Antivaccine nonsense Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Religion

The “Satanic sorcery” of vaccines?

On occasion, I’ve thought of inaugurating awards for the looniest quackery, alternative medicine, or antivaccination craziness of the year. I was thinking of calling them the Woo Awards, but I’ve never actually gotten off my lazy posterior to do the work it would take to set up some sort of voting system, and I’m not so sure that a list picked out only by me wouldn’t just end up reflecting my personal idiosyncrasies. Be that as it may, with the end of the year fast approaching, if I were going to do it now would be the time to start looking for nominations.

If I were going to give a prize for the looniest antivaccination screed of the year, though, I’ve found a really strong contender. Not only does it regurgitate pretty much every lie there is about vaccinations, but it combines this misinformation with a religious angle so ludicrous that I’m not sure if I want to laugh or cry. I laugh at it because this guy who wrote it (Greg Ciola) is such an raving twit. I cry because of it because he may persuade credulous parents not to vaccinate their children, thus endangering these children and others with whom they come into contact. In any case, the title of his screed (DANGER LURKING IN FLU SHOTS!) tells you all you need to know about it.

I haven’t used the phrase in a while, but if ever there were a rant for which it is appropriate, Ciola’s rant is it: The stupid, it really does burn.

If you want to get a flavor of the rampant ignorance and stupidity inherent in Ciola’s fevered prose, you don’t have to wait long. It’s there, right in the beginning:

It wasn’t until I went to my local grocery store (name withheld) recently that I realized how low pharmaceutical companies would stoop to propagandize the public with lies. While I was at the checkout counter a young woman bagging my groceries looked at me, smiled, and said: “Have you had the flu shot yet.” I was stunned.

I looked at her and asked: “Is your store management instructing you to ask everyone this?” She said ‘no’ but employees were encouraged to ask customers if they were interested in receiving the shot. I looked at this young woman with pity in my eyes and said: “There’s no way I would put that poison into my body.”

With curiosity about why someone would make such a bold statement, we engaged in conversation and I spent the next ten minutes giving her an earful. I asked her if she had any information on the shot and she graciously went over to the front desk to get a flyer outlining the reasons for getting the shot along with the store locations and times I could get it.

In big bold letters across the top of the flyer were the words: “TAKE YOUR SHOT!” In addition to the flu shot, they were also promoting pneumonia shots and tetanus/diphtheria shots. It was then and there that I realized I had to speak out against this insanity. According to the flyer, the flu is now a “DISEASE”. Can you imagine this? A disease implies something that needs medical intervention. I guess a cold, cough, headache, upset stomach or diarrhea could all be classified as diseases too.

Ciola really should learn the difference between symptoms and diseases. I’d be happy to explain it to him, and I’m sure that pretty much any of my readers could help him out here, too.

In any case, in just four short paragraphs, Ciola manages to combine conspiracy-mongering with a spectacular degree of medical ignorance that is truly breathtaking. He seems to think that the flu is a benign thing. Depending upon the strain and the health of the person getting the flu, it usually is a self-limited disease. However, Ciola has apparently never heard of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Contrary to his claims in another mind-numbingly ignorant article, it is not just immunosuppressed people who are at risk from influenza. Indeed, in the U.S., the pandemic got its start in the military barracks at Fort Riley, Kansas among healthy young Army recruits.

Today, the World Health Organization estimates that worldwide influenza causes between 3 to 5 million cases of severe disease and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths every year. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control estimates that influenza produced an average annual death toll of 36,000 between 1990 and 1999. It is true that the vast majority of such mortalities are among the elderly, which is why most recommendations encourage people over 50 to be vaccinated and are less concerned with adults under 50, but Ciola doesn’t seem to think that the elderly deserve protection from this scourge.

Ciola’s only warming up, though. The next section has to be read in its entirety to be believed, although I will provide a sample of his insanity:

Did you know that the flu shot could contain anything from aluminum, formaldehyde, dangerous microorganisms, thimerosal (mercury), ethylene glycol, and other toxic adjuvants? In addition to these substances, the flu vaccine is prepared from the fluids of chicken embryos inoculated with the specific type (s) of influenza virus that supposedly protects against the strains federal health officials believe are most likely to be prevalent during the flu season. The effectiveness in preventing influenza often ranges from 30-40%. Not very encouraging considering the potential health dangers you may be opening yourself up to down the road from the toxic agents in the vaccine.

Oooh, scary! Ciola’s also being very selective in discounting the efficacy of the flu vaccine. Among healthy adults, the efficacy of the flu vaccine for preventing influenza is 70-90% among healthy younger adults. This is probably the sort of passage from which he’s cherry picking his estimate:

The immune competence of the person being vaccinated can also affect vaccine effectiveness. For example, the vaccine may be only 30%-40% effective against influenza-related respiratory illness among nursing home residents. However, even in this group of frail elderly, the vaccine still provides substantial protection against more severe outcomes, such as influenza-related hospitalization (effectiveness of 50-60%) and deaths (80%).

In other words, even if in bad years the vaccine is only 30-40% effective in preventing the flu in high risk populations, it is nonetheless quite effective in decreasing the severity of the flu and in preventing severe complications. But what’s really hysterically funny is the way the Ciola tries to crank up the fear-mongering to a ridiculous level:

How is the human body supposed to build immunity by being exposed to neurotoxic poisons like mercury, formaldehyde, and DNA from animals? Mercury is the second most toxic material on the planet. The first is radioactive plutonium. To make thimerosal, they start with elemental mercury. Then, they hop it up 1,000 times by converting it to ethyl mercury. Then, they add aluminum to the vaccine that has a synergistic effect with the mercury, causing it to be 10,000 more toxic than elemental mercury. Mercury is used to sterilize the flu vaccine.

No, thimerosal is used as a preservative that prevents multidose vials from becoming contaminated with bacteria. It is not used to “sterilize” the vaccine. I particularly like the whole “second most toxic material on the planet” bit. This is a familiar refrain among antivaxers that reveals a profound ignorance of toxicology. Ask any toxicologist: The Botulinum toxin “wipes the floor” with mercury and is quite possibly the most acutely toxic substance known. Somewhat over a hundred grams of it could kill every human on earth. Yet, many are the vain Hollywood stars who pay big bucks to celebrity plastic surgeons to have this incredibly toxic substance injected into their faces in order to smooth wrinkles. Repeat after me: The dose makes the poison. Ciola, like most antivaxers, doesn’t seem to understand that. He also neglects to note that when mercury is in the form of thimerosal it is rapidly excreted.

There are so many “gems” of antivaccination paranoia in Ciola’s article that I have to restrain myself not to cite them all. Indeed, his article is perhaps the most highly concentrated and distilled collection of antivaccination canards that I’ve seen in a long time. (Addressing any canards that I failed to address is left as an exercise for you, my readers.). Perhaps my favorite bit from this article is a truly funny bit of confusing correlation with causation:

It’s rather ironic that what the flu shot is supposed to prevent actually seems to have an opposite effect. In recent years, flu season seems to be programmed into society. When October rolls around, all of the sudden there’s a massive outbreak of the cold and flu. Is it just coincidence that this happens to coincide with the exact time that millions of people receive the flu shot? Health officials would like us to believe that this is why we should all be vaccinated.

Sure, it’s an amazing coincidence–to an apparently brain-dead ideologue like Ciola. The reason that flu shots are given in the fall is because fall and winter are when the usual seasonal spikes in the incidence of the flu start to occur. Again, repeat after me: Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. (Especially in this case.) And, then, of course, Ciola totally confuses the live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) with the inactivated influenza vaccine (TIV):

Another deception perpetuated by the vaccine cartel is that the flu shot contains inactive or dead viruses. If these viruses were completely inactive, then the shot would never stimulate an immune response. The flu shot contains ‘attenuated’ virus.


The evidence suggests that those that receive the flu shot could be contagious for weeks and spread germs to the general public. Not only does the shot manipulate the immune system, it contains foreign microorganisms that can easily replicate in the body. It is ridiculous for the CDC to say that none of these germs are contagious. There are many well-respected health experts who believe that the number of people coming down with the flu would be drastically reduced if flu shots weren’t administered. One of the best ways to avoid the flu is to stay away from people who have it. This includes staying away from those who have recently received a flu shot.

Actually, the flu shot does not contain attenuated virus (LAIV). Shots contain killed virus (TIV). LAIV is given by intranasal spray. Because it’s an attenuated live virus, it needs to infect the cells that the flu virus would normally infect and are best at infecting, and those cells are the cells lining the nasal passage, not the muscle cells the virus would encounter in an intramuscular injection. Also, the LAIV doesn’t contain thimerosal for the same reason that the MMR vaccine doesn’t contain thimerosal: Thimerosal can inactivate live virus.

Actually, though, Ciola can’t resist throwing in a canard almost as hilarious as his “correlation equals causation” canard:

The flu shot does not protect against all throat, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and ear infections. It does not protect you against SARS or the much hyped Bird Flu. The flu shot only gives temporary immunity at best. What we’re not told, however, is that the flu shot actually weakens the immune system in the long run. Nobody knows for sure what negative effects the mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde or other adjuvants will have on the immune system. Some of these agents are known to interfere with your DNA. How do we know that the DNA won’t miscode genetic information to the cells?

Holy straw man, Batman! No one ever claimed that the flu vaccine protects against “all throat, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and ear infections,” SARS, or bird flu. The claim is that it can safely prevent the influenza strains of the year and decrease the complications of getting the flu when it can’t prevent getting the flu altogether. As for the supposedly negative effects of all the minor constituents of vaccines, which, other than thimerosal and aluminum, are present only in trace amounts in vaccines, Ciola’s again off base. Once again, the dose makes the poison, and none of these other substances are present in vaccines at a high enough concentration to be of concern.

Whenever I see a dose of ignorance and idiocy this concentrated, I always wonder where it could have come from. In this case, Ciola makes the source of his antivaccination rant quite clear:

The Bible tells us in Leviticus 17:11-12 that: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood… No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.”

God has made it very clear throughout the scriptures that blood is sacred. When you understand the importance of health and nutrition and how critical your blood is in this process, it’s easy to see why the flu shot, and all vaccines for that matter, violate Biblical law and all the laws of health. Your bloodstream is either a river of life to all the cells in your body or a river of disease and death. You can’t inject foreign viruses, bacteria, blood contaminants, DNA disrupters, neurotoxins, and preservatives into your body and somehow think you’re going to get health.

You know you’re dealing with a serious religious nut when he starts quoting Leviticus to justify antivaccination beliefs. It seems to be a real stretch to interpret the complete passage as forbidding vaccines, by the way. Here’s what it says:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.”

I can sort of see how Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret that passage to mean that blood transfusions are forbidden. All you have to do is to expand the meaning of “eat” to mean taking the blood of another creature into yourself by whatever means. I think it’s a huge overreach, but I can see how they came up with that interpretation. However, how fundamentalists twist that same passage to mean that vaccines are forbidden, I’ll never figure out. In any case, there’s nothing that I trust more than a fundamentalist interpretation of religious texts written thousands of years ago, long before even the most basic understanding of the science behind infectious disease existed. I’m sure God was referring to vaccines in that passage. Never mind that vaccines were at least three millennia away from being developed, and that all it requires to accept an antivaccination interpretation of Leviticus is to equate the injection of antigens to provoke an immune response as being equivalent to “eating” blood. Particularly risible is how Ciola calls vaccination “Satanic sorcery,” appealing to, of all things, etymology:

Most people are unaware that the word “pharmaceutical” is derived from the Greek word “pharmakeia,” which means magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. The symbols of the pharmaceutical companies are extremely meaningful. For example, the winged staff with a serpent wrapped around a pole is the ancient magic wand of the pagan god Hermès. In an attempt to prevent people from linking with our Creator, pharmaceutical companies use their drugs, vaccines, spells and potions to contaminate the blood of an unsuspecting public.

The biggest disappointment comes from Christian leaders who should know these truths and proclaim them loudly from the pulpit. Instead, many churches throughout North America are actually promoting the flu shot to their congregation. In some instances, churches are even being used as outlets to administer the shot. How sad to see the body of Christ being deceived by Satan’s sorcery.

How dare Christian churches administer a potentially life-saving vaccine to their congregations? Don’t they know that maintaining the purity of blood is more important than protecting believers against disease? All this talk of “blood contamination” reminds me of Doctor Strangelove, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, in which General Jack T. Ripper constantly expresses fear over contamination of the purity of his “precious bodily fluids” due to ” to “Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy.” According to Ciola, Christians should rely on woo like homeopathy, garlic, oxygen supplements, essential oils, royal jelly, and vitamin C to “boost the immune system” instead–and prayer, of course:

It’s better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. God did not make a mistake when he created us. The human body is equipped with one of the natural wonders of nature: An Immune System. If you are concerned about the plagues and epidemics coming upon the world, read Psalm 91. If we are to stand steadfast until the end, it is with the LORD on our side. Don’t become a victim of the fear and panic spread by the Pharma cartel and media. Our hope is in the King of Heaven and Earth who promised us deliverance. Remember this next time someone tries to con you into getting a flu shot.

So let’s see. What does Ciola say when his family and friends become ill with infectious diseases? Does it mean that their faith wasn’t strong enough, that they didn’t believe in God enough? As for me, when faced with vaccine-preventable diseases, I’ll take modern science over Psalm 91 any day. There’s a saying among less rabid believers that “God helps those who help themselves.” If God exists, how does Ciola know that vaccines aren’t just His way of fulfilling part of the promise of Psalm 91?

He doesn’t.

The saddest thing about reading Ciola’s wingnuttery is that there are quite a few people out there who agree with him. The influenza vaccine may be a long way from perfect due to the difficulties in predicting which flu strains will predominate from year to year, a guessing game that means that the efficacy of the vaccine can vary from year to year, but it’s the best protection against the flu out there. It may be true that it is sometimes oversold and that not everyone needs it, even though certainly it’s a good idea for young children, those over 50, and anyone who routinely comes in contact with people at risk for the flu (healthcare workers like me, for instance). Moreover, arguably vaccines for other, more lethal diseases save more lives every year than any other medical intervention ever devised by the human mind. Personally, I wonder how a self-proclaimed Christian like Ciola and other fundamentalist Christian antivaxers who claim to value the truth can with a clear conscience go around parroting the grossest misinformation and even outright lies about vaccines, misinformation that will lead to illness and death in a significant proportion of people who are foolish enough to listen to it.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a good editorial in the New York Times about the flu vaccine. Well worth reading. Also, for more information, here’s an article that shows that it’s not just fundamentalist Christians who twist Scripture to claim that it forbids vaccination and the consequences that can result from such irresponsibility.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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