The Washington Post building in Washington, DC (Daniel X. O'Neil/CC BY 2.0)

The Washington Post building in Washington, DC (Daniel X. O’Neil/CC BY 2.0)

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, pediatrician Daniel Summers argues that when it comes to the safety and efficacy of vaccines, there’s nothing to debate. His central message is essentially: Shut up, stop asking questions, and just get your damn shots. Yet his own arguments illustrate why he’s wrong, and why there is indeed a debate to be had. So why is he so afraid of having it?

Dr. Summers actually answers this question for us, with some comments that explain his own demonstrable confirmation bias (the tendency to accept facts that support his own position while ignoring facts that contradict it). He writes:

If vaccines genuinely cause autism like their opponents claim, one of two things must be true of pediatricians like me who administer them. Either we are too incompetent to discern the relationship between the two, or we are too monstrous to care. One cannot believe that autism is related to vaccination without simultaneously indicting the overwhelming majority of physicians, nurses and other medical providers in this country.

So there you have it. If his view was shown to be wrong, it would demonstrate that either he’s incompetent or he’s evil. It’s only natural that we can expect Summers, then, to be accepting of science that supports his view while dismissive of science that contradicts it.

So let’s look at some of his arguments.

First, he asserts that the hypothesis that vaccines can cause autism have been “thoroughly debunked”. Now, that’s odd because the government has actually acknowledged that vaccines can cause brain damage, and that this vaccine-caused brain damage can result in developmental regression in genetically susceptible individuals. Here’s how then CDC Director Julie Gerberding put it in a carefully worded statement on March 29, 2008:

Now, we all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids. So if a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines. And if you’re predisposed with a mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage. Some of the symptoms can be symptoms that have characteristics of autism.

So seems to me there’s some room for debate there. (Gerberding, incidentally, left her government job to become head of Merck’s vaccine division.)

Summers asserts:

Despite ample evidence of its safety and efficacy, many parents choose not to give their children the vaccination against the carcinogenic human papillomavirus, leaving their sons and daughters at increased risk of several different cancers.

Can Dr. Summers point to any studies in the medical literature that have shown that the HPV vaccine reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer (or anal or mouth/throat cancers in men)? When the FDA approved its use allowing the vaccine manufacturers to advertise it on the grounds that it can prevent cancer, had this been proven in clinical trials?

The answer to both questions is “No”. Dr. Summers assertion is an assumption, not a demonstrated fact. Room for debate on that one, too, then.

But the main argument of his I want to point out for how it illustrates precisely why Dr. Summers is wrong to assert that there’s nothing to debate:

Preventing measles isn’t a matter of avoiding some minor ailment. The disease killed over 100,000 people in 2015. Even in patients who recover there is a risk of severe brain damage years after getting over measles. Why on earth would parents opt for that risk when there’s a safe way of protecting their children?

Readers would have to be forgiven for taking away from this that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine is 100% safe. Dr. Summers surely knows better. Surely, he is not incompetent (much less evil)! He has argued so himself, after all. So surely he has taken the time to read the manufacturers’ product insert, which lists encephalitis as one of the possible adverse reactions to the MMR (manufactured, by the way, by Merck).

Summers notes the the deaths of over 100,000 people in 2015 as a result of measles infection as though the mortality rate in the US, absent mass vaccination, would be no different than in third-world countries in Africa.

Setting that side, it’s true that in rare cases, measles infection can subsequently lead to brain damage. But Summers would have his readers believe the same outcome cannot occur as a result of vaccination. He is therefore misleading his readers.

Beyond the acknowledgment of the manufacturers’ own product insert of the possibility, there are studies in the medical literature indicating that the vaccine, too, can cause brain damage and even death.

A 1998 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that “a causal relationship between measles vaccine and encephalopathy may exist as a rare complication of measles immunization”. (Eight of the children who developed encephalopathy after receiving the measles vaccines died, and “the remainder had mental regression and retardation, chronic seizures, motor and sensory deficits, and movement disorders”).

In a comment on that study published in the journal Pediatric Neurology Briefs, the author notes that “A causal relationship between measles vaccination and severe and sometimes fatal encephalopathy, although rare, is cause for concern…. The incidence of post-infectious encephalitis complicating natural measles is estimated at 1 in 1000 cases, with a mortality of 10 to 20% and permanent CNS damage in the survivors.”

A study published the following year in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases reported a case “of measles inclusion-body encephalitis (MIBE) occurring in an apparently healthy 21-month-old boy 8.5 months after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination.” A brain biopsy confirmed the presence of vaccine-strain measles virus in the child’s brain tissue.

More recently, a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine (September 2015) examined the case of “a previously healthy child with fatal encephalitis following inoculation of the live-attenuated measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine”. The researchers acknowledged this as “the severe outcome of systemic live-vaccine challenge”, noting that the vaccine-strain virus was found in his brain (MMR is an attenuated live virus vaccine).

So to return to Dr. Summer’s statement, applying his own logic, we could just as well say that there is a risk of severe brain damage from getting the measles vaccine, so why on earth would parents opt for that risk?

People like Daniel Summers would have you believe there’s no debate to be had about vaccines and to support this assertion speak as though there were no risks associated with vaccination. Indeed, the view that there’s nothing to debate is premised upon the false assumption that vaccination carries no risk. The fact is that there are risks associated with vaccination; hence there is a debate to be had.

It would be nice if people like Dr. Summers would simply acknowledge these risks and engage in a reasoned discussion about vaccines rather than attempting to shut down any debate with irresponsible misrepresentations of the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

It is understandable that individuals like Dr. Summers who are responsible for having vaccinated untold numbers of children would find it hard to accept that something they did to a child might have harmed the child. It is understandable why pediatricians like him would succumb to confirmation bias, accepting any science that supports their belief about vaccines as safe and effective while dismissing any science that contradicts that belief. But understanding why people like him irresponsibly misrepresent what science actually has to say about vaccines doesn’t excuse it.

Many of us who are concerned about and have researched this issue favor reasoned discussion and debate about vaccines. Many others, like Dr. Summers, on the other hand, are opposed to this occurring and actively try to quash it.

So which position do you think is more reasonable? Which view is more in accordance with the scientific method?

You decide.

There is a real discussion to be had about vaccines. It’s past time the Washington Post and the rest of the mainstream media started having it.


Correction (February 15,2017, 12 pm): Due to an editing error, part of a sentence was missing. It should have read (omitted portion emphasized): “Summers notes the the deaths of over 100,000 people in 2015 as a result of measles infection as though the mortality rate in the US, absent mass vaccination, would be no different than in third-world countries in Africa.” (Thanks to Jan for pointing out the error. More on why this is fallacious reasoning here.)

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