John Oliver talks vaccines on the latest Last Week Tonight


John Oliver takes on the vaccine controversy with the help of science, logic, and good TV on this episode of Last Week Tonight.

Chances are, you’ve heard about the vaccine controversy. I use the word “controversy” in its most general sense since the great majority of parents indeed vaccinate their young children. However, fears about vaccines have caused confusion and near-panic in some communities.

A growing number of parents delay or even skip some vaccines. John Oliver discussed this “background hum of doubt” and its very real effects on the most recent Last Week Tonight.

In the past, such fears were practically non-existent. When Jonas Salk developed one of the first successful polio vaccines in the 1950s, people lined up for the shot. In 1952, the worst polio epidemic in the United States killed 3,145 people. A further 21,269 were paralyzed by the disease. Most of the victims were children.

Indeed, children are the linchpin of many pro- and anti-vaccine arguments. Parents, overwhelmed by the flood of information, often have a hard time figuring out what’s true and what’s not.

Even the current President of the United States has expressed skepticism. Though Trump at least supports vaccines in general, he has said, “I want smaller doses over longer periods of time” because “tiny children are not horses.”

Oliver said that the “atmosphere of confusion about vaccines has caused real problems.” Take, for example, the Somali community in Minnesota. Recent studies indicate that only 42% of children there are vaccinated.

That same community has experienced a serious measles outbreak – so far, Minnesota has seen 78 measles cases, compared to only 70 nationwide in 2016.

Measles itself is no joke. It can lead to brain damage, blindness, and lifelong issues for those affected. Moreover, it’s highly contagious. The Centers for Disease Control says that, of un-immunized people who come in contact with an infected person, 90% will also become ill.

Where vaccine fears come from

So, why do these fears persist? What can happen if people stop vaccinating their children?

Oliver acknowledged some of the strangeness of vaccines. “Vaccination can mean getting injected by a needle filled with science juice,” he said. However, he listed off all of the other necessary medical procedures that sound terrifying when described plainly. “The human body is a true carnival of horrors,” he said, “And frankly I’m embarrassed to have one.”

Some of these fears center of the specter of autism. While some individuals on the autism spectrum are “high functioning”, others are severely affected and disabled by the disorder. But is there a connection between vaccines and autism?

Many of the supposed connections come from a Lancet-published study by Andrew Wakefield. This research, which only included 12 kids, was so ill-designed and unethical that Wakefield lost his medical license. He is, in Oliver’s words, “the Lance Armstrong of doctors.”

Yet, a vocal group is still giving Wakefield a platform. He even talked to members of the Minnesota Somali community in 2011. It is more believable that Wakefield himself is indirectly the cause of a terrible measles outbreak, rather than vaccines the source of autism cases. It certainly doesn’t help his case that illustrious people such as Alex Jones and Rob Schneider support his views.

Delayed vaccination schedules

Nowadays, very few will say they’re completely against vaccines. Instead, more are in favor of delaying vaccines or even skipping certain shots. But what is actually a “safe” vaccine? Is thimerosal – a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines – safe?

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has practically made a career of crusading against thimerosal, to the point where he said that subsequently being called “anti-vaccine” was equivalent to getting mercury out of fish and being called “anti-fish.”

This then launched Oliver’s tirade against fish. “Fish are stupid… look at them,” he exclaimed, “Just look at this idiot…. And I think we can all agree that this doofus hasn’t cured cancer.”

When he recovered from his apoplectic attack on fish, Oliver got back on topic. “More importantly – in fact, much more importantly – it is worth knowing that the mercury that is being used in vaccines is not the same kind that is harmful in fish.”

Also, multiple studies have found no link between thimerosal and autism. And it’s even been removed from infant vaccines, except for flu vaccines (which can be switched for a thimerosal-free version).

Though, if it’s not so bad, why remove thimerosal at all? People’s perceptions, naturally. In fact, a vocal faction was so nuts about it that even Congresspeople railed against thimerosal, including Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana).

“There are no studies that disprove it,” said Burton. However, proving a negative is practically impossible. After all, claimed Oliver, how do we know that Burton is not taking a donkey out for a romantic evening?

What of the claims that scientists and doctors are being paid off by “big pharma”? While there are problems with large pharmaceutical companies, vaccines aren’t one of them. “On the rare occasions when there have been problems with vaccines, they have been pulled, and fast,” said Oliver.

The shaky link between autism and vaccines

And while Oliver said that he could spend an entire night knocking down each and every point about the “hidden truths” of vaccines, it would be fruitless. The point is that correlation does not indicate causation. While it may appear that vaccination rates and the rising diagnosis of autism are related, that’s not necessarily the case. It doesn’t help when people waste time and money disproving the link. Perhaps a scientist’s time would be better used developing diagnostic tools and improved treatments for autism.

Still, said Oliver, “that hum of doubt is hard to shake off.” What, then, of the parents who choose to delay vaccines? Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician, has been pushing this approach as an “alternative vaccine schedule.”

This sounds like a sane, middle ground position – except it’s a middle ground between scientific sanity and ill-informed fear-mongering.

It’s true that children receive more shots total, but those shots contain far fewer antigens than in the past. Also, kids encounter thousands of foreign antigens in any given day. If you’ve spent any substantial amount of time with a young child, then you know that they are practically programmed to eat dirt.

Even Sears admits that there is no peer-reviewed evidence. He developed this schedule because of a “theoretical” benefit to kids and the intention to make parents feel good. But what’s more important – keeping children safe, or making ill-informed parents feel comfortable?

Herd immunity

The CDC says that spreading shots out then puts children at risk of developing dangerous diseases, such as measles. Remember, measles is incredibly infectious. It even resulted in 134,200 deaths in 2015. “Herd immunity,” in which large numbers of people are vaccinated against a disease, can also prove to be vital.

Most scientists and doctors will say that you need 95% vaccination rates for herd immunity to really work. Dropping below that level can have serious effects. For example: in France, herd immunity dropped to 89% by the early 2000s. In 2008, a series of children got ill with measles after one girl returned from an Austrian holiday. The disease spread quickly, thanks to its highly infectious nature and low vaccination rates. By 2011, there were around 15,000 cases and 6 deaths in France alone.

What of the parents who say “I’m just making this choice for my child”? As it turns out, they’re not. What about very young newborns? What about children with weakened immune systems? Leukemia treatments, for example, can devastate a child’s immune system and withdraw them from society. Lives can depend on herd immunity.

Why you need to push through the fear

“For some people,” said Oliver, “this is still hard. But what can help is to try to anchor yourself to what we know to be true about the risks of vaccines”. Again, there is no link between autism and vaccines. The risks of other serious side effects, like allergic reactions, are literally one in a million – and your kid is not that special.

In fact, claimed Oliver, your child is more likely to grow up, become a murderer, get caught, and die by execution. Or maybe they won’t get caught! We can all hope to be so lucky.

The truth is, vaccines do tangible good – do you know anyone who has suffered from polio? What major epidemic disease have you experienced during your childhood? Parents in more developed countries can reasonably expect that their children will survive childhood.

Next: John Oliver on Brexit, buckets and Theresa May

Oliver acknowledges that parenthood is inherently terrifying. He himself has a son who was born prematurely after his wife’s difficult pregnancy. Still, despite Oliver’s many a varied fears (“the light, the dark, spiders, a sudden and mysterious lack of spiders”), he is vaccinating his son on the standard schedule. If Oliver can bypass the “irrational shouting of my lizard brain,” you can, too.