That there is an “autism epidemic” is taken as a given by those who feel autism has a dominant environmental cause. The Age of Autism blog, for example, bills itself as a, “Daily Web Newspaper of the Autism Epidemic.” The term “epidemic” also implies an environmental factor, such as an infection.
The epidemiology of autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has never supported the conclusion that there is an autism epidemic. There is no doubt that the number of autism diagnoses has increased in the last two decades, but the evidence strongly suggests this increase in an artifact of how autism diagnoses are made, and not representative of a true increase.
Adding to this data, a newly published study looks at autism and ASD prevalence worldwide: “The epidemiology and global burden of autism spectrum disorders“. They found:
In 2010 there were an estimated 52 million cases of ASDs, equating to a prevalence of 7.6 per 1000 or one in 132 persons. After accounting for methodological variations, there was no clear evidence of a change in prevalence for autistic disorder or other ASDs between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, there was little regional variation in the prevalence of ASDs.
EDITOR NOTE: THERE IS AN ADDENDUM, ADDED SEPTEMBER 10.
Besides being a researcher and prolific blogger, I still maintain a practice in breast cancer surgery. It’s one of the more satisfying specialties in oncology because, in the vast majority of cases I treat, I can actually remove the cancer and “cure” the patient. (I use the quotes because we generally don’t like to use that term, given that some forms of breast cancer can recur ten or more years later, but in many cases the term still fits, albeit not as well as we would like.) Granted, I get a little (actually a lot of) help from my friends, so to speak, the multimodality treatment of breast cancer involving surgical oncology, radiation oncology, and medical oncology, but breast cancer that can be cured will be primarily cured with surgery, with chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and radiation therapy working mostly to decrease the risk of recurrence, either local in the breast or distant elsewhere in the body. Through this multimodality approach, breast cancer mortality has actually been decreasing over the last couple of decades.
However, as a breast cancer surgeon, I not infrequently have to deal with many of the common myths that have sprung up around breast cancer. Some are promoted by quacks; others are just myths that sound plausible but aren’t true. (That’s why they persist as myths.) One such myth has been in the news lately, in particular last week; so I thought now was a good time to take a look as any. Besides, I spent most of the weekend out of town visiting my wife’s family, and I didn’t have a lot of time for this post. So this week sticking to something I know well makes sense and inspired me to make like Harriet Hall and Steve Novella and keep my post to a reasonable length for a change. There’s also so much less mucking about on PubMed and Google that way to make sure I’m not missing something, too.
Without a doubt the big medical story of the last week or so has been the ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa, the most deadly in history thus far. Indeed, as of this writing, according to a table of known Ebola outbreaks since 1976 at Wikipedia, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three nations affected thus far, there have been 1,440 cases and 826 deaths. Worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that it is spreading faster in Africa than efforts to control it. In particular, late last week it was announced that two Americans who had been infected with Ebola were going to be flown back to the US, specifically to Emory University, for treatment, a development that ramped up the fear and misinformation about Ebola virus to even greater heights than it had already attained, which, unfortunately, were already pretty high. Indeed, the ever-reliably-histrionic Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com wrote a typically hysterical article “Infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta: Are health authorities risking a U.S. outbreak?” On Saturday, we learned that Dr. Kent Brantly, an aide worker for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity run by Franklin Graham, son of the well-known preacher, Billy Graham, who had been evacuated from Liberia aboard a private air ambulance, had arrived in Georgia.
This latest development inspired medical “experts,” such as Donald Trump, to stoke fear based on the arrival of two infected Americans in the US. For instance, last Friday, after it was first announced that the Ebola-infected Americans would be flown back to the US, Trump tweeted:
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a history of (as the old saying goes) using science as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination. In that way they are typical of ideological groups. They have an agenda, they are very open about their beliefs, and they marshal whatever arguments they can in order to promote their point of view.
Favoring information that supports our current beliefs is a cognitive bias common to Homo sapiens, but ideology tends to take this simple bias to a new level. It can lead to the systematic distortion or denial of science, and render belief systems immune to logic and evidence.
PETA provides us with a nice example of how having an ideological agenda can motivate an individual or a group to embrace dubious science. In an article currently on their website, and making the rounds in social media (this is repeating a claim from at least 2008, but the current article is undated), the group warns: Got Autism? Learn About the Link Between Dairy Products and the Disease. They claim:
The reason why dairy foods may worsen or even cause autism is being debated. Some suspect that casein harms the brain, while others suggest that the gastrointestinal problems so often caused by dairy products cause distress and thus worsen behavior in autistic children.
Saying that “how” dairy harms the brain is being debated implies “that” dairy harms the brain is accepted and not being debated. This is misleading. It is not accepted that dairy harms the brain or is in any way linked to autism, and the evidence is largely against it. (more…)
As I write this post, a large outbreak of mumps is ongoing in Columbus, Ohio. The city, which on average sees a single case each year, has seen over 250 since February. To put things in further perspective, only about 440 cases are normally diagnosed in the entire United States annually. The outbreak began on the campus of Ohio State University, where about 150 cases have been identified, but no information about the index case has been reported thus far.
Although the current outbreak will likely smolder for months, the total number of cases thus far is considerably fewer than the worst of the past decade. A 2009-2010 outbreak in New York and New Jersey ended up affecting about 3,000 people. In 2006, about 6,500 college students throughout the Midwest were infected. It is unlikely we will see these kinds of numbers in Ohio, but even our worst in recent years pale in comparison to those that have occurred in England over the past decade, where there was a peak of about 56,000 documented cases in 2005.
The diagnosis of only a few hundred cases per year is a clear victory of the mumps vaccination program, which started in 1967. Prior to the widespread adoption of the vaccine, 186,000 cases were seen in the United States annually. That works out to a decrease in cases of over 99%. This reduction didn’t occur because of improved sanitation, cleaner water, or even sunspots. It occurred because of the hard work and dedication of vaccine researchers, medical professionals and the widespread public acceptance of a safe and effective vaccine.
Mumps doesn’t get the kind of press that measles outbreaks do. There are a number of reasons why this is true and reasonable. I will get into more detail, but essentially mumps, although it can result in significant morbidity, just isn’t as sexy and it isn’t a good candidate for anti-anti-vaccine poster child. Measles wins in that regard, and let’s hope it stays that way. I am terrified at the thought of HiB meningitis returning. But that doesn’t mean that mumps outbreaks can’t serve as fodder for educating the public on vaccines. First though, a primer on mumps.
There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.
I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.
Parents have a fundamental right to guide the upbringing of their children protected under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This includes the choice of medical care for the child. They also have a First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs, including the right to care for their children in accordance with the tenets of their religion. In a better world, these rights would be exercised in a manner that is consistent with a reasoned selection of medical care among choices supported by the best available scientific evidence. If, for example, deeply religious parents choose to forego a treatment that had only a minimal chance of extending their child’s life and terrible side effects in favor of palliative care because they believe that their child would be better off in heaven we could all agree that their choice is constitutionally protected.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Religious believers and those whose “philosophy” favors pseudoscience in child medical care (surveys bloviating about the popularity of CAM to the contrary) are in fact a tiny minority of the American population who influence public policy in a manner that far exceeds their actual numbers. This influence allows these special interest groups to cause needless suffering and death among children and their families. As well, their actions siphon off medical and legal resources that could more properly be directed toward the common good when states and medical institutions are put in the position of having to go to court to protect children from their parents. And, by giving parents false choices between a belief in magic and standard medical care, unnecessary complications are introduced into what are already difficult and heart-wrenching decisions by parents who truly want to act in the best interests of their children. (more…)
In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.
One of these things is not like the other
Treating a fever with medication like Advil or Tylenol is reflex action when we come down with colds and influenza. But could treating fevers actually worsen an illness and contribute to its spread in the population? That’s the impression you may have gained from the headlines and press last week, where antipyretics (fever-reducing medications) were described as some type of “anti-vaccine”:
Fever-reducing meds encourage spread of flu: McMaster report
Taking over-the-counter flu medication to cut your fever might help you feel better, but it might not be so good for the people you come into contact with.
When it comes to fever, your mother really did know what’s best
Who would have thought that the simple giving of a fever reducing agent, to either one of our family members or ourselves before we go off to school or work, may inadvertently lead to the death of someone that we see that day?
Use of fever-reducing drugs may lead to tens of thousands more influenza cases
The bottom line is that fever suppression increases the number of annual cases by approximately five per cent, corresponding to more than 1,000 additional deaths from influenza in a typical year across North America.
Over my blogging “career,” which now stretches back nearly nine years, and my hobby before that of engaging in online “debates” on Usenet newsgroups back before 2004, I developed an interest in the antivaccine movement. Antivaccinationism, “antivax,” or whatever you want to call it, represents a particularly insidious and dangerous form of quackery because it doesn’t just endanger the children whose parents don’t vaccinate them. It also endangers children who are vaccinated, because vaccines are not 100% effective. The best vaccines have effectiveness rates in the 90%-plus range, but that still leaves somewhere up to 10% of children unprotected. Worse, because herd immunity requires in general approximately 90% of the population and above to be vaccinated against a vaccine-preventable disease to put the damper on outbreaks, it doesn’t take much of a degradation of vaccination rates to put a population in danger of outbreaks. That’s why, even though overall vaccine uptake is high in the US, we still see outbreaks, because there are areas with pockets of nonvaccinators and antivaccinationists who drive vaccine uptake down to dangerous levels. We’ve seen this in California and elsewhere. Other countries have observed even more dramatic examples, the most well-known being the way that fear of the MMR vaccine stoked by Andrew Wakefield’s bad science and the fear mongering of the British press led MMR uptake to plummet. The result? Measles came roaring back in the UK and Europe, from having been considered under control in the 1990s to being endemic again by 2008.
As much as I get chastised by concern trolls for saying this, to antivaccinationists it really is all about the vaccines. Always. They blame autism, other neurodevelopmental conditions, and a wide variety of chronic diseases on vaccines, without evidence that there is even a correlation. They even falsely blame sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) on vaccines, even though there is no evidence of an association and, indeed, existing evidence suggests that vaccines likely have a protective effect against SIDS more than anything else. No matter what happens, no matter what the evidence says, antivaccinationists will always find a way to blame bad things on vaccines, even going so far as to claim at times that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.
One thing, however, that is often forgotten, is that they also do their utmost to downplay the beneficial effects of vaccines. One such tactic is for antivaccinationists to claim that the pertussis vaccine doesn’t work because we are seeing resurgences of pertussis even in the face of high vaccine uptake. For example, another common trope is what I like to refer to as the “vaccines didn’t save us” or the “vaccines don’t work” gambit, in which it is pointed out that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t correlate tightly with drops in mortality from various diseases. Julian Whitaker even used this gambit when he debated Steve Novella. The fundamental flaw in this trope neglects the contribution of better medical care to the survival of more victims of disease, which decreased mortality. If you look at graphs of disease incidence you will see a profound and powerful effect of the introduction of vaccines on specific vaccine-preventable diseases. In other words, vaccines work. (more…)