The antivaccine movement and conspiracy theories go together like beer and Buffalo wings, except that neither are as good as, yes, beer and Buffalo wings. (Maybe it’s more like manure and compost.) In any case, the antivaccine movement is rife with conspiracy theories. I’ve heard and written about more than I can remember right now, and I’m under no illusion that I’ve heard anywhere near all of them. Indeed, it seems that every month I see a new one.
There is, however, a granddaddy of conspiracy theories among antivaccinationists, or, as it’s been called, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. That conspiracy theory postulates that “they” (in the U.S, the CDC) have known for a long time that vaccines cause autism, but “they” are covering it up. In other words, the CDC has, according to this conspiracy theory, been intentionally hiding and suppressing evidence that antivaccinationists were right all along and vaccines do cause autism. Never mind what the science really says (that vaccines do work don’t cause autism)! To the antivaccine contingent, that science is “fraudulent” and the CDC knew it! Why do you think that the antivaccine movement, in particular Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., went full mental jacket when Poul Thorsen was accused of financial shenanigans (i.e., fraud) with grant money from the federal government? It was a perfect story to distract from the inconvenient lack of science supporting the antivaccine view that vaccines cause autism. More importantly, from the antivaccine standpoint, it was seen as “validation” that the CDC studies failing to find a link between autism and vaccines were either fraudulent or incompetently performed. Why? Because Thorsen was co-investigator on a couple of the key studies that failed to find a link between the MMR and autism, antivaccinationists thought that his apparent financial fraud must mean that he committed scientific fraud. They’re the same thing, right? Well, not really. There were a lot of co-investigators, and Thorsen was only a middle author on those studies.
A while back I wrote about rethinking how we screen for breast cancer using mammography. Basically, the USPSTF, an independent panel of physicians and health experts that makes nonbinding recommendations for the government on various health issues, reevaluated the evidence for routine screening mammography and concluded that for women at normal risk for breast cancer, mammography before age 50 should not be recommended routinely and should be ordered on an individualized basis, and that routine formalized breast self-examination (BSE) should also not be routinely recommended. In addition, for women over 50, it was recommended that they undergo mammography every other year, rather than every year. These recommendations were based on a review of the literature, including newer studies.
To say that these new recommendations caused a firestorm in the breast cancer world is an understatement. The USPSTF was accused of misogyny; opponents of health care reform leapt on them as evidence that President Obama really is preparing “death panels”; and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius couldn’t run away from the guidelines fast enough. Meanwhile, a society I belong to (the American Society of Breast Surgeons) issued a press release accusing the USPSTF of sending us back to the “pre-mammography” days when, presumably women only found breast cancer after it had grown to huge size (just like Europe and Canada, I guess, given that the recommendations for screening there closely mirrors those recommended by the USPSTF). Meanwhile, in the most blatant example of protecting its turf I’ve seen in a very long time, the American College of Radiology went full mental jacket with a press release that was as biased as it was insulting. Meanwhile some physicians even likened the recommendations to going back to being like Africa, Southeast Asia and China as far as breast screening goes in that he actually speculated that he’d now become very busy treating advanced, neglected breast cancers. Unfortunately, as Val pointed out, the communication of the USPSTF guidelines to the public was almost a perfect case study in how not to do it. Even though the science was in general sound and the USPSTF recommendations were in essence close to identical to what other industrialized nations do, they were communicated in just such a way as to produce maximum misunderstanding and misuse for political purposes.
Despite all the hysterical and in some cases disingenuous attacks on the new guidelines, there is one criticism that actually resonates with me because I work at a cancer center in a very urban environment with a large population of African-American women. Last week I heard on NPR this story: