Vaccines are arguably the most important medical invention of all time. They have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of children, extended the lives of adults, and lead to the global eradication of deadly diseases like smallpox. Vaccines also contribute to long term health-care savings, prevent antibiotic resistance, protect against bio-terrorism, and enhance equity among different socioeconomic groups.
In the 220 years since, Dr. Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine there has been an upward trend in the number of children vaccinated globally. However, in 1998, a study by Andrew Wakefield was published linking the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) Vaccine to Autism. This paper was widely publicised and inspired a movement among parents around the world to not vaccinate their children. It was later found that Wakefield’s study was funded by the lawyers of parents suing vaccine producing companies and that there was actually no causal link between the MMR vaccine and Autism. The results of Wakefield’s study couldn’t be replicated, he was found guilty of ethical violations and fraud and was stripped of his medical license. Despite this, significant numbers of parents continued to boycott vaccinating their kids and pockets of mumps and measles began appearing in the UK, Canada, and the US, diseases that had been nearly eliminated before the paper was published. The Wakefield Fraud is considered to be one of the most damaging medical hoaxes of all time. A great deal of time and money from the scientific community has gone into debunking Wakefield’s findings, yet nearly two decades after the paper was retracted and found to be a blatant lie, anti-vaccination groups still exist.
As a person who is passionate about medicine and health policy, I get really angry when people try to rationalize not vaccinating their children. Especially in Canada, a first world country where the majority of vaccines are free and there are government programs in place to ensure they are safe and accessible.
In this blog post I am going to breakdown the most common argument used by Anti-Vaxxers to support their cause, analyze it for truth validity and soundness, and show why it is illogical. The argument that vaccines cause Autism originated from Andrew Wakefield’s retracted paper: lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The paper states, “We identified…developmental regression in a group of previously normal children, which was generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers.” This basically states that the “environmental triggers” or vaccines were believed to cause “developmental regression” or delayed development in normal children that was then associated with the onset of Autism. Using syllogistic logic the statement can be broken down as follows:
- Premise 1: Vaccines contain harmful chemicals
- Premise 2: Harmful chemicals cause developmental regression and Autism
- Conclusion: Therefore, Vaccines cause developmental regression and Autism
Premise 1 is false. Although vaccines are mostly water and antigens they require additional chemicals like formaldehyde and aluminium salts in order to remain stable and effective. However, the concentrations of these chemicals are so small that they are nowhere near harmful, even to infants. The amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is hundreds of times smaller than that in a piece of fruit and the amount of aluminium salts is less than children are exposed to through breastmilk.
Premise 2 is partially true. Exposure to toxins is one of the many things among genetics, head trauma, a low birth weight, and infections that can be linked to developmental delays or regression. However, this refers more to mothers smoking, drinking or using intravenous drugs during pregnancy. Additionally, the specific causes of Autism are not currently known but are believed to be related to genetics, not exposure to toxins. Also the onset of Autism and scheduled vaccines both occur in early childhood; therefore the fact that a child could both receive vaccinations and show signs of Autism is more likely a coincidence than evidence of an actual connection between the two.
The flaw in this argument first occurs in premise 1, the fact that vaccines don’t contain harmful amounts of chemicals makes the argument untrue although it would otherwise be somewhat valid. Since the argument is neither true nor valid, the conclusion that vaccines cause developmental regression is not sound and illogical. The small amount of additional chemicals in vaccines are not enough to possibly be linked to developmental regression. As Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Texas, points out “It’s in our soil, in our water, in the air. You’d have to leave the planet to avoid exposure.”
Those who choose to not vaccinate their children are not only putting their children at risk but entire populations. As the World Health Organization points out, “vaccines have also been used to protect those in greatest need of protection against infectious diseases, such as pregnant women, cancer patients and the immunocompromised” People with supressed immune systems who are unable to get vaccines themselves, rely greatly on healthy members of society to be vaccinated in order to maintain herd immunity. The illogical misconception that vaccines are dangerous is a destructive step backwards for medicine and public health and it puts far more people at risk than just children who are unvaccinated.