Every so often, someone will take a great deal of umbrage at my use of the term “antivaccine.” The assumption behind criticism directed at me (and others) when we use such terms is that we throw the term about without a care, using it as a weapon unjustly and incorrectly to smear parents who are in reality “pro-safe vaccine.” Of course, what antivaccine activists and their apologists don’t realize (or conveniently forget) is that I view the term “antivaccine” as having a fairly specific definition, and it’s not simply to describe anyone who questions the efficacy or safety of vaccines. If that were true, then scientists who study vaccine safety could be called “antivaccine.”
As hard as it is to believe, it was only around six or seven years ago that I discovered that there was even such a thing as an antivaccine movement. Before that, I had always thought of vaccines as being, in essence, like mom and apple pie, something that no one in his right mind would question. And, for the most part, they are. They are effective and incredibly safe. Arguably, more lives have been saved by vaccines than by any other medical intervention conceived by the mind of human beings. Yet, there remains a contingent–a very vocal contingent–of doubters whose beliefs range from simply thinking that vaccines don’t work to thinking that they are downright evil, the cause of conditions ranging from autism to sudden infant death syndrome to asthma to all manner of autoimmune diseases. That there is no convincing scientific evidence linking vaccines to any of these conditions.
So when I describe someone like, say, J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, or any of the stable of propagandists over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism as “antivaccine,” I have a pretty specific definition in mind. I’m referring to people who consider vaccines to be dangerous and believe that they do more harm than good. But it’s more than that. It’s people whose belief that vaccines are harmful is so universal and so strong that they cannot under any circumstance admit that any vaccine does any good or, when they are forced to conceded that a vaccine works, find a reason to counter that somehow it still causes more harm than good, that its benefits aren’t worth the risk (which is inevitably exaggerated to make the point), or that somehow “natural immunity” is better than immunity derived from vaccines. In fact, if you want to see the pure antivaccine viewpoint distilled into a brief passage, watch this video below from Suzanne Humphries, MD:
Dr. Humphries begins:
I have been studying vaccines for the last three years of my life when it came up in my professional life, and my current opinion about vaccinations is that they’ve never been safe. Never has there been a safe vaccine. Never will there be a safe vaccine, and it is not possible to have a safe vaccine.
Wow. When I say that, to antivaccine activists, it’s always all about the vaccines. It always has been all about the vaccines. It always will be all about the vaccines. No matter how strongly clinical and scientific evidence say otherwise, antivaccine zealots see vaccines as inherently unsafe and ineffective, just as Dr. Humphries said above. If that’s not “antivaccine,” I don’t know what is. But it’s even worse than that. To antivaccine zealots like Dr. Humphries, it’s not enough to cast doubt upon the efficacy or safety of a single vaccines. Oh, no. She has to find a way to label all vaccines as dangerous. Why are they dangerous to her? Because to her they’re not just dangerous, they’re unnatural:
The reasoning for that is that the actual process of vaccination defies the natural function of the immune system of living beings. It thwarts the immune system into a balance that’s very unnatural and that leaves it susceptible to more things than just what you’ve maybe vaccinated supposedly for. Putting a disease matter into a body and thinking that the manner of which it’s going in (i.e., usually through a muscle through the skin using a very unnatural thing, a needle combined with all the chemicals, antibiotics, and things the manufacturing companies may not even know about it at the time that they’re being injected into a muscle), there’s no possible way that that can be safe. Now when you’re bypassing the normal immune system by putting this disease matter into a muscle, you are stimulating yet another abnormal response at the site of the injection, the pooling of all sort of metals and things that call in the immune cells in a very unnatural way.
Notice how frequently Humphries uses the word “unnatural” and “disease matter.” Anyone who knows anything about vaccines knows that there are two main strategies for generating vaccines. One is to use a weakened version of the disease-causing virus that can induce immunity but does not cause disease. The other is to use proteins or other molecules from the disease-causing organism, sometimes along with “adjuvants” like aluminum salts, which can boost the immune response to these molecules. While it’s true that this latter strategy often relied on the use of whole cell isolates from killed organisms, these days more and more vaccines are manufactured not by growing the whole virus and killing it but through recombinant DNA techniques to generate specific protein subunits or fragments of specific proteins to evoke an immune response that can prevent the disease. Indeed, these days, there are numerous techniques for making vaccines, ranging from live whole attenuated virus vaccines to killed whole virus vaccines to subunit vaccines to recombinant virus vaccines, as well as other techniques.
In any case, it’s clear that Humphries is quite intentionally using language designed to portray vaccines as a mass of “disease” (much as Bill Maher once referred to vaccines as “injecting a disease into your arm”) plus toxic chemicals, all classic antivaccine imagery.
She then moves on to claim that vaccines are designed to do one thing: Provoke an antibody response. This is, of course, a straw man argument. While it is true that antibody response is often examined as a surrogate for vaccine response, that’s a very simplistic description of how antibody response is assessed. For one thing, while antivaccine activists often point out that an antibody response does not necessarily mean immunity, they often fail to point out that lack of an antibody response does not necessarily mean lack of immunity as well. In any case, there are many things other than antibody levels in the blood that vaccinologists use as correlates for vaccine-induced immunity besides antibody response. The bottom line is that what demonstrates that vaccines prevent disease is not antibody response. It’s the results of several converging lines of evidence that include clinical trials, epidemiology, and basic science that demonstrate that vaccines work, in what circumstances, as well as how well each vaccine works.
At one point in the video, Humphries starts ranting about how doctors and scientists apparently think “we’re too stupid to notice” that vaccines are killing and maiming people or that “we’re too stupid to notice” how “miraculous” vaccines are. It’s a muddled argument that simultaneously claims that critics of the antivaccine movement think antivaccinationists are simultaneously “too stupid” to appreciate how “miraculous” vaccines are while at the same time they’re “too stupid” to notice vaccines are supposedly killing people? What is she trying to say? It’s not really clear, but she concludes that, “To protect everybody, they’re just going to give it to us anyway,” after which she asks, “Why must such a wonderful product be forced upon people?” She claims that never in history have people volunteered for vaccines, that they always had to be forced on people.
She obviously doesn’t remember how people lined up for the polio vaccine when it was first developed.
Humphries also goes on and on, without presenting a shred of evidence, that children who received vaccines are the “sickest” children, all the while assuring viewers that “we’ve studied it.” Particularly amusing is the part where she claims that her colleagues think that the “sound bites” they’ve heard about vaccines being safe and effective trump the “book knowledge” that she has about vaccines being dangerous. I couldn’t help but think upon hearing that, “Project much?” After all, it’s antivaccine activists like Humphries who are the epitome of the arrogance of ignorance, who think that testimonials and anecdotes trump knowledge that comes from scientists who, rather than just cherry picking papers to “study” vaccines, do–oh, you know–actual scientific research on vaccines.
Not surprisingly, it’s not too long before Humphries pulls, in essence, a variant of the “pharma shill gambit,” where she portrays physicians as brainwashed automatons who believe in vaccines not because they prevent disease but because of other rewards:
The rewards are not watching people get healthy. The rewards are monetary, and the rewards are power. That’s it. It’s money and it’s power.
If that’s the case, where’s all my money and power? I mean, really. You’d think that if Humphries were right, I’d be swimming in filthy pharma lucre as one of the blogosphere’s foremost defenders of vaccines against the misinformation spread by antivaccinationists. I could retire and spend the rest of my life blogging in my underwear, only going out to deposit my checks from my pharma overlords. Heck, I might not even have to do that. I’m sure our benevolent pharma overlords would be more than happy to arrange direct deposit for me. As for the “power,” I’m really curious about that. Power over what? Power to do what? Physicians don’t make laws that require vaccines before children can attend school. Politicians and legislators do. Doctors can’t order a child tied down and vaccinated. The most a physician can do is to “fire” parents who won’t vaccinated, and most won’t do even that because the ethics are a bit controversial and a lot of physicians don’t feel comfortable doing that.
So, tell me, Dr. Humphries? Where is all this wealth and power I’m supposed to get for defending vaccines. I really want to know. I’m feeling a bit cheated right now.
Watching the rest of this video, I can definitely say that Humphries knows about as much about immunology as she does about how much wealth and power physicians have, thanks to vaccines. In fact, her entire objection to vaccines appears to boil down to the naturalistic fallacy, namely because vaccines to her are “unnatural” they must be bad and because diseases are “natural” they must be good. She keeps repeating over and over and over again how vaccination is injecting “disease matter” and “chemicals” designed to bypass the immune system. She claims that scientists think the immune system was designed poorly and, in their arrogance, are trying to create a human who can fight off disease and grow, as though the two are incompatible. To her, an immune system without vaccines supplemented by mother’s milk works really well. And so it does, as far as it goes, but somehow mother’s milk didn’t stop epidemics of measles, polio, smallpox, haemophilus influenzae type b, or any of a number of other infectious diseases. Vaccines did.
I used to write about how embarrassing I find it when physicians fall for creationist nonsense, physicians like Michael Egnor. I’ve always liked to think that the science background and education necessary to become a physician would inoculate doctors against such idiocies, but I now realize that that’s nothing more than wishful thinking. If there’s anything that drives home just how much wishful thinking that is, it’s seeing physicians like Dr. Humphries spout antivaccine idiocy. After all, it’s somewhat (although not very) understandable that a physician might misunderstand evolution. It’s much less understandable that a physician would fall for pseudoscience related to medicine.
I think I need that paper bag to cover my head in shame.