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on vaccines and diabetes, part 1

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A picture lies better than 1000 words

A picture lies better than 1000 words

The other day, when I grumbled about anti-vaccination views during after-work drinks, a colleague said she was ‘semi-anti-vaccination’, specifically in relation to the connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and diabetes. When I expressed skepticism, she challenged me on my knowledge of the science, which admittedly isn’t great – and I made matters look pretty bad for myself by egregiously claiming that children couldn’t be vaccinated before two years of age, instead of two months, a mistake I wouldn’t have made if I’d had kids of my own to vaccinate (or not), like most of my workmates.

When I inquired about this mysterious connection, I was curtly informed that it was nothing vague, but crystal clear causation. The link so often made between diabetes and increased sugar in our diets was bogus, I was told, because the timing didn’t make sense. Presumably the timing of the rise in diabetes did match the introduction of the vaccine, though such a correlation, if it exists, is far from proving causation. Proof would require that some component of the MMR vaccine was having a direct effect on our immune system in such a way as to increase susceptibility to the disease. If this were true, it would be absolutely sensational news, demanding domination of newspaper headlines worldwide. Extraordinary claims, as they say, require extraordinary evidence

Now, I must say that my sceptical antennae were immediately raised when I heard this claim, because I hadn’t heard it before, and as a regular reader of science magazines and relatively up-to-date popular science books, and a regular listener to science and scepticism podcasts, I’m reasonably sure I’m more scientifically literate than the average layperson. I’m aware, of course, of the vociferous anti-vaccination crowd and their claims of a causal connection between vaccines and autism, asthma and just about everything else that currently ails us. And I’m familiar too with the medical and immunisation experts, such as Doctors Paul Offit, Steve Novella and David Gorski, who are fighting the good fight against the tide of misinformation with evidence-based science. However, I’m perfectly willing to admit to a possible blind spot re diabetes, as it hasn’t personally affected me or anyone close to me.

I must say, though, that my ‘sceptical training’ enabled me to turn up this article from the Scientific American website within 5 seconds of looking (the first 4 seconds were spent avoiding the many innocuous-sounding websites that I knew to be fronts for anti-vaccination propaganda). The article reports on a review, conducted by the US institute of medicine, of over 1,000 published research studies on the adverse effects of eight vaccine types (including MMR). These vaccine types constitute the majority of vaccines against which claims have been made to the USA’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). The report concludes that ‘vaccines are largely safe, and do not cause autism or diabetes’. Specifically on the MMR vaccine, the report had this to say:

The committee found that evidence “favors rejection” of discredited reports that have linked the MMR vaccine to autism and, along with the DTaP vaccine, to type 1 diabetes.

The DTaP vaccine covers three deadly bacterial diseases – diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or whooping cough.

End of story? Well, there’s always the possibility of a medical conspiracy, or of sloppy and complacent scientific analysis – doubtless influenced by Big Pharma. Needless to say, I’m very doubtful about this.

The final chapter of Dr Ben Goldacre’s landmark book Bad Science is entitled ‘The media’s MMR hoax’. It deals essentially with the claimed link between the vaccine and autism, but it has much of value to say about health scares in general and the role of the media in promoting them, either deliberately or inadvertently. For example, the MMR-autism connection scare was almost entirely confined to Britain at first, though it has since spread to the USA and Australia. It is almost unheard of in non-English-speaking countries, in spite of their using the exact same vaccine. Conversely, in France in the 1990s, the hepatitis B vaccine was being linked by some members of the public, supported by some in the media, to a rise in multiple sclerosis. No such link was being made outside of France, though the vaccine was the same everywhere. And there are many other examples to show that these scares are more culturally than scientifically based.

The anti-vaccination movement has a long and, it must be said, inglorious history, with the same sorts of arguments, and the same sorts of results, occurring from the beginning. Goldacre cites this interesting Scientific American article from 1888:

The success of the anti-vaccinationists has been aptly shown by the results in Zurich, Switzerland, where for a number of years, until 1883, a compulsory vaccination law obtained, and smallpox was wholly prevented– not a single case occurred in 1882. This result was seized upon the following year by the antivaccinationists and used against the necessity for any such law, and it seems they had sufficient influence to cause its repeal. The death returns for that year (1883) showed that for every 1,000 deaths two were caused by smallpox; In 1884 there were three; in 1885, 17, and in the first quarter of 1886, 85.

But, hey, measles is hardly smallpox, is it? It’s harmless. Is it worth disrupting our ‘natural immune system’ with vaccines just to protect ourselves against a few character-building ailments? Isn’t our over-reliance on vaccines potentially catastrophic for our bodies?

Well, I’ll delve more into such claims, and into diabetes more specifically, in my next piece.

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Written by stewart henderson

January 23, 2015 at 3:27 pm

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