How often have you read or heard, “Vaccine science is settled”? The mantra is repeated so often by physicians, public health officials, the media and legislators that it’s hard to argue with it. But the reality is that science is never settled, because it’s a process, not an endpoint. It’s an evolutionary endeavor, and so whenever someone assures you something is true because a consensus of scientific experts have deemed it so, it’s not a bad idea to remain a little skeptical.
As author Michael Crichton, MD once said, “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks.” He added, “In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”1
I agree with Crichton. In a 2015 article for The Vaccine Reaction, I asked, “Isn’t that the beauty of science… that it is never settled? Isn’t the most unscientific thing anyone could ever say is, that the science is settled?”2
With regard to vaccination, I can provide at least one good example of what I mean, and it’s a very important one because it deals with the foundational premise behind this medical intervention—lifetime immunity.
In the 1960s, when the first two measles vaccines were introduced in the United States (in 1963 and 1968), the consensus science of the day supported the idea that one shot of the measles vaccine would provide a person immunity from measles for the rest of his or her life. On Mar. 25, 1967, the precursor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), known as the National Communicable Disease Center (NCDC), stated in a report:
Measles virus vaccine is recommended for all persons who have neither had measles nor been vaccinated previously. It is believed that one dose of live, attenuated vaccine will give life-long protection.3
It was precisely this belief that led U.S. public health officials to recommend only one dose of measles vaccine for all children. However, as the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) notes, this recommendation changed in 1989 when the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) “updated its measles vaccination recommendation” and recommended that, prior to entering school, children be given a second dose of measles vaccine in the form of the combination measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which was licensed for use in the U.S. in 1971.4 5 The update was spurred by several outbreaks of measles which had occurred in fully vaccinated populations.6
In 1989, the American Academy of Pediatrics was forced to “reassess” it measles vaccination policy and call for revaccination of children.7
What happened? Did the consensus science on the measles vaccine change? It appears so.
Suddenly, the scientific paradigm, at least with regard to the measles vaccines, was altered. What had been assumed to be true for three decades was no longer true. The science of the measles vaccine had evolved, and it was grudgingly recognized that the vaccine did not provide lifelong immunity, after all.
But it didn’t stop there. In October 2017, the ACIP recommended a third dose of the MMR vaccine for “persons previously vaccinated with two doses who are identified by public health authorities as being part of a group or population at increased risk for acquiring mumps because of an outbreak.”8
The recommendation for a third MMR was aimed at mumps prevention but, still, by 2017 the science called for three measles vaccines for America’s children.
Now, in 2019, in the midst of a measles outbreak in the U.S. which has affected both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people, the idea of a fourth MMR vaccine for children is being promoted in states such as New York and by medical trade associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).9
According to AAP News, “The CDC and the Academy recommend children receive the first dose of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) at 12-15 months and the second dose at 4-6 years. During an outbreak affecting infants, MMR vaccine may be recommended for infants ages 6 months through 11 months, but should not count toward the two-dose series, according to the AAP Red Book.”10
It is clear that one vaccination against measles does not ensure immunity from the disease. Neither do two measles vaccinations. So now it is four vaccinations that can be recommended to try and protect against catching measles.
The goalposts keep being moved, but quietly… so as not to stir up too many questions about the wrongheadness of the previous settled science. And each time the posts are firmly fixed in their new location, that ground then becomes the new defensive position to hold, at all costs, for those who not only shrink from freely debating the science but go out of their way to censor any information or views that are inconsistent with the latest consensus on it.
“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled, Crichton observed. “Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”1
This perhaps has never been truer than it is today on the issue of vaccines.
This article or commentary provides referenced information and perspective on a topic related to vaccine science, policy, law or ethics being discussed in public forums and by U.S. lawmakers. The websites of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provide information and perspective of federal agencies responsible for vaccine research, development, regulation and policymaking.
1 Crichton M. Michael Crichton, MD on Consensus Science. The Vaccine Reaction Apr. 11, 2016.
2 Cáceres M. The Nascent Conversation on Vaccines. The Vaccine Reaction June 24, 2015.
3 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. National Communicable Disease Center Mar. 25, 1967; 16(12): 100.
4 Fisher BL. Autism & Vaccines: A New Look At An Old Story. NVIC Newsletter 2000.
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Q&As about Monovalent M-M-R Vaccines. CDC.gov.
6 National Vaccine Information Center. How Effective is Measles Vaccine? NVIC.org.
7 American Academy of Pediatrics. Measles: Reassessment of the Current Immunization Policy. Pediatrics Dec. 6, 1980; 84(6): 1110-1113.
8 Marin M, Marlow M, Moore KL, Patel M. Recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for Use of a Third Dose of Mumps Virus–Containing Vaccine in Persons at Increased Risk for Mumps During an Outbreak. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Jan. 12, 2018; 67(1): 33–38.
9 Barbot O. Order of the Commissioner. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Apr. 9, 2019.
10 Jenco M. Measles cases hit new high; AAP urges vaccination. AAP News Apr. 24, 2019.