A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health

Feb 3, 2015

By Clyde Haberman

In the churning over the refusal of some parents to immunize their children against certain diseases, a venerable Latin phrase may prove useful: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It means, “After this, therefore because of this.” In plainer language: Event B follows Event A, so B must be the direct result of A. It is a classic fallacy in logic.

It is also a trap into which many Americans have fallen. That is the consensus among health professionals trying to contain recent spurts ofinfectious diseases that they had believed were forever in the country’s rearview mirror. They worry that too many people are not getting their children vaccinated, out of a conviction that inoculations are risky.

Some parents feel certain that vaccines can lead to autism, if only because there have been instances when a child got a shot and then became autistic. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Making that connection between the two events, most health experts say, is as fallacious in the world of medicine as it is in the field of logic.

An outbreak of measles several weeks ago at Disneyland in Southern California focused minds and deepened concerns. It was as if the amusement park had become the tragic kingdom. Dozens of measles cases have spread across California. Arizona and other nearby states reported their own eruptions of this nasty illness, which officialdom had pronounced essentially eradicated in this country as recently as 2000.

But it is back. In 2014, there were 644 cases in 27 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Should the pace set in January continue, the numbers could go still higher in 2015. While no one is known to have died in the new outbreaks, the lethal possibilities cannot be shrugged off. If the past is a guide, one or two of every 1,000 infected people will not survive.

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35 comments on “A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health

  • I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

    This is from Senator Rand Paul, an aspiring American presidential candidate. Come on America. This man is demonstrating that he doesn’t employ rational evidenced based decision making. Do you want him with his finger on the button?

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  • Look at the map. The odd thing is the lack of correlation of vaccine exemptions with religious fundamentalism. Something else is driving this. Perhaps helicopter parents trying to protect children from very minor traumas.

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  • 3
    Miserablegit says:

    Without any rational arguments, the desperate will always claim to be able to fine tragic stories which never stand passing scrutiny.

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  • I seem to recall reading a piece (probably on this site) on how “vaccine denial” was most prevalent among the liberal/left-leaning, university-educated, middle-classes. Which makes sense as it’s the same group that goes in for health food fads, crystal therapy and other new age woo. Vaccine’s aren’t natural and so must be bad.

    A good reminder that we mustn’t get too smug about right-wing/religious science denial.

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  • 6
    Lorenzo says:

    This man is demonstrating that he doesn’t employ rational evidenced based decision making.

    Even before that, he’s demonstrating a very deep ignorance of how the world looks like -that is: right now. Which in itself may be no guilt, of course, but it’s hugely dangerous if teamed with any amount of power.
    I’d feel a lot less safe knowing that such an ignorant holds the keys of an arsenal such as USA’s…

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  • 8
    Cairsley says:

    Ah yes, they like things natural. Mind you, cooked food is not natural, whereas measles and mumps are quite natural. How these devotees of the natural ever forgot or failed to be informed that nature includes at least as much that is bad for us as is good for us is something of a wonder, not to mention that nature also includes at least as much that is unpleasant as is pleasant. Perhaps New Age devotees and the like are of the view that one must accept and surrender to both the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant, in nature without opposition in one’s lifelong gradual transformation into the best possible fertilizer for Mother Earth. If that is so, then they are overlooking the human ability to understand and use the resources of nature (e.g. in the cooking of food and the making of vaccines) to improve the human lot.

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  • 9
    sillywhispers says:

    How embarrassing! How could so many of my fellow Oregonians conclude vaccinations are harmful? I think I have the answer now that I’ve googled Vacincines Do Not Cause Autism and read some elaborate arguments. I saw commonalities with the GMO protestations. These convoluted arguments caused me to back up and say to myself, “Maybe there is something to this. Maybe I’ve been too hasty in my condemnation. Perhaps I need to withhold my judgement and study this some more.” These articles must be terrifying to new mothers. I now see why she would conclude the prudent action is no action until she really has researched the topic. It’s a first do no harm approach. Dial back the personal attacks. It’s not because these anti vaxxers are full of woo woo ideas, are brain dead hippies or whatever. It’s that the anti vaxxers have better propaganda skills. They know people look for information which supports the conclusions they have already accepted. To change their minds, we need to plant stories with headlines like “Vacinations Cause Autism”, or they will never read the argument for vaccinations. Why would they? They think they already know everything this side has to say.

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  • “It’s that the anti vaxxers have better propaganda skills.”

    I think you make a very good point.

    It takes a lot of time and effort to sift through and evaluate all of the available “data” to make an informed decision on topics such as this one. Simply crying “ignorance” is not a fair conclusion.

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  • sillywhispers Feb 4, 2015 at 6:20 am

    It’s not because these anti vaxxers are full of woo woo ideas, are brain dead hippies or whatever.

    Many of them are – especially some of the more prominent ones!

    It’s that the anti vaxxers have better propaganda skills.

    Not really. It’s just that sensation-hungry, irresponsible, scientifically illiterate, or dishonest journalists, like to stir controversy to sell copy.

    Hence they will quote any idiot to start an argument.

    These articles must be terrifying to new mothers. I now see why she would conclude the prudent action is no action until she really has researched the topic.

    It is a problem of the dishonesty of the tabloid media. Any challenge to these dishonest claims will be met with carefully concocted lies and false badges of “authority”! – Such as the Doctor struck off the medical register and banned in the UK:

    Andrew Wakefield, the author of the original research paper, had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest,[2][3] had manipulated evidence,[4] and had broken other ethical codes. The Lancet paper was partially retracted in 2004, and fully retracted in 2010, when The Lancet’s editor-in-chief Richard Horton described it as “utterly false” and said that the journal had been “deceived”.[5] Wakefield was found guilty by the General Medical Council of serious professional misconduct in May 2010 and was struck off the Medical Register, meaning he could no longer practice as a doctor in the UK.

    So being “unfit to practice in the UK”, he is now posing as a “doctor” and running anti-vax campaigns in the USA.

    Some media muppets and conspiracy theorists, still quote him!

    Unfortunately, in the USA “freedom of speech” acts as a liars’ and fraudsters’ charter.

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  • 13
    mombird says:

    I’m an adult and have never had rubella so I went out and got a vaccine. It was easy- no fuss, no muss. I’m having my husband look out for any signs of autism tho! (kidding)

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  • 14
    System Marked Down says:

    Often enough, these are places whose residents tend to be well off and well educated

    I want to know why people think that “well educated” should include people that can’t research past “vaccines cause autism” on Google. Had those “well educated” people researched more about vaccines, the virus, the effects, etc., they would not have succumbed to the poor decision to not vaccinate their children.

    On the other hand, if “well educated” means that they have some degree, then I am very afraid for the future of the “well educated”.

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  • 15
    Stephen says:

    Any way you look at it, I consider vaccines are worth it. It is a sad media/cultural landscape where people only listen to or trust people with the same polarised views as themselves. But I don’t think the question of whether today’s vaccines contain a harmful ingredient/ present a risk to a small number of people has been solved, and many scientists asking the question have been shut down.

    There is much still unknown. A 2008 Nobel prize went for the discover of a virus which causes cancer, something once thought impossible. We need scientists to investigate the relevant questions.

    When vaccines cause serious damage to the gut, and this particular damage is characteristic of people who are said to be autistic, thorough research should be funded. (See http://vaxtruth.org/2011/08/vaccines-do-not-cause-autism/). But it is judged “too controversial”.

    It is scary, but this is how I put it into perspective: (If they are dangerous), then current vaccines are not the only dangerous thing around. In any case, vaccines are surely safer than the (“100% natural”) diseases they protect against.

    No-one hid the truth over lead, but I don’t remember any great public outcry. In the UK, I remember in primary school we were taught about pollution, its sources and its effects. One that I rember was lead in petrol, which was convincingly linked to causing brain damage in children. It seemed pretty shocking: at that time, cars either ran on diesel, leaded petrol or unleaded petrol. The facts were known, but it didn’t seem like there had been great pressure for industry to develop an alternative. My parents used leaded petrol, and didn’t feel any guilt. It was up to the government or industry to make a change. But eventually lead in petrol was banned by the EU. Phew.

    Aluminium in vaccines (and in many foods, anti-persiprants) could be a similar case, except it may be less harmful (?) and there is little research. See prof. Romain Gherardi (not any sort of outsider to the field!). But the research is basically not being funded.

    There would be serious implications if Gulf War Syndrome was found to be a result of aluminium in vaccines. Aluminium is so widely used in processed food.

    Refusing vaccine is not currently an appropriate response to current fears. But if research goes ahead, maybe vaccines could be made safer, or some people could be diagnosed as geneticlly pre-disposed to react badly to vaccines and given an alternative.

    It is typical for industry to say “banning this chemical this will destroy industry”, and then, as soon as it is banned, they very quickly find an alternative which functions just as well.

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  • One of the regular anti-vax claims is about ethylmercury as a preservative in some vaccines.

    The silly thing is, that many of those objecting to tiny quantities of this preservative, which is naturally eliminated from humans within a few days, live in the USA where persistently high levels of mercury pollution from coal power plants and agriculture, exist in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the rivers and lakes they swim in, and the fish they eat, . . .. . .
    But HEY! It’s the vaccine they shout about!!!!!

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  • 17
    Stephen says:

    That’s my point ALan4discussion. I couldn’t find a way to make it more succintly. Many people who think they are reacting in an independant and informed way instead react “tribally”.

    Sewage analysis reveals the high levels of mercury ingested by New Yorkers and the Japanese, both big consumers of raw fish in Sushi. But sushi has a “good” image amongst their tribe; the government isn’t forcing them to eat it !

    As with other metals, some mercury remains in the body. It isn’t a good thing, some people may be badly affected, but for most people… it really isn’t the biggest of life’s problems (surely when you consider, death at aged 40 was once “natural”).

    I’m convinced by the link “vaccine -> very apparent symptoms of gut damage -> a general decline into a state described as autism”, and think this affects a very small minority of children. The mainstream isn’t convinced. But in a paralllel world, where http://www.richarddawkins.net was announcing that the disputed link is real and if governments were advising against vaccinations, some of the same parents would be saying: “The risks of vaccines? Nothing to worry about. It’s only a statistic, a theory. There is so much that the scientists who make these statistics don’t know. I’m sure my children will do fine, we feed them well/they’re healthy/ they are surrounded by positive energy/ God will look after us. Despite the warning against vaccinations, I’ll still get my children vaccinated. I’m old fashioned.”

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  • 18
    Stephen says:

    I was also taught the story of Edward Jenner in school, but in History, not science. Science teaching should includes stories like Edward Jenner since part of the goal of science teaching should be to create a respect for science. I didn’t get that at all from my science education – and I think I see the harm it causes to society when people are “turned off” by science. And newspapers have made it worse, since quality newspapers in he UK stopped funding quality science reporting long ago. A scandal.

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  • Wendy Feb 4, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Neonicotinoids, the pesticides now believed to be responsible for bee hive collapses. Hey that’s another chemical Scientists said was safe, turns out, as a group, scientists are only slightly more trustworthy than the religious leaders spreading the GOD lie

    We should remember that pesticides are promoted by advertisers and salesmen, so even if their own scientists raise concerns, that is not the “science message” given to the consumers or the public.

    (The AGW denialists kept their own scientist’s report secret for years when it contradicted their PR drivel!

    MMR vaccine was thoroughly investigated in the UK, and the doctor responsible for the faked “autism” research, struck off the medical register and banned, for serious misconduct. (It seems at the time he was slagging of the MMR vaccine with a faked study claiming an autism link, he had a vested interest in a rival product!)

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  • My wife and I are “left leaning, highly educated and middle class,” but I’m a science teacher will aware of what the world was like before vaccinations. Still, in 2001 when vaccination time came for our first son, we were hesitant. The Internet wasn’t helpful at that time, and when the time came for a doctor to stick a needle in our son’s arm, we worried about autism, mercury and all kinds of things. We had a good talk with our pediatrician and trusted her assessment of the safety of the vaccinations, but we still had to think it through.

    I believe vaccinations should be mandatory, but I can understand what is going through the minds of these parents. Most are truly looking out for the best interests of their kids.

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  • Nordic11 Feb 4, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    The Internet wasn’t helpful at that time, and when the time came for a doctor to stick a needle in our son’s arm, we worried about autism,

    The source of the autism scare was this disreputable character!
    The now Ex UK doctor still promoting anti-vax in the USA.

    On 28 January 2010, a five-member statutory tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges proved, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children.[12] The panel ruled that Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”, acted both against the interests of his patients, and “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his published research.[13][14][15] The Lancet immediately and fully retracted his 1998 publication on the basis of the GMC’s findings, noting that elements of the manuscript had been falsified.[16] The Lancet’s editor-in-chief Richard Horton said the paper was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived”.[17] Three months later, Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register in May 2010, with a statement identifying deliberate falsification in The Lancet research,[18] and is barred from practising medicine in the UK.[19]

    In January 2011, an editorial accompanying an article by Brian Deer in BMJ identified Wakefield’s work as an “elaborate fraud”.[1][20][21] In a follow-up article,[22] Deer said that Wakefield had planned to launch a venture on the back of an MMR vaccination scare that would profit from new medical tests and “litigation driven testing”.[23] In November 2011, yet another report in BMJ[24] revealed original raw data indicating that, contrary to Wakefield’s claims in The Lancet, children in his research did not have inflammatory bowel disease.[25][26]

    Wakefield’s study and his claim that the MMR vaccine might cause autism led to a decline in vaccination rates in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland and a corresponding rise in measles and mumps, resulting in serious illness and deaths, and his continued warnings against the vaccine have contributed to a climate of distrust of all vaccines and the reemergence of other previously controlled diseases.[27][28][29] Wakefield has continued to defend his research and conclusions, saying there was no fraud, hoax or profit motive.

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  • 22
    Stephen says:

    Note: I have not looked into wakefield. My comment was merely me repeating what one website said — vaxtruth is pro Wakefield.

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  • Stephen Feb 4, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Note: I have not looked into wakefield. My comment was merely me repeating what one website said — vaxtruth is pro Wakefield.

    That is the problem for the ordinary citizen.
    Websites of plausible liars and anti-vax nutters, can be difficult to tell from those giving genuine information.

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  • 24
    Stephen says:

    The name Andrew Wakefield, I believe it first became familiar to me today. If I could edit my previous comments, I would. I hadn’t taken the time to form anything like an informed opinion. Yet on the other hand, I already have an opinion: vaccination is “safe enough”.

    Pesticides and bees: weren’t “their own scientists” the only scientists? Wasn’t it more-or-less peer-reviewed science on one side and on the other side activists who said, more research needs to be done, we need scientists to investigate questions that no-one has yet asked.

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  • 25
    Michael says:

    I’m also liberal and highly educated but Im not a scientist. I am so damn old that I was born before the vaccines and had all three diseases as a child. It was not fun.

    I also had my only child at 46 so I am proud to be a helicopter parent. I cried every time I took my child for shots but there was no queation she would be vaccinated. There was no way I would risk hee health or life to dieases I could prevent. I also gor her the hpv vaccine because why would I risk a cancer I can prevent?

    I am so sorry there is a measles outbreak but so happy the tide of public opinion has turned to outrage and a refusal to “respect” this dangerous selfishness and stupidity. The educated people who havent vaccinated their kids have hedged their bets: they don’t want to “risk” vaccinations but they know the majority would take that risk, so they can indulge their “beliefs”. I’ll bet 100% of the anti-vaxxers believe vaccines do what they ate intended to do. So really it’s people saying “my child won’t get sick because s/he is a member of the elite few protected by the vaccinations of the hoi polloi.”

    Now that there is an outbreak these same “smart” parents are scared NOT that their child might infect and thereby hurt/kill anither but that too many others are joining their “elite”. They can no longer eat their cake and have it.

    I think this is a job for the civil justice system: you refuse to do your duty as a citizen you pay for the foreseeable consequences of your breach. Take your unvaccinated child to school and when the measles are traced back to you, you can pay damages to the children you’ve infected. How many liberal educated parents are willing to accept that consequence of their “belief”?

    It also amuses me how all the anti vaxxer parents assume their child would be mildly infected. I couldn’t take that bet with my child’s health.

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  • 26
    Stephen says:

    (I appreciate you staying civil, especially since I had overlooked an earlier comment of yours.)

    On fringe websites: I really enjoyed reading a creationist site. Some of it was amazing. Dinosaurs were around in the middle ages: you can clearly see this, since in one church in England there is a carving of a dinosaur…

    On a site like vaxtruth, you have to have the stamina to follow up every link to see where every claim is coming from, otherwise… I’m 30, old enough to know not to quote something I just read from an unknown souce! so thanks for drawing a few things to my attention.

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  • There are four kinds of people vis a vis vaccines:

    (1) Someone who gets the vaccine and it provides complete protection.
    (2) Someone who gets the vaccine and it gives only partial protection.
    (3) Someone who avoids the vaccine on the recommendation of their doctor. (e.g. Someone with a compromised immune system).
    (4) Someone who avoids the vaccine for religious or other superstitious reasons.
    If you are a type (4), you not only risk the lives of yourself and your kids, but also the type (2), (3) and (4) people that you or your kids come in contact with. You are for all practical purposes trying to murder them. Please rethink the idiotic excuses you are using for fear of a jab.

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  • Stephen Feb 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Pesticides and bees: weren’t “their own scientists” the only scientists? Wasn’t it more-or-less peer-reviewed science on one side and on the other side activists who said, more research needs to be done, we need scientists to investigate questions that no-one has yet asked.

    Bees are being hit by so many commercial negative factors, that trying to tell which one is causing which problem, is part of the confusion.

    Here is a general comment from a reputable source which covers various aspects.


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  • Do these same anti-vaccinationists also refuse to vaccinate their pets, their livestock and horses?
    When a pandemic sweeps the globe, will they refuse then?
    I smell hypocrisy…

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  • The underlying problem is that people don’t trust scientists, and especially, don’t trust drug companies. The drug industry is perceived as rotten, with commercial interests often superseding patient interests. The regulatory framework is perceived as rotten too.

    Science often gets things wrong, and drug companies more often. Lost of people trust science as a process, but are often sceptical of specific pronouncements by “scientists”, even when lots of them agree. And perhaps rightly so.

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  • This research identifies genetics as the predominant cause of autism!


    .Autism is caused by genetic make-up in 74-98% of cases, a Medical Research Council study of 516 twins indicates.

    The King’s College London team said 181 of the teenagers had autism, but the rate was far higher in the identical twins, who share the same DNA.

    The researchers told JAMA Psychiatry tens if not hundreds of genes were involved, and they do not rule out environmental factors entirely.

    Both twins in each pair had been raised by their parents in the same household.

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