Questionable Motives

January 16, 2012

What’s the harm in believing vaccinations are too risky?

In 2002, the World Health Organization declared measles eradicated from the Americas. In 2011, 763 cases were reported in Canada’s province of Quebec – including 30 children and adults who had been previously vaccinated against the disease – with 89 requiring hospitalization. The cluster was centered in particular schools in Drummondville, with a student population of about 11,000. Some adults were incapacitated for over four months during their recovery and others recovered but with hearing loss. And all of this was preventible.

About 4% of the infected students who had been vaccinated in the outbreak schools contracted measles. Of those children who had not been vaccinated, about 82% contracted the disease which can disfigure and even kill. Of all the students, about 85% had been vaccinated but as we can see, once the vaccination rate falls below about 95% of all children, we start to lose the ‘herd’ immunity (where isolated cases of highly infectious disease do not spread) and all of us – vaccinated and not vaccinated – become endangered.

Why do parents opt their children out from receiving vaccinations? Well, because they would prefer to not run the risk of exposing their children to unnecessary harm from vaccinations. What is this risk? Fevers from the MMR shot (measles, mumps, and rubella) run about 1 in 168 that result in a hospital visit. About one in a million will develop encephalitis (a potentially deadly inflammation of the brain). About one in a thousand with measles will develop encephalitis. The means that the risk for this potentially deadly result is thousand times greater for children exposed to highly contagious diseases whose parents decided vaccinations were too risky.

Let’s look for a moment at the numbers of children who contracted highly contagious and common childhood diseases PER PEAK YEAR before and after vaccinations became standardized prior to 2011 (from the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion):

Rubella: 69,000 cases compared to 9

Polio: 20,000 cases compared to 0

Mumps: 52,000 cases compared to 32

Measles: 300,000 cases compared to 7

Diptheria: 9,000 cases compared to 1

Obviously, parents who decide the risk is too high from vaccinations are not balancing that risk with what’s true in reality, that the risk from getting these common diseases is not only vastly greater but far more deadly once contracted.

So which parents aren’t vaccinating their children? The poor? The uneducated? Those from broken homes? Those from minorities?


Today’s non vaccinated kids are most likely from white, affluent, with a married mother and father with a college education. These fine upstanding folk are more likely to seek alternative healthcare and use the internet more as an information source. They also tend to live closer together with like-minded people, usually drawn together by some alternative school, church, or politician. This is why outbreaks of preventable diseases usually occurs in geographical pockets (New England journal of Medicine, 2009).

Now let us consider Tajikistan in 2010, previously declared polio free in 2002, with a vaccination rate for polio at about 87%. Now they have a polio outbreak that has no cure, causes paralysis, and often ends in death. In an editorial from the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the similar risk we face in Canada, it tells us:

“We are only one asymptomatic infected traveller away from an outbreak because of low vaccination rates.”

We know vaccination rates are too low. We know that we put EVERYBODY at greater risk for these highly contagious diseases when the rate falls below a minimum of 90% (current estimates put the rate in Canada at about 62% for two-years-olds up to date for all standard vaccinations). We also know outbreaks can and do happen and these risks of not vaccinating everybody are vastly greater than complications from the vaccines themselves. So what is stopping responsible parents from not only protecting their children but doing their civic duty to the rest of the nation?

In the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick (health care is a provincial matter), children must be vaccinated to attend public school. But parents are allowed to (and do) opt out based on medical concerns. Unfortunately, parents can also opt out for religious beliefs as well as matters of conscience! So although there is a legitimate reason for medical considerations backed up by excellent evidence of harm, there is no equivalent evidence on which to base religious or conscience matters.

Matters of conscience are based on a belief that the correlation of childhood health problems stemming from autism, learning disabilities, asthma, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, allergic and anaphylactic disorders, neuroimmune and autoimmune disorders and other chronic diseases indicates causation with vaccinations.

This belief is wrong. It is dangerous. It is woo. There is no good evidence to back up these claims but exhaustive evidence that they are not causally linked. The conclusion is clear:

There is no excuse for maintaining such willful ignorance and blind stupidity for  not vaccinating children today (with an exemption for medical reasons) except by elevating a trust in faith over and in conflict with evidence from reality… which is yet another in a long list of examples of private faith being exercised in the public domain that causes very real harm to very real people.


  1. “parents can also opt out for religious beliefs as well as matters of conscience!”, and “Matters of conscience are based on a belief.”

    The word “belief” is the operative word in both cases, and as you say, both reasons (excuses) for not protecting children are based on woo, but are very difficult to argue against. Belief is not knowledge and most beliefs are as unsupported by facts as the beliefs asserted in this song

    Comment by Veronica Abbass — January 16, 2012 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

    • Just so. And the salient point is that belief is just as likely to cause harm as it does comfort. Belief too often is not innocuous in practice.

      Comment by tildeb — January 16, 2012 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  2. When I used to teach statistics my opening line on the first day of class was, “You suck at probability.” I would then go through several demonstrations to illustrate the point. I was never demonstrated to be incorrect. They all sucked at probability.

    Unfortunately, humans have a terrible sense of risk/reward analysis when it comes to events with probabilities less than two or three percent.

    If an event is bad and the probability is less than one percent it can’t possibly happen to them. Ever!

    And if an outcome is good and the probability is one in a million, then an odd sense of hope deludes them into thinking it just might happen to them.

    When I tell my friends that buying a lottery ticket does not statistically improve their chances of winning, I’m the stick in the mud. Fortunately, most of them listen to me about the vaccines though.

    Comment by Trick Brown — January 17, 2012 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

    • Probabilities are our friend, although few people seem to really get this. Your experiences match my own…which probably (groan) explains in part my lack of friends.

      Comment by tildeb — January 17, 2012 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  3. So the more people vaccinated, the less chance in a major break out that will touch all people?

    Comment by Xander — January 18, 2012 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

    • Yes. It’s called herd or community immunity. And we know it works. We also know that when the community rate falls below a certain percentage that may seem high (85-95%), then the ENTIRE population is once again at risk. This is why vaccinations should be mandatory; the reasons of the few based on matters of religion or conscience are insufficient in reality-based merit to outweigh the safety of the many.

      Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2012 @ 11:47 am | Reply

      • Thought you were a natural selection type of person. =D.

        What happens when the vaccinations provide altered effects, like autism? I am not against vaccinations, but there is more concern coming out that ties back to the vaccinations themselves.

        Comment by Xander — January 19, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

      • It’s because I understand natural selection that I have great confidence in the science that helps to protect us from it. Natural selection is brutal. I have no problem with corrective lenses.

        There is zero connection between vaccinations and autism. This has been studied up the wazoo since the infamous Doctor Wakefield published his study… not only retracted from the Journal that originally allowed it to be published but his medical license stripped. In other words and to be clear there is no evidence that vaccinations cause autism. Vaccinations do carry some risk but these risks are insignificant compared to the benefit against much greater risks they provide.

        Comment by tildeb — January 19, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  4. So the more people vaccinated, the less chance in a major break out that will touch all people?

    Perfect. You get it.

    Some people such as very young babies or very sick people cannot have vaccinations. They rely upon “the herd” protecting them. The more members that herd has, the safer the weaker ones are.
    Not being vaccinated puts not only yourself at grave risk it also increases the risk factor for others that (through no fault of their own) can’t be vaccinated.
    For healthy anti-science type people to rely upon herd immunity is selfish and ultimately destroys the very herd they are betting on.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — January 19, 2012 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

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