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Autism’s false prophets revealed

appIn the brief time that Science-Based Medicine has existed, I’ve become known as the vaccine blogger of the group. True, Steve Novella sometimes posts about antivaccine pseudoscience and fear-mongering (unlike me, he’s even been directly attacked by David Kirby) and both Mark Crislip and Harriet Hall have each done one post about it, but, at least this far, hands down I’ve done more posts about the misinformation, pseudoscience, and outright quackery spread by antivaccine activists such as J. B. Handley’s Generation Rescue and his recently recruited empty-headed celebrity spokesperson Jenny McCarthy, not to mention a number of others who promote the resurgence of infectious disease by sowing doubts about the safety of the most effective weapon the mind of humans have ever devised against it. Truly, few uses of “alternative” medicine bother me as much as the antivaccine orientation of so much of the movement supporting it, a movement that has also led to all manner of “biomedical” treatments (quackery).

What you might not know is how I developed my interest in this particular area of dangerous pseudoscience. After all, I’m a cancer surgeon and an NIH-funded cancer investigator, not a pediatrician, immunologist, or neurologist. As hard as it is for me to believe, given that it seems today that I’ve always been refuting this nonsense, I only first discovered the antivaccine movement about three and a half years ago. True, I had been a regular on certain Usenet newsgroups for at least four or five years before that and had encountered antivaccinationists there before, but my contact with them online had been sporadic, and they seemed “out there” even in comparison to the usual run-of-the-mill alt-med maven. But then in the spring of 2005 I started to notice in a big way the cadre of pseudoscientists, parents of autistic children, and others who pushed the myth that thimerosal-containing vaccines or vaccines in general cause autism. Oddly enough, it started out with the Huffington Post, of all places. In May 2005, Arianna Huffington started a large group blog, chock full of famous pundits and celebrities writing blog posts. Within three weeks of its formation, I had noticed a very disturbing aspect of the Huffington Post, and that was that it appeared to be providing a major soapbox for antivaccinationists, including a post by Janet Grilo of Cure Autism Now, two posts by that propagandist of antivaccinationists David Kirby (with whom our fearless leader Steve Novella has managed to get into a bit of a tussle), and posts by that Santa Monica pediatrician to the children of the stars, Dr. Jay Gordon, a man who assiduously denies being “antivaccine” but parrots the most blatantly obvious talking points of the antivaccine movement and is currently best known as being the pediatrician for Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan. At the very least, Dr. Gordon is an apologist for the antivaccination movement, and he has become one of the “go-to” guys for the media looking for physicians who are “vaccine skeptics,” making numerous radio and TV appearances to promote his “skepticism.”

The next phase of my “awakening” to just how pervasive antivaccine fearmongering and pseudoscience were came when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote an incredibly dishonest and deceptive screed that got wide coverage in the summer of 2005. His article, called, charmingly enough, Deadly Immunity was a rehash of all the misinformation about thimerosal in vaccines and autism wrapped up with in a bow of conspiracy-mongering worthy of a 9/11 Truther with a penchant for quote-mining that would make a creationist blush. The article appeared simultaneously on Salon.com (which normally doesn’t publish such nonsense) and Rolling Stone, a magazine that really should stay away from science and stick to covering entertainment and politics. It was followed by a media blitz by RFK Jr. and antivaccine propagandist David Kirby, best known for his credulous treatment of the thimerosal/autism link, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, published a few months before RFK, Jr.’s article, and his subsequent activities posting antivaccine nonsense on Huffington Post and, more recently, on the quackery-promoting antivaccine blog Age of Autism.

I’ve alluded to the fact before that I have quite a bit of blogging experience under another guise. Indeed, I’m sure many of the readers here know what that guise is. Suffice it to say that at the time I prefaced a post about RFK, Jr.’s article by saying that Salon.com had “flushed its credibility down the toilet” and referred to the article itself as the “the biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd Salon.com has ever published.” Clearly (and fortunately), I use much less–shall we say?–colorful language on this blog, but I bring this up so that the reader knows where I am coming from. Indeed, since that time in the summer of 2005, I’ve been wondering when scientists, public health officials, and physicians supporting science-based medicine would finally wake up and start to push back against this tide of antivaccine nonsense, which is starting to result in the resurgence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. This year, I’ve seen some hopeful signs, including organizations like Voices for Vaccines and Every Child By Two, as well as other signs of push-back against the antivaccine movement, which, I hate to admit, has been clearly winning the P.R. war. What there hasn’t been yet is a book written from a scientific viewpoint that directly addresses the history of the recent resurgence of the antivaccine movement and refutes the pseudoscience that it promotes.

Until now, that is.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Sometimes science and ethics win out

Yesterday was a good day.It was a good day because it was one of the days that shows that, sometimes, science and ethics do win out after all:

CHICAGO (AP) — A government agency has dropped plans for a study of a controversial treatment for autism that critics had called an unethical experiment on children.

The National Institute of Mental Health said in a statement Wednesday that the study of the treatment — called chelation — has been abandoned. The agency decided the money would be better used testing other potential therapies for autism and related disorders, the statement said.

The study had been on hold because of safety concerns after another study published last year linked a drug used in the treatment to lasting brain problems in rats.Chelation (kee-LAY’-shun) removes heavy metals from the body and is used to treat lead poisoning. Its use as an autism treatment is based on the fringe theory that mercury in vaccines triggers autism — a theory never proved and rejected by mainstream science. Mercury hasn’t been in childhood vaccines since 2001, except for certain flu shots.

But many parents of autistic children are believers in the treatment, and NIMH agreed to test it.The researchers had proposed recruiting 120 autistic children ages 4 to 10 and giving half a chelation drug and the other half a dummy pill. The 12-week test would measure before-and-after blood mercury levels and autism symptoms.The study outline said that failing to find a difference between the two groups would counteract “anecdotal reports and widespread belief” that chelation works.

Except that it wouldn’t have.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Thanks, Jenny McCarthy! Thanks for the measles!

27452983I would like to take this opportunity to echo my co-blogger Steve’s sentiment and thank Jenny McCarthy.

What? You say. Has Gorski completely lost his mind? (Or maybe you used another word besides “mind,” a perhaps not so savory word.) Not really. I just agree with Steve that accomplishment should be recognized, and there’s no doubt that in her year as the new celebrity spokesperson for the antivaccination movement, Jenny McCarthy has pulled off a major coup.

She’s helped reignite a movement that was until her entrance (and especially the entrance of her far more famous boyfriend Jim Carrey, who’s said some things just as breathtakingly dumb as Jenny has) more or less moribund, to the point where it’s now become so effective that measles is coming back far faster than I had thought possible. Between her tireless prosletyzing on Oprah Winfrey’s show that vaccines caused her son’s autism and that “biomedical” quackery can “cure it”; her organizing of a march on Washington, D.C. this summer to push an explicitly antivaccine agenda disguised under the deceptive and disingenuous (but brilliantly Orwellian) slogan “Green Our Vaccines“; her holding celebrity fundraisers (complete with Britney Spears, Hugh Hefner, and Charlie Sheen, yet!); and her fronting WWE events to raise money for Generation Rescue, she’s done it all in a little more than a year. And she’s not resting on her “laurels” (such as they are), either. This September, she will be publishing the followup to her previous book on “healing autism” (with quackery), Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds. No doubt she will again appear with Oprah to fawning acclaim to make the unfounded assertion that vaccines injured her son to make him autistic and that her favored forms of quackery have successfully “healed him.”

In light of these “accomplishments,” it’s only right that we all give Jenny (and Jim) the “thanks” they deserves for their role in bringing the measles back to the U.S.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Peruvian Hamsters and Autism: Cui Bono?

Some people are very invested in the idea that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. They have looked and looked, but have been unable to find enough credible evidence to convince the scientific community. Thimerosal was removed from US vaccines several years ago, and you might have thought that would end the debate. It didn’t. The spotlight has shifted to other countries that still use thimerosal-preserved vaccines, such as Peru.

Anti-vaccine activist David Kirby said,

If thimerosal is one day proven to be a contributing factor to autism, and if U.S. made vaccines containing the preservative are now being supplied the world over, the scope of this potential tragedy becomes unthinkable.

The anti-vaccine website Age of Autism accuses US policy of

[making]…Kirby’s nightmare suggestion a reality. U.S. vaccine manufacturers have continued to ship thimerosal containing vaccine formulations all over the world, in effect offering a defiant double standard of mercury risk for infants from rich countries as compared to poor countries. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Autism and Vaccines: Responding to Poling and Kirby

In response to my NeuroLogica blog post on Monday, David Kirby wrote a response in the Huffington Post and Dr. Jon Poling (father of Hannah Poling) wrote an open letter to me, placed in the comment section and posted at Age of Autism. It seems only polite that I respond to their kind attention.The primary focus of my original post (which I further developed yesterday) was that the media is focusing too much attention on what celebrities and politicians are saying about the controversy surrounding the discredited notion that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. Over the past year Jenny McCarthy (now joined by her boyfriend Jim Carrey) has become the major spokesperson for a movement that, at its core, is anti-vaccine and is dedicated to the scientific opinion that vaccines are toxic and cause autism. Recently actress Amanda Peet joined the fray, professing her belief that vaccines are safe, are not associated with autism, and that parents who do not vaccinate their children are “parasites” for depending on other parents who do. (She later apologized for that remark, calling it “divisive”.)

While I appreciate Amanda Peet’s support, I feel strongly that scientific questions should be handled by the scientific community. Celebrities are great when they support causes – but when they second guess the scientific community and decide to advocate for their own scientific conclusions, they are more likely to cause harm than good. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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When “investigative reporting” becomes anti-vaccine propaganda

Introduction: The following is the text of a letter that I mailed to Bob Sliva, General Manager of WXYZ-TV in Detroit in response to arguably the most biased and incompetent “investigative report” about mercury, vaccines, or autism that I have ever seen. I sent the letter by snail mail, because I was always taught that that gets a station manager’s attention far better than e-mail. My plan was to allow the three days until today for the letter to arrive and then to publish the text of my letter here on SBM as an open letter. After I mailed my letter, I worried that no one would bother to look at links that they had to type in themselves, which is why I wanted to post this as an open letter whose link I could then e-mail to the station.

I also worried that maybe I had been insufficiently polite and persuasive, given that one is always urged not to be too insulting or strident when writing to a media outlet. After all, if I were too strident, Mr. Sliva would find it easy to write me off as a biased crank. I also worried that maybe I should have e-mailed Mr. Wilson first. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson is a serial offender. In 2003 and 2004, he did a series on mercury, vaccines, and autism that credulously parroted all the pseudoscience, distortions, and misinformation that we’ve come to expect from the anti-vaccine movement. About two weeks before the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, my routine monitoring of the anti-vaccine underground turned up references to a story that Wilson was working on about the rally and the thimerosal issue. Believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism described Wilson and his earlier report in glowing terms, which sent up huge red flags to me. The original links no longer function, but, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to find the transcripts of the original reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This “reporting” (if you can call it that) somehow garnered an Emmy Award, showing that an award, even a normally prestigious one, is no guarantee of anything resembling scientific accuracy in reporting.

However, it was Mr. Wilson’s comments and behavior after a post by a friend of mine, Dr. Peter Lipson, that made me realize that dealing directly with Wilson was a waste of time and that I was right to go straight to the General Manager. I’ll show why in an addendum and will also add references to sources that refute Wilson’s one-sided and credulous reporting. It’s funny how such a pit pull of an “investigative journalist” who goes after politicians and others with such tenacity can’t find it in himself to ask even a mildly probing question when interviewing “luminaries” such as Boyd Haley or parents with no scientific background repeating anti-vaccine talking points. In any case, here follows the text of the letter that I sent to Bob Sliva, the Vice President and General Manager of WXYZ-TV:

July 9,2008Bob Sliva
Vice President/General Manager
WXYZ-TV
20777 West Ten Mile Road
Southfield, MI 48037

Dear Mr. Silva:
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Should We Study Chelation for Autism?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) supports doing a study on the effects of oral chelation therapy in autism. The proposal is highly controversial, is drawing criticism from many scientists, but has popular support among parents who believe this type of therapy might help their children with autism. The proposal raises many questions about the ethics of biomedical research.

Chelation and Autism

Chelation therapy is a legitimate FDA approved treatment for heavy metal poisoning. The drugs used for chelation, such as disodium EDTA, bind to heavy metals so that they can be removed from the body. Chelation drugs can be given either orally or intravenously. The treatment is somewhat risky because it can also remove needed electrolytes, like calcium, from the body or causes shifts in the electrolytes that can cause arhythmias and changes in brain function. There are reported cases of cardiac arrest and death due to chelation.

Chelation therapy has a long history of quackery – not for its intended use but for other uses for which there is no evidence. The classic example of this is the use of chelation therapy to treat atherosclerosis to prevent heart disease. This claim persists despite the utter lack of evidence for efficacy and the fact that all proposed mechanisms have been shown to be flawed or false.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”

Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey at Green Our Vaccines

Last week, there was a rally in Washington, D.C. How many people actually attended the rally is uncertain. The organizers themselves claim that 8,500 people attended, while more objective estimates from people not associated with the march put the number at probably less than 1,000. Of course, such wide variations in estimates for the attendance at such events are not uncommon. For my purposes it is irrelevant whether 500 or 8,000 attended because even if the lowest estimate is closer to the true number this march represented the largest march on Washington ever for this particular cause, the previous largest having occurred three years ago.

Fortunately for public health interests, the organizers’ timing was very bad (for them, at least) in that they marched last Wednesday, the very day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. The media were rife with coverage of the history-making nomination of the first African-American as a nominee of a major party, as well as speculation about when and whether Hillary Clinton would concede and endorse Obama. Drowning out most other news, Obama’s nomination led to almost nonexistent news coverage of the rally, aside from a handful of television appearances by one of its celebrity organizers. Its relative lack of success notwithstanding, however, all who support science- and evidence-based medicine should nonetheless remain concerned about this rally, because it was a dagger aimed at the heart of the most effective public health innovation ever conceived by the human mind, an intervention that has arguably saved more lives over the course of human history than every other medical intervention combined. That this dagger turned out to be a toothpick is fortunate indeed but by no means a reason to dismiss the movement that spawned it as irrelevant.

I’m referring, of course, to the antivaccinationist movement, and the rally was known as the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, led by the celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey and organized and funded by Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), Generation Rescue (upon whose board McCarthy now sits), and a panoply of other groups that promulgate the myth that either vaccines containing mercury in the form of their thimerosal preservative or vaccines themselves cause autism.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Monkey business in autism research

NOTE: I had originally planned on posting Part II of a series on cancer screening. However, something came up on Friday that, in my estimation, requires a timely response. I should also inform readers that, because next Monday is a holiday here in the U.S., I haven’t yet decided whether I will be doing a post next week or not. Stay tuned and check back.

I get e-mail.

Sometimes the e-mail is supportive. Other times, as you might imagine, given some of my posts, it is anything but. On Friday afternoon, I happened to notice an e-mail from an “admirer” of mine that said something like this:

You are a complete jack-ass.

- Generation Rescue

Appended to the e-mail was a link to this article on the Age of Autism blog.

Generation Rescue, as you may recall, is an organization that promotes the idea that vaccines cause autism, and this e-mail almost certainly came from the founder and head of GR, a man named J.B. Handley. In case you don’t know who he is, Handley is a man who is, even by the standards of antivaccinationists, incredibly boorish and possessed of a bull-in-a-china shop manner that alienates even some potentially sympathetic people, although parents who believe that vaccines cause autism seem to love him. He is also quite–shall we say?–flexible in his notions of how vaccines cause autism. Until about a year ago, the Generation website stated unequivocally:

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.

About a year ago, it changed to:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

The kind interpretation is that GR was changing its hypothesis given that the data being published consistently and strongly refuted the myth that mercury in vaccines somehow cause autism. In reality, though, it’s fairly clear that GR was pivoting effortlessly to a hypothesis that not only was nearly completely unfalsifiable but also allowed GR to continue to blame vaccines for autism, which is what it’s really about. More recently, as I have pointed out before, antivaccinationist rhetoric has also pivoted even further and equally as effortlessly to blame unspecified “toxins” or “combinations of toxins” in vaccines. Be that as it may, having felt the love, I have to admit that Mr. Handley sure does know how to charm a guy. When he draws my attention to some abstracts so politely, abstracts that he clearly considers to be very important evidence, how can I refuse to take a look? After all, Mr. Handley himself apparently very much wanted to point me in the direction of these three abstracts, and it would be downright churlish of me to deny him and refuse to look at the studies with as open a mind as possible.
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