Noted skeptical author and podcaster CJ Ãkerberg takes a look at one of the most active and visible anti-vaccine cranks in Sweden, Sanna Ehdin, and at the history of vaccination. The entry was originally published in Swedish on the Tankebrott blog, and I asked CJ to translate it for Aard.
In Sweden we have been quite fortunate to not have the same, vociferous anti-vaccination movement as seen in the US and the UK. But this has changed in recent years. Perhaps it was the slightly chaotic handling of the A(H1N1) vaccination. Perhaps it is due to the fact that some well-regarded figures in Sweden have voiced skepticism of the A(H1N1) vaccination in particular and vaccination in general.
Be that as it may: we now have to face parents, co-workers and friends who see vaccination as a threat, not as a defence in the battle against infection. One of Sweden's most visible antivaccinationist public figures is author Sanna Ehdin.
Antivaccinationist Sanna Ehdin
Ehdin trained as an immunologist and has made a career out of writing books promoting alternative medicine. Why mention her training, you may ask? Because it is important to underline that education is not a guarantee that what you argue is automatically right.
When it comes to vaccines Ehdin has been both categorically against and slightly more open to interpretation. For example:
"As an immunologist, I am doubtful or negative towards vaccination, [I] believe there are far better and less damaging ways to go."
[ source ]
"Of course not - it [thimerosal] is used as a preservative [and] antibacterial [and] other compounds can be used. And one can avoid vaccination as well."
On her web site Ehdin mentions that she is "... not opposed to the vaccination of children", but (there's always a but) the question is "... when it is done and with what." First, we note that it sounds uncomfortably like Jenny McCarthy et al.'s "Too Many Too Soon" propaganda, and we note that Ehdin's literature reference for this statement is from the anthroposophic Vidar Clinic's Child Health department. (Anthroposophy is a Central European cult based on the writings of Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, a one-time collaborator of Helena Blavatsky. Go figure.)
The Vidar Clinic advocates homeopathic remedies and other dubious treatments such as mistletoe extract to treat cancer (at Tankebrott, we have written about this in the blog entries Vidar Clinic's further excuses and O Vidar Institute, Where Art Thou? )
Recently Ehdin has been active on the vaccination issue on several levels. First, she was way off with her article on the "rise" of miscarriages in the U.S. after vaccination (our reply on the subject). Most recently she has published a blog entry where she states that vaccinations have not had the historical impact generally claimed. Let's look at this last posting and its central theme.
Ehdin misses the point about vaccination
"Did you know that measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and scarlet fever were reduced thanks to a better lifestyle and not because of vaccinations? The global vaccination programs started after these epidemics almost disappeared.
Scientific research shows that the great epidemics were reduced because of better housing conditions, education about health, a more nutritious diet, and generally better living conditions from the early 1900s until the 1960s."
First, one cannot help but ask, what scientific research? One asks this question of course, since these factors have had an effect, but what Ehdin is not mentioning is the fact that health care became more efficient, with new tools that increased the chance of survival. The introduction of such treatments as, for example, the iron lung made it possible to save patients who could not breathe by themselves because of polio.
Regarding the discussion below; the numbers relate to the prevalance of the disease, not the mortality, since this is the case for which Ehdin is arguing.
Now, let us focus on the assertion that the diseases had disappeared before vaccination began against measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and tuberculosis.
For measles, I have looked at two examples from the Western world, the US and England+Wales . Both graphs show very clearly what happens when the countries introduced vaccination against the disease.
Statistics for the prevalence of pertussis in the United States and England + Wales (click to enlarge)
For pertussis (whooping cough) one can find the figures for the US here and for England+Wales here. Vaccination against whooping cough was introduced in the US at the end of the 1940s and in England at the end of the 1950s. Note what happens to the curves at these points in time.
What may be interesting to mention specifically for whooping cough is that we have experience of what happens when immunisation rates are going down.
"Three countries - Great Britain, Sweden, and Japan - cut back the use of pertussis vaccine because of fears about the vaccine. The effect was dramatic and Immediate.
In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100,000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978. In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100 000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978.
In Japan, around the same time, a drop in vaccination rates from 70% to 20-40% led to a jump in pertussis from 393 cases and no deaths in 1974 to 13,000 cases and 41 deaths in 1979.
In Sweden, the annual incidence rate of pertussis per 100,000 children 0-6 years of age increased from 700 cases in 1981 to 3,200 in 1985."
Statistics for TB cases in England + Wales and vaccination introduction
These are the numbers for tuberculosis in England + Wales. I graphed the numbers, the red line indicating the introduction of vaccination against the disease.
Scarlet fever was never really relevant to vaccinate against on a larger scale, even though a vaccine was developed back in 1924. General vaccination was never implemented as it was discovered that penicillin had a great effect on this bacterial disease.
Should Ehdin's (and others with her) ideas be correct, we wouldn't see any marked decline in these diseases after the introduction of the vaccine in the graphs above. Alternatively, we would see a sharp downturn even before the introduction of vaccines, and we don't.
We want to direct attention to the fact that the anti-vaccination movement has gathered some high-profile names in Sweden to their roster. We also want to put our feet down and make it clear that we won't sit idly by and wait for the first death due do insufficient vaccination levels. We won't keep quiet when public figures lie about the effects of vaccines. We will act through activism, writing and by informing people.
[More about health, vaccines, skepticism; hÃ¤lsa, vaccination, skepticism, sannaehdin.]
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For those of you who are not fluent in swedish, this is a Google translated version of the blog Tankebrott.
Are there Waldorf/Steiner schools in Sweden? Another big source of anti-vaccine propaganda.
Seth Mnookin's new book describes the universality of anti-vaccine propaganda.
Yes, Waldorf schools = anthroposophy = Steiner. I've written before about measles outbreaks at Waldorf schools in Europe.