Sure, Measles Vaccine Is Dangerous – Just Less So Than Measles

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With outbreaks of measles going on it’s worth pointing out that there is a point here. The measles vaccination is indeed dangerous. It’s just that it’s less dangerous than measles itself. And the thing is, in a population not protected by vaccines, a child really is going to get measles.

In fact, in an unprotected population and one where measles isn’t endemic it can be one of the great killers. The population of the Faroe Islands suffered several epidemics in the 1800s and as the disease ripped through a virgin population it killed substantial percentages. A paper on which is here. The classic paper in fact. Worth noting that we palefaces didn’t conquer the Americas with guns but with germs, measles being one of the epidemics that carried off perhaps 90% of the indigenous population.

But modern mothers – and it is more often mothers – have been told and some believe that the vaccine itself is a rise in risk. Something that their own little darlin’s shouldn’t be exposed to. This has the boring property of not being true:

Amid a measles outbreak that has sickened more than 50 people in the Pacific Northwest, Washington lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a bill that would remove parents’ ability to claim a personal or philosophical exemption to opt their school-age children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Hundreds of people opposed to the measure lined up more than an hour before the start of the hearing before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, many wearing stickers with the bill number, HB 1638, within a crossed out circle.

Just to underline the silliness of this reaction. Again, yes, the measles vaccine is dangerous but it is less so than measles. From the standard warnings:

Other vaccine safety issues
Encephalopathy/encephalitis
Natural measles virus infection causes post-infectious encephalomyelitis in approximately 1 per 1,000 infected persons. At least 50% of those affected are left with permanent central nervous system impairment. This syndrome is considered to be immunologically mediated because of the perivenular demyelinating lesions. While many have been concerned about the attenuated measles vaccine’s ability to produce such a syndrome, the United States Institute of Medicine concluded there was not enough evidence to accept or reject a causal relationship (Stratton et al., 1994). In the United Kingdom, results from the British National Childhood Encephalopathy Study (NCES) 10 year follow-up did not identify an increased risk of permanent neurological abnormality following measles vaccination (Miller, 1997). An analysis of claims for encephalitis following measles vaccine in the United States found clustering of events at 8–9 days after immunization, which supports but does not prove the possibility that the vaccine causes encephalitis (Weibel, 1998; Duclos, 1998). The risk was less than 1 per million doses, or about 1,000 times less than the risk from measles infection.

Do recall, in a non-vaccinated population a child is going to get measles. So, what’s the preference, the 1 in 1,000 chance of brain damage or the 1 in 1 million chance?

Again:

The risk was less than 1 per million doses, or about 1,000 times less than the risk from measles infection.

Everything is dangerous in this life it is relative risk that matters. Those not vaccinating their children other than for already known medical issues really are increasing the possibility of their own child’s death. This is not sensible.

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Thomas L. Knapp
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“Do recall, in a non-vaccinated population a child is going to get measles. So, what’s the preference, the 1 in 1,000 chance of brain damage or the 1 in 1 million chance?” But you’re comparing apples to oranges. If a kid gets the measles vaccine, the kid has a 1 in 1 million chance of brain damage. If a kid doesn’t get the measles vaccine AND GETS MEASLES, the kid has a 1 in 1,000 chance of brain damage. And in a community where most kids get the vaccine (and take the 1 in 1 million risk), the kid who… Read more »

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

That’s the ‘herd immunity’ effect. You need more than about 90% of the herd immunised for free riders to be protected.

Thomas L. Knapp
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Yes, a very high percentage has to be vaccinated for “herd immunity” to work. And that’s where free-riderism as a problem comes in. Take a population of 100 people. If 90 of them are vaccinated, “herd immunity” nearly eliminates the risk of measles to the other 10. But if you go down the list one by one and tell each one “hey, as long as 90 of you get vaccinated, the other 10 will get the benefit without having to take the vaccination risk,” presumably more than 10 of them will want to be among the 10 who don’t have… Read more »

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JH: You need more than about 90% of the herd immunised for free riders to be protected.
So anti-vaxxers are incentivised to talk up the number of anti-vaxxers (as the threat of lack of herd immunity) while also discouraging others from joining them (to actually protect herd immunity).
Tricky balancing act.