A Serbian conspiracy theorist claims that there is no such thing as a virus that still kills children

Julia Koblitz, Unsplash

Original article (in Serbian) was published on 09/08/2023; Author: Milica Ljubičić

Only half a year after the outbreak of the measles epidemic in Smederevo, in which as many as 90 percent of infected children were unvaccinated, conspiracy theorist Sasa Borojevic does not give up and claims that the measles virus does not exist and that the MMR vaccine did more harm than good. However, the measles virus was isolated in the middle of the last century, after which a vaccine was developed that greatly contributed to the suppression of this disease.

Until 1963, when mass vaccination against measles began, this disease took about 2.5 million lives a year, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the development of the vaccine, the situation has improved, so now the number of deaths from measles is drastically lower. Vaccination reduced mortality from 761,000 in 2000 to 128,000 in 2021.

However, this does not prevent numerous conspiracy theorists from talking for years about the harmfulness of the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine), linking it to autism. However, these claims are not supported by any evidence.

So, once again, one of the most famous conspiracy theorists in our country, Sasa Borojevic, shared a post claiming that “there is no measles virus” and that “science has been deceiving humanity for five decades! The measles vaccine (a component of the MMR vaccine) has done more harm than good!” His followers on this network supported him with numerous comments claiming that the MMR vaccine is harmful.

Borojevic also shared a text from an anti-vaxxer website signed by the controversial German biologist Stefan Lanka. He believes that smallpox is a “psychosomatic disease” that people get after “traumatic breakups”. Lanka denies that virology is a science and does not believe in the existence of viruses. He also claims that AIDS is a made-up disease in order to carry out tests on homosexuals. Otherwise, he is close to the “New German Medicine” movement, which rejects scientific-medical treatment in the treatment of cancer.

Where did the claim that there is no smallpox virus come from? 

Lanka did not prove that there is no smallpox virus. He claims this only based on the bizarre offer he published – in November 2011, he promised 100,000 euros to whoever proves that there is a virus that causes smallpox.

He received an answer from a medical student David Bardens, who gave him six scientific publications as proof of the existence of the smallpox virus. However, in his reply to Bardens, Lanka stated that the studies were not sufficient evidence and that he would not pay him 100,000 euros.

After this, their court settlement begins.

Namely, David Bardens sued Lanka, and in 2015 the District Court in Germany ruled in Bardens’ favour, that is, it ruled that Lanka must pay him 100,000 euros. Lanka, however, appealed to the High Court in Stuttgart, which overturned the original verdict the following year. This court finds that the six studies submitted by Bardens do not meet Lanka’s criteria for proving the existence of the measles virus.

However, the court itself did not question the existence of the virus. The independent pharmaceutical magazine that followed this trial, Daz.online, notes that the publications that Bardens provided to Lanka prove the existence of the virus.

However, the court interpreted the amount of 100,000 euros as a promise, not as a bet or a prize. Therefore, according to the court’s opinion, Lanka could determine the rules and conditions for fulfilling the criteria, which includes his right not to accept the publications offered to him by Bardens.

“You could have submitted 600 pieces of evidence, he (Lanka) would not accept even one”, the judge told Bardens. The judge also, according to Daz.org, noted that the decision does not say anything about the existence or non-existence of the measles virus.

However, this verdict, although it does not prove it, served the opponents of vaccination and conspiracy theorists, as well as Lanka, to use it as “proof” that the measles virus does not exist.

These claims can also be found on various obscure websites in the English language. The court’s decision, however, is not proof that the virus that causes smallpox does not exist.

Other fact-checking organizations such as Reuters and Afrika Check have written about this disinformation.

A vaccine that prevents epidemics

The WHO states that smallpox represents one of the most contagious diseases that affected numerous civilizations in the past.

In 1954, doctors at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, John Enders and Thomas Peebles, succeeded in isolating the smallpox virus, which enabled them to develop a vaccine called “Edmonston-B”.  After mass testing, the vaccine was declared 100 percent effective in 1961 and was approved for use in 1963.

Later, in 1971, scientist Maurice Hileman created the MMR vaccine – a combined vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. In 2005, the varicella vaccine was added to it and the MMRV vaccine was made.

What is the MMR vaccine?

The MMR is a combined vaccine made from weakened viruses that cause measles, mumps and rubella and is intended to prevent these diseases from occurring. Vaccination with this vaccine in Serbia is carried out in children aged 12 to 15 months, and revaccination before starting primary school. Serological studies have shown that 99 percent of people who received two doses of the vaccine developed adequate immunity to these diseases. Common reactions that can occur after receiving the MMR vaccine are pain at the injection site, elevated temperature, and mild rash.

Smallpox normally has a high degree of infection, and 95 percent of the community must acquire immunity to prevent the occurrence of an epidemic. Deaths from measles continue to occur, especially in countries that do not implement regular immunization programs. For example, according to the data of the organization Doctors Without Borders, from 2018 to 2020, about 8,000 children died of smallpox in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For years now, numerous claims have been spreading on social networks that compromise and cause concern about the MMR vaccine. Certainly, the most famous claim is that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children. However, there is no evidence for these claims, which, according to the WHO, is confirmed by numerous studies conducted on large populations.

Concerns about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism, as explained on the WHO website, stemmed from a 1998 study. Later, serious flaws and untruths were discovered in this paper, which was retracted, and the doctor who published it lost his license.

“Unfortunately, the publication of the study caused fear that led to a drop in immunization rates in some countries and subsequent outbreaks of these diseases”, the WHO said.

In Serbia, the percentage of vaccinated people is below what is needed to acquire collective immunity

In order to acquire collective immunity, 95 percent of children need to be vaccinated. Last year, according to UNICEF, only 81 percent of children were vaccinated in Serbia.

“Due to the low coverage of vaccination, Serbia is the fifth most threatened country in Europe when it comes to smallpox”, warned the director of UNICEF in Serbia, Dejana Kostadinova, in April.

At the beginning of this year, a smallpox epidemic occurred in Smederevo, and 90 percent of the affected children did not receive the MMR vaccine, according to the authorities.

Radio Free Europe announced at the beginning of this year that the Balkan countries have a lower percentage of people vaccinated with the MMR vaccine than the average in the European Union, which in 2021 was about 91 percent of those vaccinated. That same year, Montenegro had the lowest percentage in the world when it comes to children vaccinated with the first dose of MMR – only 18 percent.