Tag Archives: medicine

The great vaccination scare

Most of you will have heard of the MMR vaccine controversy. A man, Dr. Wakefield, suggested that the MMR vaccination increased the likelihood of autism in infants and children. People stopped vaccinating their kids, which resulted in a few thousand cases and a few deaths. All of them could have been avoided, had it not been for Dr. Wakefield.

As we know, people don’t learn from their mistakes, the deep-rooted fear still possesses them. In a previous blog entry, I talked about my homeopath/M.D. aunt, among other things. She’s a lot of things I could make fun of, but one of the things that makes me sad is that she also opposes vaccines. She went to Kenya without a single vaccination, even though yellow fever is a deadly disease. Her whole family is the same, they all oppose vaccinations.
Recently, I talked to a friend of mine. She’s also against vaccinations, because they can “harm your immune system”.

Let’s look at anti-vaccers claims:

Vaccines are not effective, vaccines are not safe, vaccines are not moral or vaccines are against my religion.

We can dismiss the last two claims out of hand. If you don’t want to use them due to your religion then your religion is pretty fucked up.
I also reject the case for personal liberty. If your idiocy is putting other people at risk, you have no say. Period. Your rights should be stripped away to protect the rest of the population.

So we’re left with two questions:

1) Are vaccines effective?

2) Are vaccines safe?

The efficacy-question is easily answered: Vaccines are among the few things to come out of the pharma-industry that are so very obviously effective that we shouldn’t even have to think about this.

Forbes recently posted a short article on the topic. The following info-graphic was compiled from a recent article, linked in the Forbes-post.

Vaccines Info-graphic

Smallpox was once one of the most prolific killers, with an estimated 300-500 million killed just from Smallpox alone. And now, it’s virtually eradicated.

Thanks to vaccines? I think the above is ample evidence to that extent, but there’s more. The following graphic (Wikipedia) was compiled for the prevalence of rubella, but it could equally have been compiled for any other vaccine. It always follows the same path: A vaccine is introduced and given, the prevalence of the disease goes down.

Prevalence of rubella


So on to the second argument: Safety.

When I was a baby, I was immunized against MMR. The batch I received was tainted, I fell ill. I could have died, but was given medication and survived. But even in the best of circumstances, people can have adverse reactions to the immunizations.

Here’s the deal though: These reactions are incredibly unlikely to happen.
A paper from a  few years ago discussed this and came up with the following conclusion: “[T]he expressed doubts about the safety of vaccines are unjustified.”
That’s it really. Vaccines are an effective and safe way to counter several potentially deadly diseases. To eradicate these diseases, we all need to take the vaccines. If you don’t immunize yourself, you not only put yourself at risk but also the rest of the population, by allowing the disease to survive.

I don’t think any argument can be made that vaccinations are dangerous or ineffective. If you think there is, please, I need a laugh right about now.

What’s the harm?

This will be my first post on alternative medicine. In it, I will try to cover the prominent excuse people give when taking things like homeopathy: “If it doesn’t help me, at least it won’t hurt me”, otherwise known as “what’s the harm?”.

Edzard Ernst, the first Professor of Complementary Medicine (University of Exter) to ever exist, defined complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as “health care which lies for the most part outside the mainstream of conventional medicine”. Alternative medicine, as defined by nsf.gov, refers to “all treatments that have not been proven effective using scientific methods”.

The opposite of the above two is “evidence-based medicine”, defined as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”. (I’ll take a look at THAT much, much later.)

With the definitions out of the way, let’s look at what proponents of alternative medicine propose, using homeopathy as an example: Proponents of homeopathy are often heard to say that homeopathy has no side effects.*

So, the reasoning goes, if it can’t harm you, you can just take it anyway. (I’ll assume, for the sake of this post, that alternative medicine has no beneficial effects what so ever. I’ll explore this in later posts.)

There are two rebuttals to this:

1) Spending money on alternative treatments can result in you not having money for proper medication. Approximately $34 billion are spent on CAM in the US alone. A direct comparison of a homeopathic fever remedy and ibuprofen showed that the homeopathic remedy cost $7.05, while ibuprofen cost $6.98. That’s not a huge difference and it also doesn’t address whether the homeopathic remedy will actually help against the fever. The difference, $0.07, is negligible, but in favour of the evidence-based treatment.

I might make a later post detailing the cost of the alternative treatment vs the evidence-based treatment, but for now even a cursory look at common treatments shows that “alternative medicine is less expensive than evidence-based medicine” is, at best, misleading.

2) Spending time on alternative treatments can delay access to real treatment.

Bob Marley didn’t allow the amputation of his cancerous toe due to religious reasons and sought out alternative treatments. He died. Former President Warren G. Harding died after his homeopathic practitioner did some weird stuff on him.

In total, What’s the harm? documents around 370,000 deaths, 305,000 injured and nearly $3 billion in economic damages due to pseudo-science, of which surely more than half can be traced back to CAM.

So the next time someone tells you to go to a practitioner of CAM, politely decline, show them the above website and go to a real, licensed doctor. They’re far from perfect, but at least they can do some things right.


*It must be noted at this point that any and every remedy, be it a placebo or a real remedy, can have side effects due to the nocebo effect. What is meant is “no side effect due to the active ingredient”.

Future projects on the topic:

In my next post, I’ll look at why studies in medicine are important.
My third post will deal with a few alternative treatments and look at their benefits.
A series of posts sometime in the future will look at evidence-based medicine, what it is and how much evidence there really is.