. I think it was plenty sympathetic. The interviewer made a point of relating to the antivax Mom’s concerns several times. I can’t believe intelligent, educated people can attempt to conduct research into the issue (as the one mom apparently had) and still reach all the wrong conclusions based on an irrational fear of chemicals. Regardless of where their degrees are from and how much money they make, can people like that really even be called “well educated?”

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