Anti-vaxxers are spreading a new rumor, and so, here I am, screaming in the wilderness to see if anyone is paying attention. The new rumor is — as you may have guessed from my clever title to this blog post — that vaccines cause
autism SIDS. SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is a syndrome in which an infant dies suddenly and for no apparent reason. The cause of the death may be revealed later through lab testing or an autopsy, but — at the time of the death — there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the child.
Now, let me stop right there and make emphasis that losing a child is something that I cannot even begin to imagine. I love my Toddler Ren with something close to all of my heart. She is the pint-sized love of my life (with my wife being the take-home size). If anything were to happen to her, I would lay waste to the world. I think I’ve told you this before.
Nevertheless, there are some people out there who prey on the grief of parents who’ve recently lost a child to SIDS or some other disease or condition and bait the parents into their cult. This seems to have happened to a woman whose child died while sleeping. It was later determined that the child died from asphyxiation from sleeping in an unsafe manner. Still, the mother refuses to accept that finding and has become an activist anti-vaxxer. She is even selling tee shirts now.
One of the arguments that these anti-vaxxers are making is that a paper published in Clinical Infectious Diseases back in 2015 “proves” that vaccines cause SIDS. How? Because of one simple sentence in the paper. But, before I talk about the sentence in question, let’s talk about the paper. The authors of the paper went into the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and looked at deaths reported after vaccination. As you can imagine, they got a few hits.
The reason why they got so many hits is that the system doesn’t track good outcomes from vaccination from the millions of doses given each year. Instead, the system tracks adverse events, including death. Many things happen to many people in the hours, days, weeks and years following vaccination. There are some reports in there of people dying in car accidents days or weeks after vaccination. There are reports of women who are morbidly obese and on birth control dying from a blood clot months after vaccination. Basically, if it happened after a vaccine, someone is bound to report it.
Of course, most of the reports are for minor things like soreness, redness or a slight fever after a vaccine. But that doesn’t stop anti-vaxxers from making some very interesting leaps of logic when looking at VAERS data out of context. To them, it doesn’t matter that the system is passive and that just about anyone can report to it. All that matters is that if something bad happened after a vaccine, the vaccine must have caused it.
The authors of the paper write the following in the results section of their abstract:
“VAERS received 2149 death reports, most (n = 1469 [68.4%]) in children. Median age was 0.5 years (range, 0-100 years); males accounted for 1226 (57%) reports. The total annual number of death reports generally decreased during the latter part of the study period. Most common causes of death among 1244 child reports with available death certificates/autopsy reports included sudden infant death syndrome (n = 544 [44%]), asphyxia (n = 74 [6.0%]), septicemia (n = 61 [4.9%]), and pneumonia (n = 57 [4.6%]). Among 526 adult reports, most common causes of death included diseases of the circulatory (n = 247 [46.9%]) and respiratory systems (n = 77 [14.6%]), certain infections and parasitic diseases (n = 62 [11.8%]), and malignant neoplasms (n = 20 [3.8%]). For child death reports, 79.4% received >1 vaccine on the same day. Inactivated influenza vaccine given alone was most commonly associated with death reports in adults (51.4%).”
There is one sneaky sentence in there that these anti-vaxxers are pushing hard: “For child death reports, 79.4% received >1 vaccine on the same day.”
Think about the meaning of that for a second. For anti-vaxxers, it means that 79.4% of children who died after receiving a vaccine received more than one (>1) vaccine on the same day they died. However, if you read the entire paper, you come to find out that the authors meant that these children received more than one vaccine in a single day, and later died… But not necessarily on the same day. They might have died days, weeks or moths after receiving all of those vaccines.
I hope it doesn’t surprise you that children usually receive more than one vaccine in a single visit… It’s how the vaccine schedule works.
What is funny to me is how anti-vaxxers skip over the conclusion section of the abstract they are peddling: “No concerning pattern was noted among death reports submitted to VAERS during 1997-2013. The main causes of death were consistent with the most common causes of death in the US population.” In other words, reports to VAERS mirror the causes of death in the general population, and they do so at the rates expected by chance alone.
The full text of the study is freely available, by the way. It’s not like there is some big cabal of pharmaceutical company executives with billions of dollars to waste stopping these results from reaching the public. In the discussion section, you’ll find this gem that the anti-vaxxers also skip over:
“SIDS deaths in the United States have been declining since the early 1990s for a variety of factors that include recommended changes in sleeping position and environment, clarification of the case definition, and diagnostic coding shifts. This downward trend in SIDS reports has also been observed in SIDS reports submitted to VAERS since the early 1990s and has continued during the years of this review from 1997 through 2013. There is considerable evidence that vaccination is not causally associated with SIDS, including an Institute of Medicine (IOM) review in 2003 that rejected a causal association between the whole cell pertussis–containing vaccine (which is no longer in use in the United States) and SIDS and between exposure to multiple simultaneous vaccines and SIDS.”
If anything, there is good evidence that vaccines prevent SIDS by keeping children from developing underlying respiratory and systemic infections. (Though, admittedly, you give vaccines to healthy children, not children who are sick and would then succumb to SIDS. So that’s a bias there that creeps into these studies.) But don’t tell that to the anti-vaxxers, you don’t want them to think you’re making fun of them by presenting them with facts.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.