Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A medical mystery

Specifically, why is there a persistent movement to deny the safety and efficacy of vaccination? I can understand why there are creationists -- religious beliefs are deeply embedded in the culture, the priesthood has a strong vested interest in its own power and great sway over its followers, and people feel threatened by challenges to cherished and comforting beliefs.

I understand that racism fuels the birthers. AIDS denialism has multiple psychological underpinnings, but they are all related in one way or another to the stigma associated with the disease. Like the modern antivaccination movement, it got a big boost from a rogue scientist -- leading virologist Peter Duesberg who became a major crank. I believe what happened to Duesberg is that he started out asking legitimate questions and wanting more proof, but then found himself too deeply dug in to bow out gracefully when the questions were answered and the proof came. This is classically how rational people evolve into cranks.

Andrew Wakefield, who started the vaccine scare, may be a different story -- he appears to have faked his data for the simplest of all reasons, money. And now of course he cannot admit that. But granted the scare began initially because of a scientific publication, why won't it go away now that Wakefield has been irrefutably debunked? Yes, we had dishonest self-promoters such as Robert Kennedy Jr. link to the anti-vaccination movement as a phony liberal cause in order to build his own fame, probably in hopes of running for office as a crusader against the medical-industrial conspiracy. And we have the celebrity (why?) Jenny McCarthy using her public soap box to keep it going.

But still, there have to be deeper reasons why people so badly want to believe in this. You can't just stand up and start spouting any old nonsense and expect it to gain traction. Now that we have all this publicity about influenza people like Bill Maher and various pseudo-scientists on the Huffington Post are coming out of the woodwork to tell people not to get the vaccination for novel H1N1 influenza.

Now listen up folks. That's just plain nuts. I am notorious for believing that the corporate media and Daily Kos talk about the flu too damn much and don't talk nearly enough about other public health issues that are more important because they a) affect more people, b) cause much bigger problems because when they don't kill you outright, unlike the flu they don't go away in a few days but can cause long-term sickness and disability, c) are always around, not just in a brief episode and d) have political content and dimensions of justice.

But: You don't want to get the flu, H1N1 or any other kind. It will make you feel like shit, be out of commission for a while, and yes, might just turn into a serious disease or even kill you even though that's unlikely. And you might transmit it to others, so it's not just your own choice that's involved. Flu vaccines, novel H1N1 or otherwise, have a long record of being very safe and very effective. About the worst thing that can happen to you is a mildly sore arm. Advising people not to do it is not just mistaken and unhelpful, it is evil.

When you get the chance, get the shots. You'll need two this year, one for the so-called "seasonal" flu and a separate one for the novel H1N1. Get them both. End of story.


C. Corax said...

I have had some mind-boggling go-rounds with anti-vaxxer assholes on a certain listserv I subscribe to. One argument ended up with me asking one of them that since he claimed vaccines are worthless (the goalposts move constantly, BTW--you disprove one steaming pile and another is dropped--so vaccines apparently cause disease, or they do nothing, or, or...), then how did he explain the eradication of smallpox? His answer: We've eliminating bloodsucking insects. After having fun with that, I stopped arguing with him, because you can't really argue with people who are too stupid for words. He continues to excrete anti-vax b.s. in vast quantities. At this point, I figure any adults who are so stupid as to believe him deserve what comes their way. I pity their children.

Cervantes said...

Hmm. He seems to confuse smallpox with malaria -- which has by no means been eliminated, nor have bloodsucking insects -- Viz. Aetna.

But that's what's mystifying. Why this bizarre belief, unencumbered by facts? What is the reason for it?

roger said...

it is certainly not the only wacky idea unsupported by facts, even contradicted by facts, believed by some people. and the wackier the idea the more fervently it is sometimes held. we don't seem to be intelligently designed.

Seth Kalichman said...

Great post. Drawing the connection between Peter Duesberg/AIDS denialism and Andrew Wakefield/vaccine hysteria is very astute. Denialism and hysteria are two sides of the same coin. I am with you, I plan to get vaccinated as soon as I can.
If you are interested in AID denialism check out my new book Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy. All royalties are donated to buy HIV meds in Africa.
Seth Kalichman

Bix said...

What I sense is some distrust or disillusionment with government.

Anonymous said...

I'm not anti-vaccine by any measure. But, I am a bit weary of the process that has led to mandatory vaccinations in certains parts of this country. Hype feuled this process with very little rationality and even less accountability. To mandate vaccines based on thorough science, adequate safety testing, and proven outcomes is perfectly sane. To do it this way strikes me as utterly batty.

Anonymous said...

Getting a shot with a needle brings foreign matter into the body in an unusual way .. It is an event that is associated with illness (takes place in a medical setting), and more recently with drug addiction, the transmission of AIDS (or other). Adverse reactions to vaccines are not uncommon, and hyped up.

Blood transfusions, similarly medical and unnatural, have the same scary aura.

Injections and transfusions can cause all kinds of insult/injury. I’m thinking particularly of the contaminated blood scandal in France, old tales about medical experimentation.

Vaccines are administered by another person, who belongs to a powerful body (compare with pills that the patient takes himself.)

Vaccines are common, if not as universal as one would wish, so may explain phenomena that are equally ‘broad’.

Lastly, the idea of ‘injecting bugs into the body so that you don’t get sick from the bug’ is counter-intuitive; hard to explain to children for example. (Many vaccines are oral, but that is beside the point here.)

Naturally, all that doesn’t explain why vaccines are targeted, only that they may be picked as a scape-goat, again, compare with X ray or imaging techniques, eye tests, antibiotics which obviously ‘cure’ rather than ‘prevent.’

The attack on vaccines is peculiarly American, with followers in Angloland. (It has spread somewhat.)

The impetus may also rest on certain religious doctrines, and the general stance against government interference in matters that are seen as being part of the private sphere, such as health.

The emblematic example is the cause of autism...Parents are so desperate to pin down a cause that does not involve them, is direct, easy to understand, and as middle class parents have some voice, and vote, and very indirectly, have some influence on cultural memes, research, and so on...hey presto, money can be made, votes can be gathered, etc. True, sincere belief, impassioned appeals can be turned into hard cash.


Bix said...

You make some very good points, Ana.