Welcome to part 2 of our series on how to talk to your friends and family who hold anti-science views on vaccine safety. Click here for part 1, which covered the benefit/risk of childhood vaccines. Now on to part 2.
In order to understand the risks involved in vaccinations, we need to understand the side effects that occur after vaccinations, and the rate at which thee side effects occur. We covered vaccine side effects in part 1, so where did we get our data? This is critical – much of the confusion and false information surrounding vaccine safety comes from people who try to research the topic, but choose unreliable sources for their data – incomplete data sets, self-serving summaries from people with an anti-vaccine agenda, or just plain poor science. So where can you access vaccine safety info? Here are the best non-biased options:
The CDC website has specific safety information for many of the most common childhood vaccines as well as some background data on common concerns, vaccine safety research, and the methods used to track vaccine safety. This is probably the best one-stop shop to learn about vaccine safety.
For specific vaccines, the drug label is required to contain all the pertinent safety data, including side effects and rates of side effects from the controlled clinical trials run in order to demonstrate an acceptable risk/benefit ratio for FDA approval. Just google the vaccine name and the word “label” and look for a .pdf file with “label” or “package insert” in the name. Keep in mind that these labels have to include all adverse side effects seen on the clinical trials – even those that were very rare or for which a direct link to the vaccine has not been established. These labels may require some background in medicine or science to read and interpret.
For those who want a comprehensive database of vaccine safety information, try the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). You can download historical safety data here if you really want to go in-depth. A background in medicine or health science will really help going through this detailed data. Well, that and a lot of free time.
You’ll notice that all of these data are under the control of the CDC and the FDA. There is a reason for this – the FDA is the “gatekeeper” for all vaccines, reviewing the safety and efficacy data and determining if the vaccine has a sufficient benefit/risk ratio to be approved. They also monitor vaccine safety in real time and have the authority to pull vaccines form the market if a rash of adverse effects pushes the benefit/risk ratio in the wrong direction. The CDC is the health surveillance unit of the US government, and as such has unique access to safety data across all vaccines and manufacturers.
There are those who inherently don’t trust the government, and will dismiss the FDA and CDC data as biased, or even fabricated. This patently ridiculous – why on Earth would the federal government want to keep unsafe vaccines on the market? What possible benefit is there to anyone in our government if their citizens are left unprotected from deadly disease? We’ll discuss the conspiracy theories a bit more below, but the truth is that someone who rejects government data and research just because of it’s source is probably not worth arguing with.
Just as important as knowing what data to trust is knowing what data not to trust. Certainly don’t trust sites or blogs with a clear anti-vaccine or anti-chemical agenda. At the same time, you shouldn’t trust a source that claims that vaccines are “completely safe” or have no side effects. A common method used to discredit the CDC, FDA, and the large government databases like VSD or VAERS is to label them as “pro-vaccine”. They are not, they simply present the vaccine safety data as it is, warts and all. Trust the data.
Conspiracy theories are not evidence of anything.
You can’t argue against conspiracy theories, because they make no logical sense. The idea of entire industries conspiring with the government to kill people on purpose for money is simply preposterous. People who work for drug companies are normal human beings like you and me. You would probably have a very hard time getting 10 of them to agree on what type of pizza to order. They aren’t getting together and secretly plotting to harm us with vaccines.
Still, the idea of large pharmaceutical companies lining their own pockets while pushing dangerous vaccines is one that seems to strike a cord with many people – particularly those inclined to distrust modern medicine and the capitalist system behind it. While such a line of reasoning has no basis in reality, it’s also important to understand that pharmaceutical companies aren’t actually the ones that determine if a vaccine should be marketed – that is the job of the federal government. The FDA reviews all the data from the clinical trials characterizing the risk/benefit profile of a vaccine, and they decide if it can be marketed to patients. The FDA and CDC also track the safety of vaccines across the country. It would be remarkably bad business for a pharmaceutical company to try get an “unsafe” vaccine on the market. To do this, they would literally have to falsify their clinical trial data. However, after approval, the FDA/CDC monitoring (which is largely out of the pharmaceutical companies hands) would quickly catch an unsafe vaccine after it entered the market. Subsequent withdrawl of the vaccine and the ensuing lawsuits and FDA-mandated fines for lying to the government would be financially catastrophic for any company, no matter how large.
All of this leads us the inevitable conclusion that any conspiracy to force dangerous vaccines on the public would need to involve not just the pharmaceutical companies (who would know from their data that the vaccines were unsafe), but the US government (who would have to ignore the safety signals from their own data), and pretty much all the other governments in the world, since the same vaccines are marketed in other countries as well (and their safety tracked), AND pretty much all the pediatricians in the world, who would either be complicit (by not reporting adverse effects?), or too incompetent to notice that the government safety data doesn’t match their own experience. This is literally millions of people, working for tens of thousands of agencies and companies and businesses, and speaking hundreds of different languages. Such a conspiracy would be bigger and more difficult to perpetrate than convincing people that the Earth was round when they really know it’s flat. Believing that such a conspiracy is possible requires a complete abandonment of logic.
So why would anyone think that there is a world-wide conspiracy to force unsafe vaccines on the Earth’s population? Here’s a nice piece on why people are drawn to conspiracy theories. A major theme you’ll notice is that people who believe in these types of irrational theories tend to do so because they feel powerless and conspiracy theories allow them to take back some measure of power: both by laying blame on “unknown forces” for what they see as the problems in the world, and by allowing them to identify with a group of similarly-minded people fighting a common enemy. Consider a parent of an autistic child. No one knows what causes autism, so a parent struggling with such a diagnosis is left with no one to “blame”, no one to tell them why they were dealt this hand. Blaming someone or something is a way of regaining control.
Conspiracy theories are necessarily the biggest driver of anti-vaccine views, since the science so clearly supports vaccine safety. Talking to conspiracy theory adherents can be a frustrating task, but it’s important that we try to present the scientific reality whenever possible.