The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Terrible Track Record

April 26, 2013 at 7:40 pm (Anti-Vaccination) (, , , , , , , , )

Anti-vaccinationists have made a wide range of claims about the dangers of vaccines. In spite of the fact that they have generally had neither data nor a plausible mechanism for the claimed effect, several of their claims have been investigated by researchers.

As it turns out, the anti-vaccinationists are remarkably consistent. Time and time again, they are shown to be wrong. I’m not sure how many times a group needs to be wrong before people stop seeing them as credible. Perhaps people need to be reminded of how many times this group has been wrong?

Vaccines and autism

Gerber and Offit published a paper titled “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses” in 2009, which neatly summarised some of the various claims being made by anti-vaccinationists.

For MMR, the authors discuss a number of different studies undertaken by researchers in different countries (in spite of the fact that “no data supporting an association between MMR vaccine and autism existed and a plausible biological mechanism was lacking”). Although none of these studies alone provides perfect, definitive proof that MMR does not cause autism, when you look at them together you can see that the evidence consistently points to the anti-vaccine movement as being wrong.

On thimerosal, the authors write that “Despite the biological implausibility of the contention that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism, 7 studies—again descriptive or observational—were performed”.  Again, studies consistently failed to find the claimed association.

In the first two cases, we can see that there are some noteworthy similarities – a lack of either data or a plausible mechanism for the claims of the anti-vaccine movement, research nonetheless being undertaken, and studies finding no evidence to support the claims.

In the third case, where anti-vaccinationists had claimed the problem was too many vaccines, we once again see a lack of biological plausibility. This time, the authors referred to data showing: that vaccines do not overwhelm the immune system; that multiple vaccinations do not weaken the immune system; and that autism is not an immune-mediated disease.

Regarding the three hypotheses, Gerber and Offit concluded that:

These studies [into MMR and thimerosal], in concert with the biological implausibility that vaccines overwhelm a child’s immune system, have effectively dismissed the notion that vaccines cause autism. Further studies on the cause or causes of autism should focus on more-promising leads.

Fast-forward to 2013 and we see new research… into ‘too many vaccines’. Guess what? Increasing Exposure to Antibody-Stimulating Proteins and Polysaccharides in Vaccines Is Not Associated with Risk of Autism. Once again, in spite of the anti-vaccine movement having neither data nor a plausible mechanism, research has been conducted into their claim. Once again, the evidence does not support their claim.

Other conditions

I’m far from the only person to have noticed that the anti-vaccine movement is consistently wrong. Among others, Rümke and Visser got there before me. I should point out that I have not read the full text of their paper, but I have looked into some of the claims referred to by the authors (regarding autism, SIDS and multiple sclerosis). Here’s what they say about anti-vaccine scares:

During recent years a scala of diseases or symptoms have been associated with vaccination (presumed side effects). Careful and extensive investigations have shown that such hypotheses could not be supported. Examples are allergic diseases as asthma, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis (after hepatitis B vaccination), autism and inflammatory bowel disease (after MMR vaccination) and sudden infant death syndrome.

As I say, I’m not sure how many times a group needs to be wrong before people stop seeing them as credible. But then, we don’t seem to be very good at learning from vaccine scares.

History repeating…

Early 1970s: a lone maverick claims a vaccine is causing harm to children. The media pick up on the story and run with it. Within a few years vaccine coverage drops from 77-81% (1966 to 1972) to a low of 31% by 1976 – and does not get back above 50% until 1980. It turns out that the case series that the maverick (and the media) caused a panic over included children who had symptoms before they had been vaccinated. Also, ridiculously, it apparently included children who hadn’t even had the pertussis vaccine that the scare was about.

Late 1990s: a lone maverick claims a vaccine is causing harm to children. The media pick up on the story and run with it. Vaccine coverage drops (over six years) from 91% to 80%. It turns out that the case series that the maverick (and the media) caused a panic over included children who had symptoms before they had been vaccinated.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere. Don’t get too excited about case series? Be wary of lone mavericks making claims about the dangers of vaccines? Don’t take anything newspapers publish on health too seriously? Actually, there are probably several lessons in there.

Once again, I’m sure I’m not the only person, or the first, to have noticed the similarities. Brian Deer has written about both cases (John Wilson and Andrew Wakefield being the lone mavericks in question).


The anti-vaccine movement has been wrong, wrong and wrong again (actually, that’s probably not enough “wrongs” – I’m not sure quite how many there should be). I expect that, unless the movement takes the unlikely step of ceasing to offer implausible hypotheses about the dangers of vaccines, they will be wrong again. Watch this space.


  1. Liz Ditz (@lizditz) said,

    I shared it on FB and twitter.

    Re the anti-vaccine movement: is it possible to be fractally wrong and “not even wrong” at the same time?

  2. This Just In: Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism | unnecessarywisdom said,

    […] The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Terrible Track Record ( […]

  3. Stuff and Nonsense on the track record of the anti-vax movement » Butterflies and Wheels said,

    […] Have a useful post listing times the anti-vaccination movement has been wrong. […]

  4. jdc325 said,

    Thanks Liz.

    I’ve been wondering when the anti-vaxxers were going to turn up with counter-examples of the movement getting things right. Still wondering.

  5. lowell12345 said,

    We have all been lied to about the safety of vaccines! The CDC has literally no physiological proof of safety on any level, none!

    The Vaccine Damage Science- (a collection of existing unbiased science ignored by the CDC)—science.html

    Aluminum Adjuvants – Lack of Safety Data – Lack of Aluminum Adjuvant Safety Studies

  6. lowell12345 said,

    Dr Andrew Wakefield – MMR Vaccine – Truth and Reality—mmr-vaccine—truth-and-reality.html

    Biomedical Treatment in Autism (ASD)

    The False Theory of Vaccine Derived – Herd Immunity—herd-immunity.html

    The False Foundations of Modern Medicine

    The Real History of Modern Medicine

    Wake up to reality and the facts, and stop spreading only more of the misleading and false pro vaccine propaganda! The continual increase in numbers of vaccines are doing currently far more harm than good to infants and children and on such a large scale that it is literally criminal.

  7. ChrisP said,

    Lowell Hubbs, how nice to see you drop by. Still into conspiracy theories I see. Some things never change.

  8. RonT said,

    Thanks Lowell. If only I would have known that these sites and fine produced youtube videos existed before I vaccinated my children. I could have ignored all the peer reviewed scientific studies, data and facts. The internet and its information sort of makes the PhD in physiology seem kind of worthless.
    All this new found knowledge, how to process it? Good thing the internet provides that too;

  9. The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Terrible Track Record - txhoudini dot com said,

    […] Full story […]

  10. spiniker said,

    How many times does the CDC or NIH or NHS have to cook up a flu pandemica, waste billions of taxpayers money and still maintain credibility!

    This was supported by medical peer review journals and the media and it still was a complete pile of woo.

    ‘Evidence’, what a joke!

    By the way Jayne’s complete review of the childhood vaccine schedule in the UK being not in the best interests of the child was accepted as sound evidence as a high court expert witness 2009. The GMC had to concede that her evidence was sound and robust.

    So there you have it, one of your high priests holes, the GMC, has accepted that vaccinating children is bullshit.


  11. jdc325 said,

    spiniker, if you were familiar with this blog you would know that I don’t think particularly highly of the GMC. Even if they had accepted that vaccinating children was bullshit (a claim which is itself bullshit) why on earth would you expect me to take their word for it rather than look at the evidence?

    By the way, I think you may have accidentally commented on the wrong post here. The Jayne Donegan article was shredded here:

  12. Force-Frame Vaccination Discussion into False Dichotomy of “Pro” Versus “Anti,” OR Present UNIQUE THIRD Option? - said,

    […] Brian K.: The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Terrible Track Record: […]

  13. Independent on Sunday’s HPV Scare Story | Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] the pair fully understand the damage that these stories can do? I wondered before whether “don’t get too excited about case series” was a lesson that should have been taken from the Wakefield and Wilson cases. I also identified […]

  14. “Pro” and “Anti” Extremists Dominate Almost All Debates About the Use of Vaccinations – said,

    […] The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Terrible Track Record […]

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