Mostly False
Sears
"Every year in the United States between 3,000 and 4,500 severe vaccine reactions are reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Not mild reactions. Severe reactions that land somebody in the hospital, the intensive care unit or cause a permanent disability or death."

Bob Sears on Monday, February 2nd, 2015 in an interview on CNN

What CDC statistics say about vaccine-related illnesses, injuries and death

Dr. Bob Sears, a California pediatrician, said on CNN that “every year in the United States between 3,000 and 4,500 severe vaccine reactions are reported to the Centers for Disease Control."

In a debate on CNN, a pediatrician who lends a sympathetic ear to the anti-vaccine movement described what he said was one of the risks of vaccinating children.

"Every year in the United States between 3,000 and 4,500 severe vaccine reactions are reported to the Centers for Disease Control," Dr. Bob Sears told CNN’s Don Lemon. "Not mild reactions. Severe reactions that land somebody in the hospital, the intensive care unit or cause a permanent disability or death."

We decided to fact-check Sears’ claim that between 3,000 and 4,500 people report severe vaccine reactions that "land somebody in the hospital, the intensive care unit or cause a permanent disability or death."

What the CDC says, and doesn’t say

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does maintain a database of reported cases of adverse reactions to vaccines. It’s called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS for short.

The system allows almost anyone -- from a doctor to a nurse to a pharmacist to a patient or parent -- to enter in any information about illnesses or medical issues that follow someone receiving a vaccine. The information is collected so that officials can spot possible trends or side effects related to particular vaccines.

Before we show you the numbers for 2014, we’ll give you the same warning the CDC provides any user. It’s a warning Sears failed to present CNN viewers.

"When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established. Reports of all possible associations between vaccines and adverse events (possible side effects) are filed in VAERS. Therefore, VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event."

We’ll say that again in our own words. There’s no proof that a vaccine caused any of the medical conditions reported in the database. That colors Sears’ statement significantly.

"There’s absolutely no linkage between cause and effect," Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, told us. "If I received the flu vaccine yesterday and got hit by a bus today, I could enter that into VAERS.  But I doubt anyone would say the vaccine caused the accident. VAERS is a great reporting system to look for trends that would trigger further studies – but it does not pretend to prove that the conditions entered are related to vaccination."

Now back to the numbers.

Sears specifically mentioned three outcomes that he described as "severe vaccine reactions" --  hospitalization, permanent disability, or death. (There is no category to report someone being sent to an "intensive care unit," nor is there a searchable category for "severe vaccine reactions.")

We looked at 2014 VEARS data, which covers reports processed as of Dec. 14, 2014. VAERS data shows (as of Feb. 3, 2015):

1,244 cases of people reported hospitalized
416 cases of people reporting a disability
122 reported deaths
388 reported life-threatening cases

That’s a total of 2,170 events, but once you factor out double and sometimes triple counting -- meaning a reported death could also could include a reported disability or hospitalization -- you drop to a total of 1,737 cases. (The numbers change slightly depending on how you run the search. We searched when cases were reported. Since the database is a living document, the numbers may also shift if you choose to run this calculation yourself.)

On the flip side, the 2014 count is only through Dec. 14, meaning that additional cases likely will be reported before the CDC closes out the year.

Sears’ defense

We presented our findings to Sears, who said he approached his calculation in a more generic way. He said he looked at VAERS in December 2009. "At that time, the site reported the number of severe reactions each year going back many years. It averaged out at about 30,000 total reactions reported yearly, and the site stated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of these were serious. That's how I get the number 3,000 to 4,500," Sears said.

"Now, that fluctuates every year. Some years are lower, some higher," Sears said. "You looked at 2014 data, which looks to be about 1,750. That's a low year."

Here, Sears has a point. In fact, the CDC website does still include a general description that matches what Sears told us.

"Approximately 30,000 VAERS reports are filed annually, with 10-15% classified as serious (resulting in permanent disability, hospitalization, life-threatening illnesses or death)," the CDC says.

But that didn’t amount to 3,500-4,000 cases in 2014, nor any year we searched as far back as 2006. Sears is correct that 2014 appears to be a low year.

Year

Cases of reported hospitalization,
disability, deaths or life-threatening illness

2014

1,737

2013

1,837

2012

1,934

2011

2,045

2010

2,570

2009

2,701

2008

2,465

2007

2,289

2006

1,477

Other data on vaccine injuries

As we’ve written, the major flaw in the VAERS data is that it does not prove a link between the vaccine and an illness.

One area where we get closer to finding a causal link is through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The program, created on Oct. 1, 1988, was set up to help compensate victims found to be injured by certain vaccines.

The program is funded by a $0.75 excise tax on vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for routine administration to children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Health and Human Services, 3,887 compensation awards have been paid since the first claims were filed in 1989. Another 9,860 claims were dismissed.

A total of 633 petitions were filed seeking payment in fiscal year 2014. Petitions peaked in fiscal year 2003 when 2,592 claims were filed.

This data is far from perfect. But what it shows is that in the last 25 years, the fund has paid out claims to 3,887 people -- which translates to an average of 155 paid claims per year.

Health and Human Services cautions that settlements do not indicate safety concerns about the vaccine alleged to cause the injury. "Settlements are not an admission by the United States or the Secretary of Health and Human Services that the vaccine caused the petitioner’s alleged injuries," officials write.

"The vaccine compensation program ... provides a bit more linkage between cause and effect, but the rulings are decided in a court of law, and science may or may not play a big role in the finding," Troisi told us. "It’s also very hard to prove cause and effect on an individual case, which is what is happening with these findings."

Our ruling

Sears said, "Every year in the United States between 3,000 and 4,500 severe vaccine reactions are reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Not mild reactions. Severe reactions that land somebody in the hospital, the intensive care unit or cause a permanent disability or death."

Sears reached this conclusion by doing some math based on data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, at the least, he would have been better off sticking with the CDC’s general claim that 10 percent to 15 percent of reported reactions are deemed serious.

The fact is, the CDC’s database includes a clear warning that the there is no evidence the reported cases are related to vaccines. Nor do the specific years we looked at -- going back to 2006 -- back up Sears’ specific range.

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, which is our definition of Mostly False.

After the Fact

'Dr. Bob' responds

Added on Feb. 4, 2015, 1:36 p.m.

After our fact-check published, we heard from Sears. Here's a portion of his response (edited for length and clarity):
 
"I would add, for completion, that I certainly do state the qualifier that not all reported reactions are due to the vaccine, when time allows. Dr. Karp (another guest on CNN) made that point clear, however, so I didn't have too. In a long interview, and in what I write, I certainly do complete that qualifier. 
 
"I would also add another angle, however, one that wasn't considered in your article. These numbers are only the reaction events that are REPORTED. I read one study about 15 years ago that determined only about 10 percent of adverse vaccine or medication reactions are reported. Now, that was only one study, and we know that one study does not make science. BUT, it is likely true that at least SOME reactions aren't reported. So, that may balance out the false reports. The two factors might also be a wash. Who knows? And that's part of the point -- we DON'T know."