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Is herd immunity a myth? A response to Russell Blaylock, Part 1

by Josh DeWald

January 10, 2014

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Donate Like late night callers to the Coast to Coast AM, the Internet is filled with articles that claim to have found the fatal flaw in "hoaxes" perpetrated by the scientific community. Using the well-honed technique of throwing an easy pitch of shocking "facts" followed by a home run of emotional appeal, the reader is left wondering how they were ever hoodwinked by the "authorities". But when you delve into the supposed facts that form the warrant for these articles, you are left more underwhelmed.

A 2012 essay (making the Facebook rounds again) by Russell Blaylock is no different. Despite having no obvious expertise* in infectious diseases or vaccines specifically -- some syndications of the essay mention the fact that he is a board-certified neurosurgeon, but this isn't terribly relevant -- Blaylock feels he has the authority to write a long essay making the bold claim that "vaccine-induced" herd immunity is a "myth". It perhaps goes without saying that he provides no references for the statements he makes as if they were well-known facts. This itself is massively frustrating as it makes it difficult to know exactly where he is getting his information. Perhaps he has a source, I just don't know what it is so cannot respond directly, but can only attempt to interpret his intent.

After a brief intro he starts the section entitled "Is Herd Immunity Real", Dr. Blaylock says (ellipsis and emphasis mine):
In the original description of herd immunity, the protection to the population at large occurred only if people contracted the infections naturally. The reason for this is that naturally-acquired immunity lasts for a lifetime... there was one major problem — vaccine-induced immunity lasted for only a relatively short period, from 2 to 10 years at most... This is why they began, silently, to suggest boosters for most vaccines, even the common childhood infections such as chickenpox, measles, mumps, and rubella ...
The essential claims in this section:

1. "naturally-acquired" immunity lasts a lifetime
2. "vaccine-induced" immunity lasts a short period of time
3. "Most" vaccines need a booster

We can take a look at all three at once using a simple table. Note that the source for the bulk of the information contained here is from the CDC "Pink Book", which has comprehensive information about each of the illnesses and their vaccines.

Illness Natural protection Vaccine protection Boosters?
Chickenpox Usually lifetime [1] 20+ years, "probably permanent" No
Diphtheria Not lifetime [2] Not lifetime Yes, every 10 years
Hepatitis A Lifetime Approx 20 years No [3]
Hepatitis B Lifetime Approx 20 years No
Hib Risk of re-infection [4] Effectively lifetime [4] No
Measles Lifetime Effectively lifetime No
Mumps Lifetime 25+ years, "likely lifetime" No [5]
Polio Lifetime Several years [6] No
Rotavirus Only 38% protected Effectively lifetime [7] No
Rubella Lifetime 15+ years, likely lifetime No [8]
Tetanus No immunity [9] Possibly lifelong Yes (10 years)
Pertussis ("whooping cough") Not lifetime Not lifetime Yes (10 years)

Let's take a look at the table and see how his claims hold up. Of the 12 vaccines listed, only 7 of them can be considered to confer lifetime immunity to those that were "naturally" infected. About the same (7 or 8, depending on how you want to count) of the vaccines effectively provide lifetime immunity. So both claims #1 and #2 are simply incorrect, even if one is limited to measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

Regarding claim #3, you can see the none of the childhood illnesses (chickenpox, mumps, measles, rubella) that Blaylock mentions require boosters after the initial immunizations for the average person. For chickenpox, there are two doses before 6 years of age. Mumps, measles and rubella (administered together in the MMR) are recommended to be administered in two doses, generally before age six (the second dose is now recommended to be in the MMRV, which adds the chickenpox vaccine). Only mumps and measles are specifically recommended to give given to college students or health care workers that didn't get the second dose when they were children. So unless Blaylock is considering the 2-dose recommendation as a "booster", his statement is simply untrue. Additionally, the recommendations are not because the vaccine only lasts 2 to 10 years, but because sometimes the first dose doesn't "take". The only ones that require regular boosters are diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus and they all come in a single vaccine.

Blaylock continues:
the boosters were lasting for only 2 years or less. This is why we are now seeing mandates that youth entering colleges have multiple vaccines, even those which they insisted gave lifelong immunity, such as the MMR. The same is being suggested for full-grown adults...
The recommended adult schedules are available from the CDC's "Immunization Schedules" page, with the relevant for this discussion sub-page being the Adult schedules.

The key thing to note that is the adult recommendation for the general populace for the MMR is only for those that did not get the vaccinations when they were children. So I welcome Dr. Blaylock to provide a citation for his claim that the boosters only last 2 years and that adults are being asked to get them. And persons born before 1957 (relevant later when Blaylock talks about "Baby Boomers") are considered immune. And as far as I can tell the recommendation for college students and health care workers is really only if a second dose hadn't already been given as a child.

The claims he is making are factually untrue or at the very least they are highly skewed interpretations of his source data (which we have no way to verify), and we've barely scratched the surface of his off-the-cuff essay. We haven't even gotten to his claims about herd immunity, which will be covered in later parts of my response.

Update: Part 2 is available.

* Even an expert on the topic should not be writing or speaking against the broad consensus without citing a significant amount of credible research, otherwise it is simply an argument from authority. Mark Crislip's articles are filled with reference and he's an infectious disease doctor.

Table Notes:
[1] The virus can actually re-awaken to cause shingles later in life
[2] In fact, even people recovering from diphtheria are recommended to get the vaccine
[3] Boosters only for those in high risk populations
[4] The vaccine is more effective than natural immunity at preventing infection or getting re-infected. Vaccine itself only required for those younger than five.
[5] Health care workers and those entering secondary education are recommended to get MMR booster
[6] Because of vaccination, polio has been eliminated from the Western Hemisphere, and as of 2009 was only present in four nations.
[7] Rotavirus vaccine is really only for those younger than 2 years old
[8] Rubella vaccine is in the MMR, so people do often get another dose
[9] I've bolded tetanus, which will become important in a later part of this response, but feel free to read Blaylock's statements about it.

by Josh DeWald

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