Anti-vax and Veganism

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Anti-vax and Veganism

Angry Scientist Finds Uneducated Internet Comment and Delivers Badass Response*. With a title like this how could I resist clicking on the link that a friend sent me recently? The aforementioned Internet comment was in fact a Tumblr post that implied that vaccinating children is ‘child endangerment and abuse’ and encouraged the reader to ‘rethink vaccines’. Reading this familiar anti-vax rhetoric I was already looking forward to the ‘badass’ scientist’s comeback, but within the first few lines of their response I was disappointed and angry. It read:

You are the worst person.

So far so good, I thought. I understand resorting to hyperbole when it comes to defending children’s health and science.

You can be a vegan and whine at people, that’s hurting nobody but when you tell people to stop taking vaccines you endanger public health…

What followed was a list of the ingredients in vaccines with a brief explanation of what they do, why they are not a harmful and a plea for people to act responsibly and trust science over the fear-mongering tactics of anti-vaxxers. The scientist’s response is admittedly ‘rage filled and alcohol induced’, which is probably why it is so entertaining and vehement, but I couldn’t excuse the two references to veganism which seemed completely superfluous since the anti-vax post did not reference veganism at all.

Why don’t YOU educate yourself instead of subscribing to the notion that all scientists are evil and want to poison you and your natural, vegan lifestyle.

Why drag us vegans into this? I felt offended that the scientist equated vegans with anti-vaxxers and was publicly tarnishing our movement… Then I took a step back, and a breath, and I realised that this scientist’s perception of vegans is illustrative of a much larger problem, and though it may seem unreasonable to me it is in fact completely understandable.

Anti-vax sentiment does seem to be rife within the vegan community. I have been handed leaflets warning me of the ‘dangers of vaccines’ at vegan events and I have friends with children who have been harassed by fellow vegans for vaccinating their children. One father was accused of abusing his child when he mentioned on a vegan forum that his daughter was vaccinated. It is unsurprising that a drunk immunologist would link vegans and anti-vaxxers. Rather than get offended with someone for recognising a correlation perhaps a more appropriate response would be to combat anti-vax pseudo-science within my community.

So here goes.

What are vaccines?

A vaccine is a biological preparation usually administered by intramuscular injection. It typically contains an inactive form of pathogen which stimulates the immune system into producing antibodies to fight the pathogen. A vaccination immunises the person against the targeted disease by preparing their immune system to recognise and destroy active pathogens*. Vaccinations have been incredibly successful in combating disease. One of the most dramatic victories has been the eradication of smallpox, a horrific infectious disease which in its more aggressive strain killed 30-35 percent of those infected. A vaccination was developed for smallpox in 1796 and on the 8th of May 1980 the World Health Organisation certified the global eradication of smallpox in this landmark announcement:

The world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America*.

The polio vaccine is another success story which has reduced poliomyelitis from a worldwide epidemic to a disease only thought to be endemic to three countries*. Vaccinations are currently in use combatting many diseases and work is underway to develop vaccinations for more infectious diseases.

The vegan-ness of vaccines

Vaccines, like many medicines, often contain animal derived ingredients. These are inactive ingredients (excipients) used to preserve or stabilise the vaccine. The manufacturing of vaccines also uses animal products all of which are listed as excipients on vaccination information leaflets. Gelatine is used as a stabiliser in some vaccines. Some viruses used in vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, are grown in fertilised hens eggs while some are grown on animal cell lines*. Because they contain animal products most vaccines cannot be described as vegan. But can someone who gets themselves or their children vaccinated describe themselves as vegan? My response would be a resolute yes. The Vegan Society’s definition of the word vegan is as follows:

Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose*

Since vegan versions of many vaccines are not currently available it is not possible or practical to avoid the animal products in vaccinations, a vegan who gets themselves and their family vaccinated is no less vegan than one who uses transport with rubber tyres*. I would recommend every vegan gets the vaccinations that their doctors advise for themselves and their children. This is one of the many unhappy things about living in a non-vegan world, we have to accept that we cannot entirely extricate ourselves from animal exploitation.

If you are concerned about the suffering of the animals involved in the production of vaccines a sensible solution to ease your conscience and reduce animal suffering as a whole would be to make a donation to a vegan outreach charity, if your contribution can help make one more person vegan then you will have contributed to a net reduction in animal suffering. Harish Sethu of Counting Animals estimates a vegetarian spares the lives of between 371 and 582 animals in a year* vegans save even more lives*. Between one and five doses of the flu vaccine are derived from one fertilised chicken egg*. If every vegan who gets vaccinated donated to an effective vegan advocacy charity the number of animals exploited in vaccine production would pale into insignificance compared to those saved from the exploitation of animal agriculture.

There is research currently underway into developing more efficient methods of vaccine production which may lead to vaccines with fewer or no animal ingredients. The use of fertilised chicken eggs is particularly slow and inefficient so hopefully will be phased out in favour of other techniques such as using cells in bioreactors* or by using virus like particles which are already used in the production of the vaccination for HPV*. If you are interested in encouraging the development of medicine and medical research that does not exploit animals you can support the efforts of charities like The Dr Hadwen Trust* who fund new research that advances biomedical science without the use of animals.

Why people think vaccines are dangerous

The majority of people who are opposed to vaccinations are not concerned about the animal products present in vaccines. They, like the creator of the original Tumblr post that inspired this article, are convinced that vaccines are dangerous to human health. They look at the list of excipients in vaccines and are concerned that some or all them are poisonous. The ingredients that seem to be of most concern to anti-vaxxers are Thimerosal (mercury), Aluminium based adjuvant, Polyethylene Glycol* Piso Octylphenyl Ether* Formaldehyde and Hydrochloric Acid. These ingredients do sound strange and unpleasant but they’re all found in vaccines in tiny amounts, so tiny that most people are exposed to more of all these chemicals everyday by using things such as toothpaste*, personal lubricants*, baking powder* and deodorant**. And while they may seem foreign and unusual these ingredients are not dangerous; in fact formaldehyde (one of the most scary sounding, at least to me) is part of a humans normal metabolism*. Many of these ingredients would be dangerous in larger quantities, but at the levels in vaccinations they are harmless and are used to make the vaccines more effective**.

The incorrect idea that the ingredients in vaccines (particularly Thimerosal)* cause autism is still unfortunately quite prevalent. This misconception stems from the now discredited work of former surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield*. Wakefield’s fraudulent paper that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was published in the Lancet in 1998 it has since been retracted. No further studies were able to reproduce Wakefields results and upon investigation Wakefield was found to have subjected the children in his studies to unnecessary invasive medical procedures*, falsified data* and intended to profit financially from his patent on an alternative ‘single jab’ vaccine*. The General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of thirty six charges including four counts of dishonesty and twelve counts of the abuse of developmentally challenged children*. Despite the link between autism and the MMR being thoroughly discredited and Wakefield’s exposure as a fraud some people still spread the idea that vaccines cause autism. Preying on the fact that autism is still a relatively little understood condition, the public’s scientific illiteracy and the fears of worried parents anti-vaxxers such as Jenny McCarthy spread this dangerous fiction*.

The other common concern of those opposed to vaccinations is that vaccines provide too many pathogens for the immune system to cope with or too many too soon. This like the concern about the excipient ingredients is founded on a lack of contextual understanding of the human body. Our immune systems respond to a huge quantity of pathogens everyday as we encounter various viruses environmentally, it really is an amazing and vast protective system*. Compared to the amount of work our immune system does on an average day the amount of pathogens we encounter in a vaccine is a drop in a ocean of germs*.

There is no reasonable mechanism proposed for vaccines being ‘dangerous’ or ‘poisonous’ and no evidence that they are not safe and effective preventative medicines. Like all medicines side effects and occasional serious allergic reactions do occur* but they are massively outweighed by the number of lives saved by preventing diseases that disproportionately affect children and vulnerable adults. By vaccinating your children you take a tiny risk of adverse side effects to prevent a risk of life threatening disease not only for your child but for immunocompromised people that they may come into contact with.

Vaccines are a well understood and evidence based intervention that have and continue to save millions of lives. The chart below* documents the impact of vaccines in the United States.

Disease Baseline 20th Century Annual Cases 2006 Cases Percent Decrease
Measles 503,282 55 99.9%
Diphtheria 175,885 0 100%
Mumps 152,209 6,584 95.7%
Pertussis (Whooping Cough) 147,271 15,632 89.4%
Smallpox 48,164 0 100%
Rubella 47,745 11 99.9%
Haemophilus influenzae type b, invasive (HiB) 20,000 29 99.9%
Polio 16,316 0 100%
Tetanus 1,314 41 96.9%

Diseases like Polio* and Diphtheria* have been entirely eradicated from western countries but people in the third world still suffer and die from these diseases. Perhaps it is easy to become complacent about our health when we have access to modern medicine and we may be convinced by dubious arguments that vaccinations are an unnecessary risk. People in less affluent countries are desperate for these life saving medicines*, and if we stop vaccinating we will see these diseases return, and then we will be desperate too.

Why are vegans susceptible to anti-vax rhetoric?

Vegans are used to questioning cultural paradigms. We became vegans because we didn’t believe our friends, families, governments and supermarkets claims that it is okay to exploit animals for our own pleasure. It doesn’t take particularly acute research skills to uncover the fact that burgers are made of cows, I made that discovery at the age of ten and forswore all meat from then onwards*. We are used to being told we are wrong or overreacting and we have learnt to follow our own intuition and do our own research instead of trusting authority. It doesn’t seem surprising that many vegans would be suspicious of vaccines: firstly vaccines are not vegan, secondly the people who insist vaccines are essential are scientists. Vegans are more likely than other people to be convinced by the portrayal of scientists as evil madmen bereft of hubris* because biomedical advances often come at the cost of horrific animal experimentation* and nutrition science has historically misinformed us that eating animals is necessary for health. Like the rest of the general public vegans are under-informed about science. Though things seem to be improving recently science communication has a history of being inaccessible, boring and confusing*. Add to this unhappy mixture the fact that scientists such as the one in the post that inspired this article can be condescending and dismissive of our lifestyle. When we start researching vaccines we do not turn to boring science texts produced by nefarious anti-vegan scientists we naturally turn to sources we trust.

Unfortunately the vegan community has misplaced its trust. Pseudoscience is rife in the vegan sphere precisely because we have decided to value the wrong sources of information. And people are exploiting this market. Vegans are being sold at best ineffective and at worst dangerous information and products by charlatans. I was handed anti-vax leaflet at a vegan event because the person selling tickets to their lecture on the dangers of vaccines had a fair expectation that I would be more interested in hearing what one homeopath* had to say about vaccines than referring to the vast body of scientific literature on the subject. This was a sad but reasonable assumption.

It is in the interests of people selling pseudoscience to vegans to maintain our distrust of science. It is in our personal interest and that of the vegan movement to not allow an understandable dislike of some scientists undermine a trust in the scientific method.

Why anti-vax sentiment is bad for veganism

It should be clear by now why not vaccinating children is bad for individual children and the world as a whole. If enough people vaccinated we create ‘herd immunity*’ which means that people who cannot be vaccinated because they are too young, too sick or otherwise immunocompromised are also safe from the disease. If a high enough percentage of the population is vaccinated we can entirely eradicate a disease as we have done with smallpox. We cannot advocate for animals if we are dying from preventable diseases and we should care about the human animals other than ourselves that we put at risk by abstaining from vaccination.

The reason the drunken scientist’s response really annoyed me was because it conveyed an uncomfortable truth about how vegans are perceived. People think vegans are irrational anti-scientific, and overly sentimental (which I sometimes suspect is code for ‘stupid’). It is convenient to hold these beliefs about vegans, it allows people to dismiss our ideas without giving them full consideration. We all know that a good idea can come from an unlikely source but our brains have evolved to be susceptible to judging the idea by the merits or demerits of it’s proponents*, if the person telling us we are wrong seems mean, unreasonable or just a bit kooky we are much more likely to dismiss their arguments. If we want our arguments for veganism to be taken seriously we have to present ourselves as serious people, espousing ridiculous and dangerous conspiracy theories about vaccines does not make us look good. Nick Cooney* has reviewed the literature on the most effective way to change people’s behaviour, he has amongst many other pertinent insights, concluded that people respond best to advocates who they perceive to be ‘like them’ an idea that seems to come from within our own peer group is much more palatable and worthy of consideration than one coming from someone who seems to be unlike us. The association of veganism with pseudo-science and fringe beliefs hinders our advocacy. People see themselves as ‘reasonable’ and are much more likely to respond positively to an argument from a reasonable vegan.

I think veganism is a rational position and I think using the tools of reason and science can only make our arguments stronger. Cultivating a knowledge and respect for science in the vegan community allows us to back up our empathetic impulses with reference to facts* and consistent logical arguments. Critical thinking skills are vital to any philosophical movement they help us present our arguments and ensure a commitment to self examination rather than dogma*. By pushing back against the anti-vax propaganda in our community we are advocating for reason and evidence. This keeps us healthy and safe, promotes critical thinking and makes us better advocates for animals.

If our primary goal as vegans is to reduce animal suffering then pushing back against anti-vax fear-mongering is vital, not only because of the thousands of human lives that are saved by vaccines but because a commitment to rationality in the vegan movement makes us stronger. And a strong, rational, animal advocacy movement is the most effective way to reduce animal suffering.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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