Say Anything: Straight Talk on VAERS and Vaccines

Posted on May 16th, 2014

truthVAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System, is one of the many ways the government monitors the safety of vaccines after they are approved and found safe for use. Managed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), VAERS is an easy way for anyone who has a negative reaction to a vaccine to report that reaction right away. Parents who vaccinate their kids should feel safer knowing vaccines are constantly being monitored and that every report of a problem can be documented. But, if someone tries to scare you with a vaccine injury report from VAERS, Vax Maine Kids wants you to know these reports can’t always be trusted.

Anti-vaxxers often use VAERS reports to try to scare parents away from vaccines that have been proven to be safe and effective for children. It’s pretty easy to find a report of a negative reaction to any vaccine on VAERS because it’s very easy to report a reaction to a vaccine on VAERS.

And it should be easy! The FDA and the CDC want to know as soon as possible if a vaccine is causing any harm. However, this openness and accessibility can also cause problems when using VAERS to measure the safety of vaccines. Spontaneous reporting systems like VAERS are meant to give the FDA and CDC an early warning about any potential problems with vaccines, but VAERS is not meant to provide parents, public health officials, or scientists with data about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Why? As the VAERS website explains, “A report to VAERS generally does not prove that the identified vaccine(s) caused the adverse event described.”

More than 10 million vaccines are administered every year to children less than one year old. VAERS receives between 10,000 and 20,000 reports of adverse reactions each year. But rigorous, sustained scientific studies have shown that the CDC-recommended vaccination schedule is safe and effective for kids and helps keep kids safe. So, what gives?

  • VAERS wants you to report a negative reaction even if you aren’t sure the vaccine is what caused that reaction.
    Serious side effects or bad reactions to vaccines are extremely, unbelievably rare, and many VAERS reports aren’t actually reports of bad reactions to a vaccine—they’re reports of a coincidence. A concerned parent who reports her daughter ran a fever after her MMR vaccine isn’t going to bother to retract her report when everyone else in the family gets the same fever and she realizes it was the flu, not the vaccine. But her report stays in the VAERS database forever.
  • VAERS reports can’t be verified.
    VAERS doesn’t ask you to prove your identity or provide any proof of your claim. And once you’ve made that report, it’s published for everyone to see. Scientists and researchers have been warned they can’t rely on VAERS data for their studies. So why would Maine parents rely only on VAERS data when making decisions about their children’s health?

This blog—like most blogs—receives hundreds of comments for each post. Are we that popular? Not really. Like most blogs, over 90% of those comments are computer-generated spam that are routinely filtered out by our blogging software before we even see them. Your email program probably does something similar with the hundreds of bogus, spam, and phishing emails you get every day. Software filters are very good at separating fake comments and emails from the messages you really want to receive, but every once in a while, a fake message gets through or a real one gets blocked. The FDA and the CDC want to be absolutely sure that every real report gets through, so they don’t block any reports at all.

VAERS has no filters. And as a result, VAERS is full of spam—false reports planted by anti-vaccine activists who want to scare and mislead people, and by lawyers planting evidence for cases they are trying in court.

  • Many reports of adverse (or negative) reactions to vaccines on VAERS were put there to help win a court case.
    A 2006 study published in Pediatrics found most VAERS reports linking vaccines to autism were filed in connection with court cases to try and create evidence lawyers could use in court. As Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote, “Public health officials were disappointed to learn that reports of autism to VAERS weren’t coming from parents, doctors, nurses, or nurse practitioners; they were coming from personal-injury lawyers.” Many VAERS posts have an agenda, and it isn’t the safety of your kids.
  • Bad press creates a spike in false reports on VAERS.
    When a vaccine gets a lot of negative attention in the press, people become more likely to blame that vaccine for unrelated problems. When Gardisil was new and controversial and getting lots of airtime on the nightly news and talk shows, reports of bad reactions to Gardisil on VAERS went up.But when those reports were investigated and further studies were done, Gardisil was proven to be safe for teens.VAERS reports are too easily influenced by media hype for Maine parents to base important decisions on them.
  • People have admitted to knowingly posting false information on VAERS.
    An autism activist named Jim Laidler submitted a report on VAERS claiming a vaccine turned him into the Incredible Hulk. This completely ridiculous report was accepted and entered into the VAERS database. But when a VAERS representative contacted Mr. Laidler, he admitted it was a made-up claim. This fake report was easy for VAERS administrators to spot, but most fake claims sound a lot more plausible. Because VAERS gives every report the benefit of the doubt, Maine parents should always be doubtful of the truth of individual reports. The best source to go to for information about vaccines is your doctor or child’s pediatrician.

Self-reporting is a fast way to get a quick scoop, but it is a very flawed way to conduct real science. VAERS is a fantastic early warning system and Maine parents should feel great knowing it is part of the thorough safety net surrounding children’s vaccines. That said, if someone you know tries to scare you with a VAERS report about a vaccine, we advise asking them to show you a real report—the kind of report that is verified, researched, published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and supported by real scientific data and research. These reports have shown again and again that vaccines protect children, are safe for children, and that every child who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated.

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