Are Vaccines What Saved Us from Epidemics of Infectious Disease?

This article is Part 2 of a 5-Part series on Vaccines. See the full list of (and links to) the rest in this series below.

Without vaccines, we'd all be afflicted by a long list of unconstrained infectious diseases that killed and injured millions over the past 100 years.

I once firmly believed this popular narrative after uncritically accepting it without researching the history. After reviewing the facts, is there legitimate reason to hold skepticism of this narrative?

Did Vaccines Save Us?

Is the decline we have seen in the scourge of infectious diseases attributable to vaccines or to other factors? What was the role of improvements in sanitation, living conditions, plumbing, drinking water, food safety on the decrease in mortality in the 20th century?

Let's go ahead and lay out the basis for skepticism regarding the popular narrative about vaccines having saved us.

Mortality in the United States has decreased by 74% since 1900. That is an incredible figure. Having researched the actual data along with expert testimony, the surprising conclusion is how little, if anything, vaccines had to do with it.

According to data provided by the CDC, the incidence of infectious disease began to plummet across the board long before vaccine use was invented or in widespread use. Other diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and even diseases with no vaccine followed the same trend.

Why was this the case? Had the medical community vastly overestimated their contributions to the reduction in mortality?

Let's look at the history.

To begin, in 1970, Dr. Edward Kass, the President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America gave testimony to what he concluded was a propensity for the medical community to vastly inflate its own role in enacting the decline in mortality.  This by itself doesn't entirely refute the popular narrative on vaccination, but this is where the narrative begins to unravel. In his Oxford Journal report he stated:

"…we had accepted some half truths and had stopped searching for the whole truths. The principal half truths were that medical research had stamped out the great killers of the past —tuberculosis, diphtheria, pneumonia, puerperal sepsis, etc. —and that medical research and our superior system of medical care were major factors extending life expectancy, thus providing the American people with the highest level of health available in the world. That these are half truths is known but is perhaps not as well known as it should be."

He continued:

"This decline in rates of certain disorders, correlated roughly with socioeconomic circumstances, is merely the most important happening in the history of the health of man, yet we have only the vaguest and most general notions about how it happened and by what mechanisms socioeconomic improvement and decreased rates of certain diseases run in parallel.”

Kass then laid out charts similar to these which showed the lack of correlation between the supposed medical advances and the elimination of these diseases.

The entirety of his findings along with charts can be found at The Journal of Infectious Diseases, published by Oxford University Press. 1970.

Following this, an interesting prediction was made in 1977 by epidemiologists out of Harvard University along with similar findings in a crucial paper in a medical journal which can be found in the National Institutes of Health database. The article is aptly entitled "The Questionable Contribution of Medical Measures to the Decline of Mortality in the United States in the Twentieth Century.” This is really the seminal paper, along with Kass's testimony which would influence the 2000 CDC paper which built on these findings.

The quote below gives their attestation that even in a best case scenario, the most that the medical community could hope to claim in terms of the "total contribution of medical measures to the decline in mortality in the United States since 1900" was between 1 and 3.5%.

“Even if it were assumed that this change was entirely due to the vaccines, then only about one percent of the decline following interventions for the diseases considered here could be attributed to medical measures. Rather more conservatively, if we attribute some of the subsequent fall in the death rates for pneumonia, influenza, whooping cough, and diphtheria to medical measures, then perhaps 3.5 percent of the fall in the overall death rate can be explained through medical intervention in the major infectious diseases considered here. Indeed, given that it is precisely for these diseases that medicine claims most success in lowering mortality, 3.5 percent probably represents a reasonable upper-limit estimate of the total contribution of medical measures to the decline in mortality in the United States since 1900.”

Said another way, a minimum of 96.5% of the 74% decline in mortality had nothing to do with vaccines. The importance of this cannot be understated. If someone was to claim that vaccination programs had almost nothing to do with the 20th century victories over infectious diseases in the US, they would be supported not by whims and theories, but by the data and expert testimony. 

The report goes on to note what can now be seen as a prophetic prediction for the situation we now find ourselves in. Here they are warning that there are those who might seek to inflate their own contribution to the success in the precipitous drop in mortality rate to claim the credit, and then use this as a means of requiring participation by everyone:

“It is not uncommon today for biotechnological knowledge and specific medical interventions to be invoked as the major reason for most of the modern (twentieth century) decline in mortality. Responsibility for this decline is often claimed by, or ascribed to, the present-day major beneficiaries of this prevailing explanation.”

Then in 2000, the CDC reconfirmed these findings in a pediatric journal entitled “Annual Summary of Vital Statistics: Trends in the Health of Americans During the 20th Century”. In this report epidemiologists stated in agreement with the 1977 Boston University journal entry:

"Thus vaccination does not account for the impressive declines in mortality seen in the first half of the century…nearly 90% of the decline in infectious disease mortality among US children occurred before 1940, when few antibiotics or vaccine were available."

The study made clear that the credit goes to "water treatment, food safety, organized solid waste disposal, and public education about hygienic practices."

Of course the CDC continues to zealously affirm the vaccination program and make all kinds of claims about the veracity of its past effectiveness, and we will address that ahead, but suffice to say much of what we hear in the media and elsewhere about what vaccines actually accomplished appears to be mythical when compared to the data. 

We also sometimes forget that vaccination rates as recently as 1985 were nowhere near 90% levels we have today. And yet where was the hysteria back then? The chicken pox was no big deal, neither was measles. This CDC data shows 9 vaccines that we have today which weren't on the menu at all. Can you imagine the hysteria that would be created today if vaccination rates were what they were in 1985?

Worldwide Success of Vaccines Saving Millions in Poor Countries?

Not only are we told a false narrative about the effect of vaccines upon infectious diseases in our own country's history, we are told that vaccines are currently saving millions of lives in poor countries, and that if we don't vaccinate we will be like them.

The problem with this statement is, the countries where this is happening are poor countries that are living in the same conditions that we were when infectious diseases ran wild in America. Yes, tragically in 3rd world countries children suffering from malnutrition living in filthy environments without sewage systems, clean water, sanitation or clean food die from what would be considered minor illnesses in the modern world, and yes this includes the measles, or diarrhea.

However, some data shows that implementing these mass vaccination programs in response actually do more harm than good. Again, the one of the easiest ways to be fooled into doing something harmful is by ignoring the unintended consequences of a given action, or forging ahead without knowing the risks. You may think you are doing a good thing in appearing to eradicate one malady, but at what cost?

In 2017, an important study was conducted in a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the Lancet entitled, "The Introduction of Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis and Oral Polio Vaccine Among Young Infants in an Urban African Community: A Natural Experiment."

Researchers were undertaking the study of the secondary effects of the vaccination program in Africa, specifically with the DTP vaccine. What they found was alarming. The vaccine program:

“was associated with 5-fold higher mortality than being unvaccinated. No prospective study has shown beneficial survival effects of DTP. . . . DTP is the most widely used vaccine. . . . All currently available evidence suggests that DTP vaccine may kill more children from other causes than it saves from diphtheria, tetanus, or pertussis. Though a vaccine protects children against the target disease, it may simultaneously increase susceptibility to unrelated infections.”

Again, the findings of this study cannot be under-emphasized. There is a good, scientific rational basis to be skeptical regarding the efficacy of vaccination programs in third world countries. 

Just as in America, what is more important than receiving the vaccines is the living conditions and what you have when you ignore this dynamic is a vaccine that ends up possibly doing more harm than good.

World Health Organization, Measles, and Africa

Then we have the continual spiking of the football by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) claiming measles deaths have plunged 91% in Africa. Open and shut case right?

Given that we know that, according to WHO's own data, child mortality has been plummeting across the board at a steady rate in 3rd world countries prior to the introduction of the vaccination programs, with no change in trajectory after the establishment of the vaccination programs, they must have some pretty rock solid data to base this 91% claim on right?

Turns out the 91% figure was based on something called the "natural history model" as described in the Lancet study where the "results" were reported. The "natural history model" means they based the study on what they hoped would happen, then they reported their predictions based on their hopes as the actual results.

Their line of thinking was essentially: Assume those who do not get the measles vaccination get the measles, assume 95% of those who do get the vaccine are "prevented" from getting the measles, then attribute a death ratio for those who are "prevented" from getting the measles, ignore the unintended consequences the vaccinations themselves may have caused, and voila, you have news headlines. A chief statician from within the WHO immediately issued a rebuke criticizing these models for not being reliable indicators but it was too late. News traveled fast and much hoopla and news headlines ensued and the myth endures. The way these kinds of figures have been pushed amounts to pro-vaccine propaganda.

India has had similar problems despite western charitable organizations declaring victory and claiming huge numbers of lives saved in the millions. They are not telling the whole story.

Bold Claims, Weak Branches

So where do such grandiose claims of vaccines being responsible for saving three million lives every year come from? How are they accepted by so many? Exhibit A - a case study with Joe Carter's recent article where he touts the wild success of mass vaccination citing statistics from the CDC.

Wow those are some huge numbers. What's the source? The CDC - a government agency. Seems air-tight. This must mean these numbers are such that no rational person would be legitimately skeptical of them. Right? Well let's dig into the source and the "science" used to back of these figures. Spoiler, it gets wobbly.

The CDC article which Carter cites for the specific claims relies upon two articles here (3 million lives saved worldwide annually claim) and here (42,000 deaths prevented and 20 million cases claims).

"3 Million Deaths Averted Worldwide"

How did they come up with this estimate? They pulled together a bunch of other estimates from a litany of organizations such as the aforementioned World Health Organization which is the most often cited source for this claim. The key item comes from this report written by a freelance public health writer John Maurice who's clients include vaccine suppliers and manufacturers. It turns out the way they came up with the estimate was by simply assuming that every child under 5 that died was not immunized, and that the drop in child deaths over 15 years was largely due to increased levels of immunization. It couldn't be that sloppy could it?

These assumptions were made even though we know with a much higher degree of certainty that two thirds of child mortality is caused by reasons for which there is no vaccine available. Of the third that remains, children die for all kinds of reasons other than then being unvaccinated against a particular illness. As mentioned above, increases in sanitation, clean water, living conditions, hygiene, nutrition, etc. were the reason for America's emergence from widespread death from these same diseases. On top of this, as mentioned above, we know that child mortality is plummeting across the board for other reasons, because the trend was heading that way even before vaccination programs were introduced.

But no, let's announce it with certitude - Voila! We've saved millions of lives! Let's make vaccines mandatory everywhere! Anyone who is skeptical is a science denier! This glorifed guesswork based on circular reasoning and hopes and dreams passed off as objective fact amounts to propaganda.

"42,000 Deaths & 20 Million Cases Prevented"

Unfortunately what we see here again is a mix of faulty assumptions to generate the the 42,000 number, which is supposed to be the number of people that would die in the United States every year if we didn't vaccinate for them. Let's look at just two of these examples: diphtheria and measles.

They are telling us that without vaccines, 27,503 people would die every year in America from Diphtheria. 3,106 from Measles. Ask yourself, how many people died from measles in the United States before the vaccine was established in 1963? 364 people - and that was trending downward. Even with a doubling of the population since then and assuming no continuing downward trend without vaccination how are we going to project 3,106 deaths today when conditions are even better than they were in 1963? Does a number of 3,106 projected measles deaths sound like a number immune from legitimate skepticism?

Diphtheria was also plummeting for decades before the vaccine was first introduced in the 1920s with deaths cut in half in the two decades prior to 1921 when there were 15,520 deaths that year.  Diphtheria vaccination became widespread when it was combined with the pertussis & tetanus vaccines in 1949. The year before vaccination became widespread in 1948 the death count was at 588So today, if we removed the vaccine we are to believe that we would see 27,503 deaths every year? Even if we started the clock at 1920, why would we assume that the continuing decline in deaths was due to the vaccine when the previous 20 years showed a similar decline when there was no vaccine? 27,503 diphtheria deaths simply isn't a credible estimate and along with the measles estimate make up only two of the items listed. But if the rest of the items that make up the list were calculated in similar fashion, we can have good reason to believe that the 42,000 deaths averted number is on very shaky ground. Again, these numbers also assume a 0% death rate from reactions to the vaccines given. Is it reasonable to have skepticism regarding this assumption? We'll address that in our next article.

In Closing

To summarize this blog entry, this is not meant to make the definitive and positive claim that all vaccine programs are bad, or that all foreign vaccine programs are harmful. The very modest aim is to highlight that there is reason for reasonable, rational people of good faith to hold out skepticism regarding the popular narrative. It's to point out that we do have a historical and modern narratives about vaccines which can be vastly overheated. Narratives that can result in hysteria among those who are afraid to return to a version of the past that didn't exist.

A mythical past where infectious diseases were everywhere but vaccines came in and saved us from the scourge of infectious diseases. One that improperly discounts the role of proper quarantine of the sick, living conditions, hygiene and sanitation in the role of thwarting infections disease. Either that or attempts to compare apples to oranges where it's alleged that if we were to abandon measles vaccinations, multitudes would die in America as in 3rd world countries.

This, even though (as stated above) in the year before measles vaccination was established in America in 1963 the number of deaths nationwide was 364 and heading lower. Today 450 Americans die every year falling out of bed.

There is good, rational, reason to be skeptical of the notion that without vaccines we would be overrun by death and disease.

For Continued Research

Symposium: Accomplishments in Child Nutrition during the 20th Century.  Infant Mortality in the 20th Century, Dramatic but Uneven Progress
Another peer reviewed research article (Oxford) detailing the true causes behind the decline in mortality in the 20th century.

The Disappearance of Polio
From Chapter 12 of Dr. Suzanne Humphries book "Dissolving Illusions".
Humprhies findings are heavily cited and supported with references to established medical journals and expert testimony.

 

>> Read the next article in this series, Part 3: Is the US Vaccination Program Safe?

5 Counter Articles on Vaccines

Intro: The Gospel Coalition & Vaccines: A Response to Joe Carter

Part 1: Vaccines & Aborted Babies: Should Christians be Concerned?

Part 2: Are Vaccines What Saved Us from Epidemics of Infectious Disease?

Part 3: Is the US Vaccination Program Safe?

Part 4: What About Herd Immunity?

Part 5: Are Vaccine Skeptics Conspiracy Theorists?

Author

Jordan Wilson

Jordan Wilson is pursuing the Great Commission with his wife and children and is a regular contributor at New City Times.