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

June 20th, 2015
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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:

Measels2In 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.

 

The most obvious issue is just the sheer number of statistics that have to be tracked down.  Finding the number of deaths from whooping cough, rubella, measles, hib and every other vaccine-preventible disease is difficult for one country.  It’s a huge amount of work for the numerous countries and years in question.

Some diseases do not show a spike as early as others.  This may be because there are still many who have been vaccinated years ago.  In any case, there is always some delay in seeing the reemergence of a disease in a population that stops vaccinating, but how long that takes depends on the nature of the disease and how long the vaccine lasts.

A bigger problem is estimating the number of deaths that would occur if the anti-vaccine movement didn’t exist.  For some diseases, like whooping cough, it’s not too hard.  Whooping cough was in a steady state of decline and had leveled off at just a handful of deaths per year, at least in the US, although some other countries had not controlled it as effectively.  Other diseases are more difficult.  For example, there have been many meningococcal outbreaks over the years, and these have largely been the result of inadequate vaccination.  It seems that the numbers were never very good, but efforts were being made to improve the vaccine rates.  Would these efforts have been more successful without the antivaccine movement?  It’s hard to say.

One of the biggest wildcards is the flu.  Influenza varies greatly year to year, so there’s no easily observable trend.  It also requires an annual vaccine, and, despite efforts to deploy the vaccine as widely as possible, many don’t get it.  It’s not necessarily the anti-vaccine movement, but simply that many don’t bother to get the vaccine each year.  Would these efforts be more successful without the antivaccine movement?  Again, it’s hard to say.

The best that can be done in many of these circumstances is to try to track down projections made by organizations like the WHO and the CDC, for their efforts to reduce these diseases and then compare them to what actually happened after the anti-vaccine movement started.

Other wildcards and numbers that are difficult to pin down:

I started with just the industrial countries that had high vaccine rates to begin with, but the anti-vaccine movement has also had impacts on less developed nations.  Efforts to deploy vaccines in third world countries have been hampered by the rumors started by the anti-vaccine advocates in wealthy nations.  That said, even without the anti-vaccine movement, some of these sentiments may still have existed, just because of fear of foreigners and modern medicine.

So how much progress by efforts to extend vaccines into poor areas has been lost to the anti-vaccine movement?  Again, it’s very hard to say.

Beyond that, there are other deaths that are certainly associated with the anti-vaccine movement, but are even more difficult to pin down.  There are the direct deaths, caused by vaccine preventible diseases and then there are indirect deaths.  These are those who died because of the resources sapped by vaccine-preventible diseases.  Around the world, nearly ever healthcare system is feeling the crunch of more demand for care, and vaccine-preventible diseases only make this worse.  Every time a measles patient has to be hospitalized, that is one more hospital bed occupied, which can’t be used by someone else.  It increases pressure for fast discharges.  It means doctors spend more time treating diseases that could have been prevented and have less time to attend to others.  This surely costs lives.

There are economists out there who make a living of predicting things like the number of deaths that occur for every dollar or added expense to a healthcare system or how much the average lifespan is reduced when a hospital bed becomes unavailable.  These calculations, however, are highly hypothetical and difficult to prove empirically.

There are also those who may die of other infections because their systems have been weakened by vaccine preventible diseases.  Contrary to what some claim, diseases do not strengthen the immune system, but they can weaken it.  It has been shown, for example, that the measles vaccine prevents deaths from diseases other than measles because having measles increases the likelihood of dying from another disease.

So how many is it?

You may notice that there are few hard numbers in this post.  Unfortunately, as of now, this project of mine is continuing and proving to be more difficult than I had expected.  At present, I’ve already tallied a clear increase in deaths from several diseases, in the US alone, which accounts for hundreds of lives lost.

The best I can give right now is a very rough estimate, based on my data thus far.

Conservatively, thousands.  At the very minimum, at least 2,000-4,000 lives have been lost because of the anti-vaccine movement.  But I must stress that is conservative.  It seems that it is likely to be more than 6,000 lives lost. I do not think it is likely that direct deaths will surpass 20,000, but it’s possible that it could be higher, with the indirect deaths and those in third world countries, especially where healthcare systems are overtaxed considered.

Yes, I know, those are some very vague numbers.  But given the complexity of this project, it’s the best estimate I can now give.   There is absolutely no doubt that it is in the thousands.  Thousands of innocent lives, many of children, snuffed out.  It’s really mind-boggling.  Thousands of families that will never be the same.  Thousands of graduations, marriages, careers and retirements that will never happen because a life was unnecessarily snuffed out.

By these numbers doctors like Andrew Wakefield (and his cohorts, Sherri Tenpenny, Jack Wolfson, Susan Humphries and Bob Sears) as well as the other activists have a huge amount of blood on their hands.  Having started the movement, Andrew Wakefield is one of history’s most prolific killing doctor.  He he is responsible for far more deaths than Dr. HH Holmes or Dr. Harold Shipman.  However, at least thus far, he is probably responsible for less deaths than Dr. Josef Mengele.

 

 


This entry was posted on Saturday, June 20th, 2015 at 5:29 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, History, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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16 Responses to “An Attempt to Quantify The Number of Deaths Attributable to the Anti-Vaccine Movement”

  1. 1
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I’m not picking on Canada by bringing up Brian Sinclair. There have been waiting room deaths in the US too. It happens in all the healthcare systems, but that was a very extreme case. The more people go into hospitals, the more waiting times for care will increase. The more the pressure to discharge increases. The less time doctors have. The less money the system has.

    Every time someone got measles in California, it ended up costing the public health system of the state tens of thousands of dollars. They don’t have unlimited funds. That’s tens of thousands of dollars (actually, millions, all told) that are not going to help someone else.

    Our healthcare systems just can’t afford to be providing care for people who have conditions that could have been prevented!


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    I’m not picking on Canada by bringing up Brian Sinclair. There have been waiting room deaths in the US too. It happens in all the healthcare systems, but that was a very extreme case.

    Don’t apologize, but note that the hospital staff assumed Sinclair was drunk and homeless rather than a person in need of medical care — assumptions based solely on the fact he was a poorly-dressed aboriginal double-amputee in a wheelchair. That was at the root of this case and it is something that we (Canadians) need to have our noses rubbed in, especially as we are very quick to take an ascendant attitude when comparing ourselves to the States in matters of race conflict.

    As for deaths due to anti vax actions, we also need to include those preventable deaths caused by incited fear over the process in the Third World where immunisation workers have been driven out of communities or worse in the belief that they are there to do harm.


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    As for deaths due to anti vax actions, we also need to include those preventable deaths caused by incited fear over the process in the Third World where immunisation workers have been driven out of communities or worse in the belief that they are there to do harm.

    Yeah. It’s hard to get firm numbers on that, but for example, there are some countries where the WHO had set a target for eradication of some diseases that they thought could be met and did not. Maybe the best example would be polio. They had projected eradicating it from Pakistan circa 2005. Ten years later, we’re still a good three or four years from eradicating it.

    If you include those, like countries where they could have eradicated measles, but didn’t, largely because of the pushing of aid workers out, then there are easily thousands. Probably just in South Asia alone, there would have to be thousands.

    Just based on my initial method of comparing trends and trend reversals, the numbers are high. I’m surprised how high.

    In the US alone, it’s hundreds, possibly pushing a thousand. Probably between 800-1000 lives have been lost in the US. At least as many in the EU. At least one hundred in Australia.

    Just using those numbers, there’s easily a couple thousand excess deaths.

    You start including aid workers driven out of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and even parts of Eastern Europe, and the numbers can be very dramatic.


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  4. 4
    Martin Says:

    The WHO saw enormous success with their vaccine programs in the 1970s to the 1990s and set some ambitious but reasonable goals for diseases they believed they could eradicate within a decade from various countries. If you consider their goals to be reasonable, and the fact that, for the most part they were never met, then yes, it would be thousands of deaths. I’m not 100% sure it was all western influence, however, because some of those cultures were already not accepting of things liek foreign medical intervention.


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  5. 5
    Gordon Says:

    Submitted on 2015/06/21 at 8:11 pm

    I actually remember seeing a report on one of the news shows on Brian Sinclair. They cited several sources who said that there are estimated to be a signifficant number of deaths each year because of delayed care. He is an extreme example, because he died waiting. However, others might die because they spent two hours waiting and would have lived if they spent one hour waiting.

    It’s not a Canadian problem. It’s almost universal. The triage process used in healthcare attempts to identify who needs help the fastest and who can wait, so that you avoid this problem. It is admittedly not 100% perfect. They need to give their best guess as to who can wait and who needs to get care most urgently.

    It definitely gets worse when you have more needy people who need care. Any time you add unnecessary people to a healthcare system, the quality of care for all goes down. That’s common sense.

    What gets me is that if an antivaxxer brings their kid into a hospital, they get the same free care as someone who had a disease they could not prevent. Why should I pay for their irresponsibility? That seems unfair to those who need care through no fault of their own.

    Numbers like that, though, we will never know. They have taken a big toll on society and there’s no doubt about that. People died. Money wasted. Kids in India crippled. Even just the fact that people have suffered through painful infections unnecessarily.


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  6. 6
    DV82XL Says:

            Gordon said:

    What gets me is that if an antivaxxer brings their kid into a hospital, they get the same free care as someone who had a disease they could not prevent. Why should I pay for their irresponsibility? That seems unfair to those who need care through no fault of their own.

    Which is why I wonder why the insurance companies haven’t picked up on this. Smoke tobacco, run a high BMI and up go your premiums in many cases, so why do the unvaccinated get a free pass in this regard?


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  7. 7
    Q Says:

    It has been established that hundreds of excess deaths from vaccine preventible diseases have happened in the US since the tide turned on vaccines. (All these diseases were on a downward trend until between 1998 and 2004) It’s a known fact that there are hundreds of exess deaths in the US and the CDC data proves this.

    So now apply the same pattern to the UK (where this all started) and to Australia (which has a strong anti-vax movement) and then consider the rest: Canada, France, Germany and the rest of Europe. I am not sure to what extent the anti-vax movement has taken root in Japan or other Asian nations.

    Just apply the same pattern as it exists across national lines.

    The number of lives lost are in the thousands. There’s no way they can’t be. It would be nice to have a number, but it almost does not matter. We know they kill scores of people. That should be enough, really.


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  8. 8
    ThisGuy Says:

    I doubt the exact number of deaths even matters. Just given a bottom line of a few attributable deaths is enough to make the entire anti-vax movement morally reprihensible. Let alone a few hundred or even a few thousand. (but then unfortunately you veer directly into: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of thousands is a statistic”)


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  9. 9
    Q Says:

            ThisGuy said:

    I doubt the exact number of deaths even matters. Just given a bottom line of a few attributable deaths is enough to make the entire anti-vax movement morally reprihensible. Let alone a few hundred or even a few thousand. (but then unfortunately you veer directly into: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of thousands is a statistic”)

    Agreed. All murderers are horrible people, even if they kill even just one.

    The anti-vax movement has killed. Zero doubt about that. Maybe it is even more on point that many of the deaths are children.

    There are people who are dead today who would be alive if not for the anti-vax movement and that is unforgivable.


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  10. 10
    Matte Says:

    Well, I do think it is unfair to deny the afflicted children healthcare on the grounds of irresponsible parents. I think the solution is simple albeit harsh, remove the parents from the children.

    Foster care would seem like a workable solution, if the right number of families could be found…yea, I know there are fates worse than death and I agree that in practice the solution is not viable. Perhaps making a few examples of people?


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  11. 11
    Anon Says:

            Matte said:

    Well, I do think it is unfair to deny the afflicted children healthcare on the grounds of irresponsible parents. I think the solution is simple albeit harsh, remove the parents from the children.

    Foster care would seem like a workable solution, if the right number of families could be found…yea, I know there are fates worse than death and I agree that in practice the solution is not viable. Perhaps making a few examples of people?

    Better off just getting rid of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

    There’s already a shortage of foster parents, at least if you want people who’ll take those who have passed the “awww, how cute” stage in the human life-cycle, so just removing the kids probably isn’t viable.


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  12. 12
    DV82XL Says:

    One child dead and diphtheria detected in 8 More children in catalonia, Spain
    (The eight children have not developed the illness because they were vaccinated, but are being kept in quarantine.)

    https://www.thespainreport.com/16612/diphtheria-bacteria-detected-in-eight-more-children-in-catalonia/


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  13. 13
    Mark G Hood Says:

    If you total all the deaths in the US that would not have occurred had it not been for Wakefield and then add to it the deaths that would not have occurred in Australia and New Zealand and Canada and the UK and Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Italy etc etc and realize that the anti-vaccine movement has taken root across the western sphere of influence, then it is easily into the thousands.

    There is no way it is not at least a few thousand.

    If you want to talk about the third world and, as the author calls it the “indirect deaths” which are caused by putting more tax on an overtaxed halth system, then you hit the tens of thousands.

    I agree, we should not forget, the movement has killed many people. It boggles the mind!

    Way more lives lost than 9/11!


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  14. 14
    DV82XL Says:

    And now we have this: Meet the New, Dangerous Fringe of the Anti-Vaccination Movement anti-vaxxers actively seeking to interfere with and smear the families, jobs, and children of the people who fall on the other side of the line.


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  15. 15
    ThisGuy Says:

    @DV82XL, That is… just… wow… Personal threats against someones children is REALLY taking it too far.


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  16. 16
    Pedro Says:

    Most posts please! We miss you! :)


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