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On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her "expertise" at the antivaccine "Green Our Vaccines" rally in Washington, DC in 2008

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her “expertise” at the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science, and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Personal Belief Exemptions for Vaccines

vaccinationRates

Click to enlarge

Positive change not only requires a valid argument, it requires political will. My colleagues and I have been pointing out for years that vaccines are safe and effective, and the anti-vaccine movement, which is built largely on misinformation, threatens the public health by eroding herd immunity. These arguments are no more valid today than they were five or ten years ago (except that new scientific evidence continues to support our conclusion).

We also predicted that it will likely take the significant return of vaccine-preventable diseases to muster the political will to effectively push back against the anti-vaccine movement. Parents need to be more afraid of infectious disease than the false fearmongering surrounding vaccines. We, of course, did not want this to happen, we just thought this was a likely scenario.

I did not think, however, that it would be so sudden and dramatic. The Disneyland measles outbreak created an undeniable media and popular backlash against the anti-vaccine movement. Recent evidence for this is the Jimmy Kimmel segment in which he blasted anti-vaxxers and showed a fake PSA in which real doctors express their frustration over vaccine refusers. Anti-vaxxers replied with their usual shrill nonsense, comparing Kimmel’s statements to hate speech and falsely accusing him of attacking autistic children. Kimmel responded with still more ridicule, making a mockery of anti-vaxxer tweets attacking him. Being the butt of late night comedian jokes is a reasonable sign of popular backlash.

Popular opinion, which is turning against vaccine refusers for threatening the public health, translates into political will. In the case of vaccines there is a specific focus for this political will – state laws allowing exemptions from the requirement for children to be up to date on their vaccines in order to attend public school.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Pseudoscience North: What’s happening to the University of Toronto?

Trojan Rabbit

 

Today’s post is a reluctant challenge. I’m nominating my own alma mater, the University of Toronto, as the new pseudoscience leader among large universities – not just in Canada, but all of North America. If you can identify a large university promoting or embracing more scientifically questionable activities, I’ll happily buy you a coffee. Yes, it’s personal to me, as I have two degrees from U of T. But I’m more concerned about the precedent. If Canada’s largest university is making decisions that appear to lack a careful consideration of the scientific evidence, then what does that suggest about the scientific standards for universities in Canada? (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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How not to report about vaccine safety issues, Toronto Star edition

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star's scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to "Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine."

This is the original headline of the Toronto Star‘s scientifically incompetent and fear mongering Gardasil story. It was later changed to “Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine.”

I remember it well, because several of my readers forwarded it to me not long after it appeared on the website of the Toronto Star: An eye-catching headline proclaiming a “wonder drug’s dark side,” that “wonder drug” being Gardasil, one of two vaccines against the human papilloma virus (HPV) designed to prevent cervical cancer by preventing infection with the HPV virus. The story’s caption blared:

Hundreds of thousands of teen girls in Canada have safely taken Gardasil, a vaccine shown to prevent HPV. But a Star investigation has found that since 2008 at least 60 Canadians have experienced debilitating illnesses after inoculation. Patients and parents say the incidents point to the importance of full disclosure of risks.

There was even a video that would have been right at home on a variety of antivaccine websites, such as Age of Autism, SafeMinds, or VaxTruth:

Indeed, the video above reminded me more than anything else, of a segment from the antivaccine “documentary” that functions as antivaccine propaganda, The Greater Good, which portrays as one of its vaccine “victims” Gabi Swank, a girl whose story is not unlike that of Kaitlyn Armstrong, the teen profiled by the Star. Both girls had a deterioration of their health that appears to have happened sometime after receiving Gardasil. Both attribute their health issues to Gardasil. Neither story was examined with even a modicum of skepticism or critical thinking. In fact, part of the reason I recognized immediately how bad the Star story was derives from my previous experience examining similar stories promoted by the particularly vociferous wing of the antivaccine movement that focuses on the perceived “evils” of Gardasil. That’s something we expect from an antivaccine propaganda film like The Greater Good. We expect better from investigative journalists like David Bruser and Jesse McLean. We don’t get it.

I had meant to blog about this incident because the Star story was such a horrendously bad story from a scientific perspective, but, blogging being what it is, other topics intruded and for some reason I never got back to this topic. Over the last 11 days, however, the criticism and inept responses kept percolating along, as you will see, involving a clueless editor who lashed out at critics, a public editor who just didn’t “get it,” and a newspaper that took far too long to admit that it had screwed up epically and only then after sliming its critics. Fortunately, an excellent analysis in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik provided me with an “in” to do the post I had wanted to do before. How the Toronto Star wrote the story is an object lesson in how not to do a vaccine safety story, and how it responded to reasonable criticism was an even more pointed lesson in how not to deal with scientific critics.

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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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What do we do about politicians and physicians who promote antivaccine misinformation?

Given the ongoing (and increasing) measles outbreak linked initially to Disneyland, it’s hard for me not to revisit the topic from time to time. This time around, there are two issues I wish to discuss, one political and one that is a combination of medical and political. After all, it was just one week ago when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stepped in it by advocating parental choice in vaccines, as if parents don’t already have a choice. He rapidly had to walk it back, and his ill-considered remarks were almost certainly not evidence that he is antivaccine. They are, however, evidence that he doesn’t understand that we do not have “forced vaccination” in this country (we have school vaccine mandates). Parents already have choice in 48 states, given that only two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) do not allow belief-based non-medical exemptions, be they religious exemptions, personal belief-exemptions, or both, to school vaccine mandates. It also came out that in 2009 while running for Governor, Christie met with Louise Kuo Habakus (who is antivaccine) and the NJ Coalition for Vaccine Choice, a very vocal NJ antivaccine coalition whose member organization list reads like a who’s who of the national antivaccine movement and includes Life Health Choices, the antivaccine organization founded by Habakus. He even wrote a letter promising that as governor he would stand with them in “their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

It’s also evidence that vaccine mandates are becoming even more politicized. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul, on the very same day, provided more such evidence when he claimed on a conservative talk radio show that he’s seen children with severe neurological problems after vaccination, the implication being that he believed these children’s problems were linked to vaccination. Later, in a testy exchange with a CNBC reporter, who asked him whether he had really said that he thought vaccines should be voluntary, Paul sarcastically replied, “I guess being for freedom would be unusual.” Later in the exchange, after repeating the same antivaccine talking points that he had related earlier in the day, he said, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” You get the idea. He, too, ultimately had to back off a bit, famously showing himself getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, but given that Paul has had a long history of making similar comments, this was almost certainly strategic.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Religion, Vaccines

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Do two half-truths add up to a complete truth or a complete falsehood?

olivia-twenty-dahl

I swear that the evidence that I shall give, shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

The interwebs are not a court of law, that is for sure. The whole truth. Interesting idea. I have no idea how applicable Godel’s theorems are outside of mathematics, but from a practical point knowledge is always incomplete. There is too much to know and too little time and brain power to acquire perfect knowledge of a topic.

It is why medicine is a challenge. You have to synthesize all the available data, which is often incomplete. You have to decide what is quality information, what is not, and why, and how a given study or fact fits into the overall picture, on the continuous asymptotic journey towards unobtainable total knowledge. But you try for the whole truth, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Half-truths, partial stories, can be hard to challenge. In part because, well, they are half-true. They have an air of truthiness. It is perhaps much easier to counter an out-and-out lie. Well, maybe not. I’m thinking Wakefield here. I suspect that in having to admit that half-truths have some validity, it renders them more believable.

The world of pseudo-medicine, and pseudo-science, is filled with half-truths. I wonder when I read these half-truths whether the author is deliberately avoiding all the information, especially since the rest of the story often results in the weakening the impact of the half-truth. Paul Harvey could have had a field day with the anti-vaccine literature.

One of the greatest challenge facing young people today, is the large scale availability of half truth’s and manipulated facts
– Oche Otorkpa, The Unseen Terrorist

Influenza

Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.
– Author unknown

Take “Do Not Believe Everything You Read About Flu Deaths” from the October, 2014 Journal of Advanced Practice Nursing. As best I can tell this is a peer reviewed journal. You know, “peer“, as in “to appear partially or dimly.”

I imagine someone squinting over the top of their glasses at the manuscript, muttering, “that ‘peers to be a paper about influenza deaths. Let’s publish it.”
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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Hot-Zone Schools and Children at Risk: Shedding light on outbreak-prone schools

The subject of parental vaccine refusal and the impact that has on disease outbreaks has been covered many times on SBM and elsewhere. I apologize to our readers who are growing tired of the subject, but there is perhaps no subject more deserving of focus and repetition. There’s also an important angle to the discussion that I’ve written on previously and which deserves more attention, and that is the importance of the pro-vaccine parent voice, and the need for that voice to be heard.

It never ceases to amaze me how few of the parents I know think about the risk to their own children from vaccine-exempt children in their schools and communities. Even parents who do think about this rarely seem concerned enough to speak up or even discuss it with others, let alone become active in doing something about it. With the rise in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, including the current high-profile Disneyland measles outbreak, and the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California, the tide seems at least to be turning slightly. The dramatic impact that vaccine refusal and the resultant decline in herd-immunity can have on a community is now penetrating the public consciousness. My hope is that parental awareness and outrage grow regarding the flagrant disregard of science, common sense, and citizenship exhibited by those parents who refuse to properly vaccinate their children. My hope is that the culture of tolerance of this intolerable anti-science threat begins to turn, and that it is no longer seen as acceptable for some parents to put the safety of others at risk.

Which brings me to the focus of this post. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Legal, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The Disneyland measles outbreak: “Dr. Bob” Sears says measles isn’t that bad, and an antivaccine activist invokes the Brady Bunch fallacy

Editor’s note: There is an extra special bonus guest post today in addition to my regular post. It’s by Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist, and it’s about unregulated stem cell clinics. Be sure to check it out!


BradyBunch

Last week, I wrote about a rather impressive measles outbreak at the “happiest place on earth,” a.k.a. Disneyland. At the time I wrote that post, the outbreak, which had reached several states, had spread to 17 people. As I sat down to write this, I wasn’t actually sure that this topic needed another post, but then I saw this:

As the number of measles cases continues to rise in Southern California following an outbreak at Disneyland last month, about two dozen unvaccinated students at one Orange County high school have been forced to stay home after a classmate contracted the disease.

In a message to students and parents at Huntington Beach High School on Thursday, Pamela Kahn, health and wellness coordinator at the Orange County Department of Education, said that students “who do not have any documented [measles, mumps and rubella] immunizations will be excluded from attending school until January 29.”

Also, the number of confirmed measles cases has climbed to 52, 46 of them in southern California. In Orange County itself, there were 16 cases as of Friday, ten of them linked to Disneyland, the rest not, a finding that’s led health officials to conclude that “measles has become more widespread throughout the county.” Not surprisingly, health officials in Californian are warning that the number is likely to go higher still. In fact, it’s already happening as “satellite” outbreaks are being reported as children infected at Disneyland come home and infect others.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Say it ain’t so, Mickey! A holiday measles outbreak makes the happiest place in the world sad

disneyland

Last week, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” wasn’t so happy.

One of the disadvantages of posting once a week is that, unless I muscle in on someone else’s day I can’t respond rapidly to stories that appear early. Of course the flip side of that is that if a story appears over the weekend it’s all mine, and, besides, I have my not-so-super-secret other blog to respond to issues that occur earlier in the week. Another advantage is that, if I do decide to write about something from earlier in the week, I have the advantage of time to think.

You’ve probably figured out that what I’m referring to is the latest measles outbreak. Not surprisingly, it happened in the Los Angeles area. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), it happened at Disneyland. I say “not surprisingly” because it’s been well-publicized over the last few years that there are pockets of low vaccine uptake and high personal belief exemptions in California, complete with measles and pertussis outbreaks. This is thanks to pockets of affluent, entitled parents full of the Dunning-Kruger effect who think that they can learn as much about vaccines and autism via Google University as pediatricians and researchers who have devoted their entire professional careers to studying them. Of course, these parents are also facilitated by pediatricians who cater to their fears, the most famous of whom is Dr. Bob Sears, whose The Vaccine Book is a very popular, reasonable-sounding (to parents not aware of the antivaccine tropes within) bit of antivax lite, but there is also our old buddy Dr. Jay Gordon and a host of others.

So what happened at Disneyland? On January 7, the California Department of Public Health confirmed seven measles cases:
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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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No, the HPV vaccine does not cause promiscuity

Vaccine Smile

Today’s post isn’t about the flu vaccine, but that vaccine played a part in bringing you today’s topic. It seems that this year’s vaccine is a mediocre match for the circulating strains of influenza, and I was one of the unlucky ones in whom it didn’t appear to provide much protection. After spending several days effectively bedridden, I still feel like I’m emerging from a cognitive fog. So today’s post will be short. In the midst of my own infection, the results of a new study were announced that examined the effects of HPV vaccination on indicators of sexual behaviour in adolescent girls. I admit to being a bit dumbfounded by the topic when I heard it, and I initially thought I had heard the research question incorrectly. After all, the answer seemed (to me) so clearly self-evident, I questioned if this was an ineffective use of research dollars. This question seemed as pertinent as continuing to study the relationship between vaccines and autism: there is little reason to think there would be any causal relationship. But surveys of parents show this is a real concern for some. And now we have an answer grounded in real-world evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Vaccines

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