Quoth antivaxers: “We demand transparency, except when it might embarrass us”

Before I delve into the next topic, I can’t help but congratulate John Oliver yet again for his excellent deconstruction of the antivaccine movement on Sunday night. As I noted on Tuesday, it clearly hit the mark, given how angry one antivax blogger got over it. As of yesterday, over at that wretched hive of scum and quackery, that antivaccine crank blog known as Age of Autism, resident “Media Editor” Anne Dachel was still sputtering over Oliver’s segment, labeling it Oliver’s vulgar treatment of vaccine-injured and their families and posting a line about how allegedly “mocking and berating the vaccine-injured is the new sport of media bullies.” Of course, as I pointed out Tuesday, Oliver did anything but “mock” or “berate” the families of special needs children. Indeed, he did exactly the opposite, although he did mock leaders of the antivaccine movement, all of whom richly deserve far worse for their spreading of misinformation that frightens parents into not vaccinating and thereby threatens public health. As I’ve noted for at least ten years now, though, whenever antivaxers are criticized for their views, one of their go-to moves is to wax all indignant and accuse the critics of “attacking,” “belittling,” or “mocking” parents of autistic children. If they can do it to John Oliver, who bent over backwards to empathize with parents victimized by misinformation, then you know it’s just a tactic to try to shame critics into silence. This has real consequences.

As many of you know, I will be giving a talk at NECSS on Friday morning as part of the Science-Based Medicine session. My talk will be on recent developments in antivaccine activity and politics. Because I just came across an article today from last week that demonstrates another effect of antivaccine misinformation. It also illustrates a point that I plan on making Friday about how vaccine policy is becoming increasingly politicized and antivaccine ideology is becoming increasingly associated with the small government/anti-government right and how, as a result, what was once a bipartisan consensus on the importance of school vaccine mandates is becoming dangerously politicized. The best example to illustrate this problem is, once again, Texas. I also love how it illustrates the hypocrisy of the antivaccine movement as well.

If there’s one thing antivaxers love to claim they’re for, it’s transparency. It’s the free access to information, which, of course, according to them is being withheld from them by big pharma, the government, and the medical profession. To them, all three are “covering up” information showing that vaccines are dangerous.

Now take a look at what’s going on in Texas:

Texas isn’t Minnesota — yet. But when it comes to vaccination, the links are too close for comfort. Non-medical exemptions in Texas — where parents opt their kids out of vaccines — have been on the rise since 2003, increasing 19-fold to close to 45,000. Worse than these raw numbers are small pockets of vaccine resistance across the state where close to 30 percent of children are unvaccinated, and maybe more. That level needs to be at more like 5 percent in order to prevent a measles outbreak like the one in Minnesota.

But bills that could prevent such a scenario in Texas died during the last legislative session. In fact, most of them never even got a hearing.

Here’s where the issue of transparency comes in:

Here in Texas, there may be public schools with similarly low vaccination rates — but parents have no way to find out about them. It’s impossible to get information on whether your child’s school has a vaccination rate far below safe levels, even if you’ve got a child who can’t be vaccinated because they’re undergoing chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressive drugs for other medical conditions.

But sick kids aren’t the only ones affected by this lack of information. The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective among people who receive both doses. That still leaves 3 out of 100 children unprotected, despite their parents’ best efforts. A few of those kids stricken in Minnesota were vaccinated. Perhaps even more frightening is that this highly contagious and very dangerous disease can be spread to babies too young to have been vaccinated.

Yet even Texas’ House Bill 2249, a bill to bolster transparency and parents’ rights to vaccine information, didn’t make it into law this session, though it was the only pro-vaccine legislation passed by a legislative committee. The Parents’ Right to Know bill would have required the reporting of vaccination rates at individual public schools. Anti-vaccine groups raised straw-man arguments about how this would reveal families’ personal decisions about whether or not to vaccinate. No, it would not.

This is an argument that we frequently hear from antivaxers whenever laws mandating school vaccine rate transparency are considered. Of course, the Texas bill would have required de-identified information to be made available at the school level. Unless parents are speaking out or doing something to let it be publicly known that they are suspicious of vaccines, it’s hard to imagine how such school-level information would make it easier to identify children who are unvaccinated or udnervaccinated. Certainly, antivaccine groups have a hard time making coherent arguments about how this could happen or to produce compelling examples of this ever happening.

Another claim about such a law is that the state already reports data by school district. That, however, is not enough. Vaccine uptake and exemption rates can vary widely from school to school. It’s not enough for parents of an immunocompromised child—or parents who just want to keep their children as safe as possible from vaccine-preventable diseases—to know district-wide vaccination rates. Aren’t antivaxers all about giving parents the information they need to choose for their children? Apparently not, except when it’s their children and the children of parents who agree with them.

Instead, they come up with BS excuses like this, parroted by a representative of Texans for Vaccine Choice named Jennifer Lewis:

Lewis said during the hearing the bill “makes a very misguided presumption” that children with vaccine exemptions are responsible for spreading diseases and vaccinated children are not. She said the bill would make it easier for people to find out which children have exemptions.

“There is other information more relevant, such as the number of students with HIV, hepatitis and lyme and the number who receive live vaccines that can put the medically fragile at risk,” Lewis said.

This is all, of course, nonsense. There’s a difference between shedding and causing disease. For one thing, the strains of virus used in live attenuated virus vaccines are just that—attenuated. They’ve been weakened in some way so that they don’t cause the actual disease. Otherwise, a live virus vaccine would be the equivalent of giving the disease to the person vaccinated, which would rather sabotage the whole point of vaccination, which is to produce immunity to the disease without the vaccinated person actually having to suffer through the disease itself. (Scratch that, it would be exactly the same as giving the person the disease.) The question, then, is whether secondary transmission (transmission of the vaccine strain virus to others who haven’t received it) is a major concern. The answer to that question, is no, as these articles entitled Secondary Transmission: The short and sweet about live virus vaccine shedding and Live Vaccines and Vaccine Shedding. Also, yes, vaccinated children can sometimes be infected with the pathogenic organism their vaccine prevents against. That’s because no vaccine is 100% effective. However, if you look at the actual attack rate, the risk of contracting a disease vaccinated against, the unvaccinated are always at a much higher risk.

If there’s a disturbing development on the antivaccine front over the last few years, it has to be the increasing alignment of the antivaccine movement with libertarian, small government, and anti-government conservatives. It’s a development that threatens to shred the social contract and the hard won bipartisan consensus on school vaccine mandates that have been so successful for so many years protecting our children.