09 Nov

Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric Makes Me Want to Smash Things

Every time I see another argument against the apparent evil that is vaccines, I feel the urge to smash faces or throw heavy things around. Vaccines are widely recognized as being a good thing. But you don’t have to take my word for it, I’ll be referencing peer reviewed research in this post. Everything I have cited here is available for the public to read—nothing is behind a paywall. If you think I have misrepresented a statistic or study, feel free to politely let me know.

This week, I saw this blog post [edit: literally a minute after I posted this, that blog link stopped working. I'm not sure if it will come back up later or not.] from a site called feelguide.com making the rounds. The post claims that the lead developer for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Dr. Diane Harper, regrets her involvement with the vaccine. The author of the posts states:

“Dr. Harper made her surprising confession at the 4th International Converence on Vaccination which took place in Reston, Virginia. Her speech, which was originally intended to promote the benefits of the vaccines, took a 180-degree turn when she chose instead to clean her conscience about the deadly vaccines so she ‘could sleep at night.’”

A deadly vaccine? That sounds pretty alarmist to me. I won’t quote all of the source of this claim at length, but it can be distilled into the allegation that the risk for cervical cancer (which HPV can cause, along with a few other varieties of cancer) is already low, the HPV vaccine is not going to significantly lower the incidence rate of HPV, and that over 15,000 girls have “reported adverse side effects from Garsasil” (Gardisil is one brand of the vaccine).

I would like to take these claims one at a time.

Claim one: The risk for cervical cancer is already extremely low.

My first comment on this issue is that regardless of how infrequent a form of cancer surfaces, it is still a disease that kills people. Why would the scientific community not want to inoculate people against it if they could? Should we rank cancers by order of importance and research only the most prevalent?

Here are some actual statistics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reports that in 2010, 11, 818 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,939 women died from it. To put that in perspective, the population of the United States is about 317 million. That comes out to about one in 250 people being diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. No, that does not sound like a lot, but it is statistically significant. One in 250 means that, on average, someone you know will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in any given year.

Claim two: The HPV vaccine is not going to lower the prevalence of HPV.

First of all, I think it is important to understand how prevalent HPV is. Human papillomavirus is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the United States according to the CDC. To return to my flippant comment about ranking the most important cancer to research, HPV is actually the biggest STI! And there is a vaccine for it! Why would we not want that? Okay, I know, the claim is that the vaccine is not helping. Fortunately, there has been research done on this.

A study published this year in the Journal of Infectious Disease found that for females aged 14 to 19, the prevalence of HPV dropped from 11.5 percent to 5.1 percent. That means that the rate of HPV was halved! If cutting the prevalence of HPV in half is not statistically significant, I have no idea what would be. Half is huge. Researchers everywhere would make burnt offerings to the gods to get results like this.

Claim three: Thousands of girls have reported adverse side-effects from Gardasil.

This one is tricky to address because to know if thousands is a significant proportion of the girls and women being vaccinated, we have to know how many people were vaccinated in total. Additionally, we do not know what kind of side-effects they allegedly experienced. There is a serious order of magnitude difference between having a vaccine make you feel kind of funky for a few days and a vaccine sending you to the hospital.

I am going to have to go ahead and say that I do not know where this claim originated and that I do not know how to refute it at this time. However, I will say that several studies have found the HPV vaccine to be safe and effective. A study from earlier this year states that “safety monitoring data continue to indicate that HPV4 is safe.”

I have one other comment I would like to add about side-effects. Many people who experience side effects from vaccines are statistical outliers. A lot of the most powerful stories from the anti-vaccine camp are from people who personally experienced problems, but it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people who get vaccinated are totally fine. For example, I got the HPV vaccine and had no problems. I didn’t go on to tell people I had no issues because it is a non-story. No problems is what you expect. I also think that having a particular negative reaction to a vaccine means you have to be anti-vaccines. My boyfriend is seriously allergic to penicillin, but he still thinks vaccines that use penicillin are a good plan for other people.

The Origin of the Comments by Dr. Harper

After reading up on some statistics, I wanted to know where these comments from Dr. Harper originated. Like I said, the blog post that ran the story only linked another blog post, which also did not have any proper citations. It seems odd to me that a scientist who works in immunology would turn around and say that the use of the vaccine was keeping her up at night.

It turns out that this story has been making the rounds on the internet for a few years now. The nature of Dr. Harper’s comments seem to be a misquote, at best. ScienceBlogs has an extremely thorough debunking of the issue. If you are interested, it is probably best to read the whole thing, but I will try to faithfully represent the gist of it.

First, the author speaks to the venue where the remarks were made: “What’s not mentioned is that this particular article is that the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination was a conference held by one of the oldest and most established antivaccine groups, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). That’s the group founded by Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, the woman who was antivaccine before it was fashionable to be antivaccine.”

Second, this story started in 2009. It’s 2013 and for unfathomable reasons, it is still going strong.

Third, the author explains that Dr. Harper was “selectively quoted” by a reporter with a known anti-vaccine bias. He also goes on to explain that some of Dr. Harper’s other speculative statements were combined with the primary quotation to create an alarmist tone.

What have we learned?

If you think vaccines are dumb and that science is a bunch of bullshit, then this post probably didn’t change your mind, but hopefully it at least made you think. If you made it this far, I am willing to admit to you that this was primarily written as a cathartic activity; seeing anti-vaccination posts just makes me so mad. There are safe, effective vaccines out there for so many diseases. It is irresponsible to spread misinformation about them. Anti-vaccination rhetoric is actively harmful.

One more quotation on this issue before I let it be. This one is also from the CDC:

“This report shows that HPV vaccine works well, and the report should be a wake-up call to our nation to protect the next generation by increasing HPV vaccination rates,”said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Unfortunately only one third of girls aged 13-17 have been fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine. Countries such as Rwanda have vaccinated more than 80 percent of their teen girls. Our low vaccination rates represent 50,000 preventable tragedies – 50,000 girls alive today will develop cervical cancer over their lifetime that would have been prevented if we reach 80 percent vaccination rates. For every year we delay in doing so, another 4,400 girls will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes.”

50,000 preventable tragedies because of this foolishness. And Rawanda is trouncing us in vaccination coverage. Need I say more? GET VACCINATED!