Roger Guffey: Bogus study, science illiteracy fuel dangerous fear of vaccines

April 24, 2014 

By Roger Guffey

One of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain succinctly summarizes the gullibility of the masses extremely well: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."

Some lies are innocuous, but others can have far-reaching and dangerous consequences. The recent outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella and other extremely contagious diseases are excellent examples of the latter.

Far too many people are refusing to vaccinate their children against these diseases based on a discredited British study that drew a conclusion from data that had been manipulated by the researcher.

In 1998, a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published an article in the medical journal The Lancet that purported to find a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and the incidence of autism. The first red flag was that he examined only 12 autistic children. He subjected these children to some invasive and painful colonoscopies and claimed to have found evidence of a new gastroenteritis syndrome.

After the paper was published, an independent researcher discovered that Wakefield had a clear conflict of interest: He had received 55,000 pounds ($90,750) from solicitors seeking to find evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Further investigation found that he had accepted about $719,000 in undisclosed payments from the same group. He had also planned to market a self-diagnostic test that would generate millions of dollars.

Subsequent studies of metadata by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatricians, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Science, the UK National Health Service and the Cochrane Library found no evidence of any such link. They concluded that the heavy mortality and morbidity rates warranted continued use of the vaccines.

The Lancet published a partial retraction in 2004 and a full retraction in 2010. The British medical establishment stripped Wakefield of his license and charged him with four counts of professional dishonesty and 12 counts of abuse of developmentally challenged children. In 2011, a medical journal identified this fiasco as the most damaging medical hoax in the last 100 years.

But the damage had already been done.

In Britain, the vaccination rate fell from 92 percent to 84 percent overall and as low as 61 percent in parts of London. The vaccination rate has also dropped significantly in the United States. Serious outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella occurred as a consequence.

A basic misunderstanding of science and medicine feeds the anti-vaccine movement. Very rarely, children who have been vaccinated contract the disease anyway. This is particularly true for the mumps vaccines. No medicine or vaccines can have 100 percent effectiveness for the simple reason that people are different genetically, so some may not produce the antibodies needed to protect against the disease. Likewise, some may have side effects that do not occur in the overall population.

The frequency of life-threatening side effects for the vaccines for MMR, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), and the Haemophilus influenza viruses is extremely low, but the mortality and morbidity rates of the diseases themselves are much higher.

Unvaccinated children may in fact be carriers and pass the disease to others even though they may not show the symptoms. In a world where millions of children are exposed to contagion in child care and kindergarten facilities, the risk of serious illness rises dramatically.

Anyone who doubts the efficacy of immunization need only to remember that one of the deadliest diseases that afflicts the human race, smallpox, was declared extinct with the last known naturally occurring case recorded in 1977. Consequently, people are no longer vaccinated against the disease.

The cause of this irrational fear of vaccination is the same scientific illiteracy that does not believe in evolution, global climate change and stem-cell research. People tend to misuse statistics by finding a rare case and assuming it applies to the majority.

Even worse, truly ignorant people will listen to the medical opinions of celebrities who have absolutely no medical or scientific training.

The question that parents need to ask is, "Am I willing to risk the death of or serious damage to my children based on a lie perpetuated by people who are medically unqualified to draw valid scientific conclusions based on decades of accepted data and evidence?"

It is high time the truth catches up to this dangerous lie that claims that lifesaving vaccines are harming our children.

Roger Guffey of Lexington is a retired teacher.

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