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.
It 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:
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.
Posted in Bad Science, Good Science, History, Quackery