Okay, actually the H1N1 flu kills babies — and adults, and everyone in between, especially people my age. Bill Maher’s just giving the assist.
Here’s Maher on last week’s episode (#172) of his HBO show Real Time, forcing Chris Matthews and Alec Baldwin to cringe in embarrassment as he explains why he thinks vaccines are “risky”:
So, to summarize:
- Vaccines are full of insect repellant
- Bill’s childhood vaccines probably caused his allergies
- Western medicine shuts down debate
- Bill’s “belief” about vaccines is more reliable than scientific investigation.
I find (4) the most perplexing, because after all, here’s a guy who spends at least five minutes of every week’s show running down “belief” in favor of rational, skeptical inquiry. Heck, every week he invites arch-atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Salman Rushdie on to talk about how Islam, Mormonism, and the rest amount to a complete surrender of our intellectual faculties, and then of course there’s that movie. So I’m going to give Maher the benefit of the doubt on this one and say that his assertion here of the “I believe” privilege is merely an unfortunate turn of phrase.
So let’s ignore that and deal with the, er, substantive arguments:
- Are vaccines full of insect repellant? No they aren’t. For fuck’s sake.
One presumes Maher or his researcher is reading from this CDC page about the possible ingredients in vaccines generally. But there are no adjuvants (chemicals to make the immune system’s reaction to viral antigens stronger) in either the nasal or injected vaccine. That means no aluminum, although aluminum has been used for eighty years in vaccines and has been found to be perfectly fucking safe. Formaldehyde is used to kill the live bacteria in bacterial vaccines. However, SWINE FLU IS A VIRUS. So no formaldehyde. (Though according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “First… the total quantity of formaldehyde found naturally in an infant’s circulation would be approximately 1.1 mg—a value at least 10-fold greater than that contained in any individual vaccine. Second, quantities of formaldehyde at least 600-fold greater than that contained in vaccines have been given safely to animals.” Oh, science, with your “numbers” and your “studies”….)
What about mercury? There are small quantities of mercury in the preservative thimerosal used in the nasal spray vaccine. This seems alarming, but for three important facts. First, the mercury in thimerosal is ethyl mercury, which (unlike its much nastier and more toxic cousin methyl mercury) is excreted via the intestine and does not accumulate in the human body. Second, thimerosal has been used in vaccines for decades and is NOT ASSOCIATED with any known harm, including autism and other neurological disorders. But third — most importantly — if you don’t want thimerosal, get the injected version of the vaccine. No thimerosal. Easy-peasy.
As for “insect repellant,” it’s hard to know what he’s talking about here, but almost certainly what’s happened is that some anti-vaccine activist looked at an ingredient list for the flu vaccine and did Google searches for the component chemicals until he found something with a scary-looking name, something also used in insect repellant. And then he or she wrote about it on the Internet, and Bill Maher was willing to play amen chorus to this person’s insane paranoia. All I can say is: antifreeze and orange juice both contain water. That don’t make ’em the same thing.
(Thanks to Daily Kos for a roundup of links on this subject.)
- Maher makes the point that he had a full panel of vaccinations when he was a kid, and he had terrible allergies. Of course, he also probably ate green beans as a kid. And wore socks. And used china plates. Hell, a million things happened to him as a kid. But you don’t hear him railing about “Western vegetables” or decrying the profit motive in the children’s footwear industry or encouraging people to eat from paper plates in the name of “having a debate about it.” No, surely it was the vaccines that caused him to have allergies, although obviously unvaccinated kids get allergies, too, while plenty of vaccinated folks don’t. But it’s the vaccines that cause allergies. Okay.
Still, still suppose you were Bill Maher, scientist, and you wanted to find out whether there was, indeed, a connection between childhood vaccination and allergies. Would you go to the vegan Comparative Ethnography major who works at the health food store? Would you go to the Ayurvedic healer? Would you go to the Chinese herbalist? Would you go to Jenny McCarthy?
- No. You’d go to “Western medicine,” that great and terrible bugbear, which like all science is essentially a plot by the Masons to destroy Christianity. Or something. Anyway, you’d go to Western medicine because, far from stifling debate, science-based medicine is the only system of medicine which can attempt to answer questions on subjects not already covered by ancient masters.
Science is open-ended; it can engage in new lines of inquiry; it can test any falsifiable hypothesis about the physical universe by collecting evidence and matching the evidence against that hypothesis. So if you’re concerned that vaccines cause allergies, autism, multiple sclerosis, excessive sweating, impure thoughts, or the hippy hippy shake, you can conduct a study and find out if you’re right. And if your results can be verified and reproduced by others, then your idea becomes part of “Western medicine.”
Western medicine isn’t “Western” at all; it belongs to everyone, because scientific inquiry into all subjects is our birthright as human beings. Science isn’t exclusionary; it doesn’t belong to Novartis or Pfizer or Harvard Medical School or even “the government.” It belongs to all of us. Bill Maher’s concerns, dumb though they are, can find a substantive answer only in the democratic and open processes of science.
The above episode of Real Time featured no scientists or doctors on the panel. Maybe that’s because the week before, Maher had gotten roundly spanked by, of all people, Bill Frist, a doctor and former Republican majority leader in the Senate:
I never thought I’d find common cause with Bill Frist. But then, I never thought major American commentators would be questioning the safety and effectiveness of vaccines or the moral integrity of the freaking CDC.