Wednesday, April 8, 2015

On Measles, Mumps, and Data Bumps

I’m a numbers guy. I like to see numbers tell a story and reveal trends. This is probably why I thoroughly enjoy working out of Microsoft Excel for eight hours a day tracking numbers and creating graphs to tell stories about historical levels and current levels of financial execution. While I love numbers, I would be remiss to not look deeper and see that I ultimately care about details when it comes to data and text. This is probably why I enjoy getting into the weeds of word studies when I read the Bible and try to understand the true meaning behind the Greek and Hebrew words that are translated into our English language, but that is more of an aside. Today, I am mainly interested in helping all of us understand some of the nuances of statistics that are presented on, well . . . just about anything. I think this will be particularly helpful, though, for those of us who have been racking our brains over discerning true and false information on the internet related to vaccinations.

My intent is not to necessarily make a case for or against vaccinations (even though I do possess a general opinion), rather to equip us with some critical thinking skills that will come in handy when reading presented data.

I think parents are smart to know more about what they're doing, particularly what they’re allowing to be injected into their children. No matter the current side of the debate, as long as a parent’s intent is to keep their child alive and healthy, then everyone is at least pursuing the same agenda. There’s a grain of unity after all. If the assumption is that every parent is only seeking to provide their children with the best possible chance of a healthy life, then it is indeed helpful and necessary to understand whether or not Decision A provides the best chance for a healthy life, over and against Decision B.

From a biblical perspective, parents are tasked with raising godly children and doing the basic job of nurturing our children to be as healthy as possible. The Apostle Paul said that there is indeed value in bodily training—being healthy—though godliness should always be the first aim of the Christian who loves God (1 Tim 4:8). He even told Timothy to drink some wine with his water in order to avoid his frequent stomach ailments (1 Tim 5:23). Furthermore, we know that physicians were acknowledged in Jesus’ day as having a purpose to help people be healthy, rather than sick (Mk 2:17). Luke, who wrote the Gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts, was a beloved physician himself (Col 4:14), so spoken of by the Apostle Paul.

What’s the point? I think it helps to see that seeing a doctor in and of itself does not nullify one’s faith in God unless someone—in their heart of hearts—really doesn’t trust God. We make decisions all of the time that will increase our safety and we take preventative measures to avoid medical problems in the future. The Bible teaches the general principle of planning for the future in regards to food (Prov 6:6) and finances (Prov 13:22), so health would certainly not be out of place if we are to be good stewards with everything we have been given by God.

With that said, no one can make a biblical case against all medical procedures and all medicines. One may have to draw the line somewhere for matters of personal conscience and others should respect that, but no hands-down argument exists for boycotting medicine and physicians altogether.

So then, how do we handle the vast amount of data going around about vaccinations? Well . . . as I said, I am a numbers guy and not a scientist (though I love science), nor a medical professional (though I used to be a Pharmacy Technician and appreciate the science behind the medicine), so I will just stick to what I know best—data!

Here’s what I want to do . . . I simply want to offer a note of caution in regards to how to interpret cold, hard facts. The more I have read financial charts and graphs on all kinds of official documents and having created plenty of my own, I have learned that you can take valid and legitimate information and still display it in a way that seems to prove a point that the data never intended.

I once read an incredibly fascinating and insightful book called "The Wastrels of Defense" by Winslow Wheeler, a staffer on Capitol Hill for about 30 years, who testified to this very thing. Congressmen will many times do legitimate data pulls from the Library of Congress or the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, and then tweak the x-axis and y-axis just right while highlighting a particular point of a historical trend—not revealing the larger story that the graph fits into—to make the point they wish to make, which looks seemingly obvious due to their visual presentation. Not only that, but when you’re dealing with financial information it gets even trickier since one graph may show inflation, while another does not, so are you really comparing apples to apples? I digress.

Let me give you an example. Below is a graph that depicts the amount of bad apples that Ben’s Bakery has received from his distributor over the years using real, verifiable evidence:

Thankfully, Ben has an insurance policy on such atrocities. In order to show his insurance provider just how bad it is, he created a graph of his own with the same real, verifiable evidence:


Upon further consideration, the insurance company asked a third party to review Ben’s Bakery’s bad apple distribution. The results were indicated in the graph below:

Unfortunately for Ben, the insurance company did not feel that his business had suffered unusual loss, so they denied his claim. In fact, if history repeated itself, Ben may be in for another healthy decrease in bad apples just like he experienced after his 2009 bump.

Now let’s look at some cold, hard facts that one website offered in their case against the Measles’ Vaccination. Again, I am simply coming at this from a numbers standpoint only because it is a great example of how verifiable data can be used on both sides of an argument, thus demanding critical thinking and the ability to ask the right questions.

If you just looked at the link you can see that the case is stated clearly: Zero people have died from the Measles in the last 10 years according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), while 108 people have died from the Measles’ Vaccine in the last 10 years, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). I did the same search and it is a legitimate search result, which can be found here.

Open and shut case?

A quick search about the Measles at the CDC website will tell you that 1–2 people out of 1,000 will die from the Measles and that most people who get Measles are unvaccinated.

Here’s a key question: How many people were vaccinated, say, 12 years ago when this article started tracking?

According to the CDC, the National Immunization Survey (NIS) reports about 93% of children aged 19–35 months had received at least one does of the MMR vaccination in 2003. This report can be found here in Table 1.

To understand rates and percentages, we need to understand the denominator, i.e. what was the total US population of 19–35 month old babies in 2003? This is a more difficult number to ascertain and this is where finding real statistics becomes tricky and even allows people some room to fudge the data.

Case in point, when you search the United States Census Bureau for the total US population by age in 2003, the youngest age bracket is 4 years old and younger—that is 48 months old and younger. This information can be found hereOur age bracket in question (19–35 months old) only makes up about 33% of the youngest population bracket. How do you determine that?

When you subtract 19 from 35 you get a range of 16 months. You then have to divide 16 months into 48 months (lowest US population bracket span) and you end up with 33%.

Assuming all things are equal (a perfect world, no doubt) then you can then use the 33% and apply it to the total population number in the lowest bracket to get a number of children who are between the ages of 19 and 35 months. The US census tells us on the same page that there are 19.8 million children who are 4 years (48 months) and younger. 33% of 19.8 million is 6.6 million.

This means that 6.6 million children in the United States were between the ages of 19 and 35 months in 2003.

So then, if about 93% of these children received their MMR immunization shot in 2003, then that would be 6.1 million children, thus leaving roughly 462,000 children who are not vaccinated with the MMR.

Now let’s see how many kids received their MMR in 2013 when this article first surfaced. This will help us understand the trend for those 10 years that the article wrote about.

The NIH reports that the percentage decreased slightly to 91.9% of a coverage rate, found hereNot much changed, but what was the US population of these children in 2013? According to the census bureau and applying our same math using 33%, there was a population of 6.6 million children between the ages of 19–35 months. Again, not much changed. That information can be found here.

So then, if about 91.9% of these children received their MMR immunization shot in 2013, then that would be 6 million children, thus leaving roughly 532,000 children who are not vaccinated with the MMR.

Important note: Trends over a decade like this are important to consider because as these children grow up they are still vaccinated against the MMR that they received as a baby. While we may be focusing on the younger age bracket as a fixed point in time, it is only because of the fact that the MMR is administered at that age. Overall, we can safely assume that as these generations get older and maintain a vaccination rate of 92-93%, then the entire population would have a coverage rate at that level—albeit given enough time.

Since we have done some leg work in seeing that the vaccination rate has stayed consistent, then let’s apply this rate to the entire United States population—from 2003 to 2013. The article implied that there is a problem with the Measles vaccine because it has killed 108 people over a ten year period.

The total United States population in 2003 was 285.9 million people. As of 2013 it was 316.1 million people. This averages to 301 million people.

92% of 301 million gives us 276.9 million—the estimated amount of all MMR vaccinated people in the US.

According to the article (citing VAERS), 108 people have died because of the MMR vaccine.

The percentage of MMR-vaccinated people then who have died from the vaccine is a simple mathematical equation that gives you a rate of:


I don’t know about you, but I’m comfortable with that.

Now then, consider the other side. First of all, were there really zero deaths due to Measles in that 10 year period?

The CDC reports 2 in 2009 and 2 more in 2010.

The interesting thing is that the article almost makes Measles sound like it has no real, inherent danger for anything like death at all, yet globally, 145,700 people died from Measles in 2013 alone according to the World Health Organization (WHO)Granted, that is also a very small percentage, but apparently the article is, in fact, very interested in small percentages.

Additionally, let’s not forget that death is not the only thing one can experience with Measles. According to a CDC Infographic:

- 1 in 4 people become hospitalized

- 1 in 1,000 people develop encephalitis (brain swelling), which could lead to permanent brain damage

Okay, so let’s consider again that 4 unvaccinated people have died from Measles out of our unvaccinated population of 24 million (difference between 301 and 277 million). This gives us a death rate of:


So, as far as deaths go, it appears that non-vaccinated people had a lower death rate right? One problem. On the VAERS website that recorded the vaccine-related deaths, it has a caveat that almost flushes all attempts of factual analysis down the toilet:

“When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established. Reports of all possible associations between vaccines and adverse events (possible side effects) are filed in VAERS. Therefore, VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.”

Even if VAERS could positively identify that all 108 deaths were directly tied to the MMR vaccine, then we are still left to wonder if all of the commotion regarding the pros and cons of taking or not taking the vaccine is worth arguing over when we are dealing with competitive mortality rates like 0.000039% and 0.000017%? This compares with, say, being killed by lightning—a 0.000011% chance, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The number one killer in the US—besides the devastating reality of abortion—is heart disease, coming in at just over 600,000 deaths per year—a death rate of 0.2% of our population average of 301 million.

But again, is death the only thing that the vaccine protects someone from? One must not forget all of the other potential side-effects that could have mingling effects in someone’s life. Considering that VAERS is not a cold-hard fact as it states itself, the weight of evidence seems to indicate that there is no reasonable evidence to reject a vaccine like the MMR based on negative outcomes alone. If anything, there is a better chance of adverse impact in an unvaccinated person.

Finally, if there are other personal reasons for avoiding vaccines, then let’s be careful to not place political and selfish principles over our children’s health. I say this only because I hear arguments made that there are people at the top who are manipulating the costs and schedules for vaccines to make a lot of money.

So what?

Personally, I am totally fine with an elite few making billions of dollars because they sell something that keeps my family alive. In fact, thanks. Arguing from this point of view reeks of the selfish entitlement mindset that permeated those who decided to #OccupyWallStreet because they were the 99% who didn’t make as much as the 1%. The sooner we can get over that and take the Apostle Paul’s stance to be content in all circumstances—whether in plenty or in want (Phil 4:11–12)—the better we will be and the more we will honor the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s not make this somehow-controversial issue bigger than it is. Let’s not be conspiracy theorists about everything that goes on at a corporate and governmental level. Let’s be diligent, discerning, and wise. If (some) vaccines are still against one’s comfort zone due to ingredients, or source of ingredients, etc. then those are things to address one at a time, but as far as the basic arguments for the safety one way or another . . . in this case, the vaccine has the upper hand as far as I can tell.

By the way, I’m willing to rethink my whole approach if my assumptions and/or data were not accurately presented. I don’t want to be right just to be right, but I do want to know the right information so I can make the right decisions that pertain to my family’s health. That’s what we all want, right?

Hopefully this shined some light on how information is presented on the internet and how many different aspects can quickly change the outcome of the data being presented.

Ultimately, as Christians, make sure you still respect the person who you are speaking with, even if you are trying to persuade them one way or another. Don’t hold one another in derision based on something like this. Remember that no matter what, God is sovereign over your time of death and he has also given people medical skill in order to care for our bodies while we’re here on the earth. Use your resources while simultaneously trusting God’s providence.

In His Sovereign Grip,