Paul Offit is perhaps America’s fiercest advocate for mass vaccinations. In this inaugural edition of VaccineFactCheck, we will examine an article by Offit in yesterday’s USA Today that demonstrates much that is wrong in the vaccine controversy. Too often in their zeal to make their case, advocates rely on factual errors, unsubstantiated claims, exaggerations, distortions and scaremongering.
Offit strays from the facts in Voices: Our children are at risk and here’s why, his March 5 oped, when he says “measles killed about 500 people a year before the vaccine was introduced in 1963.”
In the decade before 1963, measles deaths averaged 440 per year. If Offit is referring specifically to 1962 (the phrase “a year before” can be read that way) the number of deaths would be 408, according to the National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Report, as can be seen in this document from the Centers for Disease Control.
This exaggeration of the number of deaths, though, is the least of the problems with the Offit quote that I cited. The exaggeration is actually greater, closer to 100%, as I will now explain.
Offit’s statement that the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963 is true, or at least half true, but it is also misleading. The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963 but the vaccine proved a failure, was not universally introduced, and was taken off the market several years later. Most American children weren’t inoculated in 1963. The major rollout of a measles vaccine didn’t begin until late 1966 and wasn’t completed until 1967. Offit’s quote would have been less of a stretch if he had used 1967 as the watershed year in which the vaccine changed everything, but by then measles deaths had dropped to 261. His quote, to be more accurate, would have then read “measles killed 261 people the year before the vaccine was introduced in 1967.” His 500 deaths exaggerate by 92% the actual 261.
The drop from 440 to 261 in the 1960s was not an anomaly but the rule prior to the introduction of the measles vaccine. Over the course of the 20th century, measles deaths in America were in free fall, as can be seen in this graph. Where in 1900 measles was a major killer, by 1963, the death rate had dropped by more than 98%. And, as had been occurring all century, it continued to fall. It is a wholly unwarranted leap to attribute the decline after 1963, or even after 1967, entirely to the vaccine.
Offit’s article contains other untoward or unsupportable statements. Normally in this space, we will focus on a single issue in a single article and then move on but because Offit is such a central figure in the vaccine debate, and because he did not limit himself to one error, we will take up this article again tomorrow. Please visit us again then.
Offit’s article needs four band-aids, or demerits in our rating system, to patch up the boo-boos in his article. In fairness to him, his article primarily dealt with the difficulty physicians have in confronting parents who don’t wish to follow the prescribed schedule in vaccinating their children — an important area of inquiry. Possibly he didn’t know he was exaggerating — the 500 deaths a year figure has been repeated so often he could be forgiven for falling for it himself. Still, he is responsible for his comments and shouldn’t be hyping the risks, even if unknowingly. The case for vaccinations exists, as it does with any drug. Let’s make the case on the basis of facts.
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