Statistics and vaccines 3/19/19

By Richard E. Bleil

Statistics. Everybody’s favorite subject!

Actually, it’s very interesting, and important to understand. In a town where I lived, the police chief won the lottery. A big lottery. Millions of dollars. I was chatting with him standing in line at a sub shop,and said, “well, I guess there’s no bribing you now!”

Fortunately, he had a sense of humor, and I was back on the streets in a few days.

The odds of winning a big national lottery is roughly 1 in 175 million. The population of the US is roughly 330 million people, so yes, people will win. So, yes, there are winners, but not many. The payoff is around 20 million.

Now, think about this. The tickets are $2 to play these huge national lotteries, and 1 in 175 million win. This means that the lottery takes in 350 million, and pays out 20 million. This is well over 300 million dollars that are paid to the lottery commission in profit. Another way to look at this is that players pay roughly 18 million dollars for each million they win.

So, maybe planning to win the lottery isn’t such a great retirement plan.

Odds are kind of funny things, and their interpretation is important.. How often have we heard that smoking causes cancer, and yet, it really doesn’t. For non-smokers, roughly 0.2% of our population will get lung cancer. It can be argued that this could be, in part, due to automobile emissions and second-hand smoke, but the point is that any one of us could get cancer. This increases to about 20% for heavy smokers. (This information is from “Very Well Health”.) This is an increase of a factor of about 100. In other words, it is 100 times more likely for heavy smokers to get lung cancer than non-smokers, but, that doesn’t automatically mean that smokers WILL get cancer. In fact, roughly 80% of smokers do not.

What we are discussing here is an increase in odds, rather than absolutes. I’m not recommending that people begin smoking; if I had a revolver that can hold 5 bullets, but only put one bullet in the gun, would you try your luck with it? I know that I would not.

Vaccines are another example. Any medical procedure, even as simple as a vaccination shot, carries with it risk. These risks are studied carefully, in an attempt at determining both the risks and benefits. The World Health Organization released a study reporting that the odds of complications due to the Measles vaccination, for example, is roughly 1: 1,000,000. Prior to the measles vaccination program, roughly 3 million people contracted the measles every year, resulting in 48,000 people being hospitalized,and 4,000 leading to encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which is slightly more than 1% of the cases. In 1963, (when the measles vaccination program began), the population in the US was 200 million.

So, the risks are 1:1,000,000 for complications to the vaccination, versus 1:200 (yes, one in two hundred) in contracting the measles. This isn’t really a fair comparison, because it’s 1:200 every year, not just once in a lifetime. In 2015, there were 216 cases of measles in the US (quite a dramatic decrease from 200 million for a vaccine many claim to have no effect). With the population of roughly 300 million, that means that the odds of contracting measles in 2015 was slightly greater than the risk of complications to the vaccination. The real problem, of course, is that with a raise in people refusing to vaccinate their children, we are also seeing a raise in the number of measles cases.

One of the issues with arguments of anti-vaxxers is a confusion of correlation with causation. The anti-vax movement largely began with a claim linking vaccinations with autism. Symptoms of autism begin to appear as early as 12 to 18 months. The CDC recommends that vaccines given between birth and 16 months. Measles, in particular, is given between 12 and 16 months. Thus, there is a correlation; symptoms of autism and measles vaccinations are often occurring at roughly the same time. However, causation is a different story.

Study after study has demonstrated, many times, that there is no link between autism and the vaccinations, and yet the argument is still being made. I wish I could take credit for this, but there is a marvelous analogy I heard recently. Between the months of April and September, there is a dramatic rise in ice cream trucks. At the same time period, there is a dramatic rise in violent crimes. Thus, ice cream trucks must be the cause of violent crime, right?

Or, is it that both ice cream trucks and violent crimes occur when the weather is warm and more people are outdoors? I’ve written before about modern day snake oil salespeople with holistic medicine. Many of the people selling products (and making profit) on this movement rely on analogies, rather than actual research. Multiple research projects, involving thousands of test subjects performed by experts in the field with results that are reviewed by peers who are equally qualified are passed over by these salespeople, who prefer to discuss anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence are the stories of somebody whose child developed autism after being vaccinated (and ignoring the aforementioned timing), or somebody who healed from the flu after using an oil, with a time that coincided with the body’s natural ability to fight off such diseases as well.

I have no children, and I’ve been vaccinated so I have no “pony in the race”. But, I do believe people should be aware of the weaknesses and strengths of their arguments before spreading them. People who argue against evolution will often try to use the second law of thermodynamics to argue against it. Teaching in a Christian college, I showed the flaws in using the second law in this argument. I didn’t argue for or against evolution or creationism, but rather, made it clear that the students should know the problem with the argument.

The president of the college disagreed with my reasons and insisted I never bring it up again.

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