Debunking a Classic Anti-Vaccine Claim

One of the strongest arguments in support of vaccines comes from a historical perspective. The argument is simple. A hundred years ago everyone in the world would be infected or affected by a disease that is today, vaccine preventable. Since the invention and widespread use of vaccines, diseases like polio, diphtheria, and rubella are virtually non-existent in the U.S., and thanks to efforts of organizations like the Gates Foundation, those diseases are in decline worldwide. We’ve seen over time that when a vaccine is introduced into a community, the disease it prevents declines. And yet, despite this, there are still people who claim that vaccines do not work.

These claims are usually posted by such “trusted” sources as or, and will undoubtedly be accompanied by a graph like the one below (pulled from


The graph is used to argue that diseases were already in decline when vaccines were invented. They argue that vaccines have been wrongly credited for the elimination of disease. Rather, they say, it is better sanitation and nutrition that caused this decline.

Look closely at the graph above for a moment, specifically the y-axis. Although anti-vax websites like to claim that the graph proves the incidence of diseases were on the decline before vaccines, that’s not at all what the graph shows. The graph shows death rates from disease. So without even fact-checking the data, we can see that the graph just simply doesn’t provide the evidence that the anti-vax crowd claims. They are confusing morbidity and mortality. Morbidity is the incidence of disease; the number of cases. Mortality is the number of deaths from that disease.

That’s an important distinction because there are a lot of things that can effect mortality, including better medical care for patients. But that doesn’t eliminate the harm of vaccine preventable diseases. Although death rates in the U.S. may have been falling in the early 20th Century for vaccine-preventable diseases, there were still other frightening consequences of these diseases.

Paralytic polio was on the rise in the 1940s and 50s. People were kept alive by inventions like the iron lung, but their lives were forever changed by this illness. Polio was only stopped with the invention and introduction of the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Today, polio is close to being eradicated from the world. This was only made possible thanks to vaccines.

Another problem with the graph above being used to attack the effectiveness of vaccines is that to believe it you have to completely ignore the entire field of immunology. To deny that vaccines work is to deny everything we know about how the immune system functions and how vaccines prepare our body to fight disease.

Take a look at the infographic below (designed by myself and Berly Laycox).

Measles in the US

You can clearly see the impact of the measles vaccine on disease morbidity. The measles vaccine was invented in 1963, when there were 385,156 measles cases and 364 deaths. The following year the vaccine is slowly being introduced, but not widely enough to have an effect on the numbers. There were 458,083 measles cases and 421 deaths in 1964. But already by 1965 there is a decline to 261,904 measles cases and 276 deaths. It’s small, but it is also the first time there have been fewer than 300,000 cases in a year. There are fewer cases the next year, and by 1967 the U.S. sees fewer than 100,000 cases for the first time. As the number of cases plummet, so do deaths. By 1981 there are only 3,124 cases and 2 deaths. By 1993 there are only 312 cases, and it is the first year there are no deaths from measles. The impact of the measles vaccine is obvious.

Vaccines have directly caused a decline in vaccine-preventable disease. Any anti-vax claim otherwise is false. But there is another thing. Anti-vax websites present us with a false choice. They urge us to improve sanitation and nutrition instead of using vaccines, but really we should be doing all of that. Washing your hands regularly, eating healthy foods, drinking water instead of sugary drinks, and getting vaccinated are all healthy choices. Doing one doesn’t negate the need for the rest.