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Antivaccinationists on the measles outbreak: The stupid, it burns thermonuclear

Regarding the recent antivaccinationist-fueled outbreak of measles reported yesterday, quoth J. B. Handley, founder of Generation Rescue, now arguably the most prominent antivaccine activist group in the U.S., given that its coffers are filled with money from celebrity and pro wrestling fundraisers:

Autism and antivaccines advocates are unapologetic about the return of measles.

“Most parents I know will take measles over autism,” said J. B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, a parent-led organization that contends that autism is a treatable condition caused by vaccines.

Except that vaccines don’t cause autism.

There is no credible scientific evidence that they do, and the evidence failing to find even a wisp of a link is quite strong. So our old “friend” J.B. is spouting a false dichotomy here. It’s not “measles versus autism.”Rather, it’s measles versus no measles, and J.B. Handley, his new celebrity representative Jenny McCarthy, her enabler Dr. Jay Gordon, and all the other “I’m not antivaccine” antivaccinationists have come down on the side of measles. But if you really want to see a hunk o’ hunk o’ burnin’ stupid, check out this comment by Kim Stagliano on that loony antiscientific conspiracy-mongering blog repository of all things antivaccine, Age of Autism:

The Yahoo story points out that 15 American children were hospitalized with Measles. None died. How many children with autism drowned least year? Deadly indeed. The story is different in the third world and even developling nations – where children die in droves from vaccine preventable diseases. But they also deserve to remain FREE OF AUTISM if there is a link. A parent should not have to choose the threat of disease versus the threat of autism.

Talk about a non sequitur! One could ask how many children without autism drowned last year? I don’t know the number for last year, but I do know that in recent years generally 5,000 children a year have been the victims of drowning or near drowning. 15% die, and 20% suffer permanent neurological damage. According to the CDC, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years, and of all children between the ages of one and four who die, 26% die from drowning. Drowning accounts for a huge percentage of total deaths of young children, nonautistic or autistic. One wonders if Kim has figures to suggest that the death rate due to drowning is so much higher among autistic children, and it is irrelevant to the vaccine argument even if it is. It’s nothing more than obfuscation.

Of course, besides the non sequitur the main reason that Kim’s statement is a hunk o’ hunk o’ burnin’ stupid is, once again, because of its false dichotomy of parents being faced with “choosing” between the threat of disease versus the threat of autism. Once again, there is no credible evidence that the MMR is linked to autism. None. The only such “evidence” is Andrew Wakefield’s incompetent, litigation-driven, fraudulent, and unethical research, whose results no one has been able to replicate.

But leave it to Kelli Ann Davis to tell us the true calculus in antivaccinationists’ minds:

How about when the re-emergence of those deadly/disabling infectious diseases effect 1.) 1 out of 150 children and 2.) the *disability* is a life-long event vs a two week hospital stay.

When will *you* realize that having a case of the chickenpox or measles doesn’t even come CLOSE to the struggles that my son will endure for THE REST OF HIS LIFE!!??

The *ONLY* individuals responsible for allowing us to get to the point where a parent must weigh *autism rates* to *infectious disease rates* (benefit/risk costs) are the government and public health officials who’ve turned a blind-eye towards the tens of thousands of parents who’ve been pressing for answers to legitimate vaccine safety questions for years.

Bottom Line: Until decent studies are done and vaccines are cleaned up and rigorously tested for safety, you can expect to see the same trend as you see now — educated parents refusing to play Russian Roulette with their children’s lives.

Once again, this false dichotomy: measles and other vaccine-preventable vaccines versus autism rears its ugly head. Once again, let me emphasize that there is no credible evidence that the MMR, other vaccines, or thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. The stupid also burns in Kelli Ann’s claim that vaccines aren’t rigorously tested for safety. They are. The whole “toxins” thing (or, as Kelli Ann refers to it, the need to “clean up” vaccines) is a fiction in the mind of antivaccine activists. To emphasize once again, the choice is not between measles and autism or other vaccine-preventable diseases and autism. No, the true choice is between controlling potentially deadly infectious diseases and not controlling them. It’s between low to nonexistent levels of these diseases and allowing them to return to pre-vaccine era levels of morbidity and mortality, where measles caused hundreds of deaths a year and thousands of cases of encephalitis. (And that’s just measles.) The best scientific evidence predicts that autism rates will not change regardless of which choice is made, but many, many more children will sicken and die if vaccination rates fall below the level needed for herd immunity. It’s just that simple, and every case of measles that occurs due to children whose parents refuse to vaccinate should be viewed in a large part as the fault of those parents and of Jenny McCarthy and her newfound band of antivaccinationists. As Steve Novella put it:

…if Jenny McCarthy is going to put her own “mommy instinct” before the consensus of scientific opinion, and exploit her dubious celebrity to champion anti-science, then she is going to have to take responsibility for her actions. The way I figure it, so far there are at least 68 measles cases on her tally sheet, and the number is growing.

Personally, I’d add J.B. Handley, Kim Stagliano, David Kirby, Dan Olmsted, Barbara Loe Fisher, and all the other prominent antivaccine activists, plus their enablers, such as Dr. Jay Gordon, to that same role of shame along with Jenny McCarthy who, let’s face it, is simply their most recent and famous mouthpiece.

If you want to see a statement that takes the cake for burning stupidity, though, check this one out by someone named Lisa. It’s so unhinged, so out of touch with reality, so full of paranoia and conspiracy mongering that I reproduce it in its entirety:

Okay, I am getting SO tired of seeing this same stupid discussion played out over and over again. It’s always measles vs. autism. Other dreaded diseases vs. autism. Vaccination vs. dreaded diseases.

How about this for a choice? No vaccination, no autism, and no dreaded diseases.

But wait. How can this be possible? Isn’t it always a lose-lose choice between vaccinating and preventing disease and not vaccinating and causing disease to spread?

No, there is always more than one solution to a problem. Anybody who tries to tell you different is selling something.

Measles does not materialize from thin air. It is not transmitted via birds, chickens or mosquitoes. It is spread from human to human. Where does it come from? For quite some time (maybe 20 years now), it has been coming primarily from two places: Asia and Africa. Not all of Asia and all of Africa, mind you, but specifically from countries in Asia and Africa where it is still prevalent. And the reason it is prevalent in those countries is not because of a lack of vaccination, but because there is poor sanitation and many malnourished children in those countries with few natural defenses, and they spread the measles like wildfire.

Now, how does measles get from Asia and Africa to Europe and the U.S.? It is spread in only one way: through travelers, primarily by people who go to a country where measles is still prevalent and bring it back with them. So how can this be stopped without requiring that every human being west of the Nile be pumped full of chemicals? The answer is outrageously simple. Just develop an infectious disease screening program for travelers who come from countries where measles (and other infectious diseases) are still prevalent. Yes, it would be inconvenient for those travelers, but it would be far more efficient and cost-effective than having to vaccinate every living person on the planet, year in and year out.

In fact, if you think about it, it’s hard to believe there is not such a screening program in place already. After all, measles is not the only thing spread by travelers. So is TB, which has no vaccine.

If we took this idea a step further, and the West actually sent health workers to Africa and Asia not to try to vaccinate every newborn baby, year after year, but rather to quarantine and provide nursing services to communities where there is an outbreak, we could eradicate not just measles but many other infectious diseases in fewer than 10 years.

Revolutionary? Yes. Cost-effective? Yes. Safe? Yes. Profitable for the pharmaceutical industry? No. Therein lies the problem.

It’s the classic “sanitation versus vaccines” argument, which in the case of measles is so easy to refute that it’s laughable. Yes, better sanitation and nutrition are important for helping to slow the spread of disease, but for measles, the drop to only a handful of cases a year coincided only with the introduction of the measles vaccine. Similarly, screening all entrants to this country for many vaccine-preventable diseases is incredibly expensive and impractical, particularly since there are no easy screening tests for many of the diseases against which we vaccinate. The reason we do screen for TB is because, as has been pointed out, TB is not only highly contagious and potentially debilitating and deadly, but there is no vaccine for it. Lisa’s also wrong that all these diseases come only from outside the country. Thanks to pockets where vaccine uptake is low, there are populations where viruses and bacteria causing disease can persist at a low level. Indeed, the recent MMWR Report points out that homeschooled children who were not vaccinated were the nidus for some recent outbreaks of measles. I also can’t help but point out the xenophobia behind her comments. Just as the French proclaimed syphilis to be the “Italian disease” and Italians proclaimed it to be the “French” disease, Lisa in essence proclaims measles to be the “Asian” or “African” disease. To her, apparently, the source of these vaccine-preventable disease can’t possibly be America. It must come from those others in Africa and Asia, and we have to screen them or keep them out.

Or if all else fails, go to their countries and quarantine them.

Lisa’s also living in a fantasy world if she thinks that it’s possible to quarantine every outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases. Does she have any clue just how many resources such a program would require, how many personnel? How does she propose to mobilize such an army of health care workers to go into impoverished areas in Africa and Asia to quarantine and treat every patient in every outbreak in every village? Does she honestly think that governments will permit foreigners to enter their countries in huge numbers for such a purpose? Does she think that people will cooperate with massive quarantines? Even if Lisa were emperor of the world and could instantly make her will absolute law, it wouldn’t work. At best, such tactics only slow the spread of disease; they don’t eliminate the natural reservoirs where the microbes causing the disease reside.

The bottom line is that vaccination is a far more cost-effective and just plain effective means of eradicating disease. It is far more so than what Lisa proposes, so much more so that no rational, scientific cost-benefit analysis could conclude that massive quarantines, which, when you come right down to it, would be very difficult to implement even in dictatorships.

I do have to say one thing, though. As dismayed as I am about this latest news regarding the incipient resurgence of measles in the U.S., it does have one up side. It brings the crazies out of the woodwork, and allows us to expose to the light of day the paranoia, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies that are really at the core of the antivaccine movement–if only we can publicize them.

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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