Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, let its readers down yesterday, three times off the mark in describing vaccine issues. All three let-downs appeared in a story covering recommendations by the C.D. Howe, an economic think tank, that Ontario should establish a vaccine registry.
The first miss in “Ontario failing to meet national vaccination targets,” an article by Patty Winsa, came in not challenging the think tank’s assumption that herd immunity would be achieved by meeting “the national target of 85% to 97% coverage, depending on the vaccine.”
As the Star reported: “For every different vaccine a certain percentage of people need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to take effect, to protect even an unvaccinated person,” said Colin Busby, a senior policy analyst at C.D. Howe. “When the coverage slips below target, the likelihood of you having herd immunity decreases quite a bit.”
The Star, and Mr. Busby, seem to be unaware that herd immunity is a theoretical concept that in practice has repeatedly failed “to take effect,” even when rates higher than the targets have been achieved. In recognition of this failure to achieve herd immunity, Dr. Gregory Taylor of the Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC last year that “The target would be to have 100 % of the population vaccinated.”
The article’s second miss came in references to “anti-vaxxers” and “the anti-vaccination movement,” without explaining that vanishingly few members of this movement actually oppose vaccination. The vast majority simply wants more research to better identify the small subset of the population that might react adversely to certain vaccines under certain conditions, just as some people might react badly to some pharmaceuticals under certain conditions. A more accurate description of this movement, one which few would quarrel with, would be the “safe vaccine movement.”
The third miss came in describing a mother who feared that her newborn might catch measles when in a doctor’s office with a patient who had measles. The implication, not entirely unfair, was that the patient’s failure to vaccinate was putting the newborn at risk. While this is true, it is also true that mothers who have been vaccinated themselves put their newborns at risk, because they have few antibodies to pass on to their baby. Unvaccinated mothers who are naturally immunized are able to pass on four times as many antibodies — historically, this has been nature’s way of protecting newborns.
The Toronto Star’s misses cumulatively amount to spin that misleads the reader. This article gets three band-aids, one for each miss.