Breaking Down The Anti-Vax Movement

Steve Salzberg has an excellent summary of the recent debate in Congress about the anti-vaccination hearing. 

I was in my car yesterday listening to C-SPAN (yes, I do that sometimes), when to my stunned surprise I heard Congressman Dan Burton launch into a diatribe on how mercury in vaccines causes autism.  No, this was not a replay of a recording from a decade ago.  The hearing was held just a few days ago by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

He was stunned that Congress completely ignored all the scientific studies that show that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism

I'm stunned, too. People are still talking about this? 

Perhaps I shouldn't be so stunned. Apparently, 29% of the American public still thinks that autism is linked to vaccines. 

I blame Oprah, Huffington Post, and Jenny McCarthy. 

So, who are these 29%? Are they more likely to be liberals or conservatives? 

Chris Mooney finds that this isn't a left-wing conspiracy theory. People on the left and the right are equally deranged.

These results basically suggest that there’s little or no political divide in terms of who falls for Jenny McCarthy’s misinformation. Notably, liberals were somewhat more aware of her claims and yet, nevertheless, were least likely to listen to them. But not by a huge margin or anything.

38 thoughts on “Breaking Down The Anti-Vax Movement

  1. I was just looking at the list of states with above average whooping cough numbers.
    Interestingly, the most afflicted states were generally pretty white bread, Northern and prosperous. It’s a very odd inversion of what one would expect with regard to vaccine coverage. Relatively speaking, the Southern tier states are much less affected by the whooping cough outbreak. (Although, maybe climate factors in?) Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington are the very worst for pertussis, which is weird on so many different levels. (The numbers themselves vary A LOT from state, so this isn’t just some sort of statistical artifact–Wisconsin has over 8 times the incidence of pertussis that Missouri does.)

  2. Out here on the west coast of Canada in Vancouver there are a LOT of people who fervently believe this to be true. Educated, professionals – mainstream folk. And they trot out the friend who apparently CURED their child of autism through diet alone.
    They must be related to the people who thought that my ability to relax would cure my infertility. And how when I DID fall pregnant, it was because we had begun the adoption process.
    Hey, perhaps just relaxing and starting the adoption process can cure autism too?
    I digress…
    Here the belief in foods as medicine, that somehow you can control anything adverse in your life through just the right diet holds strong. I’m not averse (had to get that word in there too) to the influence of diet but it certainly isn’t a magic bullet relieving you of all suffering.

  3. It seems to be mostly Republican congressman in the article. What a disgusting bunch of yahoos! It’s a good reminder of why I despise both political parties and all members of Congress.

  4. Unlike most of the other state level analysis, I don’t think pertussis numbers are an artifact. I think vaccination rates are lower in these “liberalish” states, where the libertarian bent of the laws allows individuals to more easily make decisions that go against the recommendations of the authority. For example, in our neck of the woods, I remember when I first realized that its easier to claim a ideological exemption for vaccines than to fulfill the requirements of proving that your children have had them. To claim the ideology exception (i.e. a religious exception, but it doesn’t have to involve god), you just sign at the bottom of the form claiming that your beliefs prevent you from vaccinating your children. To prove that your kids’ vaccines are up to date, you have to fill in an ugly state form, with little boxes and too many questions (and, no, your doctor’s vaccine records are not sufficient).
    So, I think it’s the same legal bent that favors initiatives and marijuana legalization that results in low vaccine rates in those northern states (and, you have to wonder, if the weather and indoor living have some effect as well).

  5. Regarding liberal/conservative, even if the current crop of congressmen were Republicans I’ve noted that it’s the combination of non-scientific thinking with personal experience (a step removed from immediate family, but sometimes immediate family) that is predictor of anti-vaccine paranoia. So, I’m guessing Dan Burton has a 2nd degree relative with autism. Liberals are just as susceptible when they’re not the liberals support the power of science to explain (i.e. actresses like Jenny McCarthy).

  6. I knew this because I actually got whooping cough last year. I teach skiing part time, and am constantly exposed to very small children with runny noses and coughs, in cold, wet environments.
    My doctor explained that yes, the vaccination rates in the PNW have dropped low enough that we are seeing outbreaks, and that adults are at risk because our pertussis vaccines have long since worn off. We had a pregnant instructor who had to stay away for the rest of the season, because of the danger she was in.

  7. I think part of the solution has to be private organization (like ski schools) starting to require vaccinations. I think there’s a fair number of families who are making a weakly commited decision not to vaccinate (because it’s easier and they aren’t convinced that vaccinations are necessary and worry a bit that they might be bad, like sugar) who may modify their decision making with only mild pressure.

  8. “To claim the ideology exception (i.e. a religious exception, but it doesn’t have to involve god), you just sign at the bottom of the form claiming that your beliefs prevent you from vaccinating your children. To prove that your kids’ vaccines are up to date, you have to fill in an ugly state form, with little boxes and too many questions (and, no, your doctor’s vaccine records are not sufficient).”
    That is so backwards. Why the heck shouldn’t the doctor’s vaccine records be adequate? At our kids’ private school in Texas, all we need to do is hand in a copy of the vaccination records from the doctor’s office. That’s inconvenient enough for me.
    By the way, it occurs to me that there’s probably a big jump required between thinking that vaccines cause autism and skipping the vaccines. If the local law, school policy and parent culture don’t support or enable non-vaccination, parents may not make the jump from a passive belief to an active practice.

  9. At my girl’s school we had to provide a signed by a doctor government form proving that she had been vaccinated. No form, no school. But then we’re communists, right? :-)
    The impact on babies and adults of being exposed to these diseases is not widely understood. I think people believe that because they are childhood-type diseases that they aren’t that serious. They also forget that babies can’t be vaccinated and are exposed through older siblings and friends of siblings as well as adults.
    That magical thinking, though, kills me – you CAN definitely improve your health by eating well, etc. but a homeopath won’t beat genetics.

  10. “That is so backwards. Why the heck shouldn’t the doctor’s vaccine records be adequate?”
    It makes no sense, and, I assume, has something to do with a rigid bureaucracy stuck with forms that someone is extremely attached to.
    I’m practically the biggest supporter of vaccines there is, and my kids are vaccinated, but I briefly considered signing the exemption line to avoid filling out the ridiculous form. I heard it argued that vaccinations may be under-reported in my state because of the form. But, that wouldn’t explain the pertussis outbreaks, since forms don’t cause pertussis.

  11. I’m a pediatrician in the suburbs of Chicago- mostly middle to upper middle class parents, mostly educated. I’d say about 20% of the parents I see have some concerns about vaccine safety- it’s not always autism concerns (although it often is), it’s also “mercury” (vaccines no longer have the thimerisol preservative anyway), “toxins” and just the general “are they really necessary? who gets these diseases anymore?” (not realizing that the reason you don’t see cases of these diseases is because of VACCINES!) We are usually able to convince the parents to vaccinate their kids but it takes a lot of time and teaching.
    Regarding pertussis, the reason that disease is seeing an uptick is that the pertussis vaccine (part of the DTaP) is notoriously bad at generating immunity. About 10% of those who get the vaccine may not get immunity. So you really need near to 100% vaccination rates to prevent all cases or you are going to see outbreaks. Here in Illinois we are not requiring a DTaP before 6th grade and that is cutting back on cases somewhat.

  12. The two families I know (small sample size alert) who are among the anti-vax/29%-ers are married, straight liberals with 3 kids, who all teach public junior high or high school, the mother stayed home once the kids were born, and they practice extended breastfeeding (up to age 4).
    Andrew Sullivan did a great piece on “Vaccine Denial: Left or Right?”:
    It references this post, which helped me to both understand and to have a little more empathy for the psychology of where these folks are coming from, as well as why their own needs lead them to make poor health decisions:

  13. I’ve seen anti-vax people on both sides of the political spectrum, but mostly among liberals. My crunchy Bradley instructor in Park Slope in the late ’90s was anti-vax. I ignored her on that subject.

  14. I suspect crunchiness, rather than political affiliation, is the common denominator.
    Similarly, I’ve been reading Amy Tuteur’s Skeptical OB ever since Laura’s homebirth post, and there are at least two groups of homebirthers: 1) goddess worshiping, placenta-eating feminists who dislike the maleness of medicine and 2) crunchy but traditionally religious people.
    You can find similar cultural practices (extended breastfeeding, cloth diapering, attachment parenting, homebirthing, etc.) among people who have very different politics, and these practices are preached as being an expression of each belief system. (I have to confess that some of my more horrifying moments of the past several months were spent discovering a homebirth thread on a Catholic Answers forum and finding that the participants were quite impervious to suggestions that homebirth was not a good idea. This was after I’d been reading thread after thread of homebirth disaster stories. The women on the thread just couldn’t believe that anything could go wrong, and thought any disagreement was scaremongering. There was also an implicit belief that by looking at evidence of the danger of homebirth, you’d be jinxing your homebirth.)

  15. I recall trying to convince my aunt that AIDS wasn’t created by the US.government. I’m not sure if I succeeded and she’s a nurse. Not exactly the same thing, but possibly the same class of thing.

    Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have developed a prototype blood test for autism, and preliminary results published Wednesday suggest it could one day be used to help diagnose the disorder when children are very young and respond best to treatment.
    The blood test, which measures the activity of a panel of dozens of genes, was able in one group to predict with about 70 percent accuracy whether a child was at risk for autism or not. Outside researchers cautioned that the work has limitations and that the blood test needs much more study before it is clear whether it could be a useful tool for doctors and parents.

  17. I blame the internet too.
    It’s super to be able to punch some keys and immediately get a recipe for candied ginger or cream cheese frosting or how to reheat chicken. Use the first or second recipe you find and you’ll be OK. However, for the layman, the internet is much less reliable for doing health and medical research.
    My last pregnancy was the first pregnancy where I’ve ever used the internet for health research and some of the forums were just mind-blowing. I can’t remember the exact details now, but I remember noting that people were giving really irresponsible advice to complete strangers. Here’s an example:
    Pregnant woman: My doctor says I need to do X [where not doing X has possibly life-threatening complications for her or the baby]
    20 internet strangers: Don’t worry about it! I didn’t do X and I’m just fine.
    Pregnant woman: OK!
    She can sue her doctor if he or she gives harmful advice, but just try to track down internet commentors if it turns out that they were mistaken.

  18. Here’s an argument:
    *VAERS exists to compensate people damaged by vaccines, therefore there is evidence that vaccines (sometimes) do cause injuries.
    *There is no data on the chance of being harmed by a vaccine versus the chance of both catching and being harmed by a vaccine preventable disease.
    I realize it’s easy to make fun of people who don’t think the same way you do, but when people educated just like you are making the opposite choice, it might be worthwhile to wonder if rather than being crazy they might be making a rational decision.

  19. “VAERS exists to compensate people damaged by vaccines, therefore there is evidence that vaccines (sometimes) do cause injuries.”
    I don’t buy this: the fact that Congress has shoveled money at a program is evidence that Congress members thought that doing so would benefit them, not that the program has value. Might, might not. But it’s not evidence.

  20. I agree that vaccines do sometimes cause injuries. However, I think that it’s irrational to think that the risk of being injured, which does exist, outweighs the risk of not being vaccinated. I also think the pertussis outbreaks demonstrate, scientifically, the risks of not being vaccinated (it was the pertussis vaccine that my Bradley instructor really hated).
    It’s like when my dad had a triple bypass. Yes, there was a risk he could have died on the operating table. But to pass up the bypass thinking that if he just ate better he could have removed the blockages in his heart would have been irrational.
    (For someone who can be very crunchy and into alternatives to medication, I am very much a hardcore believer in vaccinations.) (I even was anti-flu shot for the longest time, until I had a kid with asthma and felt that the risks of flu outweighed the risks of the vaccine. That said, I’ve forgotten to get my flu shot this year and am wondering about herd immunity in my household, because everyone else has the flu shot.)

  21. VAERS exists to track the rare side effects of vaccines. The liability system in the U.S. being what it is, things get strange (i.e. lawyers “diagnosing” adverse medical events and reporting them), but there is no hope of a clinical trial finding every uncommon adverse effect of any medication. But, when speaking of the required vaccines, we’re talking about diseases that are likely to be fatal at such rates that establishing that the positive benefit of the vaccine outweighs the negative is easy.

  22. Here’s another possible common denominator for resistance to vaccination: being female.
    This is mostly a guess, but I suspect that alternative medicine and the anti-vaccination movement are especially seductive to women. I don’t have chapter and verse on this, but alternative medicine seems to be marketed much more at women.

  23. In related news, I saw the following in a thread over at Amy Tuteur’s Skeptical OB blog:
    “I got a page the other day from someone who was in panic because she thought she may have overdosed on homeopathic pills.”

  24. Still thinking about this great conversation. Wanted to recommend a book to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the vaccination and anti-vaccination movement. I read “Pox” a year or so ago and I had no idea that the US authorities ever forceably inoculated recent immigrants against their will, or that there might be perfectly legitimate reasons why working class people might be suspicious of government public health efforts. Anyway, here’s a link to a great public health blog and more info about the book:

  25. I’ve been watching Ricki Lake’s 4 part series More Business of Being Born. I just finished the first segment, which features interviews with Ina May Gaskin and other Farm midwives. Interestingly, there’s a segment where two of the senior Farm midwives are pushing the idea that standard, medicated hospital birth causes autism. Furthermore, the argument is made that the Amish do homebirths and hence don’t have autism. (Judging from the internet, the purported lack of autism in the Amish community is a popular urban legend, usually attributed to non-vaccination.)

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