The Current Fear of Vaccines: Fraudulent science and the identifiable victim effect

Tetanus Painting by Sir Charles Bell, 1809.Last week a story circulated about a seven year old New Zealand boy named Alijah whose parents opted against vaccinating him and his siblings. They made this decision based on what they believed was solid evidence in favor of forgoing vaccination. Unfortunately Alijah got a small cut on the bottom of his foot in December of 2012 and contracted tetanus, an excruciating condition which ultimately led to the need to put him in an induced coma to stop his agony; agony that could have been entirely avoided if he’d received the tetanus vaccine. Alijah was in this coma for three weeks then had to learn to walk and to eat again once he came out of it.

Alijah’s parent were not bad people, they, like most parents, want the best for their children and made what they thought was the better decision regarding vaccinations. Further, and this is important to remember, they went public about their error so that others might avoid making the same mistake. That is not an easy mistake to admit as a parent so they deserve a lot of credit for their candor.

The question of whether vaccines might be linked to harmful side-effects is not new; there have been religious arguments against vaccination since the process began. In 1798 an Anti-vaccination Society was formed by physicians and clergymen, who called on the people of Boston to suppress vaccination, as “bidding defiance to Heaven itself, even to the will of God.” There are indeed still those who object to vaccinations for superstitious reasons but the current Andrew Wakefieldcontroversy is not religious, as least in an obvious sense. Rather it began with a paper that was published in the Lancet (a well-respected journal of repute!) by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. In his paper he concluded that there is an association between the MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism and bowel disease. This study was the impetus for the anti-vaccine movement and has led to a cultural shift regarding vaccines. The most salient fact, however, about this study, is that it was proven fraudulent and ultimately retracted by the journal and by 10 of the paper’s 13 authors.  In addition to the study being retracted, Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom has been revoked by the British General Medical Council (GMC), for professional misconduct.  Nonetheless, the damage done by Wakefield continues; Last year in Britain there were 2,000 reported cases of measles, and this year there has already had been more than 1,200 reported. The group that is most affected by this disease is adolescents who were never vaccinated.  


Lancet retracted article

The fear of vaccines is not isolated to the United Kingdom or to New Zealand. In the United States, Jenny McCarthy has been an outspoken activist against the use of them for several years now. She has repeatedly made the claim that her son’s autism was caused by vaccinations. Unfortunately because of all of the above claims many people are now assuming that vaccines are harmful and opting out of vaccinating their kids. This is resulting in cases of otherwise preventable diseases being on the rise once again in the U.S.

jmcvaccinesThe problem with taking the advice of someone like Jenny McCarthy is that she is an entertainer and a public figure.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that but being a public entertainer does not mean she has any expertise in public health or the biological sciences. So why do we give her opinions on autism and vaccines any consideration? Actually there is a very good, albeit unscientific, reason that her opinion carries so much weight. It is the result of something called the identifiable victim effect. This occurs when there is a victim of some ailment or event, in this case it is McCarthy whose son suffered from autism, who we can identify and empathize with. When McCarthy talks about her son in the public forum most of us, especially if we are parents ourselves, feel sympathy toward her plight as a struggling parent.  When she blames vaccines for her son’s autism and ultimately her struggles, it is hard not to want to boycott all vaccines.  

Among the myriad of problems with this line of reasoning are, as mentioned above, the fact that the only study showing an association between vaccines and autism has been proven fraudulent, and the fact that the identifiable victim in this case is Jenny McCarthy, who is not the actual victim of autism.  In reality there is not a single scientifically documented case of a vaccine causing autism, therefore many more people are harmed by avoiding the vaccines. These people are no more than statistics to most of us though so their plight is not nearly as vivid as McCarthy’s strife.

I hold no ill will towards Ms. McCarthy but her misguided rhetoric blaming vaccines—which are, in fact, one of the greatest achievements of scientific medicine—for the rise in autism is sadly misguided and is causing harm.