Jim Carrey and the long slow death of the antivaccine movement

California governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a bill that eliminates religious or philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines. Under the new law, parents may only opt out of vaccinating their child if a doctor signs off on a medical exemption.

The new law was controversial for a while, especially among California’s small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Prominent vaccine opponent Jim Carrey, for example, made a few headlines with a twitter rant that compared the new law to fascism. (You just couldn’t make this stuff up.)


And apparently a string of tweets in more or less the same vein. “They say mercury in fish is dangerous, but forcing our children to be injected with mercury in thimerosal is no risk. Make sense?” etc. Just to clarify, he added that he is not anti-vaccine but “anti-toxin” apparently..

It’s the same old tired nonsense anti-vaccine groups have been spreading for years. Never mind that none of the vaccines administered to children (with the exception of some flu vaccines) contain thimerosal, and that the dose of thimerosal in a vaccine was tiny to begin with. Never mind that all the plant food you eat contains some aluminum, because aluminum is one of the most common elements in the Earth’s crust, you find it in many soils in the form of aluminosilicate minerals, and various plants take up small amounts, so your diet regularly exposes you to significantly more aluminum than you get from a vaccine. The average human naturally contains somewhere between 30-50 mg of aluminum at any given time, mostly in your bones although blood typically contains 1-3 parts per billion of aluminum — and all of that is again completely normal; it’s a result of dietary exposure. And never mind that a baby’s blood naturally at any given time contains over ten times more formaldehyde than any shot.

I’ve blogged about this before and briefly talked about some of the chemistry; none of that has changed. Jim Carrey’s argument about aluminum and formaldehyde (given that thimerosal isn’t even included in children’s vaccines, it’s kind of irrelevant) is much the same as if I were to argue that coffee is lethal because a tablespoon of caffeine is probably enough to kill you. That part is absolutely true; a high school student tragically died after drinking a beverage he made with caffeine powder last year, for example. But it’s also true that a tablespoon of caffeine is more than you would get from fifty to eighty cups of coffee, depending on what kind of coffee you’re drinking. As always, the questions Carrey should ask are:

1) how long does this chemical stay in the body (how rapidly is it metabolized/excreted),

2) what are the effects of this chemical and what kinds of concentrations are required to cause those effects, and

3) what kind of dose is required to reach a dangerous concentration (given the rate at which the chemical is metabolized/excreted).

Or you could just ask “what is a dangerous dose”? Which is kind of the three questions above just rolled into one. Anyhow.

But let’s leave aside specific ingredients here for a minute and ask what’s the evidence on safety for vaccines as a whole. There have been numerous large studies looking for statistical correlations between vaccines and autism and a variety of other disorders. No evidence of any connection was ever found. This 2009 paper summarizes some of the data available in 2009; there is even more data available now and the conclusion has not changed.

It is possible to have an allergic reaction to a specific component of a vaccine, in the same way that some people are allergic to bee stings or to peanuts. But these kinds of allergic reactions for vaccines are extremely rare and typically start within a few minutes of receiving the vaccine. They exhibit the same kinds of symptoms as an allergic reaction to a bee sting (hives, swelling, shortness of breath, low blood pressure etc.) and pose the same kind of threat. And they can be treated in much the same way as an allergic reaction to a bee sting; in fact, as long as an allergic reaction of this kind is treated ASAP, it’s completely reversible, just like an allergic reaction to (again) a bee sting (did I say that already?) If someone has shown an allergic reaction to a specific vaccine in the past, then obviously they should not receive that same vaccine again in the future; and under CA’s new law they would have a medical exemption. There are also a variety of mild possible side effects like injection site swelling or low fever that are not dangerous or life-threatening.

The best evidence we have suggests that currently available vaccines are very safe. So why have they inspired so much controversy? Why do they keep on inspiring so much controversy? It’s sort of interesting to speculate about this, because this controversy has just kept on going….and going…and going, in spite of abundant evidence that vaccines are not causing any medical problems. (Quite the contrary.)

Part of it is that we humans are so good at spotting patterns and correlations we find them even where they don’t actually exist; where they’re just a narrative our minds have imposed onto real events. As Paul Offit pointed out, roughly 50,000 British children received the MMR vaccine every year in the late 90s; usually they were between ages 1 and 2, an age at which autism is often diagnosed. Given the number of children immunized and the number of children diagnosed with autism each year, statistically the odds are that in any given year 25 children will be diagnosed with autism shortly after they are vaccinated simply through sheer chance. Even though there is no link, the parents will assume there is a link because the one happened shortly before the other. It’s a little like if you got a call on your cell from an area code you didn’t recognize, say 303, and got in a car wreck three minutes later. Even the most level-headed of us might wonder for a moment whether there was some connection, even though there is obviously no connection between the call and the crash. But the human brain always tries to find connections, and when one event precedes another we tend to wonder if they might be linked (even if they aren’t).

Bear in mind this pattern-recognizing ability is actually one of our great strengths; in fact, our ability to recognize and remember patterns is arguably one of the traits that makes us good at science (at figuring out the natural world). XKCD cartoonist Randall Munroe once pointed out, for example, that if I show you a picture of an adult angrily talking to a kid with a lasso while a cat investigates a broken lamp in the background, your brain will immediately guess what happened. While a supercomputer that can do calculations many times faster than you would have no way to figure out what happened in that picture, at least not as quickly as you could. Which suggests that humans tend to be good at one kind of thinking, while computers tend to be good at another, and that this may remain true even once current limitations in software are surpassed. (I like to speculate that if self-aware computers are developed and go to war with us a la Terminator, the very different ways in which humans and computers think would make such a war more asymmetrical than any other in our history. Each side would have certain advantages because the ways in which human brains and computers function are so different. But I’ll stop there, because I’m speculating wildly…and getting way off topic.) We’re so good at recognizing patterns we can find faces in clouds and shapes in static. And that’s where we have to be careful. We are almost too good at spotting possible correlations. As I like to point out:

Do you really think organic food is actually the cause of autism? This sounds silly, but keep in mind that some anti-vaccine folks have made exactly the same argument vis-a-vis the MMR vaccine and autism.

Another part of it of course is that once you start a controversy it’s very difficult to end it. There are always a handful of conspiracy theorists and other tinfoil-hat types out there who will keep pretty much any controversy going for years or even decades after it should have ended. Even leaving the wingnuts aside, however, I think controversies of this kind tend to take on a life of their own because it’s much easier to scare people than to reassure them. And that’s where I fault the people who originally started this controversy; British doctor Andrew Wakefield and the journalists who briefly made him a household name.

Also I think many people don’t realize how dangerous some of these vaccine-preventable diseases truly were. Take pertussis. About half of all babies who get whooping cough will end up in the hospital. Of those who are hospitalized, one in four will get pneumonia; two-thirds will have slowed or stopped breathing, and 1.6% or 1-2 in a hundred will die. And all this is with appropriate medical treatment. (You can imagine what it was like before modern medical care.)

Or take diphtheria. According to the CDC, the fatality rate for diphtheria is 5-10%, and in kids under five it’s more like 20%. (Back before modern medical care it was 50%). That means even with appropriate medical treatment as many as 1 in 5 small children infected with diphtheria will possibly die.

And OK, sure, rubella is significantly more mild; the fatality rate for this disease is low. Only problem is, ~90% of pregnant women who get rubella will pass it to their fetus, which can cause either birth defects or miscarriage. That’s kind of a problem. Before the vaccine, an estimated 4 out of every 1000 babies was affected with birth defects or problems caused by a rubella infection.

So what I’m trying to say is…this is not your common cold. These are nasty diseases. These are not diseases you want spreading around.

And perhaps it would be good for the anti-vaccine folks out there (the ones still fighting anyway) to take a moment and think about that. We’ve managed to largely eliminate diseases like diphtheria and pertussis, and we’re saving millions of lives. If we can completely eliminate some of these diseases around the world as we did with smallpox, we can eventually stop vaccinating for them altogether, the same way we did with smallpox. (It will take some international cooperation to make that happen, but if we can work together to make it happen it would be awesome.)

And to Jim Carrey and those of like mind. If you are still worried about the safety of vaccines, please, read up on it (and I don’t mean trawling Google for random crank websites — you’re in real trouble if you believe everything you read on the Internet). Try that 2009 paper I linked to for example; or try this list of studies on vaccine safety. Please read up on this before you keep making the same tired nonsense arguments about it. Because this is getting kind of old already.

11 thoughts on “Jim Carrey and the long slow death of the antivaccine movement

  1. Apart from the obvious nuttiness of the whole anti-vax movement, calling Jerry Brown, who has a reputation as a very liberal democrat, a fascist is stretching it more than allowed by any sort of rational hyperbole.

  2. As with your organic food vs. autism curve, one could similarly pretend to “show” that Apple products induce homosexuality!

  3. It’s 2015 and some still haven’t heard of “Correlation does not imply causation”. And the graph above is a nice reflection of that.

    It’s also funny how people assume if particular element is ingested, that you’ll turn you into a horrible mush of pulpy organs in a matter of minutes. Have these people ever gone through biology classes or have done basic Googling? Human body is basically a giant garbage processor. The liver and kidneys can take unbelievable beating caused from chemicals and other elements that are not beneficial to operation of our body. You will only poison yourself if intake exceeds the ability of such organs to excrete these harmful elements. That’s why we have recommended daily intake values for pretty much every substance known to us. You can ingest cyanide if intake is so small that body is able to excrete it regularly. Like for example by eating almonds. Yeah, shocking, almonds contain cyanide. But in such small doses that body can excrete it without any harm unless you eat nothing but almonds in massive quantities. Then cyanide might start to accumulate (exceed excretion rates) and eventually cause organ failures.

    I’ve made tons of research and Googling on mercury and its effects on organisms, particularly humans and this is what I found…

    The amount of mercury ingested through eating a can of tuna exceeds all levels of mercury found in vaccines by thousands of times. And lets don’t forget the fact that you get vaccinated once, maybe twice in whole lifetime, but you can freely eat tuna daily. Are we banning canned tuna yet? Nope. No one screaming around demanding to ban tuna because it’s causing autism. Supposedly. Granted, overeating yourself with tuna is not healthy because of mercury traces in it which can start to accumulate (read the above paragraph), but then again, consuming too much water can also lead to H2O poisoning (I’m not even kidding, it’s related to mineral ions balance, Google it up). And the water is the most basic critically needed element for any living being to even survive. I think I need no further explanation in this regard.

    But we don’t feed tuna to babies you may say. Maybe not directly, but mothers can still eat tuna and then breastfeed a baby. Or even transition mercury through umbilical cord to the fetus when eating tuna while being pregnant. Idiots don’t know that somewhat regular consumption of tuna (or any larger predator fish) could potentially be more dangerous to the fetus or baby than a single time vaccination.

    I’m just sad to see how famous people like Jim Carrey abuse their fame into spreading their ignorance and misinformation among people where Googling of individual information can reveal everything you’ll ever wanted to know about anything. I’m not even directing people into reading pro-vaccination articles. Do your own Googling of toxins, their effects, their allowed intake rates, learn about your own body anatomy and how your very own body even operates. The more you know about yourself, the smarter you’ll be. I’ve never followed any pro-vaccination people. I’ve seen it being discussed and then I’ve made my own research. And I’m still for vaccination, because it is scientifically proven to work. We made certain diseases pretty much go extinct. Things like this don’t just happen by chance, you have to make a very systematic extermination of diseases using vaccines. If you don’t believe me, check the statistics of infants mortality from 100 years ago and mortality of infants today due to “petty” diseases like smallpox or measles. It’s science 101.

    • While I agree tat the vaccine hoax spawned and furthered a platform for nutjobs to spew their irrational rhetoric re: vaccines casing autism, it is important to not repeat the irrationality and go the complete other way and say all claims about foods containing harmful ingredients is hogwash. For example, in your post, you state that “…almonds contain cyanide…” which is only partially true. Not all almonds contain cyanide – only bitter almonds do. And in fact, there have been reports of cyanide poisoning due to bitter almond ingestion as well as a very recent recall due to those almonds containing high levels of cyanide. Along this same point, apricot seeds can contain cyanide and extracts fro those seeds have caused cyanide poisoning resulting in death. So the point here is that both extremes – as with almost all issues – are usually flawed and serve to confuse the issue more than is required nor helpful.

      Use the science – and then add very healthy doses of common sense and critical thinking for science alone will not get it right. Remember, the whole of the medical profession and “science” told us all to never eat raw meat, that all carbs will kill you, and that eggs were directly from Satan. All claims we now know to be – frankly put – bullshit…

  4. Thanks for the informative article; I’ll have to keep it handy for future vaccination discussions. It’s easy to forget how devastating these diseases were not that ago in the U.S. (and still are elsewhere in the world).

  5. So, first off I wanted to to say I really enjoy your blog. But, I’m of a different mind set when it comes to vaccines. Not so different when it comes to the “three questions”, but when it comes down to regulation/law. I’m pretty much an advocate of freedom given its inherent responsibility, but I’m also an advocate of education, awareness, environmental health, health, and ethics. I personally do not take flu shots, but I’ve been vaccinated as a child (born in 1989 in the United States). I hate getting sick or feeling ill for any period of time, and with any kind of symptoms that could be avoided naturally. I never get the flu, in fact each time (when I was younger taking flu shots) I got the flu it had to do with having the “immunization” or sharing something with an infected individual. I’m not the healthiest individual either, but I have better chances avoiding symptoms on my own. Not to mention, the fact that as a human whom hasn’t been infected, I should have the right to defend my body from needles and viruses being injected into it against my will. I take caution in what I eat, drink, use to avoid ingesting/contacting harmful substances at any dosage according to my will. The government has no place forcing them on me. They are not supposed to violate my person (property) nor my freedom. Laws originated to govern/protect property, in fact criminal offenses like assault arose in much the same fashion. Contracts are protected/governed for the same reasons. It is therefore unethical and unconstitutional in other ways. The government/agencies should be more concerned with the water than outbreaks of the flu virus. Those that want to avoid infection/contamination are free to choose. Those that would rather go with natural selection should be too. It’s a matter of principle not science.

    • @Sue: The issue is this however – and speaking for the US only – when the state passes a law that runs afoul of individual civil liberties, the question is always asked what compelling interest does the state, as a proxy for the public, have in passing the regulation. In the case of vaccinations, the the state has a compelling interest to maintain good public health. The reasons why are obvious and the efficacy of vaccines cannot be discounted. So to the central question – does the gov’t have the right to force you to take a vaccine? The answer is yes IF you are first opting to use some public service at your own discretion. For example, if you want to send your kid to public school – or attend one yourself – then by all means the state has the right – and some would argue the duty – to ensure the students are vaccinated. Conversely, does the state have the right to just have you be vaccinated? Of course not – I agree, it is your body and as long as you choose to not integrate with the public in certain arenas, then you are left to you own decisions.

      The issue with kids and vaccinations in the school is complicated however by the fact that kids in many areas are required to attend school. This creates an issue in places where home-schooling is not allowed and people cannot afford a private school. So in those situations, the parents are in essence forced to have their kids vaccinated becuase no real option exists for the kids to attend elsewhere and\or comply with the law.

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