About this week’s eSkeptic
In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall examines the statements about vaccines made by four candidates in the recent GOP debate. They all demonstrated a poor grasp of vaccine science, and advocated delays in the vaccine schedule that would represent a danger to the young, the immunocompromised, and to the herd immunity that is a mainstay of our public health.
Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of Sciencebasedmedicine.org, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is www.skepdoc.info.
Fact-Checking Vaccine Statements in the GOP Debate
by Harriet Hall, M.D., The SkepDoc
1. Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, said that there have been numerous studies and they have not demonstrated any correlation between vaccines and autism. TRUE.
He said certain vaccines are very important: those that would prevent death or crippling. He said others don’t fit in that category. FALSE. Although some vaccine-preventable diseases have the potential to do more harm than others, there is not a single vaccine that doesn’t prevent a disease that can cripple or kill a percentage of its victims.
He said there should be some discretion. NOT SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE. There is no reason to think “discretion” is warranted in following the recommended vaccine schedule, and there is clear evidence that not following the recommendations can lead to harm. If vaccines are delayed, the infant remains susceptible to a preventable disease until the vaccine is given. Decreasing the number of vaccinated children decreases the herd immunity of the entire population. It means that when a disease enters a community it is more likely to spread, and that harms 3 categories of people: infants too young to have been vaccinated for that disease; sick, elderly, and immunocompromised people who are more susceptible to infection and more likely to sustain serious harm if they catch the disease; and the small percentage of immunized people who may still be susceptible despite the vaccines, which are not 100% protective.
He said “but you know, a lot of this is pushed by big government.” NOT SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE. In fact, I don’t even know what he means. It is not “big government” that supports the current vaccine schedule, but the scientific and medical community.
2. Trump responded to Carson, saying autism has become an epidemic that has gotten totally out of control. FALSE. Most scientists interpret the evidence as showing the rate of autism has risen very little or not at all. The perception of an “epidemic” is due to wider awareness of the disorder, better identification of patients, and re-categorization of children who formerly would have had a different diagnosis.
He said he was in favor of vaccines, but he wanted smaller doses over a longer period of time. NOT SUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE. We know smaller doses would be ineffective or less effective, and there is no reason to think any advantage would accrue from spreading doses over a longer period of time. The current schedule has been carefully thought out by experts to provide maximum benefit and safety.
He compared vaccinating infants to pumping in doses that look like they were meant for a horse. FALSE. Exaggeration for emotional effect. What a vaccine “looks like” has little to do with the number of antigens it contains. The volume of material injected is actually very small, both for infants and for horses.
He claimed to know of several instances where vaccines hurt children, describing a beautiful 2½ year old child who got a vaccine and a week later had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, and is now autistic. FALSE. Under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, more than 5000 families have sought compensation claiming that vaccines caused their children to become autistic, but the courts examined the most striking cases and found that even in those worst cases, there was no evidence that the vaccines had caused autism. The details can be found online.
1a. Carson responded to Trump, agreeing with him that we are probably giving way too many vaccines in too short a period of time. He said “a lot of pediatricians now recognize that, and, I think, are cutting down on the number and the proximity in which those are done, and I think that’s appropriate.” FALSE. It is never appropriate to deviate from the recommended schedule without a very good medical reason for a particular individual. Those pediatricians are bowing to parental pressure and doing the children a disservice. The “too many too soon” argument is fallacious. Babies’ immune systems are more than capable of handling the number of antigens in vaccines, and in fact their immune systems encounter far more antigens in the course of their daily life. Vaccines don’t overload the immune system, they exercise and strengthen it.
3. Paul, an eye surgeon, said he was all for vaccines but he was also for freedom. “Even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines out a little bit at the very least.” IRRELEVANT. One of the principles of medical ethics is autonomy: patients always have the right to refuse treatment, even if it means they will die. We have freedom with respect to vaccines; no one is forcibly restraining people and vaccinating them without their permission. No one is being forced to get vaccines on schedule. People have the freedom to act on the basis of emotion rather than reason, even though spreading out vaccines is more likely to harm them than to benefit them.
4. Huckabee said “there are maybe some controversies about autism…” FALSE. There is no controversy about autism in the scientific medical community. There is only a “manufactroversy” about vaccines that has been sold to a scientifically illiterate public.
“…but there is no controversy about the things that are really driving the medical costs in this country.” And he called for a war on cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. IRRELEVANT. A blatant attempt to change the subject.
What I wish they had said
There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. Vaccinating is safer than not vaccinating. The current vaccine schedule was carefully thought out by experts to safely maximize protection from vaccine-preventable diseases. I strongly recommend vaccinating on schedule because it protects others in the community and reduces the risk of avoidable tragedies like the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland.
These attitudes are bad enough coming from the scientifically illiterate, but it is shocking that two of the candidates are medical doctors whose education should have given them a more science-based approach. Worse, Carson is a creationist who has rejected some of the fundamental tenets of Darwinian evolution as “incredible fairy tales,” has claimed that mutations only lead to degeneration rather than improvement, and has claimed that there are no intermediate species. As the world faces current and future challenges like climate change and epidemic infectious diseases, a solid understanding of science will be essential to making rational political decisions. The GOP debate was not grounds for optimism.