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.
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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