The truth about vaccines, parental rights, corporate greed: My answer to Rob Schneider

One of my former students, a brilliant, absolutely lovely person (inside and out) who did very well in my science classes for non-science majors,  just posted a link on FB to a video called Rob Schneider tells the truth about vaccines, parental rights, and corporate greed. In this video, Mr. Schneider, who’s wife is 5 months pregnant, presents his ideas and concerns about vaccines — ideas and concerns that I think many Americans share.  Unfortunately, Mr. Schneider’s thinking ab0ut vaccines is a confusing mix of real concern, inaccurate facts, and leaps to unlikely conclusions. So, for my former student, who I think might have babies that are as lovely and smart as she is someday, I’d like to take a closer look at a few of the ideas put forward by Mr. Schneider:

Only parents should have the right to decide what is best for their children (see quote #1 below). I mostly agree with Mr. Schneider on this one. And I think he’s going to be a great dad. He’s clearly passionate and wants what’s best for his kid. Most parents feel the same way about their kids, and I believe that most of the concern about vaccines comes from this passionate desire to protect our children.

I partially disagree with Mr. Schneider for two reasons: 1) the obvious reason that some parents are abusive and in that case, I think the state needs to step in to protect the children, and 2) vaccines aren’t as straightforward as some issues because they do have a public health component. In other words, decisions that an individual parent makes for their children about vaccines doesn’t just affect their own kids, but also has the potential to affect other kids too.

Vaccines have a public health component because they generate something called herd immunity. Basically, if a certain percentage of a population has immunity to a disease, it’s less likely that the bacteria or virus that causes the disease will find a susceptible person in the population. For two great (and funny!) animations that illustrate this, go to this link and scroll down to the bottom of the page.

To understand why this is important, here’s a scenario for you to consider. Imagine that you and I both have school-age children. I’ve vaccinated my child against pertussis, but you and several other parents in our school district have chosen not to. I also have a new baby, who is only 3 months old. My baby’s immune system is not yet fully developed and she doesn’t have good immunity to pertussis. A pertussis outbreak begins in our district. The bacterium is able to infect several school age children, who become sick but can be treated with antibiotics.  But my baby is fragile and doesn’t have immunity. Because the bacterium is circulating in our community (we don’t have good herd immunity because vaccination rates are low), my baby becomes infected and dies. You might think I’m being overly dramatic, but my scenario is based on an actual case that occurred in Colorado in 2000 (reference here). [Added: Thanks to TW who told me about a case much closer to home -- the tragic death of Kaliah Jeffery right here in Snohomish county during our recent pertussis outbreak. Go here for the article.]

Do you see how the issue of vaccination and parental rights isn’t perfectly black and white? Should you be allowed to refuse vaccination when your decision might endanger my baby? But then again, how can the government order you to give your child a medical procedure? It’s not as simple an issue as Mr. Schneider presents it.

Doctors only tell you the benefits of vaccines, and not the risks, because they are in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies who are out to make money (see quote #2 below). I completely agree that pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars and that some doctors over-prescribe certain medications because they are influenced by these companies. However, this is typically  not the case with vaccines and you can check it out for yourself. Look up the financial records of any major pharmaceutical company and check out how they make their money. I will tell you what you will find: they make their money on drugs for chronic conditions. In other words, drugs that people have to take consistently (like drugs for anxiety, depression, acid reflux, or erectile dysfunction). Vaccines are designed to be administered only a few times to give you long-term immunity. Think about this from a business point of view: What would you rather sell, something that people are going to buy every day or something they’ll only buy occasionally?

Here’s my example: I googled “pfizer financial statement” which took me to this document. On page 22, I found a list of the 2011 revenues for all of their products, two of which are vaccines to prevent pneumococcus (a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis in infants). The total revenue for both of these vaccines was $4,145,000,000. You might be thinking that’s big money, but wait. The total revenue for all drugs was $57,747,000,000. That means vaccines only represent 7% of the companies’ total revenue. And we’re just looking at revenue, not the costs associated with developing the drug or vaccines. Vaccines are often much more expensive to develop than other drugs because they require a fair amount of scientific research. The best money makers for large pharmaceutical companies are usually “me-too” drugs — drugs that represent just a slight alternation of an existing drug and therefore don’t require much research. (For more on this, and when you should be very skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, I suggest you watch “Big Drugs, Big Pharma.” You can watch it here on youtube.)

In fact, one of the problems with getting new vaccines developed or improving vaccine technology is that they aren’t very profitable as compared to other drugs. So, the idea that doctors push them on you because someone is making money just doesn’t seem likely to me.

Vaccines haven’t been tested scientifically; they don’t have a proven record of efficacy (see quote #3 below): This is just plain untrue. Vaccines go through extensive testing on small and larger groups of people to make sure that 1) they are effective at preventing the disease, and 2) that any side effects from the vaccine are much less severe and affect far fewer people than the disease itself. In other words, scientists must demonstrate that the benefits of a vaccine outweigh the risks before the FDA will approve the vaccine (for details on the vaccine trial process, go here). After approval, vaccines are closely monitored for “adverse events” like someone get sick or experiencing side effects (go here to learn more about monitoring).  If an approved vaccine causes more adverse events than predicted, it may be recalled or reformulated. For example, the vaccine that contains pertussis — currently Tdap or Dtap in the US — has been changed a couple of times to reduce side effects (to read about a story involving side effects the old vaccine –DTP– in Japan, go here and scroll down to the question “Was the old pertussis vaccine safe?”).

If what I’ve already said doesn’t convince you, or you don’t want to read all those references I sent you to, check out these two illustrations of the efficacy of vaccines. They aren’t exactly studies that compare vaccinated with un-vaccinated people (although those do exist), but I think they get the point across.

Polio in the United States before and after vaccination (Figure from John Hopkins, see reference below)

Global comparison of measles vaccination with cases (hatched lines = vaccination, green colors = fewer cases, orange to red = more cases; for the complete story, see reference below)

Bottom line, I think both of these figures illustrate that vaccines work.

Vaccines are toxic, they contain mercury, and/or they cause autism (quote #4 below).

  • Vaccines may cause side effects, that is true. But in order for a vaccine to be licensed by the FDA, these side effects must be 1) less severe and 2) less frequent than the possible effects and complications of the disease itself. You can look up any individual vaccine and it’s possible side effects here.
  • The only vaccine given to children that still contains mercury (in the form of Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative) is the influenza vaccine. No other childhood vaccines contain mercury. For  more information on which vaccines used to contain mercury and when it was removed from vaccines go here.
  • The British medical  journal that published the original studies suggesting that the MMR vaccine causes autism has since reported that the studies were fraudulent. As a result, the doctor that conducted these studies, Andrew Wakefield, has been banned from practicing medicine in England.  Extensive scientific studies  that examined the proposal of the original Wakefield studies failed to find any evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism (details here). Even the autism society doesn’t recognize MMR as a possible cause of autism (see their list of causes here). (They do mention metabolic disorders that may fail to clear heavy metals from the body, but thimerosal — the preservative derived from mercury — was never used as a preservative in MMR.)

Vaccines are dangerous for infants because their immune systems aren’t developed yet (see quote#5 below). It’s exactly because infant’s immune systems aren’t developed that they need vaccines. Their immune systems aren’t strong enough to protect them from the real bacteria and viruses. So, we give them vaccines instead — most vaccines contain just pieces of bacteria or viruses. These pieces themselves can’t cause disease but what they do is educate children’s immune systems — I like to think of it as taking the immune system to boot camp. By showing the immune system the pieces of the bacteria or viruses, the immune system is trained to fight if/when the real bacteria or virus shows up. A few vaccines, like the oral form of the polio vaccine, contain “live” bacteria or viruses that have been weakened by scientists so they don’t usually cause disease. Although the risks of these live vaccines are slightly higher than for completely dead vaccines, they provide a better education for the immune system (because they have all the parts, not just some). Just like any vaccine, live vaccines have to be extensive tested before they’re licensed.

Doctors give infants unnecessary vaccines/too many vaccines (quotes 6 and 7 below). We do have more vaccines now than we used to, but that’s because we’ve had more time for research and development to occur. The developments in molecular biology that have occurred since the 1960s have improved our ability to develop vaccines, so it’s not surprising that we have more today than we did when I was born (in the 1960s). To me, that’s a logical progression, not signs of a conspiracy.

Mr. Schneider thinks some vaccines, like the one for Hepatitis B, are unnecessary for infants because they’re unlikely to contract that disease. To this, the Vaccine Education Center says “before the hepatitis B virus vaccine, every year in the United States about 18,000 children less than 10 years of age caught hepatitis B virus from someone other than their mother. ” They go on to discuss how transmission can occur. For more rare diseases like this one, I can see how a parent might choose not to get the vaccine.

Mr. Schneider also thinks there’s just too many vaccines and I’ve heard other parents worry that somehow they’ll limit their child’s ability to respond to real diseases in the future if they give them too many vaccines — as if they’ll use up their child’s immune system. Scientists who study our immune systems say that the current vaccine schedule for children only uses the tip of the iceberg of our immune system’s ability to respond (go here for more details).

Parents should get informed about vaccines (quote 8 below). Agreed! I agree 99% with Mr. Schneider. Only 99% because I think his recommendation for getting informed isn’t the best choice. (He recommends a book by a non-MD who is “homeopath, a licensed acupuncturist, and doctor of Chinese medicine” according to Healthy Child. I have an open mind to non-Western practices, but I think they should be used along with, not instead of, Western medicine, and I don’t think all non-Western training is rigorous enough. While getting the best of both worlds is my ultimate dream, I’m still cautious about trusting the advice of people who may not have had rigorous medical education.) My favorite site for vaccine information is at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Site. The answer to every question I’ve tackled here, and probably any others you might have can be found at this site. In the end, it is parents who make the decisions for their children, and I encourage all parents to visit this site to get informed.

One last slightly snarky comment from me about getting informed. Why do some people put so much value on the word of celebrities when it comes to vaccination? Sometimes I say to my students — if you wanted to know if you should have a certain surgery, would you start going up to random people on the street and asking their opinion? Because that’s what surfing the internet can be like unless you’re very careful. Doctors may not be perfect, but they did take a lot of science courses in college and then they went to medical school, which I’ve never heard anyone say was easy. Most of us would go to a doctor for advice about medical issues. If we weren’t sure about the advice, we’d get a second opinion — from another doctor. (In my opinion, both doctors don’t have to be MD’s by the way — one could be an MD and one might be a naturopath, or ND.)

In addition to being a parental and public health issue, vaccination is also a medical and scientific issue. I’ve now spent about three hours compiling this blog post alone, and I can’t even begin to add up all the hours I’ve spent studying vaccines and vaccine safety. I can’t help but wonder how much time and critical thinking some celebrities bring to this discussion. It’s easy to accept what you want to believe; it’s harder to look at reams of scientific evidence and reports. Children, and their health, are very important to me, so I can only hope that parents and future parents who might read this post will put in some real time and thought before deciding whether to vaccinate their children.

Quotes from the video:

1“My wife is 5 months pregnant and I’m for parental rights and not government coercion telling us what we can do and what we can’t do with our kids. There is no other mandated  procedure…first of all, it’s illegal you can’t make people do procedures that they don’t want to. The parents have to be the ones to make the decisions about what’s best for our kids. It can’t be the government saying that — It’s against the Nuremberg laws. It’s ridiculous. t’s against the state constitution; it’s against their own by –laws here. I was reading some legislation that was passed years ago. They used to do state sterilizations and they thought that was a good thing. You know. So you can’t let the state make the decisions. The people have to decide. And parents have to decide. And that’s why I’m here. You know the idea that the state is going to tell me what I’m going to do with my kids.”

2“First of all. The doctors aren’t going to tell you both sides of the issue. They’re not. Because they are. They’re told by the pharmaceutical industry that makes billions of dollars. “

3“There’s no efficacy study. In other words, if you and I were gonna do, if I was gonna have a car seat. You’d have to show some proof that it was a safe seat, right? You’d have to say here’s a thousand accidents with the seat and here’s a thousand without it. And OK you can compare. They have refused to. And no vaccine companies, nonoe of the pharmaceutical companies and government tests have done a thousand kids with the shot and a thousand without. They refuse to. Because it’s not what they want to hear. Because what they’re doing right now, is that the pharmaceutical industries are doing fine. They’re making billions of dollars. And they’re continuing to…they’re increasing more shots. And it’s at the cost of our children. Cause the efficacy of these shots have not been proven.”

4“And the toxicity of these things. We’re having  more and more side effects. More and more autism. When you go from autism that was unheard of in America in 1930. When you go from 1 in 5000 after seeds started being preserved with mercury, the second most toxic thing on this planet next to plutonium. ..Then go up a couple of decades to 1990, it was 1 in 200. Now it’s 1 in 88. Now truthfully, it’s true that a lot of autism rates are grouped into one. But there is something that’s  really happening.”

5But one of the most vulnerable things you can do to a child that doesn’t have an immune system is give them a shot. “

6And I’ll just give you one example. You take the hepatitis B. Now hepatitis, you’ll get that from intravenous drug use and sexual contact. And yet, they won’t let a baby out of the hospital ..insisting on getting the shot. And I’m sorry, but that’s an unnecessary shot that they don’t need to have, especially when the baby’s immune system isn’t developed, it’s the mother’s immune system.”

7“They’ve gone from when you and I were kids they had like 8 shots, now it’s up to 70 shots, multi-shots. “

8 “And there’s a great book for people to go and get. It’s called The Vaccine Guide by Dr. Neustadter. Read that. And then become informed. And then you can make an educated decision. And not a government mandate.”

References

Polio figure: Incidence of Polio in the United States 1941-1971″ from Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases. Available at: http://ocw.jhsph.edu. Copyright © Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Measles figures: UCatlas

“Incidence of Polio in the United States 1941-1971″ from Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases. Available at: http://ocw.jhsph.edu. Copyright © Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

4 Comments

Filed under Science for Everybody

4 responses to “The truth about vaccines, parental rights, corporate greed: My answer to Rob Schneider

  1. Paul Offit, one of the leading vaccine experts in the nation, supports our request for legislation to make the DOH warn citizens as soon as an epidemic reaches the threshold they set each year. It took them 3 months to tell Washington they were in the middle of the biggest epidemic in nearly 50 years! By then it was too late to stop. Now, we are in the middle of the worst epidemic in 70 years!
    Kaliah died in August of last year and they still wouldn’t tell anyone. We (Kaliah’s family) set up the first Booster shot clinics, the first Public Service Announcements, and the postcards that were sent to all residents in our County, because they wouldn’t do anything! They did not release any of the free press they have available, and when I asked them to create a Public Service Announcement, they said they would have to lay off one of the three nurses they have on staff to do that. They said that it was enough for them to tell doctors about it and use the free press from stories like Kaliah’s.

    They wouldn’t call the CDC when I asked in February, they said it wouldn’t do any good because they would only come our for a week and that would not help. They wouldn’t say the word Tdap or Pertussis, because they didn’t think the public would understand the terms. We had to threaten them to get them to say or do anything! Now they threaten to block our law from happening!

    The booster shot everyone is getting also only lasts five years, but they are telling everyone they can only have one per lifetime, until they have more data. That means, in five years, everyone that is getting the shot now will have to get it again. Who is going to tell them?

    How long is it going to take them to tell us next time????? I am not willing to trust that they will do anything differently when we have another epidemic, so we need a law to make them. Kaliah’s law – When an epidemic reaches the threshold set by the Department of Health, they need to send a warning notice to every household in the affected area. Simple as that.

    Please show your support of Kaliah’s law by contacting your local legislator, and letting them know you expect them to support a law to warn citizens if there is an epidemic in their area! Follow this link to find who your legislator is and how to contact them, then ask them to support Kaliah’s Law to send a warning notice to citizens if there is an epidemic in their area!
    http://kennethaskorner.weebly.com/kennethas-korner-updates.html

  2. Kaliah’s Law seems like a very straightforward proposition to me. Knowledge is power, and how much can it really cost to send out an email or news alert? I’m so very sorry for your loss and I support Kaliah’s law.

  3. Dorothy

    Thank you Rene, this post was helpful. I had no idea about Kaliah, I’m sure there are more cases like this out there. It’s very sad and hard to hear. The antivaccination movement is frustrating to me and I would really like to get more involved in accurately informing parents about vaccines. I am a microbiology undergrad student and I am looking for ways for our microbiology club to spread informed news about vaccines. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Does your college have any student activities days? Like when clubs all gather and put on demonstrations or set up booths? You could have a booth with a guessing game based on some common misconceptions about vaccines to engage people and be prepared with flyers. You could use HPV as a good hook for the college-age crowd; not many people know how common those viruses are a few pictures of genital warts will definitely get attention. Of course, for most college-age students it’s too late to get the vaccine (once you’re sexually active it’s too late), but you could also provide information on influenza. Many college age people skip their flu shot because they think they aren’t at the highest risk. This is typically true for seasonal flu, but not always true. The 2009 strain (and the 1918 strain) was actually more dangerous for the young & healthy people in the middle. In general, I think people are most interested in what is relevant to their lives, so childhood vaccines might not be a major topic of interest to college students (unless they’re going into healthcare). So, I would look at what useful information you can provide to your peers to get them thinking about the subject, and how you can slide in a little education along with it.

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