Now I’ve seen it all: An anti-vaccine children’s book

I’ve been so busy writing about things like Dr. Stanislaw Burzysnki’s highly exaggerated cancer claims, which have become a new favorite topic of mine despite the fact that Dr. Burzynski himself has been plying his “alternative” cancer treatments for over three decades, and one of my long time topics, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), that I actually missed a couple of vaccine-related posts that would normally affect me the way catnip affects cats. Also, after two days of doing even longer than the usual Orac-ian screeds, one of which required quite a bit of research, it’s time for a bit of lighter fare.

And, again, the anti-vaccine movement provides.

It’s always mildly embarrassing to me whenever bloggers whose usual areas of interest aren’t the antivaccine movement pick up on a particularly loony bit of anti-vaccine hysteria and are all over it before I am, given that I tend to pride myself on having my finger on the pulse of the anti-vaccine movement to the point where I normally am among the first to pick up on these things. Whether or not that is, in fact, anything I should actually be proud of is, of course, another question. Very long time readers might recall that many years ago (well, more than six, to be precise), I came across a book by an anti-vaccine activist who apparently fancied himself a science fiction writer. I’m referring to the hilarious conspiracy novel The Vaccine Aliens by Ray Gallup, which tells the tale of a father whose child develops autism after (of course!) getting the MMR vaccine and then who later stumbles upon the reason why. It turns out that not only does the MMR vaccine cause autism, but that it’s a plot by shape-shifting aliens to destroy the human race with vaccines. I kid you not. As I so frequently say about the loonier depths of the anti-vaccine movement, you just can’t make this stuff up. At least, I can’t, although apparently people like Ray Gallup can. David Icke, had he known of this novel, would have been proud.

However, camp like The Vaccine Aliens, as hilariously inept as it was, is far more amusing than it is dangerous. No one, not even anti-vaccine activists, takes it seriously, with the possible exception of David Icke, who is a crank that many other cranks like to look down upon in order to reassure themselves that, no matter how little respect they get, at least they’re not as ridiculed as David Icke. What’s not so amusing are books like this one, a children’s book by Stephanie Messenger entitled Melanie’s Marvelous Measles:

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The blurb advertising the book reads:

This book takes children aged 4 – 10 years on a journey of discovering about the ineffectiveness of vaccinations, while teaching them to embrace childhood disease, heal if they get a disease, and build their immune systems naturally.

That’s right. What we have here is a children’s book designed to promote anti-vaccine views. Even worse, it explicitly tries to tell children to “embrace childhood disease.” Yeah, I’m sure children with whooping cough who are coughing so hard that they can’t catch their breath for hours on end, with haemophilus influenza type b who develop pneumonia or meningitis, with polio who develop paralysis, or with measles who develop pneumonia or subacute sclerosing panencephalitis will feel happy to “embrace childhood disease,” at least those who don’t end up dead, who can’t embrace anything other than the grave. Too bad such diseases don’t give them a chance to “build their immune system naturally.” As much as people like Messenger might, The Secret-like, wish otherwise, nature doesn’t listen to their fantastical thinking, and microbes that cause vaccine-preventable diseases are not swayed by their wishes.

From my perspective, sentiments like this one, which, deny it as they might, many anti-vaccine parents subscribe two, some of whom will even explicitly admit as much, strike me more than anything else as a twisted misunderstanding of evolution, in which it’s “survival of the fittest” combined with a Nietzschean “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This attitude boils down to, in essence: Screw all those other kids who suffer severe complications or even death due to vaccine-preventable diseases! If your child suffers such consequences, he must have been worthless and weak (no doubt thanks to your not using enough woo to “boost his immune system naturally), and maybe surviving a serious disease will make him stronger. Of course, as Christopher Hitchens so eloquently put it recently, the Nietzschean claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” is such utter nonsense that it’s hard to understand why anyone can believe it otherwise. As Hitchens points out using as an example his own esophageal cancer that is not-so-slowly killing him, there “are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” Several vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses certainly fall into that category. SSPE after measles, for instance.

It’s also hard not to point out here that the very reason that parents of unvaccinated children can get away with not vaccinating and labor under the delusion that their children are so much healthier than vaccinated children (they aren’t) is because nearly everyone else does vaccinate. Herd immunity is a wonderful thing, and many anti-vaccine parents, either knowingly or not, “hide in the herd.” They might not be so blithe about the glories of vaccine-preventable diseases if they actually saw the complications diseases like the measles, pertussis, Hib, and the like, as our grandparents and great grandparents did. Or maybe they wouldn’t. After all, for some of these diseases serious complications are relatively uncommon, with most children surviving the disease with no sequelae, and for those in which such complications are not, think of the “natural immunity” the survivors develop! After all, that which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?

Most of the time, no.

Beliefs that living a healthy lifestyle, getting enough exercise, and taking the right vitamins and supplements will magically render their children “naturally immune” to diseases like the measles, pertussis, Hib, and other vaccine-preventable diseases are the happy delusions (to anti-vaccinationists) that allow the author of this book, Stephanie Messenger, to proclaim things like this:

I have 3 healthy, totally unvaccinated children, who have never had a childhood disease. Unlike their vaccinated friends who have often succumb to the diseases they have been vaccinated against. I kept these children fit and well using what is provided by nature – natural foods, clean water, sunshine, clean air, exercise, adequate sleep and a loving and nurturing environment.

Confirmation bias, much, Stephanie?

Of course, clean water, sunshine, clean air, exercise, adequate sleep, and a loving and nurturing environment are all good things, as far as children’s health goes. No one claims otherwise. They are not, however, enough. Messenger and her children are fortunate enough to live in a population where vaccine uptake levels are high, which is almost certainly the real reason why she’s been fortunate enough that her last three children have not contracted any vaccine-preventable childhood diseases. It’s been pointed out that Messenger is a friend of Meryl Dorey, founder of the rabidly anti-vaccine group, the Australian Vaccination Network and is active in the Australian anti-vaccine movement, having written a book with Dory herself entitled Vaccination roulette: experiences, risks and alternatives.

One aspect of this book that I haven’t seen anyone else touch upon is Messenger’s story as described on her website. To put it briefly, Messenger blames vaccines for the death of her child of a condition that isn’t identified and is unclear. The death of a child is a horrible thing, something no parent should have to watch and no child should have to suffer. Unfortunately, Messenger’s tragedy has led her to become an anti-vaccine activist because, searching for a reason for the death of her baby, she latched on to vaccines as the cause:

This is my journey….

I can’t say I believed in vaccination. I knew nothing about it, but had it done anyway. It’s what you do, right? You do what doctors and baby health clinics tell you and what your parents and the media advise you to do. Well I did it, without so much as a question or thought into it. Within moments of my son receiving his immunisations he was screaming. This continued for most of the day and when he wasn’t screaming he was crying. This was unusual as he was a very happy, placid baby, who was already rolling over at 8 weeks and gooing and gahing at the first sight of his mother. The doctor told me his reactions were ‘normal’ and he’d be OK in a couple of days.

After the first day he had almost recovered with only some irritability and restlessness noticeable. As the weeks passed he continued to reach milestones and all appeared OK.

So notice here that Messenger’s baby appears to have had a mild reaction to a vaccine that lasted a day or two, after which he recovered and continued to reach all of his milestones.

After the next round of vaccinations at four months of age, apparently her son started vomiting and having seizures, after which he began a slow deterioration that ultimately led to his death. it’s a sad story, and it’s hard not to sympathize with Messenger and her child, but let’s not let sympathy cloud our critical thinking skills and lead us to accept her anecdote uncritically or her conclusion that vaccines killed her baby. As is the case with most anecdotes, not enough information is given to let us know what happened. No diagnosis is given, and apparently doctors couldn’t come to a diagnosis. From what I could glean from Messenger’s story, my first thought was whether this child had an inborn error of metabolism of some kind, several of which first manifest themselves in the form of seizures in infancy. Whether that’s what Messenger’s baby had or not, who knows? It might explain why physicians had a hard time diagnosing it. These sorts of disorders are rare causes of seizures and neurologic deterioration, although many of them are associated with seizures. It’s certainly not clear from Messenger’s story whether her baby’s deterioration was cause by vaccines; confirmation bias likely clouds her memory. In any event, she is utterly convinced that vaccines killed her child:

Vaccination killed him, I have no doubt. If he crawled under the sink and drank the same poisonous concoction of heavy metals, formaldehyde, foreign proteins, multiple viruses and a host of other toxins, the emergency room would have called it poisoning. Because it was injected into his body, it’s called ‘a coincidence’! Funny about that, and I have since met many parents with similar stories.

She concludes:

My unvaccinated children are alive and well and my vaccinated child is dead! That’s what I know and live with every day.

Against an emotional response like this, all the skeptics in the world labor in vain. It is about as unlikely that we’ll ever convince Messenger that she is wrong about vaccines as it is that there is a single molecule of a homeopathic remedy being left in a 30C dilution. We can and must, however, combat her message. As sympathetic as we might be about her loss, that loss mustn’t stop skeptics from combatting Messenger’s spreading of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, such as claims that vaccines cause SIDS (they don’t; in fact they are probably protective against it) and flagrant use of the emotional power of her story to convince parents that vaccines killed her child and therefore they should not vaccinate.

The death of a single child, whatever the cause, is a tragedy. If we want to see a lot more of these tragedies, all we have to do is to be complacent and let the vaccination rate fall too far below herd enormity.