Nov 05 2010

Gloating About Vaccine Fears

Occasionally anti-vaccine activists gloat over statistics that show a decrease (any decrease) in vaccine uptake. It is often a childish victory dance, but more importantly is displays their true anti-vaccine motives.

The most recent example of this is Mike Adams at Natural News, who writes:

Vaccination rates among children insured by commercial health insurance plans have dropped four percent between 2008 and 2009, says a new report by the National Committee for Quality Assurance. In its annual State of Health Care Quality report, the organization revealed that vaccine rates are falling sharply among high-education families.

First, before we start to analyze the significance of these numbers (Adams leaps into this analysis with the zeal of a propagandist), let’s see what they actually are. Business Week reports:

The authors found a drop in several routine childhood vaccinations. Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines decreased from 93.5 percent in 2008 to 90.6 percent in 2009; diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough rates fell from 87.2 percent to 85.4 percent in that one-year period; and the proportion of kids getting vaccinated for chickenpox fell from 92 percent in 2008 to 90.6 percent in 2009.

In addition these numbers have been trending up in recent years, and the last year saw a reversal of this trend. So overall vaccine compliance numbers are very high, and there is a slight downturn this year. “If trends continue” – that’s a big if for a one time effect – then of course this will be concerning for public health. But it is very premature for anti-vaccine hysterics to claim victory.

What can this recent downturn mean? Many things. It could be an indication of the economic times, and unwillingness to pay high deductables for optional procedures. It could be a temporary reaction to the H1N1 fizzle last year. It could also very well be a reaction to anti-vaccine propaganda.

It is generally easier to stoke fear and confusion than reassure people with abstract scientific publications. Dr. Robert Frenck blames it partly on celebrity activists, saying:

Part of that misinformation may come from “very articulate, very good-looking movie stars or personalities that are giving information about how bad vaccines are,” Frenck said. “Frumpy, middle-aged doctors” are extolling the value of immunization and may not be heard above the fray.

A frumpy middle-age doctor Рhmph.  Actually I think a tend toward the nerdy, middle-aged look.

Adams makes a lot of the fact that the decrease in vaccine uptake last year was highest among high-income families. Again, he is quick to pontificate about the implications of this statistic. But no so fast:

Dr. Gabrielle Gold-von Simson, assistant professor of pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine, believes the success with the Medicaid rates “is due to the vaccines-for-children programs and other programs that are dedicated to supplying vaccines for children at low or no cost.”

In other words, the difference may be due to programs to offer vaccines to low income families. The absolute size of the effect is so small it is difficult to pin down one cause.

I actually think it is not surprising that well-educated middle-class families are the ones to react to the fear-mongering about vaccines (if that is the case). They would be more likely to have access to the “manufactroversy” over vaccines and therefore be affected by it.

Also, belief in many silly paranormal claims actually increases with education through the college level. It is not until you get to higher level science training that education actually decreases belief in the paranormal. While there are many potential ways to interpret this fact, it may indicate that higher education does not necessarily confer a better ability to grapple with complex scientific issues. It may cause more open-mindedness about unconventional ideas.

Therefore the vaccine statistics are following a larger trend that has been documented previously. Whatever the cause this strongly indicates that the vaccine effect is part of a larger cultural socio-economic effect, and cannot blithely be attributed to the simplistic notion that better educated people are making informed choices about vaccines.

Having grappled with the anti-vaccine propaganda for years, it is my opinion that the issues are very complex and require a fairly nuanced understanding of how to interpret the scientific literature. Even if we set aside the extreme conspiracy-mongering anti-vaccine advocates, the average person becomes concerned when they hear that there is a controversy over the safety of vaccines (even if it is a fake controversy). It then takes a lot of explaining to reassure them that the scientific data overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that vaccines are safe and effective.

The anti-vaccine crowd are quick to dismiss this kind of analysis as elitist – and then promptly misinterpret the science of vaccines.


I suspect that this one-year trend is part of the ups and down of public opinion regarding vaccines, and may also represent and economic effect. It is just one year, amidst a generally high level of vaccine support and compliance.

But Mike Adams is still using it for anti-vaccine  propaganda. He epitomizes the notion of someone who does not want to be confused with the facts.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Gloating About Vaccine Fears”

  1. BKseaon 05 Nov 2010 at 6:53 pm

    “He optimizes the notion of someone who does not want to be confused someone with the facts”

    Ok – my confusion has been optimized. Please be more careful – It’s Friday and my brain already hurts. I don’t want to have to refudiate your site.

  2. BillyJoe7on 06 Nov 2010 at 6:34 am

    Yes, will someone please scratch themself out.

  3. superdaveon 06 Nov 2010 at 8:19 am

    So if 4% fewer kids are vaccinated will we see a 4% decrease in all the scary things they blame vaccines for? I’m betting no.

    Steve, how does a 4% drop compare to the yearly fluctuation in vaccine statistics?

  4. daedalus2uon 06 Nov 2010 at 12:43 pm

    That the response to lowered vaccination rates is gloating, tells us that the motivation for pushing it is narcissistic self gratification.

  5. cwfongon 06 Nov 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  6. daedalus2uon 06 Nov 2010 at 2:15 pm

    There is when you put your feelings of narcissistic self-gratification ahead of other people’s health and well being.

  7. cwfongon 06 Nov 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Time and place, old boy, time and place.

  8. ccbowerson 06 Nov 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I wonder how much of the problem is the perceived risk of vaccination versus the perceived lack of risk for not getting vaccinated.

    Of course its a “bit of column A and a bit from column B,” but if there were even a small appreciation in the general public for the diseases that the average person no longer sees… this alone would change equation. Not too long ago it was not uncommon to see children die or become permanently harmed (e.g. paralyzed) from an infectious disease. As with a lot of good things, vaccines are in many ways a victim of their own successes

  9. elmer mccurdyon 07 Nov 2010 at 1:25 am

    “Time and place, old boy, time and place.”

    Tee hee. I’m not sure he meant that the way I’m taking it but… I could tell you some stories.

  10. rmcon 07 Nov 2010 at 11:01 am

    I think the Dr Sears franchise, and its adherents, are largely to blame for these declines. In my small community there is a contingent of upper middle class, college-educated, stay-at-home-moms who fancy themselves to be particularly enlightened in the art of child-rearing. You know the type: mother fully in charge of the “birth experience” preferably at home with midwives, cloth diapering, cosleeping, baby-wearing, “breast is best” preferably until kindergarten, and yes – anti-vax. This circle of uber-mums gathers weekly at their La Leche League meetings to flop out the lactating boobies and exchange the latest internet-circulated “facts” that bolster their theories of parenting, and pat each other on the back for being so informed, so enlightened, and oh, so superior.

    The Bob Sears vaccine book, while not exactly endorsing the anti-vax stance, certainly promulgates it by presenting it as a valid line of scientific thought and expressing his own uncertainty as a professional. Whoa! say the uber-mums. Can’t take any chances with my precious little ones. I’ll let the other, less enlightened mothers expose their children to the risks of vaccination. (After all, I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to raise their children. Even though my way is proven to be superior!) This stance will ensure that my child is still protected from the ravages of infectious disease, risk-free. And happily, my state allows me to exempt my children from the vaccination schedule, on the basis of my “religious beliefs.”

    At least they are honest about it being a religious view.

  11. TheRedQueenon 08 Nov 2010 at 3:08 am

    Brain Art on HuffPo
    Look look pretty pictures:

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