Vaccines, Viruses, and the Anti-Vax Movement


On a chilly February evening, I found myself stepping across the threshold of one of Midtown Manhattan’s many brick high rises. I took the elevator to the sixteenth floor, home of the Meta Center, which describes itself as Manhattan’s “number one destination for Consciousness Raising, Cutting Edge Spiritual & Metaphysical Education, Healing and the Creative Arts.” A sign at the entrance to the conference room asked me to remove my shoes before entering sacred space. So I shucked my boots, tried to hide the hole in my left sock, and picked my way to the back of the room in search of an empty folding chair.

I had come to hear a lecture on vaccines. As a science writer and public health advocate, I’m a big proponent of vaccination. Study after study has shown that the benefits far outweigh the risks. The proof is incontrovertible. But I wanted to hear the alternative argument.

As I settled in I scanned the packed room. Many of the attendees were pregnant women and new mothers. Some had brought their babies. Finally Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a middle-aged pediatrician with brown hair and a cheery disposition, took the stage. He began by explaining his goal: empowerment. “How can I as a clinician empower you as a parent or practitioner to understand what the science is in this field so that you can go and make an empowered individual choice,” he asked.

But it soon became clear that Palevsky wasn’t about to present an unbiased review of the literature. “Do the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risk of disease?” he asked less than half an hour into his three-hour talk. “I used to think that was true. I can no longer say that that’s true. And if I’m abiding by the Hippocratic oath, I can no longer say with certainty or near certainty that vaccines are safer than the diseases that we vaccinate against.”

Palevsky’s lecture covered a lot of ground. He questioned the link between vaccines and the declines in mortality from diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio. He talked about the purported danger of aluminum and linked the adjuvant to autism. (It bears repeating that childhood vaccines protect kids from deadly diseases. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the harms. And there is no evidence in support of a link between vaccines and autism.)

But it was Palevsky’s final argument that stuck with me. He noted that researchers have scanned the human genome and found viral genetic material. “So where are all the viruses that we’re concerned about? They’re probably in our own chromosomes already,” he said. “The viruses kick in from within, not from the outside. We all think that the virus comes from outside. Statistically we have hundreds of millions of viruses ready to be coded for inside our bodies. And you’re being told that the virus comes from outside.”

If I understood him correctly, his point was this: Vaccines do no good because the viruses that we’re trying to vaccinate against already exist within the human genome. You can’t protect against them. They’re already inside us.

“Poppycock!” I wanted to shout. It’s true that scientists have found sequences of ancient viruses within the human genome. However, Cedric Feschotte, a researcher at the University of Utah who has spent considerable time sifting through the genome in search fossil viruses, notes that none of the sequences scientists have uncovered are closely related to the viruses that plague humans. “I can assure you that we and others have looked VERY CAREFULLY for viral sequences integrated in the human (inheritable) genome that would be more closely related to viruses known to currently infect humans, but we came back empty,” he wrote in an email.

Feschotte continues, “Perhaps the most misleading point in what you quoted is this idea that ‘viruses kick in from within, not from the outside.’ This is plainly wrong. There is at present no reliable evidence that any of the viral sequences buried in the human genome can form infectious particles. Most of them are obviously defective, ancient relics of very ancient infections that must have plagued our distant primate or mammal ancestors.”

Palevsky also suggested that these viral sequences help us stay healthy by regulating metabolism and purging toxins and waste. “If these sequences in our genomes protected us, we would not have had these infections. If vaccines were bad, they would not have controlled infectious disease like they have,” wrote Columbia virologist Vincent Racaniello, who hosts one of my favorite podcasts – This Week in Virology. “Palevsky either does not understand virology, or he is bending the truth to support his reasons for not immunizing. I have never seen such a flagrant display of ignorance with respect to vaccine arguments,” he added.

I’m always in favor of a critical analysis of the evidence. But that’s not what Palevsky gave me. He seemed to cherry pick, misunderstand and misinterpret. He wove science together with anecdote and opinion. In a nation where just 28% of adults are science literate, the combination can be deadly.

I left the lecture dismayed. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, tried to make me feel better. But it didn’t really work.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 3.27.57 AMMaybe some of the parents in that room were true believers, but what about everyone else? The antivax lobby has found a way to reach them. Now how can I?

Update: I asked four scientists to comment on this idea that vaccines don’t work because viruses are already inside our DNA: Vincent Racaniello, John Coffin, Robert Gifford, and Cedric Feschotte. They ALL responded. For those who would like to see their full response, I’ve posted their comments on this Google doc


Image credit: captaincinema on Flickr

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11 thoughts on “Vaccines, Viruses, and the Anti-Vax Movement

  1. wow…tell that to parents who have lost children d/t vaccine-preventable diseases (the child should have saved him/herself)…I’m glad you made it out of the den, breath deep and continue your great writing.

  2. Cassandra,
    I share your frustration, but I am also frustrated by this continued frustration with ‘irrational’science denialism.This ‘the facts are clear…why are people so stupid?’ignores, or denies, the robust body of science, from several fields of research, that explains WHY this sort of denialist risk perception occurs…and why it is in intrinsic to the nature of human cognition. the longer we persist in thinking that people will get it right if they just understand the facts, and denigrating as ignorant and irrational those who choose to see the facts another way, the further we are from solving the problems denialism creates.
    For detail on the psychology of vaccines denialism, see Inside the Mind of Worry, an NYT Sunday review piece I wrote on this,

  3. David, my frustration isn’t with parents. Immunology is a complicated topic, and there’s lots of conflicting information online. What gets me is how people like Palevsky, who should know better, use scientific terminology and scientific references to promote conclusions that flagrantly disregard the evidence. And then they claim to be giving people “the facts.” It’s maddening.

    And the worst part is that Palevsky makes this all sound reasonable. I don’t blame people for being swayed. Or scared. Or confused. Hell, I left sort of confused.

    I’m asking a serious question — if facts aren’t enough, how do I, as a science journalist, persuade parents to vaccinate their children or accept climate change or . . . whatever?

  4. Cassandra, is this Palevsky guy part duck? I hear the sound of quacking in much of all he says.

    David, “…denigrating as ignorant and irrational those who choose to see the facts another way,…” is an oxymoron. You either accept something as fact, or you do not accept it as fact. What, exactly, is “another way” of looking at a “fact” such as “…The viruses kick in from within, not from the outside…”?

  5. I admire your restraint. I think I would have used a much more colorful expletive than poppycok, though.

    I have dealt with science deniers in my own family and Seth is correct in that I find you can’t argue with a true believer. But you’re talking about people who have not yet joined a side and just want to do the best thing for their kids. They are vulnerable and confused.

    Palevsky looks to have proper credentials so why would they not believe him? I don’t know how to reach people that were let down by educational system such that they can’t properly evaluate the strengths of these articles. I think people who do understand, like Racaneillo, need to keep speaking out and challenging these guys.

    One question I have is what is Palevsky’s motivation for misleading all these people? Does he profit from it in some way? Maybe exposing those motivations might help people decide to take his words with a bigger grain of salt.

  6. And the problem isn’t confined to North America… I live in coastal eastern Australia in the middle of a community where many eschew vaccination, with the result that children die of preventable viruses, particularly whooping cough. I’m a stepmother and a sister to children who had severe reactions after vaccination with the result that we chose to immunise our daughter with separate vaccines rather than combined vaccines so that she could be carefully monitored – perhaps that means we don’t understand the science, but we still believe strongly in the benefit of vaccination. The people locally who talk about the lack of need for vaccination because of low death rates among the population at large don’t seem to realise that they are benefitting from herd immunity: we vaccinate our kids so that (mainly) their children don’t suffer…

  7. I have heard Pavlevsky speak as well – on a panel discussion along with Barbara Loe Fisher, Bob Sears and Dawn Richardson (head of a huge Texas anti-vaccine group associated with NVIC). It was maddening to say the least. I sat down with Sears for over an hour afterward for an interview for the big piece I was working on about vaccines, and it was incredibly frustrating to see how he [talked] about “being in middle,” which is even more insidious than [what] Pavlevsky [says]. Like Seth said, the true believers are not convincible, but like you said, not everyone in that room is a true believer either. I don’t know what the solution is except to continue conveying the facts AND emotional stories (nod to David R above) and engaging with the fence-sitting (the HONESTLY fence-sitting) parents in open conversations. I have actually had success with this, and it helps me feel a bit better when I know I can’t convince the true believers but I can get through to others who were just a little uncertain. I’m part of an online group that engages in these talks, so contact me if interested.
    {edited by Ann [in brackets] for liability but not for substance}

  8. I share the view that it’s very hard to convince the tiny inner core (and they are only few) of the anti-vaccine “movement” to change their minds. As a practical matter, it’d just take too much time and you’d be very unlikely to succeed. You can try show up their nonsense to parents, etc., however. I try to take this approach on my blog. Parents can come around and do. As mass example might be this story – (queues of people trying to get “extra” MMR shots in Wales). My own instincts about reaching parents is, oddly enough, that you need to in addition to facts give them case examples. Basically you’re “falling” to giving them what they want – anecdotes. Terrible, but pair it up with the real stuff so it’s seated in a context of proper background, etc. At least that’s my current thinking.

  9. I came to add a note on the story on MMR from Wales but see Grant Jacobs beat me to it.

    My view on this and similar divisions is simple. There are two kinds of people in the world: those whose DNA is programmed to self-destruct through avoidance of sensible precautions, and the rest of us.

    It applies to vaccination, wearing cycle helmets and playing with explosives. It’s always a choice but the thinking behind the decision can be deeply ingrained. When parents’ decisions affect their children is when it looks most like ingraining at the DNA level.

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