Anti-vaccine propagandists and the rogues’ gallery of misinformation

Let’s say you were inventing a new flea powder, called Flea-B-Gone. To test it and manufacture it, you’d need a whole mess of fleas. As everyone knows, kangaroo fleas are hardy and docile, so you open up a kangaroo farm to grow your fleas. You treat the kangaroos well, and other than itchiness, they don’t have much to complain about as you scrape off their fleas to make your Flea-B-Gone. Again: no kangaroo parts end up in Flea-B-Gone. Just the fleas.

Would a reasonable person claim that Flea-B-Gone contains kangaroos?

Wait — what if your great-great-great (repeat that a thousand times)-grandmother actually started this business with her pet kangaroo, Kanga-Ook. Over thousands of generations, Ook had babies who grew up on the farm, who then had babies, and all of them grew up to be flea-wearing kangaroos. Thousands, maybe millions of generations later, would you say that modern Flea-B-Gone contains the ancient ancestor of your current kangaroo stock, old Kanga-Ook?

Anti-vaccine propagandists have a stock litany of claims, sort of a rogues gallery of misinformation that they’ll repeat, endlessly, hoping to fool someone into taking their side. When one claim is obviously known to be false, they’ll move on to the next one, until they recycle back to the beginning. This endless whack-a-mole leaves parents stunned and confused, which is the point of the anti-vaccine crowd. Confuse, obfuscate, pretend there is controversy where there is in fact none. Parents get scared of vaccines, and in some sick way I suppose the antivaccine people think they’ve won.

Today’s false claim: that vaccines contain “aborted fetal cells.” It’s an obvious lie, which would be clear to anyone who remembers middle school biology class. Still, it’s an ugly sort of phrase, aborted fetal cells, and it sticks. But vaccines don’t contain any “aborted fetal cells” any more than Flea-B-Gone contains parts of an ancestral, million-years old kangaroo.

Some (not most) vaccines rely on actual viruses for production. The viruses are “grown” on cell cultures, which are sort of like the kangaroos. The cell cultures themselves come from cells that were harvested in the 1960’s, sometimes from fetal tissue, and sometimes that tissue was obtained after an abortion. Those cell lines have been propagated for forty or fifty years, dividing and creating new cells, millions of generations of cells, in thousands of labs. Since these cell lines have been used for so many years, they’re dependable and well-known, and can be used to safely grow viruses. These same cultures are also used in medical and research labs all over the world. They are an indispensible tool that we take for granted, but we rely on them for medication development and biologic research every single day.

No vaccine contains any of these cells. They’re used to grow the viruses needed to test and develop vaccines, but they’re not in the vaccines. And: the cells themselves aren’t aborted tissue any more than a kangaroo is the same animal as an ancestral kangaroo that hopped around Australia millions of generations ago.

Current cell cultures are not aborted tissue. And even if they were, they’re not contained in vaccines anyway.

These are important decisions. Refusing to vaccinate your children is hurting children, families, and communities. If parents knew the actual facts, they’d sleep easier, they’d vaccinate, and we’d all be healthier. Don’t buy the propagandists’ lies. Vaccinate.

(By the way, the Vatican responded to these concerns in 2005, in a statement created by then-Cardinal-Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict. It’s fascinating reading. FWIW, the Vatican’s position is that every effort should be made to not use these cell lines, but that the “good” of vaccinations — to protect health — outweighs the original “evil” of how the tissues were obtained 50 years ago. So, until alternatives are available, families ought to vaccinate using these products. The statement did not directly address the issue of the kangaroos.)

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

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