I spend entirely too much time on Twitter reading and participating in arguments with anti-vaxers. This is not to convince them they’re wrong so much as to convince fence-sitters and lurkers they’re wrong. Because they are. Their arguments go around in circles so fast, you could get whiplash trying to follow them. I’m going to try to compose a post that follows some order despite the subject matter being so disordered.
Anti-vaxers can’t decide what’s wrong with vaccines
First there was Wakefield…and the argument that the MMR vaccine caused autism. It’s been widely debunked by many large, well-designed studies, but that means nothing to the anti-vax community. So little that they went looking for something that the researchers had missed, like thimerosal. Which wasn’t in the MMR, and which has been also thoroughly tested, and whose removal from all childhood vaccines besides flu had no effect on the rates of autism diagnosis. Anti-vaxers like to call it mercury and equate this ethyl mercury with methyl mercury or even elemental mercury so that the miniscule amount that’s in a vaccine that you can get without it is so neurotoxic that getting a single flu vaccine is even more dangerous than getting all the vaccines before thimerosal was removed from them.
Well, something has to cause autism, right? So it’s the aluminum adjuvants! You can explain all you want about the ubiquity of aluminum in the environment, the amount in our brains that we tolerate just fine that far exceeds the amount in a vaccine, the fact that there is more aluminum in what we eat and breathe every day than in a full course of vaccines over years, or that the only people who’ve ever shown deleterious effects from aluminum have had renal failure or renal failure plus parenteral nutrition.
And again, they misrepresent aluminum adjuvants as elemental aluminum. The adjuvants are a compound that’s designed to stimulate an immune response and then get flushed out by the kidneys in short order. Anti-vaxers’ arguments frequently depend on a deliberate misunderstanding of chemical compounding. One I butted heads with frequently declared “pro-vaxers think aluminum is salt!” when presented with both the explanation of how the adjuvant is an aluminum salt, not elemental aluminum, but also with the example of how dangerous sodium is on its own, but how safe it is when combined with a chloride to make table salt. You can’t make this stuff up. They want to take the aluminum hydroxide out of the vaccines, but that means using more of the antigen or using a live virus instead of a weakened or killed one…so clearly if we did that, the vaccines would be even less safe, so we shouldn’t have them at all! You can’t win here.
They’ll move the goalposts over to formaldehyde. As with ethyl mercury and aluminum hydroxide, no amount of telling them about the dose making the poison will have an impact. And as with aluminum, no amount of comparing natural levels of exposure will convince them that they survive worse than vaccines. The amount of formaldehyde inn our bodies is already several thousand times higher than what’s in a vaccine, and is absolutely vital for cell reproduction. As well, the most dangerous way to be exposed to formaldehyde is through the lungs. Some anti-vaxers will reiterate the injection vs. ingestion trope here, forgetting entirely that vaccines aren’t inhaled. Tell them that baby’s going to breathe in a ton of formaldehyde from the new clothes and sheets and stuffed toys than he’s going to get from a vaccine, and you’ll get all kinds of crazy responses. Or blocked.
Now, when it’s actually penetrated to one or two of them that these individual ingredients are not toxic or not toxic in the amounts given in vaccines, they will often turn to “synchronous toxicity,” which means that it’s THE COMBINATION of all of these at once that creates a devastating neurotoxin. At this point, they will probably have told you that since there are no studies of the individual ingredients vs. saline (the only placebo they will accept) that we need to look into synchronous toxicity. Forget that the vaccines are tested for this every time they’re not tested vs. saline. Or that we have decades of clinical data to show that VACCINES ARE SAFE AND DON’T CAUSE AUTISM. I suppose we’ll have to devise tests on every possible combination of ingredients using saline as a placebo until we get the results the anti-vaxers want.
Anti-vaxers will read only poorly designed studies
They will also misinterpret good studies and cite them as proof of their anti-vax claims, not knowing that the studies actually contradict them.
Their favorite studies on ethyl mercury are the ones that say “since we didn’t have information on the toxicity of ethyl mercury, we substituted the numbers for methyl mercury.” If you give them the actual information on ethyl mercury, they’ll find a reason to dismiss it or ignore it entirely. Or block you.
They still insist that the studies that seemed to indicate higher levels of aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients (currently not considered supportive of causation) are clearly also supportive of less than a microgram of aluminum in a vaccine causing ASD. They will play math games that make it look like all the vaccines are given at once so as to compare it to a single day of exposure from food, or they’ll insist that “injection is different from ingestion” as if that causes the aluminum in a vaccine to multiply from less than a microgram to several milligrams. A study comparing different kinds of aluminum adjuvants using cells in a petri dish becomes concrete evidence that all adjuvants immediately cause irreversible brain damage.
While they bang the drum of “injected vs. ingested,” they’ll dig up information on the results of exposure to high levels of inhaled formaldehyde and insist that the trace amounts of formaldehyde will, guaranteed, produce equivalent results. They can’t explain, though, why morticians and scientists who work with preserved large specimens, or people who work with textiles don’t develop autism.
As I said above regarding “synchronous toxicity,” you can provide them with long lists of studies of the individual ingredients, combinations of ingredients, individual vaccines, combination vaccines, and they simply will refuse to read them. Some dismiss them out of hand because of some perceived conflict of interest (this came from the CDC! CORRUPT!!) while others will read only the title and make all their assumptions from there. Sometimes they’ll peek at the abstract, select a sentence or a few words that they can interpret as admission of danger or doubt, screenshot it and share it as if this proves their point. On rare occasions, they’ll skim through the study with the same motivation as they had for the abstract, picking a fragment that has no impact on the data, but that they think changes everything. What they will not do is read anything critically or learn enough science to understand what constitutes a good study.
They pretend that they like diseases better than vaccines
I say this because liking the diseases involves a fair amount of mental gymnastics to paint the diseases as benign. If you tell them that worldwide, over 130,000 people died from measles, they will dutifully explain that those are only people in third world countries (they’re not) or with compromised immune systems (also wrong) or “poor health,” which boils down to victim blaming for not eating what they’re supposed to or jogging every day or whatever. Don’t ask an anti-vaxer to define “health.” You’ll never get out of that rabbit hole.
Playing with statistics is one of their favorite ways to downplay the danger of disease. They don’t want worldwide stats, they want the number of people who died in an area with high vaccine compliance during certain years. They don’t care about morbidity, only mortality, and don’t want to see outcomes based on numbers of cases if numbers based on total population better suit their narrative. They point to relatives who survived a given disease as proof that disease is harmless, and refuse to acknowledge that there are still plenty of people who lived through the epidemics and remember the people who didn’t.
One of the weirder things they argue is the dangers of “shedding.” They claim to want their kids to get “natural immunity” to preventable disease by getting the diseases themselves. They never quite explain how natural immunity to rabies or tetanus is going to help their children survive them the next time, though. Anyway, in order to prove how frightened they are of vaccines and “vaccine injury,” they support the idea that the recently vaxed will shed a disease simply by being in the same room as their precious unvaxed children. Now, shedding is possible, but only in two vaccines – rotavirus and oral polio (not given in the US anymore.) In order for these to shed, you need direct contact with urine or feces. People who get a reaction to a live virus vaccine can theoretically “shed” a weakened form of the disease, but try finding verified cases of that (I found one on PubMed after a good amount of searching.)
So here it is that they want their kids to get diseases that have serious consequences, but are terrified that they might be exposed (somehow) to a weakened form that won’t actually cause the disease. At the pediatrician’s office, they could catch measles from an infected child who left a couple of hours ago, but they’re scared of the baby that just got the MMR.
To further reinforce their fears, they have increased the number of conditions that constitute “vaccine injury” to the point that pretty much any disease or disorder is caused by vaccines no matter that it predates vaccines or has a known cause or hasn’t increased except by population increases. They also increase figures for conditions that they say are caused by vaccines (like the diseases themselves) by adding unrelated diagnoses to things like polio while also saying that the reason we see drops in VPDs in areas with high vaccine compliance is because doctors are diagnosing VPDs as other diseases to cover up the “fact” that vaccines don’t work. They are, again, terrified that their children will catch these diseases (the ones being vaccinated against, or the ones they imagine the vaccines cause) while still espousing the idea that catching these diseases is a good thing for their kids’ immune systems.
Just keep arguing
As pointless as it is to argue with people who have developed this amazing ability to resolve cognitive dissonance by ignoring it, it’s not pointless to argue with them. What you see in these discussions is this lunatic fringe, but others are reading. If those others are not entirely convinced of your point by your sharing of factual information and scientific support, they’ll quite possibly be turned away by the contorted, angry, constantly self-contradictory arguments of the anti-vaxers with whom you’re engaged. Let them dig their own holes. Keep calm and keep bringing on the science. Herd Immunity depends on it.