The flu jab: and people get stupider…

I took my two-year-old to the doctor today for a persistent cough, and while in the waiting room I overheard this nugget from an old woman to her friend:

‘They want me to have the flu jab but I said no. They’re very bad for you. Last time I had it, it gave me the flu. And they’ve got mercury in them. No thank you very much!’

The irony is strong with this one…

I’ve already discussed the belief that MMR causes autism (it doesn’t), the health benefits of amber necklaces (none), and the efficacy of homeopathy (zero), so I might as well bust some myths about the flu jab while I’m at it.

1. They give you flu

No, they don’t. While some ‘live’ vaccines give you a small dose of a virus in order to build your immunity as your body fights it, the flu jab isn’t one of those. Instead, it gives you inert, inactive parts of the virus – enough for your body to recognise it and start producing antibodies against it without risking being infected by it.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t still catch the flu from another source, because there are hundreds of different strains of the virus and it’d be prohibitively expensive to vaccinate against all of them. Instead, the way the vaccination program works is that the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies how many people are infected by each strain around the world and therefore the most likely strains to infect people in the coming season. For the autumn jabs, the strains are identified in February, and then national bodies decide which of them to vaccinate against and spend six months making it. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best system we’ve got.

2. They’re bad for you

No, they’re not. You know what’s bad for you? Flu. True, the flu jab can give you ‘flu-like symptoms’ for a couple of days – muscle aches and a mild temperature – but influenza is a far more serious illness. It’s much worse than a ‘heavy cold’. The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic after the First World War infected 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million. Even today, in the UK it’s estimated that more than 600 people die of flu each year, rising to more than 10,000 in some years, mostly from vulnerable groups like young children and the elderly.

Furthermore, there are three main types of flu: A, B and C. Type C is the mild form that many people might catch and think, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad.’ If they catch either of the other two, they wouldn’t be so dismissive.

3. They contain mercury

No, they don’t. Oh, you’re talking about thiomersal? Still no. Thiomersal (or thimerosal) is a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, but only in multi-dose vials. Other than some very rare cases, the flu jab is provided in single-dose vials or pre-filled syringes. Since these are sealed units, they aren’t vulnerable to contamination and therefore don’t need thiomersal. So, no mercury.

And even if they did contain thiomersal, you’re getting worried about the wrong kind of mercury. Thiomersal contains ethylmercury, an organic compound that has never been shown to cause any harmful effects to humans and remains in the blood only a few days before the body excretes it. The type to worry about is methylmercury. That’s the kind that’s toxic to humans, builds up in our bodies over time and is contained in certain fish.

‘But how can mercury be safe? It’s a metal,’ I hear you cry. So is sodium, and chlorine is poisonous, but put them together and you get sodium-chloride, aka salt, which we need to survive. This is chemistry. Substances in compound change the properties of the individual elements.

4. Doctors are evil

Underlying this entire hysteria about MMR causing autism and flu jabs containing mercury and causing flu is the idea that doctors are evil. The drug companies know it’s bad for you, but they do it anyway because they’re chasing the Almighty Dollar, and your doctor is complicit in hiding this awful truth because they’re getting kickbacks from Big Pharma. It’s all a global conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theories are full of holes so big you can drive a truck through them, like that 9/11 was an inside job or that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, but this one is particularly stupid. While it’s true that ‘Big Pharma’ have some pretty questionable ethical standards, and certain doctors are less than trustworthy, is it really likely that every doctor, biologist, biochemist and pharmacist on the planet is carrying out a vast evil upon the whole of mankind? Does every child who grows up with the philanthropic idea of helping people turn into a Machiavellian monster as soon as they set foot in a medical school?

For crying out loud. I watched an episode of Rawhide called ‘The Incident at Red River Station’ which was about exactly this soft of thing. A doctor was trying to vaccinate a small town against smallpox. The townsfolk, a crazed mob with burning torches, called him a witch doctor who was trying to infect them. They instead wanted to rely on their traditional cures of leeches and herbal tea. The result? A whole bunch of them caught smallpox, and it was too late to do anything about it.

This episode was set in the 1860s. It was broadcast in 1960. Are we still going to face this crap in 2060?

MMR and Autism

I’ll lay out my position right at the start so those who have already made up their minds to the contrary are prepared for my vitriol: MMR does not cause autism. The MMR/autism link has no basis in reality. As an autistic father of a neurotypical child who has her MMR tomorrow, I am sick to death of people telling me that vaccinations cause autism, and I will therefore be disparaging towards the anti-vax movement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers as a whole. You have been warned.

There. Now we can get started.

To the average man on the street, the letters MMR and the word autism have been inextricably linked since the early noughties. The media had a field day whipping up a national health scare, frightening parents and misreporting the facts. As a result of this, there seems to be a general undercurrent of feeling that MMR might cause autism, that scientists don’t really know the answer, and that the jury is still out on whether it’s safe or not.

Not true. The jury is in. The jury has been in for years. But news stories about all the studies published in the past decade showing how MMR doesn’t cause autism are far less newsworthy than sobbing, guilt-ridden parents with shattered lives bewailing the fact that a vaccination might have damaged their baby. Thus the one highly questionable, discredited and fraudulent study suggesting a link between MMR and autism has received massive amounts of media coverage, and the rest have received pretty much none at all. And that makes the press equally culpable in the propagation of the anti-MMR scam.

The fact is, the jury should never have been out in the first place as there has never been any evidence to suggest MMR causes autism beyond gut feelings and anecdotes. The thing is, I understand the parents jumping on the anti-vaccination band wagon. To discover your child has autism is obviously a big thing, and when life deals you a random blow, it’s human nature to look around for someone or something to blame. Thanks to a man named Andrew Wakefield, the object of blame became the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.

‘Who is Andrew Wakefield?’ I hear you cry. It might surprise you to learn that he was the lead author of the paper published in the Lancet in 1998 suggesting the link between MMR and autism. Surprising, because perhaps you thought there were numerous studies and a body of evidence that pointed towards this link, rather than one solitary paper based on a test group of a whopping twelve subjects. One paper describing twelve autistic children, eight of whose parents blamed MMR for their autism, provoked a total of 1257 news articles in 2002 alone. That’s like responding to the neighbour’s kid throwing a snowball at you with a full nuclear strike.

Now, I don’t need to tell the intelligent reader that a sample of twelve children is ridiculously small to extrapolate a global theory of cause and effect. Nor do I need to point out that one study, the results of which were never repeated and which were outright contradicted by various meta-analyses of massive data sets, should be described as ‘unreliable’ at best. What I do feel I ought to point out is that not only was Wakefield’s study an anomaly, it was also found to be fraudulent.

There are two key facts you need to know about Andrew Wakefield that might help you judge the efficacy of his work. Firstly, he was paid £435,643 by trial lawyers who wanted evidence to suggest MMR was unsafe, with payments starting a full two years prior to his paper being published. Secondly, he applied for patents for his own vaccine to rival MMR. Therefore, he was paid lots of money to try and prove MMR caused autism, and if he succeeded, he would make tens of millions from his own vaccine. This is what we call a ‘conflict of interest’, something he hid from the Lancet, who said that, had they known, they would never have published the paper.

What’s worse, it was discovered that many of the results in the paper had been manipulated. Diagnoses were adjusted and dates were moved in order to strengthen its conclusions that autistic symptoms started directly after the children received the MMR jab. Furthermore, the parents of eight of the twelve children in the study were already seeking compensation for MMR damaging their children before the study took place. Indeed, they were represented by the same lawyers who paid Wakefield to prove MMR was unsafe. Thus the selection of subjects for the study was far from random. That’s before we mention that Wakefield formed a partnership with one of these parents to market autism tester kits on the back of an MMR scare to rake in a predicted $43 million a year. To say the conclusions of this paper were ‘unreliable’ is an understatement.

Long story short, the General Medical Council said Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, and that his study was improperly conducted. He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and was struck off the medical register. The Lancet then fully retracted the paper. Case closed.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The damage was done. In people’s minds, MMR might cause autism, and so rates of vaccination fell. According to the Psychiatric Times, as a result of Wakefield’s paper the number of cases of measles in the UK rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008, with two deaths. Similarly mumps, very rare before 1999, was up to 5000 cases in January of 2005 alone. The MMR scare therefore caused some very real consequences for thousands of families.

I don’t want to ram the evidence down your throat since it’s ridiculously easy to Google any number of studies rejecting the link between MMR and autism, so I’ll just mention two. A study in Denmark including all children born between January 1991 and December 1998, covering 440,655 children vaccinated with MMR and 96,648 unvaccinated found no difference in the rates of autism or autism spectrum disorders between them. Likewise, a 2012 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Library covered 14,700,000 children and found no causal link between MMR and autism. Which is much more conclusive than a study carried out on a sample of twelve.

Yet despite this evidence, anti-vaxxers still maintain a link between vaccination and autism. They claim that rates of autism are increasing and that their child’s or their friend’s child’s symptoms started around the time of the MMR jab. There must be a link, right?

It’s true that rates of autism are increasing, but not because of an increase in the actual incidence of autism – rather, better screening methods and increased public awareness of autism mean more people are being diagnosed with it. And autistic symptoms often kick in around twelve months – right at the time they have the MMR jabs. As I said before, it’s understandable that parents of autistic children might want to blame something for their child’s condition, however inaccurate that might be.

What I find wholly unacceptable, however, is for celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen , Billy Corgan, Robert De Niro and Donald Trump to repeatedly preach about the dangers of vaccination, ignoring any and all scientific evidence to promote scare stories and misinformation, which has led to epidemic levels of measles and mumps. Why people would choose to listen to a Playboy model, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a drug addict, a Smashing Pumpkin, a man who strapped a boob to his chestand an orange-skinned capitalist who makes sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter, rather than doctors, scientists and the National Autistic Society, is beyond me. In regards to their views on vaccination, these people are more similar to Boko Haram and the Taliban than they realise.

Now, in order to provide balance, I have to point out that no medical intervention is 100% safe. Around 1 in 5000 children who have MMR will suffer febrile seizures, while 1 in 40,000 will develop immune thrombocytopenic purpura and 1 in a million will contract meningitis. However, if you compare this to rates of complications from measles, mumps and rubella – 1 in 1000 with measles will get meningitis and 1 in 5000 will die, while 1 in 40,000 with mumps loses their hearing and 1 in 10,000 will die – then MMR is much safer than the alternative.

I have no qualms or doubts about having my daughter vaccinated. If you’re undecided, that’s okay. All parents have the right to choose what is best for their child. Do some research, weigh up the benefits and the risks. But make sure you choose with your head, not your media-induced irrational fear of giving your child autism. Because MMR does not cause autism.

And don’t get me started on ‘Why can’t we have them as three separate vaccinations?’…