Debunking for Dummies: the Disney measles outbreak

reckons that anti-vaccine groups are taking the Mickey

Image: Tom Bricker

When you wish upon a star, you might catch rubeola. Image: Tom Bricker

This week I have seen a large anti-vaccination campaign invade my news feed, all tied in with the recent measles outbreak in California.

In case you haven’t seen, a child contracted measles, probably outside of the USA. (Kids catch diseases a lot. They eat dirt, lick playground apparatus and play in pools more densely populated than the library in the exam period.) Then they took a trip to Disney Adventure Park and they coughed. Or sneezed. That’s not important. The key thing is a small action, combined with the thousands of unvaccinated people walking round the state, have caused the worst outbreak of a disease in 15 years. Not only is this frustrating, it is deeply concerning that this movement is putting people at risk. Thus, the special focus of this week’s debunking is against the anti-vaccine movement.

1 in 3 Americans believe there is a link between vaccines and autism. There are no studies showing this and actually plenty of evidence to the contrary. That doesn’t stop parents signing “personal belief waivers” to withdraw their children from potentially life-saving vaccines. This is an attitude which needs to change.

On a slight side note, one of my favourite anti-vax memes doing the rounds this week:


This one particularly sums up the huge misunderstanding the ‘anti-vaxers’ have. There are children who for one reason or another cannot be vaccinated. They depend on others for herd immunity and could really do without pretentious or ignorant parents refusing vaccines just on a whim. What they need is to be educated about the facts, and not some website with ‘Dr Kurt’ saying stupid things.

The only good that could come from this outbreak is the kick up the arse it could give those who shun vaccinations. And the whole escapade gets worse. This has caused a large wave of anti-vaccine propaganda. Somehow the anti-vaxers have turned it around, and are using it as a recruitment drive! Looking at the numbers joining the bandwagon was enough to make me let out a sigh of despair for humanity.

It is worrying that most of these people are normal, misguided parents who have been fooled by the paranoia-inducing propaganda full of cherry-picked science.

Scare lines such as “CONTAIN TOXIC CHEMICALS” are one way fear is induced amongst parents. Fear not though. It’s all about dosage. For example, a commonly quoted chemical (probably owing to its scary name) is formaldehyde. Yes, vaccines do contain it, and yes, it is toxic. There is more than 600 times the amount of formaldehyde in a pear than a vaccine and it you’d have to eat around 25 pears to do any damage. That’s quite a lot of pears.

Side effects are also a worry for some. “IF YOUR VACCINES ARE SAFE WHY ARE SIDE EFFECTS LISTED?” Side effects of are temporary and mild, and importantly much better than the effects of the disease. I’d much rather a numb arm for a day than actual measles.

One prominent anti-vaccine group claimed “Vaccines are like being shot with small bullets so that if you were shot with an artillery shell you would be fine, why don’t scientists do that!” The arguments used by these groups are riddled with logical fallacies. Being able to spot them is key to avoiding falling into the trap of pseudoscience. I hope that you now feel a little more prepared to join in the fight against bad science, and until next time, happy debunking.

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