Vaccine Injuries vs Coincidences

Believe it or not, some folks don’t think that coincidences are real.

Not believing in coincidences is a well known trope of the anti-vaccine movement.
Not believing in coincidences is a well known trope of the anti-vaccine movement.

Is it a coincidence that these folks are the ones who are the most likely to believe that vaccines cause a lot of injuries and vaccine induced diseases?

Vaccine Injuries vs Coincidences

Thinking about vaccine side effects and coincidences is not new.

“When I undertook the study with the current vaccine strain on my own two triple-negative children and their three playmates, also triple- negatives, I thought: “I am going to do this very carefully now,” and, like Dr. Gear, I set up certain time schedules. I said: “I am going to start to give the vaccine now.” Every time I said “I am going to start to give it” and did not give it, two to three or four days later they came down with either pharyngitis, vomiting and abdominal pain, or a little fever.

I waited for approximately six weeks for those children to stop having some sort of febrile episode. I finally gave up. It so happened that after they got the vaccine they did not have any such episode.”

Albert Sabin on Recent Studies And Field Tests With A Live Attenuated Poliovirus Vaccine

When Albert Sabin was first researching his oral polio vaccine, he understood the problem. How could he really know if any signs or symptoms that occurred after he gave someone his vaccine were really caused by the vaccine, or just a coincidence?

“However, a report later to be given by Dr. Smorodintsev will deal with approximately 7,500 children who had received the vaccine and were carefully followed, as compared with another group, in similar number, who had not, for various types of illnesses which were occurring during the period.”

Albert Sabin on Recent Studies And Field Tests With A Live Attenuated Poliovirus Vaccine

The solution? They studied kids who had not gotten his vaccine.

But you don’t need an unvaccinated group to uncover coincidences.

You can just look at the background rate of a symptom or condition, and compare the periods before and after you start using a vaccine.

For instance, consider this study from Australia about using the HPV vaccine in boys, in which they made some predictions of what would happen after introducing the HPV vaccine.

Assuming an 80% vaccination rate with three doses per person — which equates to about 480 000 boys vaccinated and a total of 1 440 000 doses administered nationally per year in the first 2 years of the program — about 2.4 episodes of Guillain-Barré syndrome would be expected to occur within 6 weeks of vaccination. In addition, about 3.9 seizures and 6.5 acute allergy presentations would be expected to occur within 1 day of vaccination, including 0.3 episodes of anaphylaxis.

Clothier et al. on Human papillomavirus vaccine in boys: background rates of potential adverse events.

Wait. Are they saying that the HPV vaccine is going to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, seizures, allergic reactions, and anaplylaxis?

Of course not. When the study was done, the kids hadn’t gotten any vaccines yet!

That was the background rate of those conditions.

They happened before the vaccine was given, and you can expect them to continue to happen after these kids start getting vaccinated – at that same rate.

What if they start happening more often after kids get vaccinated?

Then it makes it less likely to be a coincidence and more likely that the vaccine is actually causing an increase in the background rate. And vaccine safety studies look for that, which is how we know that vaccines don’t cause SIDS, transverse myelitis, multiple sclerosis, and many other conditions.

Most of you will have heard the maxim “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because two variables have a statistical relationship with each other does not mean that one is responsible for the other. For instance, ice cream sales and forest fires are correlated because both occur more often in the summer heat. But there is no causation; you don’t light a patch of the Montana brush on fire when you buy a pint of Haagan-Dazs.

Nate Silver on The Signal and the Noise

Of course, when we are talking about coincidences, we are also talking about correlation and causation.

When correlation doesn’t equal causation, then it’s probably a coincidence. Or it’s at least caused by some other factor.

And coincidences happen all of the time.

Is It a Vaccine Injury or a Coincidence?

That something could be a coincidence is not typically want parents want to hear though, especially if their child has gotten sick.

What does it mean that something happens coincidentally?

“Most sudden cardiac deaths that remain unexplained after necropsy are probably caused by primary cardiac arrhythmias.”

Sudden death in children and adolescents

Often it just means that it is unexplained. And that it is chance alone that it occurred as the same time as something else.

“In the absence of a specific etiology for ASDs, and a tendency among parents of children with a disability to feel a strong sense of guilt, it is not surprising that parents attempt to form their own explanations for the disorder in order to cope with the diagnosis.”

Mercer et al on Parental perspectives on the causes of an autism spectrum disorder in their children

Again, when folks blame vaccines, it is often because they have nothing else to blame.

“In some fraction of the American population, however, the belief in a link remains. One reason is a coincidence of timing: children are routinely vaccinated just as parents begin to observe signs of autism. Most vaccines are administered during the first years of life, which is also a period of rapid developmental changes. Many developmental conditions, including autism, don’t become apparent until a child misses a milestone or loses an early skill, a change that in some cases can’t help but be coincident with a recent vaccination.”

Emily Willingham on The Autism-Vaccine Myth

Think that it is too big of a coincidence that some infants develop spasms shortly after their four month vaccines?

Dr. William James West first described these types of infantile spasms in the 1840s!

And the “Fifth Day Fits,” seizures that began when a newborn was five days old, was described in the 1970s, well before we began giving newborns the hepatitis B vaccine.

But SIDS was only discovered after we began vaccinating kids, right?

“But, with millions upon millions of doses given each year to infants in the first 6 months of life across industrialized countries and with sudden infant death syndrome being the most common cause of infant death among infants 1 month or older, the coincidence of SIDS following DTP vaccination just by chance will be relatively frequent. When the two events occur, with SIDS following vaccination, well-meaning and intelligent people will blame the vaccine. They seek order out of randomly occurring events.”

Jacobson et al. on A taxonomy of reasoning flaws in the anti-vaccine movement

Of course not.

Cases of SIDS have been described throughout recorded history and have been well studied to prove that they are not associated with vaccines.

“Some events after immunisation are clearly caused by the vaccine (for example, a sore arm at the injection site). However, others may happen by coincidence around the time of vaccination. It can therefore be difficult to separate those which are clearly caused by a vaccine and those that were going to happen anyway… Scientific method is then used to determine if these events are a coincidence or a result of the vaccine.

Vaccine side effects and adverse reactions

It is easy to blame a vaccine when something happens and a child was recently vaccinated. That is especially true now that anti-vaccine folks turn every story of a child’s death or disability into a vaccine injury story.

“Autism was known well before MMR vaccine became available.”

Chen et al. on Vaccine adverse events: causal or coincidental?

Blaming vaccines when it is clear that vaccines aren’t the cause doesn’t help anyone though. It scares other parents away from vaccinating and protecting their kids. And it doesn’t help parents who need support caring for a sick child or help coping with the loss of a child.

What to Know About Vaccine Injuries vs Coincidences

While all possible adverse events after getting a vaccine should be reported to VAERS and your pediatrician, remember that just because something happened after getting vaccinated, it doesn’t mean that it was caused by the vaccine.

More on Vaccine Injuries vs Coincidences

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