Antivaxxers and the Educated-Public-Herd Effect

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015 with updates during 2016, 2017.

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter

Antivaxxers will only Succumb to Educated Public

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…It is a risky bet… to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless idea that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to ‘put unnatural substances [vaccines] in our bodies,’ or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to ‘mental retardation and autism in children,’ a fabricated story long ago debunked by science… [The] anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust ‘educated-public-herd effect.’”

Anti-vaccination views can spread quite infectiously in society, mimicking the contagious nature of pathogens. But a “culturally immune” community —here I mean aware of the fundamentals about how vaccines work— can remain forever-protected from, or, at least, resistant to antivaxxer-memes.


The Selfish Gene 1st Edition (1976)

Not only good ideas, but also ill ones, like the opposition to inoculations, can self-replicate, mutate analogously to a gene, and disseminate in a population. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” in The Selfish Gene (1976), to refer to such units of information/ideas sharing, although his examples were not about antivaxxers (people who nowadays battle against vaccines on pseudo-science grounds, religion, or consensus-ignorance —my emphasis) but rather illustrated how catchphrases, fashion or melodies emerged and settled in culture. Dawkins wrote: “we need a name for [this kind of] replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.”

The word meme itself passed around as a replicator among academics, it became highly scrutinized, as well as valued, and an entire field of study, memetics, was born in the 1980s. Sadly, by 2005, the Journal Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, the peer-reviewed forum for scholarly articles, published its last issue. JM became dormant more than extinct.

The metaphorical merit of the meme concept was both its major strength (for suggesting a didactic model to explain cultural information copying from one mind to another) and weakness (for not attaining consensus in the scientific community due to its subjectivity and the challenge to measure it). However, Dawkins and later “memeticists” (specialists in memetics) did manage to keep alive the meme debate for decades, and there is no indication that the meme hypothesis is irrelevant to modern science. After all, “cultural entities” are certainly hosted in brains, mimicked, subject to variation, competition for survival, and inheritance. Good, with-adaptive-value memes stick around, bad ones are prone to vanishing, but not without first instigating considerable damage.

Herd Immunity

Source: Illustration by Autumn Mariano

But, let us go back to antivaccination memes and their harmful makeup. As long as the number of vaccinated individuals in a population overwhelms the amount of unvaccinated, the “herd-immunity effect” will continue to protect those who have not yet developed defenses. The rule is mathematically simple: the probability of infection —and death— increases when the number of unvaccinated people augments. In fact, those lacking vaccine-induced immunity to smallpox, rubella, polio, pertussis, mumps, measles or diphtheria can “free-ride” in society only when the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated at an average rate of 83-88 percent, depending on the disease. That is perhaps all a nation needs to understand to get the shots!

But if the “public good” argument is no antidote for antivaxxer-poison, here I offer a single, yet historically gruesome example that illustrates why vaccinations have become required in many countries: smallpox, the sole predator of 300 to 500 million people during the 20th century, and possibly of 20 million North-, Central- and South-American natives after the Europeans’ arrived —from the Caribbean— in the 1520s.

Smallpox is caused by the variola virus, which transferred from wild or domesticated animals to Sub-Saharan humans, at least 3,000 years ago. Variola behaves like a “hit and run” pathogen, incessantly moving to the next target. Once it enters via inhalation the airway passages of the host’s lungs, it incubates for one or two weeks in lymphatic ganglia and disseminates to multiple organs. The patient becomes symptomatic when lacerations or blisters appear in the skin and endothelial membranes (inside the mouth, nose and throat), combined with fatigue, fever, forehead ache, overall muscle soreness and joint pain, nausea and vomiting. Ineffective immune response leads to death in 1-2 days. Smallpox is fatal in up to 30 percent of cases.

Smallpox Virus Images Evolution Literacy

Smallpox virus (click on image to be redirected to source:  gettyimages)

The key point is that when the virus runs out of “fresh prey,” it dies out, and this makes it vulnerable to vaccines. Via safe inoculations of laboratory-engineered-strains of the virus, scientists can “trick” the immune system to generate antibodies against variola. Relying on this procedure, smallpox was eradicated in the late 1970s. And by vaccinating most infants, in urban and rural areas worldwide, we all gradually built the herd-immunity effect on which the unvaccinated can freely —but unsafely— ride.

It is a risky bet, of course, to attempt to replicate the antivaxxer-meme and infect the populous with the reckless notion that we should refuse, as a matter of self-determination and individual freedom principles, to “put unnatural substances in our bodies,” or, worse, continue to link vaccinations to “mental retardation and autism in children,” a fabricated story long ago debunked by science (links to references provided below).

Lethal No-Injection Cartoon Evolution Literacy

Lethal Injection vs. Lethal Non-injection

Although non-adaptive memes are destined to disappear in the milieu of great-versus-wicked ideas, the human cost, in health and lives, during the path to eradicating the anti-vaccination movement, will be regrettably painful. Still new diseases will emerge in the future, old ones resurrect, while competent physicians try to manage them in crowded environments. But the anti-science gang will only succumb to a robust “educated-public-herd effect.” — © 2015 by EvoLiteracy, with updates during 2016 and 2017, all rights reserved.

Scientific paper on a 67-country survey on the state of vaccine confidence

The State of Vaccine Confidence 2016: Global Insights Through a 67-Country Survey, see also a commentary about this article in Science.

And on the same topic: The Vaccine Wars: Debunking myths, owning real risks, and courting doubters from Science.

Graphic generated by Science with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Visual proof of why vaccines do more good than harm (Science)

Scientific papers rejecting the alleged association between childhood vaccines and autism, and between maternal immunization and autism (source PLoS)

Watch 4:34 min excellent video on “How We Conquered the Deadly Smallpox Virus”


Watch 8:47 min video “Just for Hits” by Richard Dawkins (2013)


And another video on “Should you get vaccinated?” by Piled Higher and Deeper PHD Comics 


Above: Animation: Herd Immunity, How it Works

Above: Animation: Regional reduction in the unvaccinated population from 2000 to 2015

A - Measles Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Measles vaccination and GDP 2014 The Economist - Evolution Literacy

B - Hepatitis-A Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

C - Mumps Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

D - Pertussis Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

E - Polio Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

F - Smallpox Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

G - Rubella Project TYCHO data for Health 2015

Additional Readings and Resources 

Memetics publications on the web.

Autism’s fight for facts: A voice for science. Convinced by the evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, Alison Singer started a research foundation that pledges to put science first. Nature 479, 28-30 ( 02 November 2011 ).

CDC AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on ASD, search for factors that put children at risk for ASD and possible causes, and develop resources that help identify children with ASD as early as possible.

Learn about the latest Ebola research in Science Magazine.

Reduced vaccination and the risk of measles and other childhood infections post-Ebola, also in Science Magazine.

How the Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning – The New York Times

Watch how the measles outbreak spreads when kids get vaccinated – and when they don’t – The Guardian

The Next Pandemic? – The Economist

Autism and Vaccines

Source: The Scientific Facts About Autism and Vaccines


Support to Vaccinations by Religious Group and Ethnicity United States – Pew 2016


Anti Vaccines Cartoons Evolution Literay