Posts Tagged ‘ Vaccine ’

Anti-Vaccine Charity, No More

Last year I wrote a series of posts[1] around the Charitable organisation Immunisation Awareness Society and a complaint I had made to the Charities Commission. The Thrust of these posts and the complaint was that the Society does not fulfill the requirements of a charity and should be removed from the register. The effect of this is that they would also be stripped of their tax exempt status.

This indeed was my main goal. There are innumerable groups out there that I don’t agree with but you get that in a wide and varied world. In the case of the IAS though the speech they engage is is effectively publicly subsidised via the tax exemption, this should mean that they are constrained in what they can say. At the very least it should mean that they must present the facts undistorted by ideology.

Yesterday I found out that the Charities Commission agrees with me. In a decision handed down late last month they determined that the IAS does not qualify for charitable status and removed them from the charities register.

So, I guess you could say – I won.

It the words of one of my colleagues it also shows that one person can make a difference. Clichéd but true.

Reading through the Charities Commission decision it seems they focused on two things:

1. The biased nature of the information provided by the IAS and;

2. The political nature of their campaigning for a change in public policy.

This makes sense given the requirements that the Commission need to fulfil to determine whether an organisation meets the requirements to be a charity. Even so I’m a bit disappointed that there was no focus on the factual inaccuracy of and misrepresentation in the materials published by the IAS.

The decision does seem to skirt this line though when stating that  “Overwhelmingly, the information on the website argues that vaccination is ineffective and dangerous” the inference being that is view is incorrect as well as being biased. Even so, none of the language of the report actually states this outright (that I can see).

There was also an additional point touched on that merely providing information does not in and of itself “advance education”. In other words to be an educational charity you actually have to actively educate people, not simply act as a repository of information – otherwise every private citizen with a decent library or informational website could become a charity.

Finally, in my personal 15 minutes of fame, the Commissions decision has been reported in the Dominion Post – complete with a quote from me. Not my most eloquent moment but it’s close enough to the point I wanted to make that I’m fairly happy.

[Edit: Thanks goes to commenter Hemlock for sharing the IAS response to this news]


1.  And here they are in all their tedious glory:

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Get Your Up-To-Date Vaccine News

Thanks to my recent single-minded posting I’ve stumbled across this resource that pulls together news and blog posts on vaccines and anti-vaccine topics.

It uses a cool functionality of to collect posts which are then “curated” by a real person (hate those obviously fully automated ones that often ping my posts).

Vaxfax monitor is a site, which means the curator specifies keywords and the software trawls Twitter, Google, Digg and Youtube to generate content that matches the keywords. Once this is done the output is offered to the curator to vet. The posts that are retained through this process are published to the main site while those that don’t make the cut are discarded.

The curator of this feed is a poster who goes by the handle anarchic_teapot. Regarding anarchic’s chosen Nym I took this from the about page:

“My handle was chosen entirely at random, so don’t read anything political, social or ironic into it. I have no connection with the Anarchist Teapot Collective, or the coder using the handle anarchic.teapot (with a period, not a hyphen). I’m pretty certain I used the name first, though.”

I contacted anarchic_teapot to get a bit more information about the process involved in putting this feed together and to get a feel about the person behind the page and for why this resource is important.

[Scepticon] Where abouts in the world are you based?

[anarchic_teapot] I live in France, surrounded by sunshine, wine and cheese. And lots of other stuff that’s bad for my diet.

[Scepticon] The agregator uses keywords to collect content, is there any way to get random stuff you’ve noticed into it?

[anarchic_teapot] It’s also possible to scoop stories directly off the Internet, using a browser widget. In fact, the 3 main aggregators I use:, and newsvine now all offer this service.

[Scepticon] What’s the difference between those services?

[anarchic_teapot] will publish each article immediately it’s validated. You choose any tags and which sites you’re going to publish to. It’s useful for getting breaking news out the door, but does require a lot of time curating. Another drawback is that it can mean a lot of tweets going out, and I don’t like flooding the intertubes, out of respect for my long-suffering readers. I want to keep them! does quite a good job of finding keywords, and you can pick the regularity at which it’s updated. At most, you’ll have two tweets a day.
The (big) disadvantage is that you can’t remove unwanted content until after an update.

Newsvine doesn’t send out tweets, although I suppose it would be easy to send your personal RSS feed through a service like Twitterfeed for that. On the other hand, it does allow comments, so you can get a discussion going. You can also write quite a lengthy post about the article you’ve seeded, as they call it. However, you have to go find your content for yourself; it won’t go looking for you. Although you *will* be warned if Newsvine thinks someone has already seeded the same story.

[Scepticon] Once the stories are gathered what happens?

[anarchic_teapot] Every time I check the feed, I have up to 100 stories that I can either discard, block the source (porn sites, bots, or other minor noise) or decide to publish. I try to keep Scoops recent (past 2-3 days) and from reliable sources. I also try to keep repetition down.

[Scepticon] Why did you feel the need to create such a resource, what do you see as the goal of aggregating all this stuff in one place?

[anarchic_teapot] I suppose the need comes from not having enough time to check major news sources regularly, and nobody to do it for me. I’ve always been one to let the computers do the spadework. Putting it all in one place gives me the chance to spend more time sifting through the dross. There is a lot of dross. I have some absolute doozies lined up for future blogging.

At the same time, to see so much quackery being sold so hard scares me.
It keeps me motivated, and I understand why others are so implicated in the struggle for science too.

[Scepticon] What is the criteria for inclusion, do you simply include those things you already agree with?

[anarchic_teapot] Well, it’s all a bit subjective, as things have to be when you’re playing editor (I hate the word curator, that’s for museums) to any sort of publication. As a rule of thumb, I try to keep to stuff that’s informative, not too technical – I’m not the health professional in the family – and of immediate use. I had to think about announcements of potential breakthroughs (HIV and malaria are currently doing the rounds) but decided it would be quite enough to deal with currently available vaccines.

[Scepticon] What is the main focus, news stories that demonstrate harm of anti-vaccine views or information about vaccines themselves?

[anarchic_teapot] Both, really. For reasons of space, I try to avoid localised reports, unless the story is of wider relevance (e.g. a clinic offering free shots probably won’t make it, but an outbreak of mumps may). I occasionally throw in some of the nastier antivax stuff, well flagged as such, in the hope that someone better qualified than me will pick it up and pillory them.

The teapot also admitted to using the generated content prior to publishing as a means of keeping an eye on the shall-we-say “less reasoned” content out there. I believe the term used was “Stupidity detector”, turning these gems into the bases of blog posts.

One of the things that I am grateful the anarchic for is the attempt to keep the feed from turning into an agglomeration of random crap.As noted earlier, I often get pingbacks from sites that have linked to my posts (and sometimes published portions of them) that when I check are simply grabbing everything with a keyword with in filtering, even to the point that the main purpose of a page is 180o opposed to what I’ve written but presents my content as if it’s in line with the site’s philosophies.

According to the teapot:

“The nice thing about is that you don’t *have* to publish anything.”

Ah, how refreshing.

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Defending The Term “Anti-Vaccine”

I have spent some time recently labelling the IAS as anti-vaccine. They themselves categorically state that they are not anti-vaccine. Who am I to say that I’m right and they are wrong?

Well, nobody really. I can’t read their minds, although if I could would that change anything? All anyone can do is examine their output, and that of others, and try to make a determination as to whether it is more consistent with an impartial, or simply safety concious, approach to vaccines and vaccination or an anti-vaccine stance.

I hope that my previous posts have demonstrated that the IAS in particular produces anti-vaccine rather than balanced vaccine safety material.  The mission of the IAS is to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines not to educate responsibly about the real concerns and limitations of vaccine use. If this was their aim they could do a much better job. Look at the articles produced on their website and you will see many that promote the “dangers” of vaccinations, try to discredit health campaigns and generally aim to undermine public confidence in vaccines.

An organisation concerned about vaccine safety and promoting responsible use of vaccines might write about reducing wide-scale vaccination in favour of targeted vaccination of at risk populations. Perhaps They would also try to work with health authorities to examine ways in which vaccine production can be improved (better production techniques might avoid allergy issues mentioned below), or ways in which the distribution of vaccines can be made more effective and thereby reducing the need to preservatives that are thought by them to be harmful.

It is important to note that someone can be concerned about the safety of vaccines while not being anti-vaccine at the same time. I alluded to this above, but there are legitimate safety issues surrounding vaccine use and vaccines should indeed be closely scrutinised prior to mass roll-out via safety and efficacy trials and post roll-out via surveillance systems and doctors reports. It is a valid complaint that procedures are not always carried out effectively.

Sometimes though they are carried out quite effectively and in a follow-up post I will look at a couple of examples of this. The trouble is that often when a “danger” of vaccines is reported more coverage is given to the sensationalistic claims than the eventual explanation. Also (perhaps because of this) these claims have a tendency to hang around and affect public sentiment long after the coast is clear from a safety standpoint.

As I mentioned there are real risks associated with vaccine use, there are known side effects that can have implications for the health of a small number of vaccine recipients. One of the more obvious being allergic reactions to the vaccine ingredients. Those with egg allergies are urged to use vaccines cultured via chicken embryos with caution and may be unable to receive the vaccine at all. There can be other serious and not so serious or transitory side effects for specific vaccines and effects that are general to vaccines (such as redness, soreness, syncope etc).

As such there are a variety of non-histrionic ways that vaccine safety can be discussed, without impugning the general safety of vaccines. Likewise reasonable conversations may be had regarding relative efficacy of vaccine preparations against the myriad of infectious agents that we are exposed to as well as discussions about cost effectiveness of mass vaccination for low incidence infections.

Serotype replacement (or replacement disease) is another issue that can be raised. As infectious strains are targeted by vaccines there is the possibility that other strains that were less important in the pathology of disease become more prominent once the “Top Dog” has been removed.

Encouraging the production and research into more effective vaccines that give better or more long lasting protection could also be a fruitful line of approach. Perhaps we could focus on immunogenicity, better adjuvants would give a vaccine the ability to provoke a stronger immune response, possibly with fewer antigens – as has already been achieved with modern vaccines. If vaccines are improved in this way then there will likely be more local reactions with the inclusion better adjuvants. This again is a reasonable discussion to have.

The lack of large RCTs on all vaccines and the challenges of working around this (for example ethics prohibit withdrawing a measles vaccines then trying a new one against a placebo). The types of studies required or currently used to give us the appropriate information to act upon is something that we can all try to resolve together.

All these things are such that reasonable people may disagree and we should be able to marshal evidence based (rather than emotive) arguments to discover the optimal us of vaccines in society. To my reading of the IAS, their output appears limited to vitriolic and divisive attacks on health authorities and other informational agencies, vilification of pharmaceutical companies, fearmongering over the alleged dangers of vaccination and downplaying the risks of infectious diseases.

Where we start treading into anti-vaccination territory is when we start to become entrenched in a view that sees vaccination as an evil unto itself, perpetrated in the name of profits by immoral pharmaceutical companies and carried out by unethical doctors who are either ignorant dups or willing accomplices. Those who take this stance may make all of the reasonable arguments that I outline above but also be resistant to evidence that contradicts their views and committed to a general non-vaccine outlook.

In discussing this it is very difficult to convey the range of views that may be represented. Obviously we all exist on a spectrum – from fully pro-vaccine to recalcitrant anti-vaccine. It can also be very difficult to determine the views of people in conversation. I prefer to err on the side of caution and assume people are generally well intentioned and open to evidence until proven otherwise.

One of the defining characteristics of the anti-vaccination crowd, it seems to me, is the hyping of dangers far beyond what the evidence supports. As can be seen in some of the attacks on vaccine ingredients, lists of ingredients are given and scary information accompanies them with the toxicological effects of these compounds on living organisms. In these cases  though the dose is often ignored. Dose response is one of the corner stones of medicine and the dose makes the poison. Drink large quantities of formaldehyde and you’re in trouble, but in the tiny doses found in vaccines your body can easily handle it. as noted in a previous post our bodies actually make formaldehyde as part of normal metabolism and the amount found in vaccines is far smaller than that made by the normal process of living.

When it comes down to the bottom line – Vaccines work, and they actually perform that holy grail of CAM, “boosting” the immune system and allowing the body to heal itself. Not in some vague, feel good alternative medicine way but in real objectively measurable and observable ways. Your immune system is primed to react to infectious agents in such a way as to reduce the amount of time that it takes for an effective immune response to be mounted against the pathogen.

With this priming your body can fight off infections much more efficiently and this translates into keeping us healthy, or reducing the severity of diseases. While we can debate the finer points of vaccine safety and efficacy in the end we have a system that works and has saved many lives. I see that as a win.

[for more on this topic see this post from David Gorski of Science-Based Medicine published last year]

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IAS Complaint Part 4: Anti-Vaccine Impact in New zealand

Finally in the series of extracts from my IAS Charity complaint, I give a brief look at the impact of anti-vaccine information in New Zealand. I also bring together information from other parts of the complaint that have not been covered in the extracts so far.

Impact of Anti-Vaccinationist Misinformation in New Zealand

Maintaining a high level of vaccine coverage is important for reducing the probability of disease outbreaks and to limit the spread of disease in the community. Diseases (often) spread due to contact between infected and uninfected individuals. If the uninfected individual has partial protection from the disease due to immunisation then the disease will spread with more difficulty. This is often referred to as “Herd Immunity”.

Herd immunity does rest on several assumptions, one of which is that immunised individuals are spread evenly throughout the population. If pockets of unvaccinated individuals develop then diseases can gain a foothold in that part of the population and spread outward – even to vaccinated individuals. If parents in a community are convinced by the IAS information not to vaccinate their children then an in-road for disease is created and outbreaks can occur. As such this would constitute a detriment to both children and the wider community – in direct contradiction to the IAS stated charitable aims.

New Zealand has struggled to reach recommended vaccination levels in the past with the coverage rate in 2005 being only 77% at two years of age1. With such low rates of vaccine uptake in the population there is a risk of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks occurring in the population and putting children’s lives at risk. In fact this is happening now with the measles outbreak in Auckland. Health officials have linked this outbreak to lowered vaccine uptake attributable to anti-vaccine misinformation2.

Vaccine coverage for a disease such as measles needs to be at approximately 90% or greater in infant populations to prevent epidemics3. Despite a focus on increasing coverage since earlier this century and improving coverage since the 2005 survey New Zealand still only sees an average of 85% vaccination coverage in this age group, with some areas dropping as low as 75%4.

In 2004, just prior to the Vaccine Coverage survey, a study was performed to see what reasons parents gave for not vaccinating their children5. The results of the study found that many of the parents interviewed made a decision not to vaccinate based on perceived risk of the vaccines. The risks cited were common anti-vaccinationist misunderstandings, including linking vaccines to autism and the belief that children’s immune systems are weakened by immunisations.

While almost all of the study participants consulted their GP for vaccination information, this source was seen as biased. In fact many of the “Pro-vaccine” sources were considered biased and parents expressed interest in information provided by groups outside the “medical establishment” indicating distrust of medical advice on this topic in general. The Immunisation Awareness Society was explicitly listed as a source of information by 76% of survey respondents, along with Naturopaths and Homeopaths (43% and 48% of respondents respectively).

The Immunisation Advisory Centre is sufficiently concerned about misleading anti-vaccination claims that they have included a page dedicated to rebutting this information on their website6.


The IAS dispute that they are “anti-vaccine” both in their Charity “Rules” (3. Beliefs, subsection C7 and through comments on their website. This claim rings hollow though when the actual content of their writings is examined. Therefore it is important to look at the effective output of the ideologies, philosophies and stance of the charity rather than their explicit statements.

In regard to IAS staff and members, belief that they are acting in the public interest, belief that their materials constitute an educational resource and belief that they are in fact doing the right thing are not enough. I have no doubt that the founding members, the officers and members of IAS sincerely think that they are provide a public service and that their interpretation of the scientific facts is the correct one. This however only affords them the right to be respected as individuals and for their views to be given fair hearing, it does not constitute a right to charitable status and does not exempt their views from criticism.

The IAS has shown through their materials that, despite protestations to the contrary, their views are anti-vaccine. This entails that their views are factually and scientifically incorrect, that they have an agenda to reduce or stop vaccinations being performed and that through this their actions may translate into serious harm for individuals, the community and the public at large. The IAS currently enjoys charitable status, as such they are exempt from taxation on their income. This amounts to a government subsidy of anti-scientific and potentially harmful views.


One last point, I am pretty clear to paint the IAS as anti-vaccine. They themselves deny this label, as mentioned above. But then I have a bias don’t I? Well, heres a link to a website that has the opposite bias, they list the IAS as on of their “100+ Great Anti-Vaccination Information Links“, I’d say that;s telling.

1. NZ Vaccine coverage survey 2005$File/national-childhood-immunisation-coverage-survey2005.pdf
found on:

2. Stories covering the Aucland Measles outbreak:

3. Predictive model for Measles Outbreaks. Coverage at 15months should be >90%

4. Immunisation Coverage report 2010:
Found Here:

5. Study looking at reasons NZ parents give for not vaccinating:

6. IMAC website with anti-vaccination rebuttals:

7. Charities Register page for IAS:

IAS Complaint Part 3: Vaccine ingredients – Not so bad really

Next up in our voyage of crank discovery, via extracts from my IAS charity complaint, is a breakdown of simplistic reasoning around vaccine ingredients. Again, I have reproduced elements of the original article here for your convenience.

The following example was posted as a look at vaccine ingredients in two parts. I will not be so lenient – Both in one for you.

Vaccine Ingredients – Part 1
posted May 6, 2011

This post contains a number of misunderstandings and falsehoods both explicitly stated and implied. The post lists the type of cell culture lines that viruses are cultivated in in order to create vaccines and then implies that the cells from these cultures are still found in the final vaccine product that is injected, including the emotive claim that we are injecting aborted foetal tissue into our children with the vaccine.

“I bought Sue Claridge’s fantastic book “Investigate Before You Vaccinate,” and turned to page 44 which states: “The cell cultures used to grow the viruses and bacteria include monkey kidney (vero cells), foetal calf serum, chick embryo fluid, yeast and human diploid cells (cells from aborted human foetuses). WHAT?! You mean to tell me that we are injecting aborted human fetal cells into our babies?!”

This is incorrect.

While it is true that there are some cell lines used to culture viruses used in vaccines, it is inaccurate to say that we are injecting these cells into children. Once again precision in language is important, there are currently existing cell lines that were originally cultured using aborted foetal tissue. These cell lines used originated in the 1960s1, meaning that the cultures used now many cell replication generations removed from the original tissue and are now are simply cells grown for medical use – not foetuses.

The only vaccine in the New Zealand schedule to be developed using cell lines derived in this fashion is the MMR vaccine, due to the inability to grow Rubella virus in any other type of cell line2. Vaccines must also be purified before use in order to remove these cells prior to injection3,4. Following purification the cells of the original culture are no longer present.

The article then proceeds to give a laundry list of possible vaccine ingredients, with the implication that the levels of these compounds are harmful at the doses provided in the vaccine.

“…formaldehyde (an embalming fluid). SERIOUSLY?! Oh, it gets better!!! Some vaccines also contain mercury, aluminium, preservatives, stabilisers, lactose, sorbitol, sodium chloride, sucrose, sodium borate, magnesium chloride, sodium phosphate, hydrolised gelatine, neomycin, gentimicin, streptomycin and human albumin…”

This dose insensitivity of the anti-vaccine rhetoric is recurrent and important. All chemicals have a threshold above which they can have detrimental effects on human physiology, the question is whether this threshold is exceeded by vaccine ingredients. The medical community is in agreement that the answer to this question is “no”. At this point the anti-vaccine community does not need to provide proof that the levels of compounds found in vaccines are harmful, the only goal is to raise questions about safety.

The United States CDC website has a page dedicated to vaccine ingredients and countering anti-vaccine questions about them5. The IAS article highlights that formaldehyde is used in vaccines and points out that this is used as an embalming fluid. The CDC website answers this question and it is telling that the IAS article does not mention that formaldehyde is also made in the body during normal metabolism. In fact it is calculated that a baby (depending on size) would have more than 50 times the amount of formaldehyde in its body naturally than it would get from a vaccine dose.

Most of the rest of the ingredients listed are stabilisers and preservatives of the vaccine components. Several such as sodium chloride (table salt) and sucrose (sugar) would not be considered harmful by most reasonable people. As such I will point out a small selection that would seem to be concerning and give the actual facts behind their use.

The first that would seem worrying is amorphous aluminum hydroxyphosphate sulfate. The approximate amount of this compound used in vaccines is 225 μg. Used as an adjuvant (a vaccine additive that modifies its effects) this ingredient actually makes the vaccine more potent by enhancing the body’s immune response to the vaccine. As such it has an 80 year track record of safety in vaccines6. Also, dietary sources of aluminium are not insignificant, estimated at 1.6-13 mg per day7 or 7-60 times that in the vaccine, even though bioavailability of chemicals is affected by the method of introduction to the body (oral vs injection) it’s hard to see how this minuscule amount would make any difference.

Another potentially scary sounding chemical in vaccines is sodium borate, the approximate dose per injection of vaccine is 35 μg. This is used to balance the pH. The LD50 (a measure of toxicity) for this compound is 2-3 g/kg in mammals8 and as such is actually slightly less toxic than table salt (~3 g/kg9), the 35 μg in the vaccine if given to a 50kg individual equals a 0.7 μg/kg dose, this isn’t even close to a dose high enough to cause even a minor problem.

The article goes on to make a specious assertion that we were “created perfect as we are” and that we shouldn’t need to inject “formaldehyde and monkey cells” into our bodies to make our immune systems work, if we did we would be “born with it”.

“Weren’t we created perfect as we are? Do we really need to be “fixed” or “made better” by injecting these substances into our bodies? If we were meant to have formaldehyde and monkey cells in our bodies in order for our immune systems to work, wouldn’t we have been born with it?”

Aside from the unintended irony that we actually were born with formaldehyde in our bodies this claim is poor reasoning. By this criteria some of us would have also been “born with” glasses or contact lenses or hearing aids. This article also would appear to refute the utility of acquired immunity – if we needed foreign bodies in our system to make our immune systems work then we would have been born with them.

Finally the question is asked “If we’re all suddenly going to get sick or die if we don’t get these vaccines, then how did we survive for tens of thousands of years without these ingredients inside us?” ignoring for the moment that it is not the vaccine ingredients themselves that we need but rather the antigens in the vaccine that the rest of the ingredients stabilise and preserve, the simple answer to this question is “millions of us didn’t survive”.

Vaccine Ingredients – Part 2
Posted May 9 2011

This post appears to be one long argument attempting to cast doubt on the level of knowledge we have regarding the operation of our immune system. By quoting from an anatomy and physiology text book10 and emphasising tentative sounding words such as “appears”, “may” and “apparently” the author is attempting to show that the entire field on immunology is in doubt.

“On page 778, after talking about T cell maturation, it mentions that “less is known about the factors that control B cell maturation in humans” i.e. they haven’t quite figured out how B cells mature in our bodies yet. Another classic is on page 792, when they try to explain why the immune cells sometimes attack foreign human cells when a patient has received a graft. Their explanation is that “apparently, [emphasis mine] the cytotoxic T cells sometimes ‘see’ the foreign class I MHC antigens as a combination of self class I MHC protein bound to foreign antigen” i.e. they don’t actually [emphasis mine] know how it works, but this is their best guess.”

The fact that the text is dealing with minutia of the immune system down to the level of cell generation and activity seems to not persuade the author that in fact there is a great deal currently known about immunity and how our immune system works. To the point that it is considered feasible (by the author) that future text books will recall the use of vaccines and their “toxic ingredients” as complete folly.

The level of argument here is such that similar reasoning could be used to show that since the fluid dynamics at the edges of aircraft wing tips is not completely worked out, in the future we may discover that airplanes cannot fly after all. The point of this parody is to show that the author is confusing knowledge of mechanism with knowledge of efficacy. We know vaccines work, study upon study of new and old vaccines verify this fact every day. The inability of science to answer every minute facet of why they work does not invalidate this data. Once again the only goal here is to plant a seed of doubt about the safety and effectiveness of vaccine in the minds of the public. As such the IAS once again demonstrates the education is not the desired outcome of their operation.


1. Cell lines

2. Vaccine Manufacture

3. Vaccine Purification:

4. Vaccine requirements(Section III, sub section B.5. paragraph 2):

5. CDC Vaccine ingredients page:

6. Aluminium track record:


7. Dietary aluminium:

8. Sodium Borate MSDS:

9. Safety sheet for NaCl

10. The Text book that appears to be written about:

IAS Complaint Part 1: Thimerosal in Your Vaccine? No.

As promised here is the first of the articles that I deal with in the formal complaint I made to the Charities Commission regarding the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine charity IAS.  So, with out further ado (what is ado anyway?) here is the link to the offending piece and my rebuttal:

Thimerosal in your Vaccine?
Posted September 13, 2010

This post on the IAS website (made up of basically an uninformed question about the harmfulness of ethyl mercury and a video) insinuates that Ethyl Mercury (also known under the trade name Thimerosal)1 is both harmful in the amount contained in vaccines and, by extension, that New Zealand vaccines contain this substance and should therefore be viewed with suspicion.

The first thing to note is that the Thimerosal post is irrelevant to New Zealand populations as Thimerosal is not present in any of the vaccines used in New Zealand2. Bringing up this issue in the context of New Zealand vaccines (implied as this is a New Zealand organisation geared towards New Zealand residents) is at best ignorant and at worse disingenuous scaremongering. Even so it is useful to deconstruct the post anyway as it is indicative of the faulty reasoning and scientifically inaccurate content of the IAS website.

The post includes a link to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Ethyl Mercury as support for this claim3. The relevant part of the MSDS has been reproduced below to give an indication of what the post considers concerning about the use of Thimerosal in vaccines.

Quoting from the MSDS:

“Effects of Overexposure: Topical allergic dermatitis has been reported. Thimerosal contains mercury. Mercury poisoning may occur and topical hypersensitivity reactions may be seen. Early signs of mercury poisoning in adults are nervous system effects, including narrowing of the visual field and numbness in the extremities. Exposure to mercury in utero and in children may cause mild to severe mental retardation and mild to severe motor coordination impairment.”

This is used in conjunction with a video link on the page4 to advance the hypothesis that Thimerosal in vaccines causes  autism, despite the fact that the symptoms listed are explicitly due to overexposure, not the trace exposure that  constitutes the vaccine dose. This type of “any level is harmful” approach to medicine neglects the dose response  relationship of drugs and other chemicals in the body. This hypothesis also ignores scientific research into
mechanisms of autism, the epidemiology of the increase in autism reports and the failure of the hypothesis to account for the continued rise of autism cases after Thimerosal was removed from the majority of vaccines.

The web-based resource Science Based Medicine has a reference page containing summaries of and links to the various studies showing no link between Thimerosal in vaccines and development of autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD)5. The studies in aggregate looked at the claim of a link between Thimerosal and autism in a number of ways. Several looked at large groups of individuals and attempted to find any sort of correlation between childhood exposure to Thimerosal and development of autism symptoms. All together these studies combed through the data of over 750,000 individuals in several different countries and found no evidence to support a link.

Continuing to disseminate information that implies a link between Thimerosal and autism is to be either wilfully ignorant of the current state of research, in which case claims to educational content are not accurate, or to be dismissive of the current research as being an inaccurate reflection of the facts. This second option depends on there being some sort of conspiracy within the scientific/medical community to hide the truth. No such conspiracy can be substantiated.
As an side, the MMR vaccine has also been linked to development of autism in the minds of anti-vaccine campaigners since Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited and retracted paper in the Lancet6. A Cochrane review of the evidence shows

“No credible evidence of an involvement of MMR with either autism or Crohn’s disease was found.”


“Exposure to MMR was unlikely to be associated with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, autism or aseptic meningitis…”7


1. Thimerosal clarification of chemistry:
The chemical IUPAC name of Thimerosal is actually
Ethyl(2-mercaptobenzoato-(2-)-O,S)mercurate(1-) sodium.
This breaks down to Ethyl Mercury in the body.

2. Vaccine ingredients:
a. Childhood vaccine Schedule:$File/wycpreve.pdf$File/gwcinfih.pdf$File/gwcinfiv.pdf$File/gwcbostv.pdf$File/cscgarda.pdf

b. Influenza Vaccines:$file/vaxigrip.pdf$file/Fluvax.pdf$file/Influvac.pdf

3. MSDS cited on the IAS website:

4. Misleading video posted under the heading “Thimerosal in your Vaccine?”:

5. The Science-Based Medicine resource page on Vaccines and Autism:

6. Andrew Wakefield:

7. Cochrane review:

Anti-Vaccine Charities – Is there any Quality control on Charities?

I haven’t really been writing much lately, for this blog at least. Much that is due to simple procrastination but earlier this year my free time was spent doing something equally stimulating.

Back in July I submitted a complaint to the New Zealand Charities Commission, which they (allegedly) are currently investigating, about the Immunisation Awareness Society (IAS). This is a charitable organisation that disseminates anti-vaccine information, while at the same time denying that they are anti-vaccine.

Grant has recently done an excellent post on some of the nonsense put out by IAS representatives, go have a read if you’ve not seen it yet.

My complaint focuses on the fact that to be a registered charity an organisation must fulfil a charitable purpose (makes sense). The particular legislation outlines these purposes as:

“the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community.”

In my complaint I detail how the advancement of education is not met by the IAS, that they are anti-vaccine and that they therefore do not constitute a benefit to the public. As they do not relieve poverty nor advance religion this effectively should remove them from the arena of “Charity”.

To answer the question posed in the title, theoretically – yes there is quality control over charities. Part of the mandate of the Charities Commission is to:

“promote public trust and confidence in the charitable sector”,

“monitor charitable entities and their activities to ensure that entities that are registered as charitable entities continue to be qualified for registration as charitable entities”


“inquire into charitable entities and into persons who have engaged in, or are engaging in, conduct that constitutes, or may constitute, a breach of this Act or serious  wrongdoing in connection with a charitable entity”

In large part my compliant is based on this previous post about the IAS, cleaned of snark and updated with a few references. In addition I dismantle a few of the “Educational” posts on their website to show how the information they promote is factually incorrect and geared towards convincing parents not to vaccinate their children.

In particular I look at This post that attempts to link NZ vaccines with Thimerosal and thereby to Autism even though both links in this chain are fictitious. Next I go over This post which is a copy of a submission to an FDA committee by Roberta Boyce founder of the anti-Gardasil website, predicably criticising the Gardasil vaccine for being some sort of secret plot to make people sick and sterile. Okay maybe you couldn’t have predicted that. Finally I take apart yet more claims about the “Toxic” ingredients of vaccines, similar to another of my previous posts. Then I cover potential and actual damage caused by anti-vaccine sentiment (like the Auckland Measles outbreak).

I have no doubt that the IAS will rail against this complaint claiming that I’m trying to suppress free speech (nothing of the kind, they can continue their activities without being a charity) or that I’m attempting to smear them (no need, their output speaks for itself) or that I’m a henchman for the Immunisation Advisory Centre (no affiliation, but if they want to throw some money my way…;-)).

I’m hopeful that this complaint will at least get the Charities Commission to pay attention to the IAS and it’s output. Like I said I’m not interested in shutting them down, upholding free speech means defending those you don’t agree with (or something, I’m hazy on the details. People tell me it’s good). The issue I have is that these guys are essentially receiving a government subsidy (in the form of tax exemptions) for spouting inaccuracies.

Finally I have to give enormous thanks to Simon Clendon who kicked me into action after my post on the IAS philosophies and took on the task of editing the brain dump that resulted. He also made a bridge to the nice people at the IMAC who provided some extra info (still no affiliation just a few emails).

For those who want more on how I deal with the IAS misinformation I will repackage the various sections of the complaint as follow-up posts (tagged “IAS complaint”). Plus, I went to all that work, might as well eh?

If you want to read the full complaint in all it’s damning detail and mind numbing depth you can find it in PDF form Here, I’ve also got a snappy snip url: Go on, you know you want to. Tell your friends.

There are also a few supporting documents at that address as well, just to make finding them easier. If this inspires you to make your own complaints then go for it, the more the merrier, probably. I’m sure you needn’t go to as much trouble as I did (though if you want to, it’s fun. Plus by now the IAS has continued to march ahead with new misinformation).

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Vaccination Awareness Week Round-Up

There’s still officially one more day of Anti-Vaccine Awareness Week (two really, as it’s an American idea) but here’s a round up of the posts anyway. While I know there are lots of great in-depth posts around the blogosphere on this the following list has been restricted to NZ posts to keep the local flavour. The posts are in roughly chronological order.

The University of Auckland Library at Tamaki Library blog Misinformation spread about HPV vaccine

Me Anti-Vaccination in NZ

Scott at Imperatorfish They Can’t Vaccinate Against Tin-Foil Hat Syndrome

Michelle at Skeptics In The Pub Vaccines: The actual facts (well, the links to some anyway…)

Alison Campbell at Bioblog on polio

Michelle at Skeptics In The Pub More facts about vaccines….

Me A Side Benefit of the ‘Flu Vaccine – Reduction in Heart Attacks

Michael Edmondsat Sciblogs Guest Work “I’m not a Scientist but …”; Dissection of an antivaxxer’s argument

Alison Campbell at Bioblog chelation quackery around vaccination

Grant Jacobs at Code for Life Immunisation, then and now

Alison Campbell at Bioblog homeopathic vaccinations – fail

The next couple are not specifically about vaccination but I think are worth a mention:

Grant Jacobs at Code for Life If presenting a claim on a popular issue

Megan Leask at Southern Genes This Week in Science History: 1-11-10

If anyone knows of a post I’ve missed then please feel free to add it in the comments.

[Edit] One more – Alison @ Bioblog vaccination & smallpox

For those of you interested in the international posts, blogger Liz Ditz has done an awesome job collating all of the posts here:

The Big List of Reality-Based Vaccine & Infectious Disease Blogging

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A Side Benefit of the ‘Flu Vaccine – Reduction in Heart Attacks

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s a bold claim, that being vaccinated for Influenza will protect you against having a heart attack or Myocardial Infarction (MI). Well according to a study published last month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that could well be the case.

The study, “Influenza vaccination, pneumococcal vaccination and risk
of acute myocardial infarction: matched case–control study
“, included 78,706 individuals over the age of 40 in an attempt to determine whether and how much of an effect the vaccine had on MI. The results showed that the vaccine was associated with an almost 20% reduction in risk of MI compared to the unvaccinated population.

My first thought when I read this was that those individuals who get vaccinated might engage in other activities that would lend themselves to reducing risk of MI, healthy eating habits, regular exercise etc. The so called “healthy user” effect. This study attempted to control for this sort of confounding factor by using matched controls with similar risk factors. In particular they performed two further analyses that I think comfortably undermine this interpretation of the results.

First they compared the timing of the receipt of the vaccine, ie early or late in the ‘flu season. Second they looked at subjects who had been vaccinated with the pneumococcal vaccine as a comparison. In the first case there was a greater reduction in risk for those who had received the vaccine early in the season, 21% compared to only 12%. In the second case they found no protective effect for those who had received the pneumococcal vaccine. It seems unlikely that the subjects of the study would vary their healthy habits in precisely the ways they would have to in order to see these results as being independent of the vaccine itself.

An interesting aspect of this kind of epidemiology though is that simply looking at the raw numbers there is a greater incidence of MI in the vaccinated group compared to the unvaccinated group. This is an artefact of how the vaccines are administered clinically. Those patients who have greater cardiovascular risk are also the patients who are more likely to be recommended for vaccination. It’s like noticing that people who buy antiperspirant tend to have sweatier armpits than those who don’t*. Those who are prone to sweaty armpits will likely tend to be those who will buy and use antiperspirant, to accurately gauge effectiveness you would have to control for this factor.

Tying this into the anti-vax focus of this week, one of the claims I’ve seen is that the flu vaccine is useless as it is based on strains that were around the previous season (Here via IAS). This is distressingly simplistic thinking. This paper shows that the vaccine is far from useless, in fact the most benefit was found within ‘flu seasons. If there was no effect of the vaccine on the current ‘flu season strains then the study would not have shown the protective effect that it did. Once again the anti-vax crowd (and by extension the altmed crowd as there tends to be overlap) has shown their inability to grasp the nuance of the situation.

There is a gradation of effect when a vaccine does not exactly match the wild strain, the interaction of antigens and antibodies is more complicated than you might suppose. Changes in the antigen (mutation of the virus over the ‘flu season) mean that antibodies may bind less tightly and therefore have a reduced effect but that is not the same as no effect.

To sum up, health is a complicated thing. Many factors are inter-related and in order to get the whole picture we sometimes have look at things from an unusual perspective. Vaccinating for the ‘flu can reduce your risk of heart attack, who knew? But, we should also be wary that we are keeping things within the realm of plausibility. Infection does cause inflammation which can plausibly effect heart function**. This does not mean it’s valid to blame the Wi-fi at your local school for your vague aches and pains.***


*To make up an example.

** See



Siriwardena AN, Gwini SM, & Coupland CA (2010). Influenza vaccination, pneumococcal vaccination and risk of acute myocardial infarction: matched case-control study. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 182 (15), 1617-23 PMID: 20855479

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Anti-Vaccination In NZ

As promised here’s my first entry for “Vaccine Awareness Week”, I thought I would take a little look at Anti-vaccination in New Zealand. In particular the  Immunisation Awareness Society. This organisation has set itself up as pro-choice on the subject of vaccination but this is essentially a thin smokescreen for their anti-vaccination views. Here, rather than pick apart a certain piece of writing from their website (of which there is much to choose from) I’ll focus on the points they have put forward as their basic philosophies and see how they stand up. Without further ado, once more into the breach…

1. That natural immunity is far superior to artificial immunity.

This is true, but only for a given value of “Better”. If you are concerned with antibody production and response to infection over your life time then yes, often immunity acquired via infection by a pathogen can last longer than that stimulated by vaccination.  One reason for this is that if you live in an area where vaccine uptake is relatively low (because, you know, they are so harmful) then you will be periodically re-exposed to the pathogen which naturally boosts your immune response. Vaccine induced immunity does tend to wane over the years and if your only contact with antigens (those parts of the pathogen that promote antibody production) is via the Vaccine then the only way to combat this is a booster shot.

Therefore, to benefit from this longer lasting immunity you must actually contract the disease. You must then also suffer through the consequences and complications of that disease. Then you must be periodically re-exposed to the disease to keep antibody production high. Those that survive will have superior immunity to those who don’t, I believe it’s called “thinning the herd”.

I also notice some weaselling in the reference to artificial immunity.  It is not the immunity that is artificial but the method of inducing immunity. This may seem like splitting hairs but how we use words affects how those words are understood, by implying that the immunity gained by vaccines is itself artificial this group is subtly undermining how vaccines are perceived. Then again the rest of the website is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face so…

2. That breast milk is the best immune stimulator for the baby during the first year of life and that a great deal of immunological protection is provided to the child for as long as breastfeeding continues.

That’s fine, I agree that breast feeding has undeniable benefits, but unless you intend to breast feed your child for life, making for the creepiest business lunch ever*, your child will eventually need to acquire immunity in some other fashion. In this instance, see above.

3. That good health, which starts with a balanced diet that includes important vitamins and minerals, is safer, and more effective at preventing many diseases than artificial immunity.

I can’t argue that a balanced diet isn’t good for you, there is good evidence that ensuring your body has the vitamins it needs does improve your immune response to infection. Beyond this diet is not a replacement for acquired immunity, once again vaccination is the best method of acquiring immunity without actually having to contract and suffer the disease itself.

4. That appropriate allopathic (conventional) and homoeopathic/naturopathic treatment in the event of illness is safer and more effective than trying to prevent illness through artificial immunity.

Homeopathy is not a treatment for anything besides thirst. Apart from that , treating the disease is safer than not contracting the disease in the first place? Are you kidding me? So not only do you have to contract the disease and chance any side effect of the disease itself but also any complications from treating the disease. Seems to me it’s better to just sidestep the whole issue and not get sick.

5. That most diseases contracted by a healthy child, at an appropriate age in childhood, provide important challenges to the immune system enabling it to mature and strengthen, and almost always provide lifelong immunity to the disease.

I’m so glad that the potentially life threatening  diseases contracted by children are actually good for you. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right? How about Measles, that’s one of the dreaded vaccinations our children now receive, what does the WHO have to say about it’s safety?:

Complications: Up to 75% children may develop complications which include diarrhoea, otitis media,
pneumonia, laryngo-tracheal bronchitis (croup) and encephalitis. Measles also depletes Vitamin A status that
results in severe eye complications and blindness. Measles can lead to longer term brain damage and deafness.

Death: Case–fatality ratios for children under one in emergency settings: 3–30%. The three major causes of
high case–fatality rates are pneumonia, diarrhoea and croup. Children may also die from measles infection or
its sequelae including encephalitis and malnutrition. Measles infection often leads to a prolonged suppression
of the immune system, increasing susceptibility to secondary bacterial and viral infections.

But at least we get life long immunity. Surely the purpose of immunity is to prevent us from getting the disease, in that case a wide vaccination policy will do the same thing and also gives us a chance to wipe out the disease altogether.

Then there is the “important challenges” bit, the number of antigens children are exposed to as part of the vaccine schedule is minuscule compared to the number that they are exposed to every day just interacting with their environment. Our normal body flora, those bacteria that call our skin and gut home, outnumber the cells that we would normally think of as “us” by a factor of 10 or more.

This represents hundreds of different species of organisms, add to that the numbers of bacteria we might come into contact with due to food, dirt, household and public surfaces etc. and the number of antigens represented by the organisms prevented by the vaccine schedule can be seen in their proper context – insignificant. Not just insignificant but not even worth mentioning.

6. That the vast majority of childhood infections are benign and self limiting in a healthy, well-nourished, well cared for child with a healthy immune system.

This must mean that the organisation supports vaccination for those diseases that are life threatening (I couldn’t find any evidence on the website that this is the case though). Say pertussis, or Whooping cough as it is more commonly known (from Wikipedea):

Pertussis is fatal in an estimated one in 100 infants under 6 months, and fatal in one in 200 infants aged 2 to 12 months. Infants under one are also more likely to develop complications (eg pneumonia (20%), encephalopathy, seizures (1%), failure to thrive, and death (0.2%)). Pertussis can cause severe paroxysm-induced cerebral hypoxia and apnea.

Well it’s only 0.5-1% of children who die. Tell that to the parents. The best way to prevent this disease is vaccination, not just of the individual child but of all who come into contact with her. Herd immunity is the barrier between potentially fatal diseases and those who are too young to have received the vaccine and those whose immune system is compromised and the vaccine is not as effective.

Ok, that’s just one disease vaccinated against, the rest must be very safe. the vaccination schedule can help us here. The list of diseases vaccinated against and the complications for each is:

DiphtheriaThe bacterial toxin can lead to nerve paralysis and heart failure. Between 2–10 infected people in 100 die.
TetanusThe bacteria produce toxins which cause painful muscle    spasms and lockjaw. Hospital intensive care treatment is needed. About one in 10 patients dies. The risk is greatest for the very young or old.
Whooping CoughCovered above.
PolioAbout one in 20 hospitalised patients dies and 0.1–2 in 100 patients who survive is permanently paralysed. The overall risk of paralysis is about one in 100. This increases with age, ie, one in 75 adults. There are 2–10 fatalities in 100 cases from paralytic poliomyelitis. Post-polio syndrome may occur 30–40 years after poliomyelitis (ie, muscle pain and worsening of existing muscle weakness).
Hepatitis BThe virus causes liver infection and acute illness. Severe illness is rare in children. Fatalities are rare and are more likely in adults. Some people become carriers of the virus, especially children (six in 100). Liver cirrhosis occurs in one in 20 carriers (half of these will die). Liver cancer occurs in one in 10 male carriers and one in 20 female carriers and usually leads to death.
Haemophilus influenzae type bAbout one in 20 patients with meningitis dies and one in three survivors has permanent brain or nerve damage.About one in 100 patients with epiglottitis dies
PneumococcalAbout one in 10 children with pneumococcal meningitis die and one in six survivors will have permanent brain damage. About one in three children will be left with a hearing impairment after pneumococcal meningitis. Pneumonia and septicaemia (blood poisoning) leads to hospitalisation. Less severe illness, such as ear infections, may lead to deafness. Children with medical conditions such as congenital heart disease, some chronic lung diseases, kidney diseases, HIV infection, and children whose immune system is lowered through chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or organ transplant are at higher risk of pneumococcal disease. Children with spinal fluid shunts and with cochlear implants are also at higher risk of pneumococcal disease.
MeaslesCovered above.
MumpsIn about one in ten people it causes meningitis, but it is usually relatively mild. It causes encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in about one in 6000 people, of whom one in 100 will die, and nerve deafness in one in 15,000 people. If infected after puberty, one in 5 males gets testicle inflammation and one in 20 females gets ovary inflammation. In rare cases this leads to infertility.
RubellaFor women in early pregnancy, 85% of babies infected during the first eight weeks after conception will have a major congenital abnormality such as deafness, blindness, brain damage, or a heart defect. This declines to about 10–20% by 16 weeks of the pregnancy. About one in 3000 patients gets thrombocytopaenia (low platelets causing bruising or bleeding). One in 6000 develops encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). This usually occurs in young adults. This may result in death.

Well, they all sound like a barrel of laughs, and perfectly safe. Seriously, the complications from these diseases are serious while the vaccines are relatively safe**.

That’s it for the IAS “philosophies”, while there are good recommendations mixed in (healthy diet, breast feeding) mostly it’s a collection of misinformation, misunderstanding and distortions. I am of two minds about this organisation as a whole, on the one hand I’m a proponent of free speech and that includes topics that I don’t agree with. On the other hand organisations like these have the potential to do great harm, both to individuals and greater society. Balancing these two things can be tricky and where to draw the line between them is not always clear.

On a related note, the Australian based anti-vaccination group the Australian Vaccination Network – has had it’s charitable status revoked. Part of this decision was based on the group’s failure to place a disclaimer on their website stating that it’s purpose was anti-vaccination and that it’s information should not be considered medical advice.

IAS also has charitable status. Under New Zealand law Charities must serve a charitable purpose, as specified by the Charities Act 2005:

Section 5(1) of the Charities Act 2005:
“In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, charitable purpose includes every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community.”

Given that the information distributed is often incorrect or presented in such a way as to misrepresent the facts I consider this organisation to fail both the “educational” and “beneficial” aspects of this definition. As such I would question the validity of it’s charitable status, but that’s for the law to decide not an irritable blogger***.

Finally, for accurate information on vaccines you should head on over to the Immunisation Advisory Centre, which also has a handy list of websites for both Parents and Health professionals.


*Although This can’t be far behind.

**No active intervention is 100% safe, no-one is claiming that.

***Similar to irritable bowel only more annoying.

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