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When you can’t win on science, invoke the law…

Late last week, the anti-vaccine underground was all atwitter. The reason was the announcement of an impending press conference, scheduled for yesterday at noon in Washington, DC that proclaimed:

Investigators and Families of Vaccine-Injured Children to Unveil Report Detailing Clear Vaccine-Autism Link Based on Government’s Own Data

Report Demands Immediate Congressional Action

Directors of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA), parents and vaccine-injured children will hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (717 Madison Place, NW in Washington, DC) on Tuesday, May 10 at 12:00 PM to unveil an investigation linking vaccine injury to autism. For over 20 years, the federal government has publicly denied a vaccine-autism link, while at the same time its Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) has been awarding damages for vaccine injury to children with brain damage, seizures and autism. This investigation, based on public, verifiable government data, breaks new ground in the controversial vaccine-autism debate.

The investigation found that a substantial number of children compensated for vaccine injury also have autism. The government has asserted that it “does not track” autism among the vaccine-injured. Based on this preliminary investigation, the evidence suggests that autism is at least three times more prevalent among vaccine-injured children than among children in the general population.

I could hardly wait.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Chemical castration of autistic children leads to the downfall of Dr. Mark Geier

One of the most persistent myths is one that’s been particularly and doggedly resistant to evidence, science, clinical trials, epidemiology, and reason. It’s also a myth that I’ve been writing about a long time. Specifically, I’m referring to the now scientifically discredited myth that the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in quite a few childhood vaccines causes autism. The myth began in the late 1990s and was later fed by the publication of David Kirby’s book Evidence of Harm, which was basically a paean to various brave maverick doctors who promoted the claim that mercury in vaccines cause autism. Among the “scientists” promoted by David Kirby were the father-son team of Mark and David Geier. Mark Geier is a physician who also has a PhD and represents himself as a medical geneticist; his son David has no medical degree, leading to my wondering from the very beginning how it was that he got away with helping his father evaluate and treat autistic children, in essence practicing medicine without a license.

The Geiers are most infamous for their “Lupron protocol,” which I first learned about back in 2006. As I wrote about it in 2009, when the mainstream media finally noticed the Geiers’ dubious medicine and how they were franchising it to different states, it was chemical castration for autism. The short version is that, somehow some way, Mark Geier got the idea in his head that testosterone contributes to autism. That in and of itself isn’t woo, given that scientists have from time to time hypothesized that very thing. What made the Geiers’ conclusions pseudoscience is their explanation. Basically, Geier claimed that testosterone binds mercury from vaccines, making it more “toxic” to the brain and also making it harder to get rid of the mercury using chelation therapy. Never mind that the only paper showing testosterone binding to mercury did it in benzene (hint: your blood is not benzene) under extreme conditions. What was worse, however, was the Geiers’ “solution” to this problem, which was to add to the autism quackery known as chelation therapy another potentially harmful form of quackery, namely chemical castration using Lupron, a drug that shuts down the production of sex hormones, including testosterone. It’s a drug that’s used to treat metastatic prostate cancer, a treatment that replaced the old treatment for metastatic prostate cancer, namely surgical castration. (Not coincidentally, it’s also used to chemically castrate sex offenders.) Even worse still, the Geiers somehow got away with a highly unethical clinical trial in which they packed the Institutional Review Board overseeing it with their cronies, going merrily on their way offering an unethical “clinical trial” untouched and seemingly untouchable.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Vaccines and infant mortality rates: A false relationship promoted by the anti-vaccine movement

The anti-vaccine movement is a frequent topic on the Science-Based Medicine blog. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that the anti-vaccine movement is one of the most dangerous forms of pseudoscience, a form of quackery that, unlike most forms of quackery, endangers those who do not partake of it by breaking down herd immunity and paving the way for the resurgence of previously vanquished diseases. However, anti-vaccine beliefs share many other aspects with other forms of quackery, including the reliance on testimonials rather than data. Even so, although the intelligentsia (and I do use the term loosely) of the anti-vaccine movement realizes and exploits the power of anecdotes and testimonials and how human beings tend to value such stories over dry scientific data, leaders of the anti-vaccine movement realize that science is overwhelmingly against them and that testimonials alone are not adequate to counter that science in the realm of public policy and relations.

That’s why, over the years, various anti-vaccine “scientists” (and I use that term very loosely as well) have produced poor quality, sometimes even fraudulent studies, which are then touted as evidence that vaccines cause autism or at least as evidence that there is actually still a scientific controversy when in fact from a scientific standpoint the vaccine-autism hypothesis is pining for the fjords. Examples abound, including the work of Mark and David Geier, whose studies led the to use chemical castration to treat autistic children; Andrew Wakefield, whose small case series almost certainly included fraudulent data; a truly incompetent “phone survey” commissioned by Generation Rescue designed to compare “vaxed versus unvaxed” children; and an even more incompetent “study” in which Generation Rescue used a cherry picked group of nations to try to argue that nations that require more vaccines have higher rates of infant mortality. These efforts continue. For example, last year Generation Rescue requested $809,721 from the Airborne settlement to set up a “vaxed versus unvaxed” study, despite the known difficulties with such a study and the low likelihood of finding anything without huge numbers of children.

Last week, they were at it again.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Vaccines

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“Motivated reasoning,” alternative medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement

One theme that we at Science-Based Medicine keep revisiting again and again is not so much a question of the science behind medical therapies (although we do discuss that issue arguably more than any other) but rather a question of why. Why is it that so many people cling so tenaciously to pseudoscience, quackery, and, frequently, conspiracy theories used by believers to justify why various pseudoscience and quackery are rejected by mainstream science and medicine? Certainly, I’ve touched on this issue before on several occasions, for example, with respect to the anti-vaccine movement, the claim that abortion causes breast cancer, and how we as humans crave certainty.

It turns out that science and science-based medicine are hard for humans to accept because they often conflict with what our senses perceive and brains interpret as irrefutable evidence. The pattern-seeking function of our brain, when evaluating questions of causation in medicine, frequently betrays us. For instance, when a parent sees her child regress into autism sometime not long after being vaccinated, the easiest, most instinctive, and most emotionally compelling conclusion is that the vaccine must have had something to do with it. When scientists tell her that, no, in large studies looking at hundreds of thousands of children, there is no good evidence that vaccination confers an increased risk of autism and a lot of evidence that it does not, it’s a very hard message to believe, because it goes against how the parent interprets what she’s seen with her own eyes. Indeed, how often have we seen believers in the vaccine-autism link pour derision on the concept that when something like autistic regression happens in close temporal proximity to vaccination that the correlation does not necessarily equal causation? Similarly, believers in “alternative medicine” who experience improvement in their symptoms also pour derision on the observation, explained so well by R. Barker Bausell in Snake Oil Science, that people frequently take remedies when their symptoms are at their worst, leading them to attribute natural regression to the mean to whatever nostrum they started taking at the time.

These issues have come to the fore again, thanks to an article by an acquaintance of mine, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum). The article appeared in a recent issue of Mother Jones and was entitled, rather ironically, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris made his name as an author primarily in writing about the science of anthropogenic global warming and the political battles over policies intended to mitigate it and, to a lesser extent, over creationism and evolution denial. Of late he has written about the anti-vaccine movement as an anti-science movement, leading predictably to his being attacked by the likes of J.B. Handley as viciously as I and others have. Also of note, although he was widely praised for The Republican War on Science and Storm World, Mooney has been widely criticized in some circles for being too critical of “new atheists” and for lack of substance. In his current article, he discusses some of the science thus far about why people can cling to beliefs that science doesn’t just cast doubt upon but shows convincingly are totally wrong.
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Posted in: Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The curious case of Poul Thorsen, fraud and embezzlement, and the Danish vaccine-autism studies

If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement, it’s all about the ad hominem attack. Failing to win on science, clinical trials, epidemiology, and other objective evidence, with few exceptions, anti-vaccine propagandists fall back on attacking the person instead of the evidence. For example, as I’ve noted numerous times, Paul Offit has been the subject of unrelenting attacks from Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, having been dubbed “Dr. Proffit” and accused of being so in the pocket of big pharma that he’ll do and say anything for it. I personally have been accused by Jake Crosby of a conflict of interest that isn’t, based on conspiracy mongering and an utterly brain dead argument (which is much like every other argument Jake likes to make on this issue). Steve Novella, Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, Trine Tsouderos, and others were portrayed as cannibals sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast of baby. Meanwhile, anti-vaccine luminaries invoke the pharma shill gambit with abandon and try their best to smear journalists who write about how anti-vaccine views are endangering herd immunity, journalists such as Trine Tsouderos, Amy Wallace, Chris Mooney, and Seth Mnookin, to name a few.

Sometimes, however, for whatever reason karma, fate, God, or whatever you want to call it smiles on anti-vaccine activists, dropping a story into their laps that allow them to indulge the worst of their tendencies towards ad hominem attacks and seem superficially credible. So it was about a year ago when an financial fraud investigation was being undertaken in the case of Poul Thorsen, a Danish investigator who had contributed to two large Danish studies, one of which failed to find an association between the MMR and autism in the immediate wake of Andrew Wakefield’s falsified data suggesting such an assocation and one of which failed to find an association between mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines and an increased incidence of autism. At the time longstanding anti-vaccine propagandist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. tore into Thorsen with abandon before he was even indicted or charged (he was only under investigation at the time) as though, even if he actually did commit fraud, such fraud invalidated the two large studies regarding MMR and autism and thimerosal and autism with which he had been involved. Did it?

To find out, let’s hop into our SBM TARDIS and go back in time about a year, in order to see the genesis of this manufactorversy that AoA is currently flogging. Let’s look at the case of Danish investigator Poul Thorsen as it developed.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Anti-vaccine propaganda from Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News

I’m not infrequently asked why the myth that vaccines cause autism and other anti-vaccine myths are so stubbornly resistant to the science that time and time again fails to support them. Certainly useful celebrity idiots like Jenny McCarthy are one reason. So, too, are anti-vaccine propaganda websites and blogs such as Age of Autism and anti-vaccine organizations like Generation Rescue, the National Vaccine Information Center, and SafeMinds and the organizations that publish them. However, these are clearly not the only reason. Alone, these people and organizations are in general quite rightly viewed as fringe, although they are very popular among the anti-vaccine movement. It is when such groups find a willing conduit for their pseudoscience in the “mainstream media” that they see the opportunity to attain a degree of seeming respectability that they can’t achieve on their own based on science. Worse, when mainstream news organizations or reporters fall for the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism, they contribute to the persistence of this myth outside the activist core of the anti-vaccine movement in the public at large.

In the past, anti-vaccine activists tried to accomplish this with the help of formerly respectable journalists such as David Kirby and Dan Olmsted, the former of whom wrote Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Mystery and the latter of whom wrote and promoted the Age of Autism series when he was an editor at UPI. However, although Kirby was never really that prominent or trusted, Olmsted was an editor of UPI. Now that he’s given up his UPI gig to become full time editor of AoA and to team up with Mark Blaxill to write a book (Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine and a Manmade Epidemic) that regurgitated all the old misinformation about thimerosal and autism in a way that’s so 2005, Olmsted’s lost all credibility as a serious reporter. That’s a good thing.

The bad thing is that he has a replacement. Or at least so it would appear.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Join Trine Tsouderos for a web chat with Dr. Paul Offit

Here’s something for you all to check out. Trine Tsouderos, the journalist from The Chicago Tribune who’s distinguished herself as being one of the few reporters who “gets it” when it comes to quackery and the anti-vaccine movement (just put her name in the search box of this blog for some examples) will be hosting a web chat about vaccines featuring none other than Dr. Paul Offit, one of the gutsiest (if not the gutsiest) defender of vaccine science out there. The chat will occur here at noon CDT today. Questions can be submitted in advance to Tsouderos at ttsouderos@tribune.com.

Head on over, everyone. The anti-vaccine movement is clearly out in force in the comments. Although the usual intrepid defenders of science are there, reinforcements are always welcome.

Posted in: Announcements, Vaccines

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Triskaidekaphobia times two.

There is germaphobia, the fear of germs. Or Germans.  One of the two. Oddly, I do not fear most germs, despite my daily reminders as to how destructive these wee beasties can be.   I recognize their limits and my immunologic strengths and know I have more to fear from cars or unsaturated fats than E. coli or influenza.

There is also a fear of vaccines, the too many too soon that is said to be at the heart, or maybe the left atrial appendage, of one of the imaginary problems with vaccines.  There are, by my counting, 5 live attenuated viruses and 21 different antigens in the vaccine schedule by age 6, for a total of 26 or twice thirteen.  Some fear those antigens and viruses, making it a  triskaidekaphobia times two (1).

From my perspective the paltry quantity of antigens children receive with the vaccine schedule are, when compared to the enormity of antigens in the environment, a rounding error.  We are awash in bacteria, fungi, viruses and an enormous number of environmental organisms.  I think of each of us like Pig-Pen, but instead of dirt, we are in a cloud of micro-organisms.

Our immune systems, contrary to the opinions of the unimaginative who direct scorn and derision at Dr. Offit, can cope.  As discussed, we have a ability to stave off the phenomenal number of organisms that would just as soon use us as the ultimate supersized meal.  Of course, it is not all the immune system that keeps the wee beasties away.  Being warmer than ambient temperature helps.  Understanding disease epidemiology, hygiene and the prn malum q 24 h also keeps the doctor away. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Supreme Court Saves Nation’s Immunization Program

The Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling the other day that has profound implications for the health of millions of children. Since October 12, 2010, The Court has been quietly deliberating the case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, inc. The case centers on Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz’s allegation that their 18 year old daughter, Hannah, was irreversibly injured by a DTP vaccine she received when she was 6 months old. What is important about this case is not the allegation itself (I will discuss its merits, or lack thereof, in a moment), but the ramifications the ruling has for the future of childhood immunization in this country. The Supreme Court’s ruling against the Bruesewitz’s and in favor of the U.S. vaccination program was the right one, and safeguards our children from the irrationality of the anti-vaccine movement. Some important background is necessary here to understand why this is so.

Prior to the development of effective vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis were common diseases, terrifyingly familiar to all parents. Death records from Massachusetts during the latter half of the 1800’s indicate that diphtheria caused 3-10% of all deaths. In the first part of the 20th century, these dreaded organisms still caused illness in hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States. These are devastating diseases which, if not resulting in death, often produced severe and permanent damage to those afflicted. In the 1920’s, vaccines against each of these scourges were finally developed, and in the mid 1940’s the combined DTP vaccine was introduced. The vaccines were so effective that cases of these deadly infections were practically eliminated. Today, few parents know the terror once routinely wrought by these pathogens.

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Posted in: Legal, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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