Debunking anti-vaxxers lies: a journey in their modus operandi
Few days ago, a friend of mine told me about an article reporting that vaccine-preventable diseases could spread into a vaccinated population, demonstrating the uselessness of vaccines. My friend was surprised to find references at the bottom of the article, and asked me to check its reliability. It turned out to be full of misleading information, despite the real references. In fact, although it is true that rarely a disease can spread into a population vaccinated against it, vaccination is the best and only efficient way to fight the disease spreading.
Therefore, I decided to write this post, which is organized into two sections: in the first one, I summarize some key-points that will help you in debunking fake-science articles (especially against vaccines), in the second one I will comment on some real scientific articles that are usually chosen by anti-vaxxers in their misleading campaigns.
So, here we go with some features that characterize fake-science articles:
- First, read the domain of the website: if it refers to green (or alternative) medicine, homeopathy, hidden truth and similar, you can start being suspicious.
- The article is full of clickable links that will address you to other websites (of the same matrix) that, in turn, will address you again somewhere else in a tight network of connections. Usually these websites are partners among each other, and they live thanks to banner ads that pay them depending on the number of visits the website receives.
- Scary photos (e.g., syringes aimed like weapons towards small sick children) support the article.
- There is always some story about an anonymous scientist who worked for a Pharma company that feels repented and confesses all the worst things he/she did during his/her job. Of course you will read about scary ingredients contained in vaccines, how useless vaccines are, how big Pharma companies are plotting to control people and so on. Surprisingly (or not really), this paragraph doesn’t refer to any official data that proves that. Indeed, that must have been such a bad scientist, confessing crimes and secrets, but forgetting the most important thing of the job: data! Remember that if someone claims that vaccines are useless, it must be demonstrated by a study in which two similar populations (same percentage of males and females, same age range, same life habits and so on), of which only one is vaccinated against a disease, express the same susceptibility to the disease the vaccine should prevent. No alternatives.
- Let’s come to references. As aforementioned, sometimes, official references support fake-science articles. That sounds odd, isn’t it? Well, there are few points to consider about it. First, the date of publication: most of these references date back to the 80s or early 90s. Because research advances very fast, according to a scientists’ point of view those articles date back to the Rosetta stone age. They are too old to have an impact nowadays, and if they reported an issue during the 80s, most likely that issue was solved, if no more recent articles are available about it. Second, there is a high chance that references are used improperly by fake-science, so it is important to read their abstract (the summary of the study, which you access by pasting the reference in Google). Lastly, I feel compelled to mention that if a 30-years old article highlighted an issue with a vaccine, it doesn’t mean that people should be worried about it. How do you think doctors discovered that a booster vaccination is needed? Therapies and prevention are always progressing and improving, and this is achieved by performing studies on populations, which are always published on scientific journals independently of the results.
Is there any article you read of unsure reliability? Post it in the comments, so we can discuss about it.
Now I will focus specifically on vaccines, and I will list some articles that are indicated as “unconfutable proof” of the dark side of vaccines by anti-vaxxers. I want to do this because the title can be misleading, and the conclusion might be not scary at all, and not even against vaccines. Here we go!
Anders JF, Jacobson RM, Poland GA, Jacobsen SJ, Wollan PC. Secondary failure rates of measles vaccines: a meta-analysis of published studies. Pediatr Infect Dis J 1996; 15:62–6.
In this article, authors focus on cases of failure of the measles vaccine. They considered all studies from which it was possible to get enough information to perform statistical analysis. Anders and colleagues demonstrated that, despite some cases of vaccine failure, the risk of contracting measles in vaccinated people is less than 0.2%. Quite low, isn’t it?
Gustafson TL, Lievens AW, Brunell PA, Moellenberg RG, Buttery CM, Sehulster LM. Measles outbreak in a fully immunized secondary-school population. N Engl J Med 1987; 316:771–4.
Authors describe a case of measles outbreak in a high school in Texas in spring 1985. They checked the vaccination coverage of 1806 students (>99%) and measured their immune coverage (the presence of the antibody against measles occurred in 95% of students, meaning that there were few cases of vaccine failure). None of the 1732 immunized students contracted measles, while 14 of the 76 who were not immunized (vaccine failure) were infected.
Rota JS, Hickman CJ, Sowers SB, Rota PA, Mercader S, Bellini WJ. Two case studies of modified measles in vaccinated physicians exposed to primary measles cases: high risk of infection but low risk of transmission. J Infect Dis 2011; 204 (Suppl 1):S559–63.
In 2009, two physicians who were vaccinated against measles contracted the disease after long exposure due to the outbreak in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The two physicians displayed shorter and less severe symptoms of measles, due to immune response, and did not infect other people.
Rosen JB, Rota JS, Hickman CJ, et al. Outbreak of measles among persons with prior evidence of immunity, New York City, 2011. Clin Infect Dis 2014; 58:1205–10.
This study describes how 5 people vaccinated against measles contracted the disease. It was previously reported that vaccinated people can contract measles, but it was never demonstrated that a vaccinated individual who gets infected can transmit the disease to others. The patient zero was a 22-year-old girl who went to the hospital after displaying measles symptoms. On that day, the girl infected three clinicians, and the fourth person was infected on the previous day, being a co-worker of the girl. 231 people who were exposed to the secondary patients were also screened, but no one developed the disease. So what is the conclusion? That this very rare case is not due to vaccine failure (antibodies were found in serum), and that with a high vaccine coverage against measles, spreading of the disease is extremely limited. Introduction of the vaccine in 1963 and of the second dose in 1989 determined eradication of measles by 2000, and only recently more cases are recorded, due to the lowering of the vaccination coverage. In 2011, 220 cases of measles were recorded. Because 87% of people infected were not vaccinated, lack of vaccination is indicated as the main cause of the disease spreading. The authors conclude the article stating that this isolated event should not alter the structure of the current measles control, although surveillance must be constantly active.
The conclusion that can be drawn from these articles is that vaccination is not efficient for all people: few are not responsive to it (they don’t develop antibodies), few others lose antibodies after some time (in some cases serological analysis displayed an attenuated presence of antibodies). Why this happens is unclear and needs to be investigated further. What is known is that vaccination doesn’t work as an on/off button: if a population is 100% vaccinate, it doesn’t mean that 100% of people are immune to the disease, but in average “only” 97% are. Possibly, some genetic features make an individual not or less responsive than the mass. It will be important to identify these features, in order to develop a specific vaccination plan to immunize also these little percentage of population. What these studies conclude is that, despite rare cases of vaccine failure, vaccination is the best way to prevent disease’s spreading, as demonstrated by hundreds of published studies, which anti-vaxxers will always avoid to refer to.
Do you have any question about this topic? Do you know other articles about which you would like to share your opinion? Don’t be shy and post it in the comments!