The current measles outbreak has prompted some scientific-sounding claims about the dangers of vaccines.
PolitiFact Georgia already ruled Pants On Fire to an outlandish statement reviving the threat of "mercury" in childhood vaccines, particularly the MMR shot for measles, mumps and rubella.
Some readers challenged that conclusion, citing the experts in our backyard, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The gist of the argument comes from a headline over a story from the same alternative-health site as our first claim, NaturalNews.com.
"Measles vaccines kill more people than measles, CDC data proves," the headline reads.
The story gives precise numbers: The CDC, it says, has reported no deaths from the virus in a decade, while "at least 108 deaths" have been linked to measles vaccines according to the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
It would be front-page news – not to mention a flood of "I told you so" Facebook posts – if, in fact, children were more than 100 times more likely to die from measles vaccines than the disease itself.
The reason it isn’t? No grand conspiracy. Just a misreading of data.
First, let’s agree that the data should only include cases or deaths in the United States. After all, measles remains among the leading causes of death for young children worldwide, killing 145,700 in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.
The fate of children and adults in the United States is much better. The CDC’s National Vital Statistics Report data show measles as the cause of death five times between 2004 and 2010, the last year information is available.
That breaks down to two cases each in 2009 and 2010, and one in 2005. And, according to the data, only the 2005 death was that of a child.
However, even that low number might be an overstatement. A spokesman for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said those tallies sometimes report underlying causes, which do not always represent deaths associated with acute measles infection.
Officially, the CDC shows the last verifiable deaths in the U.S. from acute measles were in 2003, when a 13-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man died, according to spokesman Mike Sennett.
So that puts the half of the claim in line with the CDC’s stance.
The other half – about more than 100 deaths from the four different measles vaccines – is the problem.
Those figures come from searches of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), an online database co-sponsored by the CDC, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Significantly, anyone can file a report with VAERS: doctors, patients, family members, friends, "even if the reporter cannot be certain that the event was caused by the vaccine."
That is important to know when running a search of the VAERS database for the past decade.
That data reveal 105 deaths following one of the four measles vaccines. From the most common MMR vaccine, the count is 96.
But remember, the system is designed to capture as much information as possible. Tallying a death that happened after a measles vaccine is not the same as confirming that the shot was the cause.
(When available, causes of death after the measles vaccines range from existing heart conditions to co-sleeping to drowning.)
Researchers want that information to review and study for patterns, said Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, a pediatrician and associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center who spent 16 years as the head of the CDC’s national immunization program.
Government researchers constantly examine every report, on an ongoing basis. They turn over anything suspicious to outside groups, such as the Institute of Medicine, for deeper analysis.
"There is a very comprehensive review to look at vaccine safety," Orenstein said. "After all, we give our own children these vaccines."
The review on the measles vaccines is clear: There have been no deaths attributed to the shots.
In fact, none of the measles vaccines have prompted concern. Others have, most notably a rotovirus vaccine that VAERS data suggested increased risk for bowel blockages. That vaccine was pulled from the market in 1999.
It has since been replaced by two similar vaccines that more effectively keep children from being hospitalized with severe diarrhea – though the blockages called intussusception remain a slight risk.
"The policy comes in, as weighing the risks and benefits of a vaccine," said Dr. Frank DeStefano, the director of the Immunization Safety Office the CDC.
That is to say, the research allows for informed decision making when recommending vaccines. For the MMR vaccine, and others, there are known complications.
Most common, DeStefano said, is anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that will affect one out of every 1 million to 2 million children. Those children are usually allergic to components of the vaccine, such as gelatin or egg proteins, not the viral antigen itself.
The complications from measles, meanwhile, are far more common. According to the book "Vaccines" by Peter M. Strebel, pneumonia occurs in 1 to 6 percent of cases, ear infections occur 7 to 9 percent of the time and diarrhea occurs in about in about 8 percent of cases.
Encephalitis, a potentially deadly brain swelling, occurs in 1 out of every 1,000 to 2,000 kids with the disease. An almost always lethal form of encephalitis occurs years after an infection in 1 to 3 kids for every 1,000 cases.
To scientists, those complications make it clear that the vaccine's benefits far outweigh its risks, and certainly outweigh the risks of a highly contagious disease.
The NaturalNews site claims that at least 108 children have died from the measles vaccine in the past decade, while none have died of the disease itself.
That’s wildly inaccurate. There have been reports of death in children following the vaccine, but that does not equal deaths caused by the vaccine. There are no confirmed deaths caused by the measles vaccines.
The more accurate comparison, DeStefano suggests, is that big fat zero versus the 300-400 children who died annually in the United States before the vaccine was available in the 1960s. We agree.
The article misreads data, to suggest that the measles vaccine is a greater threat to children than the disease. Experts, and data, show that measles is far more dangerous than the vaccine, even if some kids do have a reaction to the shot.
We rate the claim False.
NaturalNews, "Measles Vaccines Kill More People than Measles, CDC Data Proves," Feb. 5, 2015
PolitiFact Georgia, "Anti-vaccine claim rooted in bad science, confusion," Feb. 11, 2015
World Health Organization, Measles fact sheet, February 2015
National Vaccine Information Database, Searchable Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System database
Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, Guide to Interpreting VAERS Case Report Information,
ABC News, "Serious Measles Vaccine Side Effects Extremely Rare, Doctors Say," Feb. 3, 2015
American Academy of Pediatrics, "American Academy of Pediatrics President Urges Parents to Vaccinate Their Children Against Measles," Feb. 2, 2015
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Report, Deaths, Final Data For 2008, Page 33, published Dec. 7, 2011
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Report, Deaths, Final Data for 2010, Page 37, published May 8, 2013
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotavirus Vaccine (RotaShield®) and Intussusception, April 2014
WebMD, "Rotavirus Vaccine Not Linked to Risk of Intestinal Disorder," Feb. 7, 2012
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rotavirus Vaccine Questions and Answers, September 2014
Vaccines: 6th Edition, by Peter M. Strebel, et. al, Chapter 20: Measles, published 2013
Email interview with Rachel Pryzby, spokeswoman for the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, Division of Healthcare Quality, Feb. 25 to Feb. 27, 2015
Email interview with Mike Sennett, spokesman for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, Feb. 26, 2015
Interview with Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, professor of medicine and pediatrics at Emory University and associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, Feb. 25, 2015
Interview with Dr. Frank DeStefano, director of the Immunization Safety Office of CDC, Feb. 27, 2015
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