One of the most bizarre manifestations of pseudoscientific and anti-scientific thinking, particularly popular among homeopaths, is the insistence that the most effective preventative healthcare intervention in history, vaccination, is actually a dangerous and destructive poison foisted on the unsuspecting public by ignorant or evil doctors. In the human health arena, this is most dramatically seen in the persistent belief that vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming evidence this is not true, and in the resurgence of preventable diseases in areas where misguided parents choose to deny effective immunization to their children.
Veterinarians and pet owners, sadly, are no more resistant to nonsense and unscientific fear mongering about vaccines. I have written before about misguided vets who encourage clients to expose their animal companions to potentially deadly infectious diseases rather than make appropriate use of safe and effective vaccines. No one denies that vaccines can have undesirable effects. Most rare and minor, and some are rare but very serious. However, the overwhelming majority of the claims made by anti-vaccine activists about vaccine safety are pure fantasy unsupported by any real scientific evidence. A recent example, pointed out to me by a reader, illustrates the shameless use of distortion, misuse of irrelevant references to real science, and pure invention and lies to generate irrational fear of vaccines.
An article from the usually unreliable source Dogs Naturally Magazine, has been making the rounds on Facebook with claims that rabies vaccination causes violent behavior in dogs. I am hesitant to discuss this claim simply because it is like discussing the intellectual merits of creationism or alien abduction—the very act of refuting it makes it seem like an idea that is sane enough to deserve a response. Unfortunately, such nonsense, however ludicrous, can still mislead pet owners into making dangerous choices for their pets, so I will briefly point out why this article deserves to be dismissed out of hand.
Emotionally manipulative use of anecdotes-
The article tells tragic stories of people injured by their dogs. As horrible as these experiences are, they have absolutely no bearing on the truth of the claim that rabies vaccine were responsible for the behavior. There are thousands of dog attacks worldwide every year and the overwhelming majority of them do not follow any kind of vaccination. To claim that the occurrence of vaccination before such an attack is evidence for a causal relationship is an elementary error in logic that is inexcusable in anyone with even a rudimentary scientific education. It is as ridiculous as believing that we cause it to rain by washing our car.
The purpose of these stories is not to prove anything, since they cannot, but simply to manipulate people into feeling fear.
Self-serving conspiracy theorizing-
The article acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of veterinarians, with extensive training and experience in veterinary medicine, reject the theory that rabies vaccination causes aggression. Instead of recognizing that this might be a reason to question the hypothesis, the article suggests that the few who believe in the idea are the only ones smart enough, brave enough, or otherwise capable of seeing a supposedly obvious relationship. The majority who reject it must be either unconscionably ignorant or deliberately ignoring the truth despite the danger to their patients and clients.
The sheer arrogance of this kind of thinking is stunning. Certainly, widespread belief in an idea is not incontrovertible evidence that idea is true. The majority is wrong about things all the time (which the folks at Dogs Naturally conveniently ignore when they are claiming we should accept alternative therapies because lots of people think they work). However, when almost all the experts in a scientific field agree and only a few practitioners of pseudoscientific nonsense like homeopathy think the idea is true, that is reason to at least ask the question, “What’s the evidence?”
There is no evidence-
Which brings us to the other ways in which the article tries to support its fantastic claim. The simple fact is that there is no scientific evidence to back up the claim, so the article cheats and tries to imply that other claims which are true somehow imply theirs is too. For example, lots of quotes from the Merk manual (a rather old-fashioned medical reference pretty universally ignored by real doctors and scientists) about encephalitis. This article, however, has nothing at all to do with rabies vaccination. It’s like saying that because diabetes exists it must be true that wearing blue causes diabetes.
The article also cites references (most 30-40 years old) to neurologic disease cause by distemper vaccines (NOT rabies vaccines). This is a rare and acute disease caused by insufficient weakening of the distemper virus used in the vaccine and has nothing to do with rabies vaccination (a killed viral vaccine) or with any of the other suggested causes for the mythological disease of rabies-vaccine induced aggression. The same is true for the citation of a forty-year old Italian journal article on vaccination and epilepsy and all of the other references to irrelevant scientific research that has nothing to do with the claims made in this article.
The article supports its claims with references to other disproven and ridiculous claims-
As already mentioned, the claim that vaccines cause autism is complete nonsense that has been thoroughly disproven, and the main research paper suggesting this relationship has been withdrawn for fraud and its author stripped of his medical license. Citing this idea and its supporters in defense of the claims made about rabies vaccines in this article is itself a strong reason to ignore those claims since their proponents clearly will believe anything no matter what the evidence.
The same is true for the claim that veterinary homeopaths have an explanation for the problem in the form of the “Rabies Miasm.” A miasm is a completely bogus idea invented in a time when people still believed demonic possession was real and bloodletting was a safe and effective treatment for disease. It has all the scientific legitimacy of astrology or, for that matter, the rest of the theoretical nonsense that underlies the practice of homeopathy, which I have discussed many times before. The symptoms listed as supposed signs of Rabies Miasm are a hodgepodge of things that, like any good horoscope, one can see as applicable to absolutely every patient with any disease to one extent or another.
In addition to referencing Andrew Wakefield and Richard Pitcairn, both classic quacks promoting pseudoscientific alternatives to real medicine, the article quotes Russell Blaylock, a former neurosurgeon who has become a full-time crusader against scientific medicine and in favor of a wide variety of ridiculous pseudoscientific ideas, and Harold Buttram, another rabid anti-vaccine activist. These are not “experts” or reliable sources but ideological crusaders opposed to the majority not only of scientists and doctors but the majority of the actual evidence concerning vaccine safety. Referencing them simply reinforces the extremist and anti-science nature of this article and its claims.
Now undoubtedly, people will make comments on this post like “How can you be sure rabies vaccine doesn’t cause aggression?” I am happy to admit the idea is not impossible. However, the decision whether or not to change a well-established medical practice that has had great benefits is not whether concerns about it are possible, but rather whether there is any reason to believe they are justified. In this case, there is not.
Rabies is a deadly disease which has caused enormous suffering and death for humans and animals alike for thousands of years. Rabies vaccination has virtually eliminated this problem for dogs in developed countries, and for the people those dogs would kill if they were afflicted with rabies. And in the decades over which this has been accomplished, there has been no reliable scientific evidence to suggest the vaccine causes the problems claimed in this article. As I have shown, these claims are made by ideological extremists who support many conclusively disproven ideas, and they have offered no evidence to back up their claims, only emotionally manipulative anecdotes, irrelevant and misleading references to unrelated science, and the opinions of unreliable believers in pseudoscience.
This article is not a reason to abandon rabies vaccination or expose your pet and your family to the risk of this terrible disease. Please do not be frightened or misled by these false arguments and scare tactics. Rabies vaccines are not perfect, but they are incredibly safe and very effective, and they save lives, both human and canine. Any change in our use of these vaccines should be based on sound science, not hysteria and pseudoscience.