Fact-check: Travelling seminars of vaccine distortion

Opinion: A group is currently holding seminars around NZ based on misinformation about vaccines. Dr Helen Petousis-Harris fact checks some of their claims.

A baby looks on from mother's lap as a doctor prepares to give a vaccination. Don’t delay vaccines, get baby’s immunity going as soon as possible is the message to parents from vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo: iStock
Don’t delay vaccines, get baby’s immunity going as soon as possible is the message to parents from vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris. Photo: iStock

Authentic Resistance appears to be a two-woman army advocating that the body’s natural immune system is all that is required to keep healthy which is not quite true. On the other hand, they assert that parents must make informed decisions about vaccines based on information from the medical literature. On this latter point we agree.

However, the group is holding seminars around the country which appear to be based on twisting the intent of informed consent, misinformation about vaccines, and their personal concept of natural immunity and on all these points we disagree.

The only information I can find on the group’s website about vaccines and diseases is in a radio interview with co-leader Erin Hudson. I have used the website’s transcript of this interview to summarise the group’s position and fact check some of the claims:

Fact check 1: Informed consent

Informed consent is about gaining appropriate knowledge in an environment and manner that is meaningful and without coercion. People must understand what is being offered, what is involved, the probable benefits, risks, side effects, failure rates, alternatives, the risks and benefits of not receiving the treatment, and that they have a choice.

Sounds reasonable? The sticking point is what constitutes risks and benefits, and scientific information versus pseudoscience. Informed consent must be based on the best current science-based information or else it is a sham.

Fact check 2: Can the body resist vaccine preventable diseases on its own; if someone contracts one of the diseases you can treat it?

This is only partly true. The immune system is indeed marvellous and protects us against most potentially harmful pathogens every day. But that is not the whole story. The need for vaccines is driven by the fact many people can contract the disease and it is severe enough to bring high mortality (death) or serious morbidity (sickness). No one would develop a vaccine for a problem that was not of consequence because no one would buy it!

Fact check 3: Is chickenpox benign and will more adults get shingles if we prevent it?

The claim here is that most people recover well from chicken pox and if you prevent the disease in the community then older people will be at risk.

Yes to the first and no to the second. Most people do indeed recover well from chickenpox, but not all (see here for New Zealand specific information). More than 400 mostly previously-healthy children are admitted into hospital with this disease annually; others, a high proportion, get infected scabs and require antibiotics. And chicken pox can be fatal in some people.

There is no evidence that a vaccine puts older people at risk. The fact is, if you prevent chickenpox then you prevent shingles later in life, and if you introduce a chicken pox vaccine, older people are at no greater risk for shingles than they were before.

Fact check 4. Claim that there has never been a vaccinated/unvaccinated study

Seriously? Given that most studies on vaccine risks and benefits compare outcomes in vaccinated people with outcomes in unvaccinated people this is a strange claim, although a popular one among anti-vaccine groups. And unlike an internet survey alluded to in the interview that used a sample of 666 home-schooled children in the US and claimed to be a world first, study populations are usually representative of the general population and have even included entire populations. For example, here is an actual scientific study that included all children born 1991-1998 in Denmark (more than half a million) and compared the risk of autism in the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Fact check 5: Is delaying vaccination because the baby is too fragile a good idea?

Authentic Resistance leaders suggest delaying vaccination in babies until a time that is “right for their family”. They refer to the baby’s ‘nonreactive’ immune system and breast milk affecting the vaccine response.

It is true that some vaccines induce more antibodies when given later. However, and I stress this, we want to protect the infant while they are at their most vulnerable. The reason we continue to vaccinate at six weeks is not to coincide with a visit to the doctor as the organisation suggests, but to get baby protected as soon as possible, particularly against pertussis (whooping cough) which is at its most fatal in the very youngest infants. Delaying this vaccination leaves baby vulnerable, with four to six times more risk of being hospitalised if they catch the disease.

So don’t delay vaccines, get baby’s immunity going as soon as possible: Vaccines don’t work if you do not use them.

A very bad idea: Using homeopathic preparations instead of vaccines

It is suggested homeopathic remedies can be given as an alternative to vaccines following the Ministry of Health vaccination schedule for families “who are not quite ready to not vaccinate, but they also are not convinced that they should vaccinate”.

No! There is little to no evidence to support the use of homeopathy and homeopathic vaccines. And what there is appears of low quality.

And finally,

Fact check 6: Are vaccine ingredients toxic?

Vaccines have a variety of additives that provide stability, enhance the immune response, etc. The quantities are minuscule and demonstrated extremely safe. There are no toxic quantities of anything in vaccines. Noting the names of scary-sounding chemicals plays on people’s chemophobia (the widespread irrational fear of chemicals) and the appeal-to-nature fallacy: ‘natural’ must be good and ‘unnatural’ must be bad.

So let me finish with some substances which are perfectly natural: Botulism, water hemlock, deadly nightshade, ricin from castor beans, hyponatremia (water intoxication) and tobacco.

Dr Petousis-Harris wrote a longer version of this opinion piece on her blog site, Diplomatic Immunity.

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris is a vaccinologist and senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Fact-check: Travelling seminars of vaccine distortion on 22 August 2019.


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