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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