How is it that I hadn’t heard of this antivaccine “warrior” before?


One of the depressing things about having dedicated over a decade of one’s life to combatting pseudoscience and quackery is that, no matter how much I think I’ve come to be familiar with all the woo that can be out there and all the players promoting that woo, there are always new people popping up. It’s impossible for one person to keep track of them all. Sometimes, however, there are, for example, antivaccine activists that I haven’t heard of before whom I really think I should have heard of sooner than this. Such is the case with Kate Tietje, who blogs at Modern Alternative Mama. Through her blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and YouTube channel, she’s a veritable font of health misinformation, antivaccine nonsense, and in general promotion of the crunchy “natural” lifestyle that her adopted name suggests. After having perused some of her output, all I could say was: Wow. Tietje equals or surpasses anything I’ve seen at other wretched hives of scum and antivaccine quackery, such as Age of Autism, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, VacTruth, and SaneVax. Given how uninteresting the output of AoA and The Thinking Moms’ Revolution has been lately (seriously, AoA and TMR have been boring), I feel the need to seek out new material and new frontiers.

For example, take a look at this particular post, entitled Dear Vaccine Pushers: I Don’t Vaccinate and You Can’t Make Me. It’s a post that, although dating back to March, perfectly embodies the attitude of a lot of self-important, privileged antivaccinationists who, full of the arrogance of ignorance, think they know better than scientists. She begins by whining that “every time a few people catch a simple disease (like measles or pertussis) — from which the vast, vast majority recover with no issues — we have to start the media circus” and that “the media uses the opportunity to shame, bash, and belittle parents who don’t vaccinate.” Of course, right here, we see the typical downplaying of the seriousness of measles and pertussis, both of which can kill. But, hey, most people recover, so these diseases can’t be so bad. Never mind that the suffering and pain children with pertussis endure with the constant coughing and frequent inability to catch their breath, symptoms that can go on for quite some time. Who cares? Screw ’em! To Tietje, it’s just an excuse for those evil pro-vaccination forces to attack!

So, she decides to attack back:

I’m not going to defend myself against the bullies. I’m not going to throw facts and statistics at you, showing how reasonable my position actually is. (My position, by the way, is that every parent should have the right to choose if they want to vaccinate or not. If you want to, that’s fine.) I’m not going to try to mount an actual logical argument. Because these people are bullies. They are not interested in facts. They are not interested in logic. They are only interested in forcing people to accept their will.

So here you go, vaccine-pushers: I don’t vaccinate, and you can’t make me.

Of course, perusing the rest of Tietje’s blog, I know that she couldn’t present coherent science and facts if she tried. Indeed, I couldn’t tell the difference here, because, despite her assertion that she was done explaining herself, guess what she spends the rest of the post doing? Explaining herself. Badly. For example, get a load of what she says about herd immunity. It’s a veritable cornucopia of ignorant antivaccine talking points:

The biggest reason people want me, and everyone, to vaccinate is herd immunity. They claim that unless 95% or greater of the population is vaccinated, that we all risk these diseases beginning to circulate again wildly — and that the elderly, infants, and immunocompromised will be at serious risk.

Let’s ignore that:

  • Most of the adult population isn’t up to date on boosters and/or never received certain vaccines in the first place
  • Over 95% of children ARE up to date on their vaccines
  • We’ve had major advances in medical science that allow us to treat diseases differently so they’re NOT deadly anymore

But, sure, ignoring all that. Oh no! We might have an uncomfortable week! (And yeah — if your child is immunocompromised, I understand that you want to take extra precautions. I know that nothing in life is simple for you and I’m not trying to make light of that.)

Well, how nice of her to acknowledge that immunocompromised children depend on herd immunity for protection. Of course, in the very next paragraph, she basically says that she doesn’t give a rodent’s posterior about your child, because it’s all about her child. Of course, to a degree it’s possible to understand that parents put their own children first, but her utter lack of concern about other children is—shall we say?—disturbing.

Of course, she has a lot of justifications for her position. For instance, above, she claims that 95% of children are up to date on their vaccines, which is roughly true over, for instance, a whole state. However, if you look more closely, on a more granular level, there are pockets with low vaccine uptake where herd immunity is eroded. Indeed, I’ve discussed such areas in my very own state quite recently and have discussed this problem in California on several occasions. Herd immunity depends upon vaccine uptake in the population with which you interact on a daily basis; i.e., the people who live in your community.

As for advances in medical science, let’s go back, say, 20 years, and think about the time before there was a vaccine for Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib). That’s around the time I was doing my residency, and antibiotics and supportive care were quite good back then. Yet, before the Hib vaccine, according to the CDC, approximately 20,000 children in the United States under 5 years old got life-threatening Hib disease each year, with meningitis being the primary cause of fatality. Other complications included pneumonia, swelling of the throat, sepsis, joint infections, and pericarditis. About 3% – 6% of them died. It was a horrible disease, but, thanks to the vaccine, Hib incidence has declined by 99%, such that it has become so rare that most pediatricians who have trained in the last 20 years have never seen a case. That is a good thing, and it is entirely due to the vaccine. This is a success story well within the memory of more senior pediatricians.

This statement from our “alternative mama” utterly blew out yet another irony meter:

And I’m not asking right now. I’m not willing to put my children at risk on the tiny chance that it might someday prevent another child from getting a disease (that most likely won’t harm him or her).

No, I don’t think it’s selfish to say that. In fact, I think it’s selfish for people to ask me to vaccinate when I’ve made a decision not to. That’s right — you’re being selfish to try to force your will onto me. Vaccines are not without risk. In fact, there are thousands of reports of children who have died or been permanently damaged by vaccines. But vaccine pushers are going to tell me that that doesn’t really happen that often, and it doesn’t really matter, that it’s “worth it” to “save” some other children. (Never mind that vaccine reactions are much more common than most people know, and that severe complications from the disease themselves are quite rare….)

Talk about projection! She’s accusing “vaccine pushers” of basically saying that a few vaccine injuries are a small price to pay to protect other children. That’s a massive straw man, of course. The primary reason to vaccinate is to protect one’s own children, not to contribute to herd immunity. That’s a secondary benefit to society of vaccinating. The reason Tietje attacks the straw man argument that “vaccine pushers” want to vaccinate primarily to produce herd immunity. That’s not the case, but it is not unreasonable to become concerned about herd immunity when vaccine uptake falls too low, particularly for highly contagious diseases like measles. Tietje is, as I said, projecting. In reality, she basically saying, “So what if a few kids die from vaccine-preventable diseases? It’s worth it to preserve my choice not to vaccinate.” Of course, vaccine injuries that are life threatening are incredibly rare. In contrast, death from diseases like measles, Hib, and pertussis are not. As I mentioned before, Hib has a mortality of 3% to 6%. Measles leads to hospitalization of about 28% of children who get it, pneumonia in around 5%, encephalitis in around one in a thousand, and a mortality rate of 0.1 to 0.2%. Pertussis can last ten weeks or even longer and have a mortality in infants as high as 1.6%.

But, hey? What’s a few hundred or thousand deaths if it protects Tietje’s “right” not to vaccinate? Of course, there is no such thing as forced vaccination. There are, however, vaccine mandates, in which states state that children have to have certain vaccines up to date before they can enter school or day care facilities, which, given the large number of children concentrated in one place, are exactly the places that outbreaks incubate. As for adults not being up to date on some vaccines, well, that is a problem. However, adults can choose what they want for themselves; except in an epidemic it’s not possible in a free society to force them to do anything, only recommend. Children, however, suffer far more from vaccine-preventable diseases when not vaccinated, and are unable to decide for themselves.

But, hey, says our alternative mama, what about diseases we don’t vaccinate for, huh? What about those? See:

First, unvaccinated children are not disease carriers. Under normal circumstances, they’re as likely as anyone else to catch something. Most of what they’re likely to catch, we don’t vaccinate for anyway. The norovirus (stomach flu) that’s been going around this year is truly nasty…but we don’t vaccinate for it. I don’t see this as being any worse or different than measles. Yet if my family inadvertently gave it to someone else, they would just say “It happens.” But if my family somehow gave someone measles? They might flip out.

It’s not different, people. These illnesses are pretty equally bad. And pretty equally “fine,” in the sense that you will recover with no lasting damage.

Surely, Tietje must be aware that there is as yet no vaccine against norovirus. The reason is not because no one is interested in making vaccines against norovirus. It’s because there are a number of challenges to making such a virus that have not yet been overcome, not the least of which is that it is not yet possible to reliably grow norovirus in cell culture and our lack of understanding of norovirus immunity. I’d be willing to bet that, if a reliable vaccine for norovirus were to be developed, it would rapidly find its way into the CDC recommended schedule. After all, norovirus disease is the leading cause of pediatric gastroenteritis and leads to 70,000 hospitalizations a year. Norovirus is also like the influenza virus in that there are multiple strains and it’s constantly evolving. Truly, Tietje’s ignorance about such basic facts (not to mention information that I double-checked simply by Googling) is epic.

So what’s Tietje’s solution? You won’t believe it:

Our responsibility to society is simple: don’t go out in public if you are sick.

Yeah! That’s it!

Wow! Why didn’t the CDC think of that! It’s so simple! Of course, never mind that a lot of diseases are infectious before symptoms become apparent; so just not going out in public if you are sick is not exactly a helpful option, and it sure doesn’t keep your family from getting sick too.

Ah, well, the arrogance of ignorance will not be denied:

I’m well-educated and capable of understanding science and thinking for myself (as are many, many others, including several with medical degrees who think the way I do). I certainly love my kids and want what is best for them, and would never knowingly put them at risk.

No one said that Tietje doesn’t love her kids, but she is, whether she knows it or not or will admit it or not, is putting them at risk. Worse, she is encouraging other mothers to do the same thing. Unfortunately, she’ll soon be refusing to vaccinate another child. She even charges for personal consultations and speaking engagements, the better to spread her nonsense to more people.