The Anti-Vax Movement and Swine Flu

As we discussed in the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel at TAM7, scientifically illiterate activists are endangering our public health. Now they have a new target: the fast-track program to develop a swine flu vaccine in time to prevent a possible pandemic.

A correspondent in the Netherlands wrote me, forwarding this article a friend in the UK had sent him:, it says we are going to be offered a dangerous, inadequately tested swine flu vaccine for a nonexistent threat.

The piece is very misleading. It alleges that only one person has died in the UK, but we are faced with a possible global epidemic that could kill many, many people if we don’t develop a vaccine quickly. Optimum testing of a new vaccine takes too long. The threat is real, and fast-track testing is the only viable response. There were only 500 cases [not 4000] of Guillain-Barré following the swine flu vaccine in 1976, and most patients recovered completely. See The idea that Guillain-Barré is polio is utterly ridiculous. The poliovirus can be identified in patients with polio – you can even SEE it with an electron microscope.

The VAERS system accepts all reports of possible reactions to vaccines. These reports are meaningless unless it can be confirmed that the symptoms occur more often in vaccinated than in unvaccinated people.  I won’t attempt to debunk all the other faulty arguments they offer, but there are many. The whole piece is anti-vaccine propaganda, not scientific information.

In the US, the consistently unreliable Mercola website has also weighed in:

He repeats a number of anti-vaccine lies. Most of the toxins he mentions are not actually present in vaccines, and the only “toxins” that are present, like aluminum, are present in tiny amounts, for good reasons, and are known to be safe in those amounts. The squalene business is a new complaint. Squalene is used as an adjuvant to improve the efficacy of the vaccine, and while it may cause problems for rats, there is no evidence that it is harmful to humans. Rats are not people: aspirin causes congenital defects in rats but does not have the same effects in humans. He tries to blame Gulf War syndrome on squalene in the anthrax vaccine, but a large scientific panel has reviewed all the evidence and found no link with vaccine. See

The comments to this article are a chilling indictment of the state of scientific illiteracy in our society. Some commenters do not even accept the germ theory of disease. Most seem to subscribe to a paranoia about evil government deliberately hurting people. One even mentions the Illuminati.

We don’t have a crystal ball. The Swine flu could fizzle out or it could become a pandemic like the one in 1918. We may not have time to do the kind of testing we would like. We have a long experience of developing safe flu vaccines, and it is reasonable to assume a similarly produced new vaccine will be equally safe. And even with ideal testing procedures on thousands of subjects, we can never be sure a new vaccine or drug will not cause an unforeseen problem after marketing, when millions more people get it. In 1976, Guillain-Barré affected only 1 in 100,000 recipients – just think how large a study would have been required to find that out before marketing!

Misinformation like this could kill people, but it is protected as free speech. We can’t suppress it, we can only try to spread the truth.

This article was originally published in Swift, the online newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.