What anti-vaxxers are actually afraid of (it's not all about autism)

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh details how the anti-vaxx movement has divided and grown.

  • University of Pittsburgh researchers identified four major trends fueling the anti-vaxx movement.
  • Using comments originating from a Facebook video, they documented 197 profiles as the basis of their paper.
  • Every major medical institution agrees that vaccines are safe and effective, but the movement persists thanks to false information spread online.

Andrew Wakefield's infamous 1998 study connecting autism with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine raised skeptical eyebrows shortly after its publication. It took the journal 12 years to retract the paper, however, and by then its contents had been broadly disseminated. In 2006, investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed in the Sunday Times of London that Wakefield had been paid over £400,000 to fabricate his findings.

By then, the denounced "scandal" had been released to the masses. A small but extremely loud faction took Wakefield's bait, however. They're still chewing on the debunked carcass, but interestingly, as a new study points out, the underlying reasons for this movement diverged. It's no longer all about autism.

The study, led by University of Pittsburgh professor Brian A. Primack, focuses on parents reluctant to vaccinate their children. This paper comes in the wake of Facebook's announcement that it will "tackle vaccine misinformation" by removing "vaccine hoaxes" on its platform. Instagram and Amazon are also following along.

The study was inspired after researchers noticed a flood of comments on an informational video about the HPV vaccine from more than 800 people. The team chose a random sample of 197 comments, studying the profiles of each respondent in depth. While also observing political affiliations (56 percent Trump supporters), gender (89 percent female), and geographical location (California and Texas being the most common), the team discovered four main drivers fueling anti-vaxxers.

In the 21 years since Wakefield's discredited study, the reasoning has morphed while the underlying fear remains the same. Uncertainty about the efficacy of vaccines is not new; when Edward Jenner introduced the term "vaccination" into medical nomenclature in the 18th century, skeptics abounded.

Check the timeline: soon after the adoption of vaccines (along with other medical advancements, including the discovery of germ theory), world population hit one billion people for the first time after more than 200,000 years since the genus homo split from apes. Two hundred years later since they came into the picture and today now seven billion human beings walk around. While not an argument in favor of such proliferation, which is proving unsustainable, vaccines effectively cured many issues related to mortality.

An unhealthy modern skepticism, powered by the easy spread of misinformation on social media, is reversing those trends, though. And, because of this, there is an ethical argument to be made for combating this rhetoric online. As Alex Berezow and Ethan Siegel note,

"When we choose to live in a society, there are certain obligations — both moral and legal — to which we are bound. You cannot inflict harm or infringe on the rights and liberties of those around you."

Whether financially incentivized or prone to conspiracy, a growing cadre of anti-vaxxers is moving us backward. Below are the four main reasons why this is the case.

Mistrust of Science and Government Agencies

Given our current political climate it makes sense that many citizens don't trust the government. This sentiment isn't limited to the current administration; long-standing issues of deception and misinformation have created an incredulous public. This has inspired numerous factions that lead with "personal liberty" on every issue, vaccines included.

As Berezow and Seigel write in Scientific American, "freedom" does not entail putting others at risk. That's not liberty; it's stupidity. There are credible reasons why certain children cannot be vaccinated — putting them at risk because of a Facebook meme should not be one of them. It is irresponsible. What follows are situations such as this anti-vaxx mother asking how to protect her three-year-old in the wake of a measles outbreak.

The answer: vaccinate your child.

We should not weigh deception by politicians against the good work being done by the many scientists and researchers tasked with finding cures to diseases. Public health is an ongoing and at times contentious occupation. The field changes as diseases mutate and confound. This is the nature of science: to evolve with the evidence, which at times requires honesty about previous misgivings. Writing off the many well-intentioned researchers because you've confused their work with the rantings of incentivized congressmen and senators leads to reckless decisions.

The origins of the anti-vaccine movement

Fear of safety risks

The basis of this reason is also understandable. I've heard horrible tales of aggressive vaccine scheduling. Research should be conducted. Using Facebook as your go-to source is not the best idea, though. As the researchers write:

"A common feeling in the commentary is the belief that parents are more well-informed than physicians about the dangers of vaccines."

Perhaps a dialogue with your doctor instead? An anecdotal example: I've covered literature debating the dangers of dietary cholesterol. When my doctor wanted to immediately put me on a statin after an uptick in my levels, I debated the decision. While I suffer genetic high cholesterol, I'm not certain a lifetime of statins is the best decision.

Instead of just refusing, however, we engaged in a long conversation, going point by point based on collective research. Granted, not all doctors are willing to engage so openly, which is its own problem. We've decided to monitor my levels over the next half-year and mutually agree how to proceed.

Unfortunately, children cannot debate. This means parents have to better educate themselves on what vaccines are necessary and, if they so choose, which to skip. That burden falls not just onto parents, but physicians as well. As the researchers note, only 5–15 percent of online respondents identify as medical professionals. More doctors need to take advantage of social media to better inform their patients and the public at large.

WATCH: Teen explains why he defied mother's anti-vaccination ideas

Belief in conspiracy theories

While the first two themes require nuance, the second pair does not. Yet these reasons must be taken seriously. If anything, they are more dangerous, as the above can lead to valuable discussions and dialogues. Engaging with conspiracy theorists is predominantly a lesson in futility. But we cannot ignore them.

As previous research has shown, believing in one conspiracy theory makes it likely that you'll fall for others — it's a style of thinking. The second most common topic in the Pittsburgh study was "media, censorship, and 'cover up.'" Distrusting the government on one topic can make you susceptible to any number of insane theories (such as the notion that vaccines cause autism). Then again, two decades is nothing in the larger scope of time: the legacy of the John Birch Society fluoridation scare remains popular today. Cautious skepticism is healthy; contrarianism for the sake of it is not.

Tech's fight against anti-vaccine content prompts free speech debate

Support of alternative disease treatments

Let's stop calling it "alternative" medicine. A 2017 review speculates that the "complementary and alternative" market will generate $196 billion by 2025. That is a gargantuan industry, not a group of alchemists brewing Peruvian elixirs in a cave. A wide range of systems fall within this category, some worth pursing, many not, as there is simply medicine that works and medicine that does not. The alternative to working is inefficacy. Besides, the reason many treatments work is due to placebo.

Your homeopathic concoction is not going to accomplish what a vaccine does, even if they share similar philosophical roots. The fact that the authors note that some anti-vaxxers "also expressed vegan activism" clues you into the mindset: the pursuit of inner purity and natural remedies trumps the weird stuff invented in a laboratory. Problem is that weird stuff has saved millions of lives.

Nature isn't always here for our benefit. In many cases, humans evolved despite nature, not because it was helping out.

It took us 200,000 years to make widely available vaccinations. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that armed with a little knowledge and a contrarian attitude, laptop warriors are battling common sense with such vehemence. Not surprising, but tragic all the same, especially for children suffering the results of such foolishness.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.