Having followed the anti-vaccine movement continuously for nearly six years now, I had come to think that I had seen it all as far as deceptive strategies for frightening parents about vaccines. Obviously, becoming too complacent is foolish, because, as misguided and scientifically ignorant as they are, many of the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement (Jenny McCarthy excepted) are not stupid. In fact, some of them are damned clever; otherwise, they wouldn’t be so successful at demonizing vaccines and promoting the scientifically discredited myth that vaccines cause autism. Every so often, the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates a flash of cleverness and creativity that surprises even me. Of course, what amazes me is usually the deceptiveness or disingenuousness of whatever latest propaganda ploy they come up, but one still has to give props where props are deserved–before demolishing the propaganda, of course.
The latest bit of anti-vaccine propaganda to come to light to me, albeit rather late, comes from a source other than the usual merry band of anti-vaccine loons over at Age of Autism. Surprisingly, it comes from an older and formerly more famous anti-vaccine organization, one that’s been supplanted by Generation Rescue since it became “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Organization.” I’m referring to Barbara Loe Fisher’s hoary old National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), and the propaganda ploy to which I refer is what the NVIC calls its Vaccine Ingredients Calculator (VIC):
I’ll also grant you that I only noticed the NVIC’s VIC last week, even though it’s been around for several months. Better late than never, I say, though, particularly since the NVIC started touting a major “update” and “upgrade” to its little calculator last week:
NVIC has always pushed and explored many avenues and opportunities to protect your right to make voluntary informed vaccine decisions. As the oldest and largest consumer organization advocating the institution of vaccine safety and informed consent protections, NVIC is proud to announce recent updates to the Vaccine Ingredients Calculator (VIC).
Just in time for going back to school, this powerful tool has been updated with the most current information available on vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for 2010/2011. This “push” adds to your ability to plan a vaccine choice based on available ingredient calculation information and is featured on our homepage. Features include:
- Built-in safety protections notifying the user of invalid vaccine combinations and appropriate age-based vaccine use;
- Graphs comparing vaccine ingredients to federally established safe exposure levels (when available);
- New links to ingredient information resources;
- A growing library of video tutorials on using the VIC;
- Calculates exposures to aluminum, bovine protein, egg protein, formaldehyde, mercury (Thimerosal), mouse protein, phenol red, phenoxyethanol, Polysorbate 80 and yeast protein;
- Vaccination Plan printout to assist in parent/physician dialogue.
Wow! It sounds like a really useful tool, doesn’t it? The key word is “sounds” and then only to the uninformed. As we will soon see, this particularly pernicious little “tool” relies on a fallacy that has been at the heart of the fear mongering about the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that was at the heart of mid-decade campaigns of fear and loathing against vaccines that blamed them for autism. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, lest’s see how this tool was created:
The database that drives the VIC is built from information contained in vaccine manufacturer package inserts posted on the Food and Drug Administration’s website. The VIC is a free, public, open source project created and maintained by Chris Downey and already enjoysuse by an enthusiastic and diverse group committed to vaccine safety that range from PhD’s who explain the chemistry of ingredients, to busy moms who help test the VIC.
The open source code for the VIC can be found here. Before I test out the calculator, taking it out for a spin, so to speak, I think it’s worthwhile to see what we can find at the open source project. Naturally, since I’m not a code jockey, I decided to go to the wiki and see what I can see. One section entitled Ingredient Categories was rather revealing in that it listed these ingredients:
toxic aldehydes and ketones (include formaldehyde, gluteraldehyde, propiolactone, and whatever else the vendor may use in the future)
- surfactants (Polysorbate-80 is but one of several that are currently being used)
- “all forms of glutamate” (and other neuro-stimulants/intoxicants/disruptors)
- adventicious viruses
- Animal and human DNA/protein
I love it! It’s the “toxin gambit” writ large and writ into code, so to speak! Even better, there’s the dreaded animal and human DNA and protein! Oh, noes! Don’t let that DNA and protein anywhere near me. Oh, wait. There’s DNA in every cell in our body, and whatever DNA there may be left over from the vaccine manufacturing process will have been degraded or crosslinked by the treatments used to inactivate the virus. It also amuses me to no end that the creator of this wiki apparently can’t spell “adventitious” viruses, which are viruses that may (quite rarely) contaminate viral preparations used to make vaccines. Indeed, the ranting about “pig virus contamination” of the GlaxoSmithKline rotavirus vaccine that we heard from the anti-vaccine movement was due to adventitious DNA from the porcine circovirus. Lost in the fear mongering was the context, where the porcine viral DNA sequences were detected using sequence-independent amplification (deep sequencing). This is a powerful technique that can find minute amounts of sequence that would have been difficult to detect without specifically looking for it. Moreover, the presence of viral DNA in a preparation does not necessarily mean that the virus is present. Usually it does not, and it is the virus that would be of concern. In any case, modern techniques like deep sequencing will increasingly be used to prevent contamination of biologicals with adventitious viruses.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about the VIC is the deceptive way that it compares exposures to these “toxins” in vaccines to maximal recommended safety exposures. Let’s take a look. When you open the VIC, you get a page that looks like this.
I’ve entered some data for a typical one-year-old, whom I’ve named Oracspawn and set at a weight of 10 kg. I’ve also picked a selection of vaccines that a typical child would receive within a couple of months before or after his first birthday. What we end up with is a series of graphs that look like this. Here’s aluminum:
And for formaldehyde:
Similar graphs can be made for bovine protein, egg protein, phenoxyethanol, polysorbate 80, and yeast protein. At least the NVIC appears to have finally–finally!–recognized that there is no more than trace thimerosal in any of these childhood vaccines. Even so, these graphs are extremely deceptive. They use a fallacy that Dad of Cameron dubbed the “EPA Mercury Limit” canard, except that apparently the NVIC no longer harps on mercury. Aluminum, apparently, is the new mercury; so I’ll discuss aluminum.
If you click on the link in the graph, you’re taken to this:
The “?” denotes the lack of a safety standard for injected aluminum. There is data on risk levels for ingested aluminum from food, but almost no data on risk levels for injected aluminum. 
In The Vaccine Book, Dr. Bob Sears researched aluminum and found that no studies mention vaccines, only IV solutions and certain injectible medications. 
The gray bar denotes an “unknown safety limit.” However, no appropriate safety standard for injected aluminum exists.  It is included here because it provides a comparison that may or may not be useful in informing decisionmaking related to injected aluminum.
1 VACCINE 20 (2002) S1-S4 (view PDF)
3 Aluminum in Vaccines (VIC)
4 Aluminum and Vaccine Ingredients (NVIC)
What we have here is a lot of dancing around that does in essence what the NVIC used to do for mercury. If you peruse the links there, particularly the Dr. Sears link, you’ll find a lot of dubious comparisons and idiotic statements. One example is where Dr. Sears writes:
Now, none of these documents or studies mention vaccines. They only look at IV solutions and injectible medications. I’m not sure why that is. Nor is it clear why the FDA does not require aluminum warning labels on vaccines when they do require it on all other injectible medications. Vaccines apparently have some sort of exemption.
Perhaps it’s because IV solutions and injectable medications, unlike vaccines, are injected straight into the vein. Direct IV injections will produce a rapid spike in aluminum levels, while continuous infusion will produce prolonged increases in aluminum levels, this latter reason in particular explaining why IV fluid solutions are emphasized (particularly in children, whose kidneys and developing central nervous systems may be more sensitive to the effects of aluminum) is because IV fluids are often given continuously over many days, sometimes even weeks or months. In fact, what the NVIC is doing with aluminum in its VIC is in essence a variation on the “EPA Mercury Limit.” Let me explain. Most of safety standards for various metals or chemicals tend to be estimated for chronic, daily exposure or for single dosages that can be observed to produce measurable harmful effects. Anti-vaccine advocates at the NVIC are doing now for aluminum what they did for thimerosal. They’re looking at a one-time dose given in one day and given intramuscularly, to published safety recommendations for chronic daily dosages expected to be given, well, daily over long periods of time or daily exposures over a lifetime. Compare that one time-dose of, for example, the Infanrix vaccine, to what the daily estimated safe dose is for aluminum, and of course it will look scary.
I haven’t looked closely at whether the actual numbers used for the amount of these “horrific” metals by the VIC to calculate its dosages are accurate. For purposes of the deception it’s actually better if they are; so I will assume that they are. After all, then the creators of the calculator will simply say that their numbers are “accurate” and that they are giving “information” to parents. The problem is, the “information” they provide, when taken in context, where not only is aluminum listed, but formaldehyde and all the various other scary-sounding vaccine ingredients that are present in at most trace amounts and/or known to be harmless in the dose received through vaccines, paints an intentionally frightening and misleading picture. Remember how I slapped down one antivax-sympathetic pediatrician to the stars’ children and crunchy rich people from Santa Monica and Malibu for using the “formaldehyde gambit”? The NVIC calculator is no different than what Dr. Jay Gordon did.
You know, I wonder if “our side” can counter this. I wonder if it’s possible to come up with a similar open source project, in which we can have a calculator that shows the increased risk of getting specific diseases from not vaccinating. For example, as I pointed out above, it’s been documented that children who are not vaccinated against pertussis face a 23-fold increased risk of contracting pertussis. Now that would make for one scary graph.