Beware the Woo: Antivax

I come from a family of science deniers. My mother and her family were Christian Scientist, mostly without my direct knowledge, going back at least two generations. I haven’t established yet who in the clan started following Christian Science first and brought everyone else along with them to share in the fun; but the fact is that the denial of science, medical science, runs deep in my family.

While my mother did stop going to prayer rooms to pray her diseases away, she never stopped repeating her mantra doctors don’t know anything. I believe she became a nurse later in life specifically to hack the system, to get her ideas about health and wellness into the practice of medicine. Ideas that included kinesiology and homeopathy and other things that I frankly didn’t start writing this article in order to discuss (those subjects are for another article. Or three. –ed.) I started this article many years ago without knowing that I had started it. I started it by being supportive of being vaccinated among the descendants of people who have questioned the validity of medical science all their lives.

Don’t get me wrong here. I have most of my vaccinations. I have them because my mother was not given any choice on the subject. Either I and my siblings would be vaccinated or we wouldn’t be allowed to attend public school in our small Kansas town, and she wanted her children to have an education even if she wasn’t especially fond of doctors and their poking, prodding intrusions.

So we got vaccinated because none of us had medical profiles that would have flagged us for being unfit for vaccination, as it should be. That didn’t stop our mother from sending us to Pox parties anyway.

Imagine my horror when it was brought to my attention that this was still a thing several decades after an effective vaccine for Chicken Pox was introduced. I doubt you can envision the state of rage that I was in at the time. Feel free to make the attempt anyway.

I had my moments of vaccine hesitation when my children were old enough to start getting their vaccines. By the time our son was old enough to get the last round of vaccinations, new vaccines had come out for Hepatitis B and of course we ran across enough internet cross-talk at the time to convince us to delay his course of vaccination for six months or so. But those fears passed because they turned out to be as baseless as all the other fears have been, and we went ahead and allowed him to get his last round of shots, shots that didn’t cause him to drop dead or get autism or any number of other stupid things that you read about on the internet.

If I’ve learned one thing about the internet it is that you don’t want to trust Dr. Google when it makes medical recommendations. Time after time Dr. Google gives me quack information layered in with solid information, and I have to spend time trying to sort out the difference every time I do a search on any subject that is medically related. Dr. Google and Dr. Facebook have done more to advance vaccine hesitancy in the last twenty years than any previous groups of quacks have done in their entire lifetimes.

It was because of this experience, attempting to treat a little-known and routinely misunderstood disease/syndrome in a universe seemingly dominated by quackery and fraudsters, that I stumbled across an announcement on a website and podcast that I know and trust:

…the antivaccine movement is more powerful than ever, having reached a level of mainstream influence that we at SBM would never have thought possible, even in 2019. Indeed, after the unexpected passing of Dr. Hall last week, antivaxxers swarmed on her social media, blaming her death on COVID-19 vaccines, as they have for so many over the last two years. That’s why we at SBM are happy to be holding a virtual screening of a new documentary on vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, and the antivaccine movement, Virulent: The Vaccine War.

I signed up to watch the movie almost as soon as I heard of its existence and the screening they were offering. If you too plan on watching it I wouldn’t bother watching the trailer:

I wouldn’t bother watching the trailer because it is essentially just the first five minutes of the movie, slightly edited. If you are even tempted to watch the movie, just ante-up and watch it. Don’t feel like you have to attend the panel next Sunday (7 PM, January 29, 2023) although I do intend to sit in and watch the Q&A myself. This is personal for me.

The movie could have been more hard-hitting, as far as I’m concerned. They could have gone into the fact that there is a fund for those people demonstrably harmed by vaccines, a fact that counters most of the arguments raised by those who cry foul because they believe they or a loved one was harmed. They could have taken apart the lies put forth by the leaders of the antivax movement in a point by point fashion (this is how I would have approached creating a documentary myself) what they did do works and probably will be persuasive to a large group of the population. The problem with this movie is the same problem that exists for vaccination itself. The people who need to watch the movie and take the lessons to heart will not bother to watch it, just as they will not bother to get vaccinated.

My version of Meniere’s disease is probably autoimmune related. My immune system was compromised when I was born and it has never recovered from whatever that initial shock was that has left me borderline asthmatic and seemingly allergic to everything I’m exposed to in the environment. I catch almost every communicable disease that I comes my way. I have never stopped wearing the N95 masks that COVID-19 made ubiquitous because I feel better when I wear one, even indoors.

…and still, I get all my vaccinations even though every single one of them makes me ill when I get them. I get them because the vaccination is easier to deal with than the actual infection is, and the vaccination is less likely to kill me than the pathogen I’m hopefully being immunized against. I get my shots because I care about the people around me. I get my shots because I care about maintaining my own health.

I should have stopped while I was ahead. I had a concession. She had said “I’ll get my flu shot and my kids a flu shot soon.” But I had already replied to her friend by the time she said this. Had already uttered the forbidden word mandatory in that next comment. So out the window went the concession. Out the window went common sense and decency. I was one of them. A state-ist. Someone willing to use force to ensure that the public good was observed.

This argument was about the flu vaccine. It wasn’t the first argument I’ve gotten into concerning health and safety, and it certainly won’t be the last. But this one was about the vaccine and the swelling influenza outbreak all across the US that year. Her friend had piped up that he wasn’t going to get a flu vaccination. Had never had one, had no intention of ever having one. The thread asked the question Anyone had a flu shot and still got the flu? This should have been my first clue about who I was dealing with. You can’t catch the flu from the flu vaccine. It simply can’t happen.

No immunization is 100% effective, and flu shots are less effective than immunizations for many other diseases, like measles. By one estimate, 33 to 100 healthy adults have to be vaccinated to prevent one case of influenza symptoms. But that one case might be you. It’s like insurance. How many houses have to be insured against fire for one house to burn and get a payout? Does anyone say, “I don’t need insurance because I’ve never had a fire”?

Immunization is a public health issue. Immunization protects the immuno-compromised from diseases that might kill them by providing a herd immunity shield around them, as well as protecting the individual from disease. So it isn’t just for you that you get a shot. You get it for any babies you might come in contact with, or any elderly that you might encounter. You don’t want to pass diseases to them and cause their deaths by accident. That is why you get your shots. Now, I’m a bit more militant on this subject than the average speaker. I come down hard on the side of the necessity of vaccination, even flu vaccination. I am one of those people who will likely die from catching some disease or other from someone who didn’t get their shots like they were supposed to. There is no demonstrable harm in getting the vaccination regularly. Vaccinations do n0t increase toxins. A flu vaccination can’t give you the flu. Antivaxxers pursue a demonstrably false narrative when they lay blame on vaccination for the many ills that plague modern man. There is no good reason out there to not get your vaccinations regularly other than out-of-pocket expense.

Are there people who become sick right after having gotten the flu shot? Of course, and it’s an illness they had likely caught before the shot and it took a few days for symptoms to appear, or it’s just coincidence (and it may or may not be the flu). The flu shot takes two weeks to confer protection, and it takes 2-5 days to incubate a flu virus. A person who does come down with the flu within a week of getting the shot was already infected when they got the vaccine.

Public health is where libertarian ideals, where the ideas of individualism, fall apart; and they fall apart because there is no way to address the needs of large groups of people if you don’t allow that the needs of the many can outweigh the whims of the individual. This is an error in US public health, this illusion of choosing whether you will abide by good public health practices. If a reliable universal influenza vaccine is discovered, I would push to have it put on the list of mandatory vaccinations given to children and adults, because no one should be able to chose to let someone else die from preventable disease.

This internet friend tried to insist that no vaccinations are mandatory! So how dare I try to force her to get one? However, vaccinations are mandatory in many places in the world, including most US states (the sensible states) some states have recently allowed religious exemptions that open the barn door to all kinds of kooky ideas that end up destroying the purpose of public health. California mercifully has reversed course and removed the non-medical vaccination exemption from the laws in their state. I wish more states would follow that example.

If you looked online for mandatory vaccinations back in 2018 when I had this argument I’m relating here, you would have seen that the woo was strong with Natural News and other purveyors of the antivax hysteria. Google ranked their sites as being worthy of quoting on the first page of results, as if those sites were an authority on the subject of public health. In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant pandemic of misinformation lead by the then-sitting President, Dr. Google has started to wrest back control of what gets spread as truth on the internet. I wonder if their discovery that they were destroying confidence in public health has happened soon enough, or is it already too late?

The argument with my online friend went rapidly downhill from the point of disagreement about mandatory vaccinations and she blocked me and went her separate way shortly after that revelation. Letting her children and herself be plague spreaders, no different than the zombies they resemble in behavior if not in appearance. Libertarian zombies roaming free across the land, spreading plague wherever they go.

If we don’t want to be forced to vaccinate, then the public health systems have to be crafted in such a way that rewards accrue towards acting in a positive public health fashion. The US currently has the world’s best cancer outcomes. No one treats cancer better than the US does because there is a lot of money to be made treating it, and desperate people with money who also have cancer will pay all of that money to be cured of their cancer. Anyone with money will spend all they have to enjoy one more day of life. We just don’t bother preventing cancer, or engaging in most other preventive strategies.

Like what you ask? How about bonuses for getting your vaccinations? Rewards for used rubbers turned in at a pharmacy as proof of safe sexual practice? OK, that’s a little gross, but how about not punishing women for taking precautions before engaging in sexual behavior? Birth control pills, morning after pills, all free and available for the asking. If the system was set up to reward good behavior, you would be paid to go to your annual physical. Paid a bonus for getting a cancer screening. Paid to get your vaccinations regularly.

The list of things we don’t do to encourage good health is dwarfed only by the things that produce bad health outcomes that are rewarded in the current system. Poor people economize on health because it costs money they don’t have. They don’t get regular checkups. They don’t get vaccinations. They go to work sick because they can’t afford to stay home. They eat cheap food which also happens to be bad for them because economics dictates what food is cheapest, and sugars (all carbohydrates) are cheap and plentiful while protein is harder to find and more expensive to buy. Bad health gets more expensive the longer it is left untreated, and in the end society picks up the cost because we don’t want to see people dying penniless on the streets. We pay more for healthcare now because we designed the system to perform this way.

That is the movie I’d like to see made, one that details how we could improve on the ductape and bailing wire assemblage that barely manages to maintain public health in the United States. The vaccine war is being fought today precisely because of the failings of our current healthcare system and our unwillingness to prosecute fraudsters like Andrew Wakefield, Robert Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree, Bob Sears and so, so many others. We have to come to grips with the fact that fraud is a crime and that lying about known facts for the purposes of profit is fraud and should be prosecuted as such. If destroying the organized antivax movement doesn’t prove enough to see 90% uptake on life-saving vaccinations, then we can talk about moderating parental control in such a way that we can ensure that children grow up as healthy as we can reasonably be expected to guarantee.

Whether a free society can exist or not is going to be dictated by individuals being motivated to do the right thing without being compelled to do so. If you really cherish your freedom, you had better be sure that you are operating based on the best information available and not just the information that makes you feel better. Information that panders to your innate fears.

There is a price for knowledge. When we say that a vaccine is effective, there is a price for that. There is probably no better example of that than the Polio story. When Jonas Salk made his Polio vaccine there was going to be a big so-called phase three trial. 420,000 children were going to get his vaccine, 200, 000 children were going to get placebo. So the trial was completed and it was found to be remarkably safe and effective; and then Thomas Frances stood up on the podium and said three words: safe, potent and effective.

He knew it was effective because sixteen children died from Polio, all in the placebo group. He knew it was effective because thirty-six children were permanently paralyzed in the placebo group. That broke Jonas Salk’s heart. He couldn’t conscience giving 200,000 children salt water in the midst of what he knew was a yearly Polio epidemic. So it’s those gentle heroes we left behind who were never acknowledged because we were so busy celebrating that vaccine that we forgot exactly how we knew it was effective.

Paul A. Offit – Virulent: The Vaccine Wars

Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

Attacks on arguments offered are appreciated and awaited. Attacks on the author will be deleted.

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