An “open letter” on vaccines deconstructed

I’ve discovered an antivaccine loon I’ve never encountered before. At least, if I have encountered him, I don’t remember it. Basically, it happened this way. Not having found anything that fired me up to blog yet, I was perusing my usual collection of sites, both crank sites (as in antivaccine, quack, and pseudoscience) and medical/scientific sites, seeing if anything would grab my attention. Oddly enough, I happened upon the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism; even more oddly, for whatever reason, I haven’t really been paying much attention to AoA for the last few weeks. To be honest, AoA has become rather dull. It’s the same old voices and the same old nonsense over and over again. Indeed, I noted that Dan Olmsted is now up to part 12 (!) of his Age of Polio series, in which he tries to “prove” that the polio vaccine didn’t save us. There’s no sign he’s done yet. Seriously, he’s trying to give Andriana Gomondes a run for her money when it comes to verbose, multipart helpings of antivaccine crazy.

Be that as it may, just as I was despairing of finding something to distract myself during Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, I came across a “gem” from an antivaccine activist of whom I’d never heard: Ted Kuntz. He’s apparently been an antivaccine activist for three decades and is on the board of directors of Vaccine Choice Canada, which was formerly known as VRAN (Vaccination Risk Awareness Network), which is described thusly on its website:

Vaccine Choice Canada (formerly VRAN) continues the work of the Committee Against Compulsory Vaccination, started by Ontario parents in 1982 in protest of the Immunization of School Pupils Act, which failed to include provisions for exemption from vaccines for reasons of conscience, or sincerely held beliefs.

Like most antivaccine groups, Vaccine Choice Canada believes in the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism, citing the usual collection of bad science, bad studies, and conspiracy mongering. You know they’re at the really nutty end of antivaccine groups because they also believe that vaccines are responsible for sudden infant death syndrome and that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.

So I wasn’t surprised when I saw that Mr. Kuntz’s Dear Vaccine Proponents….A Letter from Vaccine Choice Canada did not begin well at all:

I begin with the assumption that you are well intended and, with the exception of trolls paid by the pharmaceutical industry, sincerely believe in your statements that vaccines are safe and effective.

Heheh. I wonder if he would consider me one of those pharma-funded trolls. Probably. Of course, my retort to that is to ask in a loud voice: Where is all my filthy pharma lucre? Mr. Kuntz tells me I should be being showered in filthy pharma lucre! Yet here I am, still scrambling for grants in this horrible funding environment, just like very other investigator. Sure, I make a comfortable living as an academic surgeon, but not as much as I could make in private practice. Hopefully, I can keep it up until I retire.

But enough of that aside. Let’s get to the “meat” of Mr. Kuntz’s attacks:

I also know that you are not well informed. Your rigid “everyone should be vaccinated” policy tells me that you have not ventured beyond the promotional advertisements of the pharmaceutical industry or the superficial journalism of today’s mainstream media.

Your position tells me that you haven’t read the research literature or considered the possibility that the medical industry is a for-profit business and has successfully lobbied (bought) politicians and captured the media with their advertising dollars. You assume the pharmaceutical industry is producing products in our best interest and that they wouldn’t be able to produce unsafe products.

Um, no. Our advocacy of vaccinating as many children as possible (i.e., children who don’t have medical contraindications to vaccination) is based on the science that tells us that that’s the best way to protect children from deadly vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s called herd immunity or, more recently, community immunity, the principle that if the number of susceptible members of a population is kept low as possible, even if some are infected, outbreaks can’t turn into epidemics. The percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to induce herd immunity varies with disease and vaccine, but generally falls in the 90% range. Mr. Kuntz’s condescension is noted, though. I might have to respond in kind.

As for us believing that the pharmaceutical industry “wouldn’t be able to produce unsafe products,” all I want to ask Mr. Kuntz is: What the heck are you smoking? I don’t know of a single pro-vaccine advocate who doesn’t realize that pharmaceutical companies are for-profit businesses or who thinks that the pharmaceutical industry can’t produce unsafe products. What we do know is that vaccines are heavily regulated and rigorously tested, claims of antivaccinationists like Mr. Kuntz otherwise. Indeed, you can tell where he’s coming from when he uncritically repeats the claim that the medical industry kills around 250,000 people in the US every year and is the third leading cause of death. No, it isn’t.

Mr. Kuntz’s condescension continues:

But you consider vaccines a different kind of drug. Vaccines are like a ‘magic potion’ with none of the risks or adverse effects commonly associated with other pharmaceutical products. You believe this propaganda, not because you have read clinical evidence of safety and effectiveness, but because you want to believe that vaccines are safe and effective and will protect your child from “vaccine preventable illnesses”.

This is a delusion held by many antivaccinationists, that we pro-vaccine advocates ar guilty of magical thinking with respect to vaccines, that we think they can never cause harm and that they are magically 100% effective, that we’ve never read clinical evidence of safety and effectiveness. In reality, Mr. Kuntz is engaging in a massive case of projection. He and his fellow antivaccine travelers are like a “magic poison,” the cause of virtually all health ills suffered by our children. Not just children, actually. Adults too, as evidenced by one favorite antivaccine claim that the flu vaccine predisposes to Alzheimer’s disease. They do this not because they have read the actual clinical evidence supporting a link between vaccines and all the health issues Mr. Kuntz ant other antivaccine “warriors” attribute to vaccines, but because they want to believe that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective and are the cause of an “epidemic” of autism, diabetes, autoimmune disease, SIDS, and neurologic problems.

Because antivaccinationists like Mr. Kuntz believe that vaccines can do no right, they assume that pro-vaccine advocates believe that vaccines can do no wrong. In brief, they think that we think the way they do. It’s just not true. Heck, the Dark Lord of Vaccination himself (to antivaccinationists, anyway), Paul Offit, who is viewed by people like Mr. Kuntz as a combination between Sauron, Lord Voldemort, and Emperor Palpatine, wrote a book, The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, which was about a disaster that occurred when 200,000 people were inadvertently injected with polio vaccine containing live, virulent virus. I myself have written posts about problems with the flu vaccine’s effectiveness and concerns about waning immunity from pertussis vaccines.

Next up:

You also believe that vaccines are responsible for the decline in polio and small pox and the decrease in mortality of measles, though there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. The vaccine industry denies a relationship between injury and death following a vaccination and claim that, “a temporal relationship does not mean a causal relationship”. Yet the vaccine industry is more than willing to claim a causal relationship between vaccines and the decline in infectious diseases by pointing to the temporal relationship between the introduction of vaccines and the decline of many diseases. The fact these diseases declined as much as 99%, before the introduction of the vaccine is not considered relevant.

This is the common intellectually dishonest antivaccine trope that “vaccines didn’t save us.” Notice the part about mortality from MMR. Antivaccinationists will point to graphs that show that mortality from measles was decreasing before the MMR, which is true. Medical care was improving; fewer children died of complications of MMR. If you look at incidence graphs, however, there was no decline until after the vaccine was introduced. As for smallpox and polio, it is, quite simply, a steaming, stinking pile of bullshit to claim that the polio vaccine wasn’t responsible for the decline in polio and the smallpox vaccine wasn’t responsible for the decline in smallpox. One notes that it was a massive, worldwide vaccination campaign against polio that has brought polio to the brink of eradication and that the only times polio comes back is when vaccination rates fall, such as when religious fundamentalists spread rumors that the polio vaccine is a Western plot to sterilize their children. Smallpox was eradicated using a combination of focused surveillance and “ring vaccination”; i..e, vaccinating anyone who could have been in contact with patients identified.

Particularly silly is Mr. Kuntz’s trying to turn the “a temporal relationship does not mean a causal relationship” around on us. For one thing, the correct way of saying it is that “a temporal relationship does not necessarily mean a causal relationship.” One could point out that he’s contradicting himself in that he’s first claiming that the vaccine had nothing to do with declining disease rates then claiming that a temporal relationship doesn’t mean causation, implying that there was actually a correlation. Be that as it may, he misses the essence of the point. Correlation might imply causation, but often does not. To determine if correlation is a result of causation, we have to look at other evidence, and there is copious other evidence to support the hypothesis that the decline in incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases is due to vaccination.

Then:

And there is no concern that no research exists to prove that vaccines are safe in the real world way in which they are administered with children receiving multiple vaccines at once. You assume that governments are doing their own independent research on vaccine safety rather than relying on the claims of the pharmaceutical industry. (They don’t.) And you likely are unaware that in the United States vaccine manufacturers are the only industry, other than the nuclear industry, not legally liable for the safety of their product. Congress gave the vaccine industry a “free pass” in 1986 following substantial lawsuits were filed against the vaccine industry.

This is, of course, a whole series of lies. Vaccination schedules in developed countries are evidence-based. Vaccines are rigorously tested. Amusingly, commenters on AoA pointed out that Mr. Kuntz is mistaken that, like the nuclear industry, the pharmaceutical industry is not legally liable for the safety of its product, pointing out that the nuclear industry does foot part of the bill and that there are a lot of other industries that have some degree of legal protection from liability. In any case, the whole purpose of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was set up to make it easier for the families of children with true vaccine injury to receive compensation.

Back to the condescension:

I understand your enthusiasm for vaccinations. It’s comforting to believe in “miracles” and everyone knows that vaccinations are a “miracle of modern medicine”. You trust your Doctor when he or she says vaccines are safe and effective. You assume your Doctor has thoroughly researched the vaccine safety literature and would be able to diagnose and treat vaccine injury if it occurred.

I understand your intense desire to blame vaccines for autism. It’s comforting to believe in a discernable external cause for autism that is not genetic. You trust your alternative medicine doctor when he or she says vaccines are dangerous and that your child’s autism was caused by them. You assume that your naturopath has thorough researched vaccine safety litrature when in fact he or she is pulling pseudoscience out of his or her nether regions to demonize vaccines.

Mr. Kuntz concludes by, again condescendingly, warning “pro-vaccine” advocates that you are “one shot away from learning your Doctor knows very little about vaccine injury and even less of how to treat the injury” and that you are “one step closer to becoming one of us – a quack, crank, tin foil hatter, Luddite, dumb, ignorant and irresponsible parent who should have our kids taken away from us for questioning vaccine theology.”

No, we are not, because we know science and Mr. Kuntz does not.