Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Vaccines - The obligatory blog post for every Sceptic blogger

Vaccines -  What can I say that has not already been said by a million other people?

Nothing. So what I will do is regale you with a couple of personal anecdotes derived from discussions I have had with genuinely concerned parents and batshit crazy antivaxxers.

Anecdote 1

Once, many moons ago, a young lad by the name of Bob was travelling down the broad highway of life with health and illness on each side...sorry about that, I'll tell this properly.  I was working on a ward in a Western Sydney hospital (BTW, I am a nurse) when I was approached by a woman who was obviously pregnant.  She was visiting a sick relative and I assumed she was going to ask me something regarding said relatives condition, to get something, etc.

I was taken back when she asked me, a long haired tattooed overweight MALE nurse, about vaccines. Apparently she due to give birth to her first child in a couple of months and was curious about vaccinations, the risks involved and what she should do about it. As someone who is university educated, trained in critical thinking and scientific research, has a profession caring for the health and wellbeing of people AND spends his spare time hanging out with sceptics debunking silliness, I would be considered as someone who is "unqualified" or "with a personal agenda" by the anti-vaxxer movement and therefore should not be seen by anybody seeking the "truth" about vaccines as a reliable source for information.

My first reaction was to stifle the outburst of "VACCINATE YOUR CHILDREN!!!! IF YOU DONT YOU ARE A F#*KING IDIOT!!!!" because this woman was not saying she would not vaccinate, she was asking about vaccinations. So I took a deep breath, relaxed, put a friendly smile on my face and had the following conversation

RevDrBob - "What do YOU know about vaccines?"

Mum2Be - "Well I've read some internet stuff about vaccines and autism, but I thought I would ask some doctors or nurses  before making a decision."

RevDrBob - "Thats the best way to go about these decisions. I can tell you that all the research linking vaccines to autism have been shown to be false and/or flawed studies. The best option would be to talk to a paediatrician, who can supply you with the best information on what vaccines do, what the chances of side effects are, and what can happen if a child is not vaccinated."

Mum2Be - "That is what I have planned to do. There was something on the TV about some people in America, and here, who say that vaccines are bad. Are they doctors?"

RevDrBob - *clears head of thoughts of murder* "Usually they are not doctors. Usually they are parents of children with autism who are looking to blame someone for their child's condition. The few actual doctors who support them are a very small minority of the medical community. You'll hear all sorts of claims such as 'pharmaceutical companies bribe the doctors to give vaccines' or 'there are large amounts of heavy metals in the vaccines'. If you hear these things, I recommend looking up a group on the internet called (insert name of anti-anti-vaxxer group here), and see how those claims are debunked."

The conversation continued along this path for a few more minutes and ended with the woman saying she will talk to her OB/GYN and a paediatrician about vaccines. While I felt she already had the right idea, i.e. talking to a real doctor about vaccines, I couldnt help but feel as if I might have helped that future child to have a greater chance of survival in the harsh reality we call "Life". It makes me feel good inside.

Anecdote 2

 I was at a (unnamed) town fair a few months back when I noticed a 'natural health' stall that had several pamphlets displayed that were advertising Homeopathy, Reiki, Herbal treatments etc. Now to an evidence based medical person such as myself, these are all bad enough. But then I saw the pamhplet for Chelation Therapy (DRAMATIC EVIL MUSIC!!!!).

Chelation Therapy is a legitimate therapy for heavy metal poisoning(1) and iron overload due to transfusions in people who suffer from sickle cell disease(2), among other uses. What it is not good for, however, is curing autism, which is what the pamphlet claimed.

In my research, the only time I have ever found a positive use for chelation therapy for a child with autism was a paper that described a autistic boy who had heavy metal poisoning. The poisoning was not from vaccines, but from lead the boy had ingested because of his pica behaviour(3). One news article from the Journal of the American Medical Association(4) talks about the cancellation of studies into chelation therapy due to unacceptable safety risks, saying that while in one study using rodents showed some increased learning in lead-poisoned animals, it also showed significant long term cognitive impairment.

Anyway, back to my story. I decided to engage the vendors of this stand in a conversation regarding the claims made by the pamphlet. The discussion went back and forth with comments like "You know that doesnt work, right?" and "yes, it does"  to "there is no evidence it works" and "I read about a child in USA who it worked for", so on and so forth. It got around to vaccines, mercury and autism. While I knew I could not sway the opinions of these...purveyors of bullshit...I got louder and louder in my points of discussion, as to be heard by surrounding people and to spike their interest. All my points, while voiced loudly, were evidence based and matter of fact. Then they brought out the big guns...

"You can never be a mother! Mothers know what is best for their child!!!!"

The gates were now open...

Without going into detail, I questioned their claim, referring them to the amount of time spent in research to become a medical professional and inquiring as the source of their research. It ended up with them calling me a child killer, as I am a supporter of vaccinations. I left after a while to peruse other attractions at the fair.

While that "discussion" was my way of releasing stress and making myself feel better by asserting my moral and intellectual superiority over stupid heads, it had an unexpected benefit. A young mother followed me around the fair and caught up to me while I was enjoying some gozleme (mmm...gozleme...) to tell me she had looked at the natural health stall before I arrived. After listening to my discussions from afar, she came to the conclusion that the vendors were not the experts in medical care they claimed to be and that she would be wary about any such people in the future.


anywhoo, thats all from me for this time.

Catch you on the flip side.

The Reverend Doktor Bob

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelation_therapy

(2) Meerpohl, J. J., Antes, G., Rücker, G., Fleeman, N., Niemeyer, C. M., & Bassler, D. (2010). Deferasirox for managing transfusional iron overload in people with sickle cell disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 8.

(3) George, M.,  Heeney, M. M.,  & Woolf, A, D. (2010). Encephalopathy from lead poisoning masquerading as a flu-like syndrome in an autistic child. Pediatric Emergency Care, 26 (5), 370-373.

(4) Mitka, M. (2008). Chelation therapy trials halted. Journal of American Medical Association, 300 (19), 2236.

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