ONTD Political

Congress Promotes Dangerous Anti-vaccine Quackery

2:57 pm - 12/04/2012
By Phil Plait | Posted Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, at 8:00 AM ET

Let me be clear right off the bat: Vaccines don’t cause autism.
It’s really that simple. We know they don’t. There have been extensive studies comparing groups of children who have been vaccinated with, say, the measles, mumps, and rublella (MMR) vaccine versus those who have not, and it’s very clear that there is no elevated rate of autism in the vaccinated children.

This simple truth is denied vigorously and vociferously by antivaxxers (those who oppose, usually rabidly, the use of vaccinations that prevent diseases), but they may as well deny the Earth is round and the sky is blue. It’s rock solid fact. They try to blame mercury in vaccines, but we know that mercury has nothing to do with autism; when thimerosal (a mercury compound) was removed from vaccines there was absolutely no change in the increase in autism rates.

I could go on and on. Virtually every claim made by antivaxxers is wrong. And this is a critically important issue; vaccines have literally saved hundreds of millions of lives. They save infants from potentially fatal but preventable diseases like pertussis and the flu.

So why did Congress hold hearings this week promoting crackpot antivax views?

[Video at source, won't imbed, *grumble*]

I’m not exaggerating. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing trying to look into the cause and prevention of autism. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) launched into a several-minute diatribe (beginning at 12:58 in the video above) that starts off in an Orwellian statement: He claims he’s not antivax. Then he launches into a five-minute speech that promotes long-debunked and clearly incorrect antivax claims, targeting mercury for the most part. Burton has long been an advocate for quackery; for at least a decade he has used Congressional situations like this to promote antiscience.

In the latest hearing, Burton sounds like a crackpot conspiracy theorist, to be honest, saying he knows—better than thousands of scientists who have spent their careers investigating these topics—that thimerosal causes neurological disorders (including autism). He goes on for some time about mercury (as does Rep. Dennis Kucinitch (D-Ohio) starting at 21:44 in the video), making it clear he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. For example, very few vaccines still use mercury, and the ones that do use it in tiny amounts and in a form that does not accumulate in the body.

Talking about the danger of mercury in vaccines is like talking about the danger of having hydrogen—an explosive element!—in water. It’s nonsense.

I won’t go further into details, because this shameful travesty of truth and medical health goes on for an hour. On Forbes.com, Steven Salzberg wrote a fantastic article about this Congressional farce. I strongly urge you to read it, since Salzberg brings the hammer down on the Congresscritters who think they know more about science than the scientists who actually devote their lives to this topic.

If you get the sense I’m angry, you’re damn right I am. Vaccine save lives, and antivaxxers put those lives in grave danger. These lives include people who are immunocompromised (people on immunosuppressants, for example, recovering from cancer or who have autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis). It also includes infants too young to get vaccinated, who rely on the rest of us getting our shots to increase herd immunity, reducing reservoirs for the infectious diseases to live.

[Trigger warning - infant death]

And if you don’t think this has an impact, I urge you—if your heart can stand it—to read the story of Dana McCaffery, a perfect little girl who, at the age of four weeks—four weeks—died of pertussis, a disease she was too young to be vaccinated against and that she might never have contracted if it weren’t for low immunization rates where she lived.

Pertussis. Whooping cough. A disease that for years has been on the decline but has come roaring back—along with measles and other preventable diseases—because people aren’t getting vaccinated in high-enough numbers. I am a parent myself, with a fully-vaccinated daughter, I’ll add, and it breaks my heart when I think of what Dana’s parents, Toni and David McCaffery, went through.

So yes, I am angry. And to see members of Congress repeat the provably wrong and immensely dangerous rhetoric that vaccines cause autism makes my blood boil.

Don’t listen to self-proclaimed experts like Kucinich and Burton who throw out years of painstaking science and replace it with conspiracy theories and gut feelings. Instead, listen to your board-certified doctor. If he or she recommends you get vaccinated, do it. The life you save may be your own, or it may be that of a newborn infant living down the street from you.

And please, write your representative about this. Make a difference. Happily, Burton is not running for re-election, but it's clear there are others willing to take up his mantle.
Science saves lives, just as most certainly antiscience can take them away.

Tip o’ the protein capsid to D.J. Grothe on Twitter.

[Addendum: I want to clarify two things I wrote in the original version of this article. One was to say that studies have compared vaccinated to unvaccinated children; that's true, but the studies were not done with completely unvaccinated children. The linked Dutch study, for example, looked at just the MMR vaccine, and others looked at vaccine timing, total dosages, and other factors. I edited the text to make that more clear. Also, I mistakenly wrote that the MMR vaccine had thimerosal in it; that was simply an error on my part and I have corrected the text. Note that neither of these two points changes my argument at all: vaccines do not cause autism, and this fact has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.]


OP: I used to like Dennis Kucinich, but my anger at anti-vaxers burns like the sun.

Unrelated: I went to post this an LJ gave me some monstrosity of a new update pages that completely borked the type. How long has this "improvement" been going on?
bushy_brow 4th-Dec-2012 09:22 pm (UTC)
thrace_ 4th-Dec-2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
Uggghhh anti-vaxxers, with their anecdata. Aren't some of these idiots old enough to remember polio? My aunt had it as a kid and my mom says she had to use an iron lung for a while.
moonshaz 4th-Dec-2012 11:24 pm (UTC)
Aren't some of these idiots old enough to remember polio?

Most of the anti-vaxxer parents are not old enough to remember polio, unfortunately. The first cohort of children to receive the Salk vaccine were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The people who are raising young children now were mostly born in the 1970s, 1980s, or even later, so I guess polio is ancient history, as far as they're concerned.

Kucinich, otoh, was born in 1946, and Burton was born in 1938. So I don't know wtf their excuses are!
deborahw37 4th-Dec-2012 09:49 pm (UTC)
14 children have died of Whooping cough this year in the UK!


eldvno 4th-Dec-2012 10:04 pm (UTC)
This is just unacceptable, THERE IS NO SCIENCE TO SUPPORT THIS QUACK VIEW. Honestly, imo, positions with no scientific evidence to support them should not be allowed in the government's discourse or operation.
ahria 4th-Dec-2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
Butbutbut God never intended vaccines! Illness is a part of his ~plan~.

(sorry, someone used that argument on me a couple times)
squeeful 4th-Dec-2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
JFC, people, even IF your kid doesn't catch measles or even IF it is treatable with modern medicine, they're still painful to go through. Why would you want your kid to be subjected to that.
ahria 4th-Dec-2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
poetic_pixie_13 4th-Dec-2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
The fucking fuck, Kucinich.

yamamanama 4th-Dec-2012 11:02 pm (UTC)
I'm seriously wondering if the anti-vaccers are motivated by malice rather than stupidity.
the_gabih 5th-Dec-2012 01:12 am (UTC)
I think the quacks are. The parents are probably more motivated by the latter. Mostly.
ahria 4th-Dec-2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
I'm in a few "go green" type of groups, and dealing with the anti-vax people is the worst. A cousin of mine caught whopping cough before he was able to get the vaccine. 15 years later, my aunt told be about the time he stopped breathing and started turning blue (he did recover) and it still brought tears to her eyes. I'd rather risk ~whatever~ a vaccine ~might~ do to my child then watch her die of a perventable illness.
sesmo 5th-Dec-2012 01:24 am (UTC)
Read the side effects of vaccines, and say that again. I think the anti-vaxxers are nuts, but the pro-vaxx people are a bit overboard too. No fun seeing your kid stop breathing. Also no fun? Seeing your kid develop epileptic seizures as a result of vaccination.
johnjie 4th-Dec-2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
Anti-vaccers make me want to throw something large and heavy. Preferably at them.
moonshaz 4th-Dec-2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
People who used to be cool:

1. Dennis Kucinich
nicosian 5th-Dec-2012 12:11 am (UTC)
Ugh. My sister's a rabid anti vaxer and ignores that grandma has rushed said kid to the hospital for numerous serious illnesses he's picked up. Its a matter of time before that kid comes down with something utterly preventable.

And the worse? she declares that Jenny McCarthy told her so! and that anyone who gets sick and was vaccinated "had it coming."

(I have asthma, the kid was around lots of immunocompromised people. I don't talk to her anymore. haven't for years.)

nikoel 5th-Dec-2012 01:05 am (UTC)
Arg! Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity, NOT a medical professional! Why would anyone listen to her over doctors?!
the_gabih 5th-Dec-2012 01:12 am (UTC)
The thing that gets me about this idea that vaccines cause autism isn't so much the shitty science so much as the fact that there are people out there who would rather have the possibility of their children dying horribly than the possibility of them having autism.
defacetheessays 5th-Dec-2012 01:57 am (UTC)
exactly. that shit is infuriating--they're basically telling any person with autism that they believe the life an autistic person leads is worse than death
stevie_jane 5th-Dec-2012 02:06 am (UTC)
These fuckers and their bullshit ideas are responsible for so many avoidable deaths, why would anyone back them? Stupid doesn't even cover it.
recorded 5th-Dec-2012 02:07 am (UTC)
As someone who intends to work in a daycare, I appreciate that daycares and public schools require up to date medical records & vaccines to attend.
sorchekyrkby 5th-Dec-2012 02:08 am (UTC)
JFC, smallpox was eradicated within my lifetime*...do these whackdoodles think that the World Health Organization just ~*~magicked~*~ smallpox into eradication?!

*Barely -- I'm 35 -- but still.
the_gabih 5th-Dec-2012 10:43 am (UTC)
I have genuinely heard people say that all diseases are caused by either vaccines or GM foods. Going by that, I'd say they didn't think it ever existed at all.

And then there's the ones who think Pasteur deliberately invented smallpox just so he could make a cure for it and be famous.
natyanayaki 5th-Dec-2012 03:18 am (UTC)
Go vaccines...the only 'requirement' I'm iffy on is HPV vaccine for girls. I know the most recent study (Fall 2012) found it safe, I just don't know that enough time has passed to trust those studies? Though, I am really biased against that vaccine because I had major issues with it (I essentially felt like I lost control over my body), so imagining an 11 year old girl being required to take it frightens me...
tallycola 5th-Dec-2012 04:43 am (UTC)
Though, I am really biased against that vaccine because I had major issues with it (I essentially felt like I lost control over my body)

How so?
caterfree10 5th-Dec-2012 04:14 am (UTC)
People should probably be glad I'm not going into the medical field because if I got my own medical practice as a physician or some shit, I'd have a big bold sign in my office that said "If I find you are an anti-vaxxer, I will backhand you, no questions asked because fuck your anti-science shit."
a_phoenixdragon 5th-Dec-2012 05:45 am (UTC)
Gods. Fuck these antivaxxers. And fuck Congress for going along with this asshattery. You and your aides get paid millions to do research before you shoot off your mouths on the floor. At least TRY to look intelligent?! And make a case based off of FACTS. Christ.
mephisto5 5th-Dec-2012 07:51 am (UTC)
The notion that autism is in any way worse than death is insulting.

I agree with all the comments on here lambasting the bad science, but I'm uneasy at the notion that vaccination should be a legal requirement. Requiring it to attend some sort of school seems reasonable, as there's always the choice whether to attend that school or to learn at home (or to set up a school where vaccination is not required), but requiring it in general? I'd rather have the info out there that convinces people vaccines are a good idea and make them readily available, than have it mandated by the state.
maenads_dance 5th-Dec-2012 08:01 am (UTC)
That's not how people reason, though. They say -- I don't know anyone whose kid has had measles (and anyway, isn't measles just like chickenpox? I had chicken pox and I'm fine!). But I have a schoolmate whose son has autism, and boy, they sure are having a hard time finding a good school for him and getting him disability services. Maybe vaccines don't cause autism... but why take the risk? After all, it's not like MY Johnny (or Suzy) is going to get measles. Nobody gets measles any longer!

Individuals are rarely altruistic at the population level. This is why it is so FUCKING CRIMINAL that Dr Andrew Wakefield falsified his autism research (in service of private industry, no less). The whole thing is a fraud, and people are dying as a result.
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