An Attempt to Quantify The Number of Deaths Attributable to the Anti-Vaccine Movement


For some time a single question has been vexing me: Just how many people are dead because of the anti-vaccine movement? We know that people have died because of it. That’s for sure. There are diseases that were all but wiped out from the industrial world that have come roaring back, and which have claimed lives.

Today many people refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children and lives are being lost. We will certainly never know how many, but perhaps we can get a reasonable estimate.

There is a website that does attempt to provide some statistics. Antivaccinebodycount.com provides information on the number of vaccine preventible deaths in the United States since 2007. However, there are some problems with this methodology. For one thing, it only takes into account the United States. It’s understandable to stick to one country, because it’s much harder to get the statistics from many countries, but it’s certainly very narrow. It also only goes back to 2007, while the anti-vaccine movement goes back further than that. Finally, it’s not entirely fair to consider all the deaths from vaccine preventible diseases are because of the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccines are not 100% effective and sometimes people don’t bother to get them, but not because of the movement.

wakefield44It should be noted that the anti-vaccine movement is not entirely new. It has existed for almost as long as vaccines. But it was once very fringe and relatively ineffective. Up to the 1990′s, most parents vaccinated without question. The modern movement was almost entirely invented by Andrew Wakefield. His fraudulent 1998 paper on vaccines and autism touched off a media storm that grew into the full-blown anti-vaccine movement. In the years that followed, the movement expanded to claim vaccines caused everything from asthma to SIDS.

Today many parents have concerns over vaccines and many people still think they cause autism or other health issues. This was almost non-existent until 1998.

My methodology to determine the number:

Measels2 In order to get a reasonable estimate of how many lives have been snuffed out by the anti-vaccine movement, I have begun to look at the data on vaccine-preventible infectious diseases in modern, industrial countries. The anti-vaccine movement may have started in the UK, but it’s now pervasive in the US, Canada, Australia and across Europe. The numbers don’t lie. Both infection rates and deaths have begun to climb after years of decline.

I settled on the year 2000 as the start of where I would begin to measure the effects of the anti-vaccine movement. This is partially arbitrary, but I chose as a time when the movement really started to gain traction and to provide a couple of years of time to elapse from the initial fraudulent study. It is also about the time that we can first begin to see the rise in death rates from vaccine preventible diseases.

Take, for example, whooping cough. It kills mainly infants and had been a major concern until the late 20th century. However, a highly effective vaccine had resulted in a rapid decline. By the early 1990′s, the United States was experiencing an average of just about four or five whooping cough deaths per year. It’s entirely reasonable to presume that the trend would have continued, or, at the very least, the numbers would have stabilized with only five or less deaths happening per year, if things had continued.

But that’s not what happened. Starting in the early 2000′s, the rate of whooping cough started to climb. In 2014, there were 16 whooping cough deaths in the United States. That was not even a bad year, relatively speaking. 26 died in 2010 and 31 in 2005. Such numbers would have seemed unbelievable in the early 1990′s, when the disease seemed under control.

All told, if five had died per year (a reasonable assumption for the average, if the trend had held), then 75 lives would have been lost between 2000 and 2014. But the actual number was 240 lives lost. Thus, we can see an excess of 165 deaths since the year 2000. Perhaps these are not all because of the anti-vaccine movement, but again, this is only the best estimate. It’s not possible to ever know the exact number for sure.

I then went on to try to compile similar numbers for all other vaccine preventible diseases in the United States, and, after that, for the other countries that have been impacted by the anti-vaccine movement.

It turns out this is really hard to do.

EM Drive Tested By NASA: Lets Not Get Too Excited Just Yet
A big news story has been making the rounds about a new and potentially game changing space propulsion technology, which was recently tested by NASA scientists in a vacuum chamber at the Manned Space Flight Center in Houston Texas. The system, called the EM Drive, is based on microwaves bouncing around a specially shaped cavity. These aledgedly create thrust, thus making it possible for the EM drive to be used as a propulsion system, if attached to a spacecraft.

What makes the EM drive so much different than any previous propulsion technology is that it does so without expelling any propellant. All existing rocket engines use some kind of material, known as reaction mass, in order to produce thrust. Even highly efficient ion engines require a gas of some sort to be used as the reactionary mass. The need for propellant is a major limiting factor in spaceflight. It means that propellant must be launched with the spacecraft, often constituting a large percentage of the spacecraft’s mass. It also limits the duration of the spaceflight. Eventually the propellant runs out. However, the EM drive uses only energy, which can be provided almost without limits by solar panels or a nuclear power source, which could provide energy for decades.emdrive

The only problem with this is that the whole concept seems to violate the law of conservation of momentum. Our current understanding of physics would seem to indicate that this is impossible. You can’t add momentum to something without pushing off of something else. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and that’s why rockets need to shoot propellant in one direction to go in the other.

Via IO9:

New Test Suggests NASA’s “Impossible” EM Drive Will Work In Space
[T]he EM Drive’s thrust was due to the Quantum Vacuum (the quantum state with the lowest possible energy) behaving like propellant ions behave in a MagnetoHydroDynamics drive (a method electrifying propellant and then directing it with magnetic fields to push a spacecraft in the opposite direction) for spacecraft propulsion.
Last year, NASA’s advanced propulsion research wing made headlines by announcing the successful test of a physics-defying electromagnetic drive, or EM drive. Now, this futuristic engine, which could in theory propel objects to near-relativistic speeds, has been shown to work inside a space-like vacuum.

NASA Eagleworks made the announcement quite unassumingly via NASASpaceFlight.com. There’s also a major discussion going on about the engine and the physics that drives it at the site’s forum.

The EM drive is controversial in that it appears to violate conventional physics and the law of conservation of momentum; the engine, invented by British scientist Roger Sawyer, converts electric power to thrust without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves within a closed container. So, with no expulsion of propellant, there’s nothing to balance the change in the spacecraft’s momentum during acceleration. Hence the skepticism. But as stated by NASA Eagleworks scientist Harold White:

The trouble with this theory, however, is that it might not work in a closed vacuum. After last year’s tests of the engine, which weren’t performed in a vacuum, skeptics argued that the measured thrust was attributable to environmental conditions external to the drive, such as natural thermal convection currents arising from microwave heating.

The recent experiment, however, addressed this concern head-on, while also demonstrating the engine’s potential to work in space. (Image: NASA Eagleworks).