Since the press release was originally issued on Thursday by now surely most of you have seen the news stories that popped up beginning yesterday morning with headlines like “CDC Warning: Flu Viruses Mutate and Evade Current Vaccine“, or “Flu vaccine protects against wrong strain, US health officials warn“, or “Flu shots may not be good match for 2014-15 virus, CDC says“, or “Health Officials Warn This Year’s Flu Vaccine Won’t Prevent New H3N2 Strain Of Influenza“. You get the idea. This year, apparently, the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as health officials and physicians would like. How could this have happened?
Those of you who are knowledgeable about the flu vaccine know that, as useful as it is, it’s not one of the greatest vaccines as far as effectiveness. Actually, that’s not true. Its effectiveness can and does vary considerably from year to year. The reason is simple. There are many strains of influenza, and the vaccine as currently formulated generally only covers a handful of strains. Basically, every year the World Health Organization, in collaboration with the CDC and other health organizations throughout the world, has to make an educated guess which strains of influenza will be circulating the following winter. Many months’ lead time is required because vaccine manufacturers require it to develop and test the new formulations and then to ramp up their manufacturing capabilities and distribute the vaccine. Generally, the WHO chooses the three strains it deems most likely to cause significant human suffering and death in the coming flu season. Specifically, the chosen strains are the H1N1, H3N2, and Type-B, although, starting with the 2012–2013 Northern Hemisphere influenza season, the WHO has also recommended a second B-strain for use in quadrivalent (four strain) vaccines. Basically, the WHO coordinates the contents of the vaccine each year to contain the most likely strains of the virus to attack the next year. Wikipedia has a helpful article that lists the formulations of all the flu vaccines recommended for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres dating back to 1998, to give you an idea what’s been recommended in the past. Also, there are exceptions. In the 2009-2010 season, for example, the H1N1 pandemic was occurring, and it was recommended that everyone be vaccinated against H1N1 in addition to the normal flu vaccine.
There are many conspiracy theories about vaccines, and they circulate almost continuously. Some are relatively new, but most are at least a few years old. They all tend to fall into several defined types, such as the “CDC whistleblower” story, which posits that the “CDC knew” all these years that vaccines cause autism but covered it up, even going so far as to commit scientific fraud to do so. Of the many other myths about vaccines that stubbornly persist despite all evidence showing them not only to be untrue but to be risibly, pseudoscientifically untrue, among whose number are myths that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that so resembles shaken baby syndrome (more correctly called abusive head trauma) that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, the antivaccine conspiracy theory that vaccines are being used for population control is one of the most persistent. In this myth, vaccines are not designed to protect populations of impoverished nations against diseases like the measles, which still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year outside of developed countries. Oh, no. Rather, according to this myth, vaccines are in fact a surreptitious instrument of population control designed to render people sterile, for whatever nefarious reasons the powers that be have to want to control the population.
You might recall how a few years ago antivaccinationists leaped on a statement by Bill Gates that “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that [population] by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.” They used it to accuse Gates of being a eugenicist and that vaccines were in actuality an instrument of global depopulation. It was a ridiculous charge of course. In context, it was clear that Gates was referring to how the expected population increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion could be blunted by providing good health care, including reproductive care and vaccines, to impoverished people in regions where the population increases are expected to be greatest. He was clearly referring to decreasing the expected population increase by 10% or 15%, meaning that instead of going up to 9 billion the population would only increase to between 7.65 and 8.1 billion. In other words, he was referring to how good health care could decrease the expected rate of population growth, not how vaccines could be used to depopulate the world. However, because of the prevalence of the myth that vaccines are sterilizing agents intended for global depopulation, the charge that Gates is a eugenicist, as obviously off base as it is to reasonable people, resonated in the anti-science world of antivaccinationists. Similar claims, namely that there is “something” in vaccines that results in infertility and sterilization, have been unfortunately very effective in frightening people in Third World countries and have played a major role in antivaccine campaigns that have delayed the eradication of polio.
Yesterday, I spiffed up a post that some of you might have seen, describing how a particular medical conspiracy theory has dire consequences in terms of promoting non-science-based medical policy. Specifically, I referred to how the myth that there are all sorts of “cures” for deadly and even terminal diseases that are being kept from you by an overweening fascistic FDA’s insistence on its approval process is an important driving force behind ill-advised “right to try” legislation that’s passed in four states and likely to pass in Arizona by referendum tomorrow. I’m not exaggerating, either. If you have the stomach to delve into the deeper, darker recesses of alternative medicine and conspiracy theory websites, you’ll find words far worse than that used to describe the FDA, such as this little gem from everyone’s favorite über-quack Mike Adams basically portraying the FDA as Adolf Hitler. Even more “mainstream” advocates, such as Reason.com’s Ronald Bailey and Nick Gillespie, are not above using a version of this myth stripped of the worst of its conspiracy mongering for public consumption, claiming that the FDA is killing you.
Unfortunately, this sort of medical conspiracy theory is very common. Like all conspiracy theories, medical conspiracy theories tend to involve “someone” hiding something from the public. I like to refer to this as the fallacy of “secret knowledge.” That “someone” hiding the “secret knowledge” is usually the government, big pharma, or other ill-defined nefarious forces. The “secret knowledge” being hidden comes invariably in one of two flavors. Either “they” are hiding cures for all sorts of diseases that conventional medicine can’t cure, or “they” are hiding evidence of harm due to something in medicine. Although examples of the former are common, such as the “hidden cure for cancer,” it is examples of the latter that seem to be even more common, in particular the myth that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of diseases and conditions, that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous, or that radiation from cell phones causes cancer. In these latter examples, invariably the motivation is either financial (big pharma profits), ideological (control, although descriptions of how hiding this knowledge results in control are often sketchy at best), or even some seriously out there claims, such as the sometimes invoked story about how mass vaccination programs are about “population control” or even “depopulation.” Either way, “The Truth” needs to be hidden from the population, lest they panic and revolt.
This post might look familiar to some of you who know me from what I like to call my not-so-secret other blog (NSSSOB). However, what happened last week was important enough that I wanted to make sure that it was covered on SBM, just as Steve Novella covered it on his own blog on Friday. (Fear not, there will be fresh material tomorrow, as always.) Another reason that I wanted to recycle and update this for SBM is because I believe the incident involving über-quack Mike Adams provides to me a “teachable moment” related to my talk at TAM two weeks ago, which was entitled “How ‘They’ View ‘Us’” and based on a post of mine here on SBM entitled, appropriately enough, How “they” view “us”.
The Internet has produced a revolution with respect to information. Now, people anywhere, any time, can find almost any information that they want, as long as they have a connection to the global network and aren’t unfortunate enough to live in a country that heavily censors the Internet connections coming in. In addition, anyone any time can put his or her opinion out on the Internet and it might be read by people on the other side of the planet. For example, it continually amazes me that my blatherings here are read by people in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe and pretty much every other continent. Before the Internet, there was no way I would ever have achieved my current measure of minor celebrity status (and I do mean minor). Now, with enough good (I hope) writing and some links from some popular sources, and I can make my opinion known worldwide.
The dark side of this is that cranks can also make their opinions known worldwide, and, all too frequently, they are much better at it than skeptics are. For example, this very blog used a generic, vanilla WordPress template for the longest time, only updating it a few months ago. Meanwhile crank websites like NaturalNews.com are decked out in the latest, greatest web accoutrements, complete with video. One other problem with the democratization of information is that there now exist what I like to call “zombie memes.” In the world of quackery and pseudoscience, these are pseudoscientific claims on the Internet that never die, no matter how often they are refuted. Generally, such memes/claims pop up, make a fuss, are refuted, and then disappear. Then a few months (or even a year or two) later, something will happen to resurrect them. Maybe it’s a clueless mortician cremating the remains of such a zombie meme during a rainstorm and letting whatever it is that resurrected the dead meme in the first place permeate the soil of a graveyard of dead memes. Maybe it involved injecting a glowing fluid into the corpse of the meme. Who knows? Who cares that much? All I know is that these zombie memes keep popping up again and again as though they were new.
Now that the World Wide Web (at least as we know it, in its graphically browsable form) is approaching its twentieth birthday, we now have enough perspective to see these things. Steve Novella pointed out one zombie meme just the other day about the MMR, as did a certain person well known to this blog. Just yesterday I noticed another of these zombie memes arising from the dead yet again to feast on the brains of the living and thus make them cranks too. (At least, that is the goal of their continual resurrection.) This one popped up at that online repository of all things quackery, NaturalNews.com, in a post by Mike Adams himself entitled Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys. Other versions of this meme pop up from time to time with titles like CDC Admits 98 Million Americans Received Polio Vaccine In An 8-Year Span When It Was Contaminated With Cancer Virus.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
“CHEMOTHERAPY DOESN’T WORK!!!!!”
“CHEMOTHERAPY IS POISON!!!!”
“CHEMOTHERAPY WILL KILL YOU!!!!”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come across statements like the ones above, often in all caps, quite frequently with more than one exclamation point, on the websites of “natural healers,” purveyors of “alternative medicine.” In fact, if you Google “chemotherapy doesn’t work,” “chemotherapy is poison,” or “chemotherapy kills,” you’ll get thousands upon thousands of hits. In the case of “chemotherapy kills,” Google will even start autofilling it to read “chemotherapy kills more than it saves.” The vast majority of the hits from these searches usually come from websites hostile to science-based medicine. Examples include Mercola.com, the website of “alternative medicine entrepreneur” Dr. Joe Mercola and NaturalNews.com, the website of Mike Adams, where you will find cartoons like this one, which likens the administration of chemotherapy to a Nazi death camp: