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Sharyl Attkisson and CBS News: An epic fail in reporting on the murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis

An antivaccine reporter strikes again

The damaged done by the antivaccine movement is primarily in how it frightens parents out of vaccinating using classic denialist tactics of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Indeed, as has been pointed out many times before, antivaccinationists are often proud of their success in discouraging parents from vaccinating, with one leader of the antivaccine movement even going so far as to characterize his antivaccine “community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire,” as being in the “early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.” Meanwhile, just last week Anne Dachel, “media editor” for the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, gloated about basically the same thing, how although overall vaccination rates remain high, vaccine exemption rates are up in many areas of the country and how her movement has provided plenty of information to “scare [parents] out of vaccinating.”

And it is the very same antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, that is promoting a different, more insidious message, specifically how the brutal murder of an autistic teen nearly three months ago “illumines the autism nightmare.” What do I mean by “insidious message”? It’s the hijacking of the autism advocacy movement, which tries to advocate for more services for autistic children and adults and more awareness and understanding of autism, by the antivaccine message that autistic people are somehow “damaged,” be it by vaccines or unnamed “toxins,” that the “real child” has been “stolen” by autism, and that any manner of biomedical quackery to “recover” autistics is justified by the horror of autism. Although Attkisson, the reporter for the story discussed below, never specifically mentions vaccines, if you know the background of the case, that message is quite obvious and not very far under the surface of her report on the murder of Alex Spourdalakis:

Not surprisingly, this story was reported by Sharyl Attkisson, who is CBS News’ resident antivaccine reporter. I’ve known her to promote antivaccine views in a manner that gave Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. a run for his money as far back as 2007. Since then, she’s smeared Paul Offit as a “pharma shill,” very likely fed information to someone at AoA to help them portray Lisa Randall at Voices for Vaccines as an “industry group,” done a puff piece about antivaccine physician and hero to the antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield, and misreported the significance of the Hannah Poling case (which was really just the rebranding of autism). Most recently, Attkisson promoted a truly execrable “review article” summarizing the evidence relating vaccines to autism. The review article, by Helen Ratajczak, cited lots of pseudoscience from antivaccine literature in the service of supporting a truly dumb hypothesis, namely that DNA from vaccines could recombine in the brains of children to result in autism. Attkisson was quite smitten with the idea. As you might imagine, I was not. Along the way, Attkisson also indulged in promoting breast cancer misinformation. No wonder she is the perfect reporter to do this story promoting the viewpoint that autism is so horrible and the system provides so little help that we should understand why a mother like Alex’s might become so desperate that she would poison her son and then, when that failed to kill him, try to slash his wrist, and then, when that failed, stab him in the heart with a kitchen knife.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis by his mother and caregiver: What happened?

Editor’s note: This is an extra “bonus” post. Basically, it’s a revised version of a post I did at my not-so-super-secret-other-blog last week. The issue, however, has disturbed me so much that I felt it appropriate to post it to SBM as well. Fear not. There will be a new post by yours truly on Monday.

Sometimes, in the course of blogging, I come across a story that I don’t know what to make of. Sometimes, it’s a quack or a crank taking a seemingly science-based position. Sometimes it’s something out of the ordinary. Other times, it’s a story that’s just weird, such that I strongly suspect that something else is going on but can’t prove it. So it was a few months ago when I came across the story of Alex Spourdalakis, a 14-year-old autistic boy who became a cause célèbre of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism.

I first noticed the story in early March when perusing AoA and came across a post by Lisa Goes entitled Day 19: Chicago Hospital Locks Down Autistic Patient. In the post was a shocking picture of a large 14-year-old boy in a a hospital bed in four-point restraints. He was naked, except for a sheet covering his genitals. A huge gash was torn in the bedsheet, revealing the black vinyl of the hospital bed beneath. The boy’s name, we were informed, was Alex Spourdalakis. Further down in the post was another, equally shocking, picture of Alex that, according to Goes, showed severe dermatitis on Alex’s back due to the hospital sheets. The photos shocked me for two reasons. First, if the story was as advertised (something always to be doubted about any story posted at AoA), for once I thought that I might be agreeing with Goes and thinking that AoA was actually doing a good thing, as disconcerting as that possibility was to me. Second, however, I was extremely disturbed by the publication of such revealing photos of the boy. Undoubtedly, Alex’s mother must have given permission. What kind of mother posts pictures like that of her son for all the world to see? Then there appeared a Facebook page, Help Support Alex Spourdalakis, which pled for readers to help the Spourdalakis family.

As I said, something just didn’t seem right at the time.
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Posted in: Legal, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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“Piltdown medicine” and Andrew Wakefield’s MMR vaccine fraud

Pity poor Andrew Wakefield. Well, not really. I tend to view what’s happening to him yet again as the chickens coming home to roost.

Let’s put it this way. 2010 was a terrible year for him, and 2011 is starting out almost as bad. In February 2010, the General Medical Council in the U.K. recommended that Wakefield be stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. because of scientific misconduct related to his infamous 1998 case series published in The Lancet, even going so far as to refer to him as irresponsible and dishonest, and in May 2010 he was. This case series, thanks to Wakefield’s scientific incompetence and fraud, coupled with his flair for self-promotion and enabled by the sensationalistic credulity of the British press, ignited a scare about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in which, afraid that the MMR vaccine causes autism, parents in the U.K. eschewed vaccinating their children in droves. As a result, vaccination rates plummeted far below the level necessary for herd immunity, with the entirely predictable result of massive measles outbreaks in the U.K. Measles, which as of the mid-1990s had been declared under control by British and European health authorities, came roaring back to the point where in 2008 it was declared once again endemic in the British Isles. In a mere decade and a half, several decades of progress in controlling this scourge had been unravelled like a thread hanging off a cheap dress, all thanks to Andrew Wakefield and scandal mongers in the British press.

True, Wakefield had long since moved to Texas, the better to be the founding “scientific director” of a house of autism woo known as Thoughtful House. Thus, the removal of his license to practice had little practical import (or effect on his ability to earn a living), or so it seemed at the time, given that Wakefield did not treat patients and hauled in quite the hefty salary for his promotion of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. Fortunately, karma’s a bitch, and, as a result of the GMC’s action, in short order The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper; Wakefield was pushed out of Thoughtful House; and his latest attempt to “prove” that vaccines cause autism in an animal study was also retracted. Investigative reporter Brian Deer’s investigation finding that Andrew Wakefield had committed scientific fraud in carrying out his Lancet study joined prior findings that Wakefield had been in the pocket of trial lawyers (to the tune of £435 643, plus expenses) seeking to sue the vaccine industry at the time he carried out his “research” and the allegations by renowned PCR expert Stephen Bustin during the Autism Omnibus as to how shoddily Wakefield’s other research was carried out. Finally, the mainstream media started to back away from its previous embrace of Wakefield and his claims. As a result, for a while at least, Wakefield was reduced to lame appearances at sparsely attended anti-vaccine rallies last spring.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Deadly Choices about vaccination

appThe year 2011 is starting out rather promisingly, at least from the point of view of science-based medicine. Its beginning coincides with the release of two — count ‘em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement. First off the mark is a new book by a man whom the anti-vaccine movement views as the Dark Lord of Vaccination, sitting up in Barad-dûr (apparently the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), a man utterly reviled by anti-vaccine quacks everywhere, Dr. Paul Offit. He has been subjected to considerable bile and harassment due to his simply standing up for the science behind vaccines. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Also being released is a new book by Seth Mnookin entitled The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Because I got a copy of Deadly Choices before my copy of The Panic Virus arrived, I decided to review Deadly Choices first; after I’ve managed to read The Panic Virus, I’ll write a review of it as well. Both books are arrows shot at the heart of the pseudoscience and fear at the heart of the vaccine manufactroversy, and it might well be useful to compare and contrast the two once I’ve finished The Panic Virus.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at Deadly Choices, an excellent, well-researched book with which I have relatively few disagreements. It is a followup to Dr. Offit’s last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, which I reviewed back when it first came out. In contrast to Autism’s False Prophets, which concentrated primarily on the manufactroversy that claims that vaccines are responsible for the “autism epidemic,” Deadly Choices steps back to take a broader look at the anti-vaccine movement. Regular readers of SBM hardly need to be reminded how pervasive and dangerous the modern-day anti-vaccine movement has become. Indeed, it is a frequently discussed theme of this blog, given that the anti-vaccine movement is such a major force among the forces that deny the efficacy of scientific medicine and seek either to replace it with unscientific or pseudoscientific “alternatives” or to “integrate” pseudoscience into science-based medicine. Indeed, anti-vaccine sentiment infuses large swaths of what we refer to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), be it chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or a wide variety of other modalities and systems.

In examining the modern anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Offit structures his book into three major sections. First, beginning in a chapter entitled The Birth of Fear, Dr. Offit begins with a description of the birth of the modern anti-vaccine movement, which in the U.S. Dr. Offit traces, in large part, to the broadcast of an irresponsible and anecdote-driven news documentary about the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine in 1982, and in the U.K. to a scare about the DPT triggered by a presentation by Dr. John Wilson to the Royal Society of Medicine about horrific complications thought to be due to the pertussis vaccine in the DPT. Next, Dr. Offit goes back into history to describe the development of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1800s in England and notes parallels with the modern day anti-vaccine movement. Finally, the story shifts back to today, where he describes the situation now, how demands for vaccines turned into fear of vaccines, and what we might do about it.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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Andrew Wakefield Fights Back

Dr. Andrew Wakefield was almost single-handedly responsible for frightening the public about a possible association between autism and the MMR vaccine. His alarmist recommendations directly led to lower vaccination rates and a resurgence of measles to endemic levels in the UK. The MMR/autism interpretation of his 1998 article in The Lancet was retracted by 10 of his 12 co-authors. The article itself was “fully retracted from the public record” by The Lancet. And now Wakefield has lost his license to practice medicine after the General Medical Council’s exhaustive 2½-year review of his ethical conduct.

His career was in shreds and there was only one way left for him to fight back: to write a book. Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines — The Truth Behind a Tragedy has just been published. I tried hard to read it with an open mind and to understand his point of view. He did make some points that I will accept as valid unless they can be refuted by the others involved. Some of what he said and did was apparently misinterpreted and distorted by his critics. But the book did not convince me that he was an ethical, rigorous scientist or that MMR is linked to autism or to bowel disease. In my opinion the book does nothing to scientifically validate his beliefs or to excuse his behavior, but rather boils down to self-serving apologetics and misleading rhetoric. It also undermines his claim that he is a good scientist by showing that he values anecdotal evidence (“listening to the parents”) over experimental evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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The story of Andrew Wakefield in pictures

I’ve blogged a lot about anti-vaccine hero Andrew Wakefield over the years. The story has become long and convoluted, and to tell it takes a lot of verbiage, even by my standards (or those of Kimball Atwood). However, I’ve found a good resource that tells the tale of Andrew Wakefield and his misdeeds in a highly accessible form:

Wakefieldcartoon

The question at the very end of the story is about as appropriate as it gets. Unfortunately, the answer to the question is: Yes.

Posted in: Vaccines

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The fall of Andrew Wakefield

I must admit, I never saw it coming.

At least, I never saw it coming this fast and this dramatically. After all, this is a saga that has been going on for twelve solid years now, and it’s an investigation that has been going on at least since 2004. Yes, I’m referring to that (possibly former) hero of the anti-vaccine movement, the man who is arguably the most responsible for suffering and death due to the resurgence of measles in the U.K. because of his role in frightening parents about the MMR vaccine.

I’m referring to the fall of Andrew Wakefield
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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The General Medical Council to Andrew Wakefield: “The panel is satisfied that your conduct was irresponsible and dishonest”

BACKGROUND

In my not-so-humble opinion, the very kindest thing that can be said about Andrew Wakefield is that he is utterly incompetent as a scientist. After all, it’s been proven time and time again that his unethical and scientifically incompetent “study” that was published in The Lancet in 1999 claiming to find a correlation between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression in autistic children with bowel symptoms was at best dubious science and at worst fraudulent. For one thing, as investigative journalist Brian Deer found, Wakefield was in the pocket of trial lawyers, who were interested in suing vaccine manufacturers, to the tune of £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses beginning even before his infamous “study” started accruing patients. Even though the study itself used the typical careful and relatively neutral language that we all expect from scientists, Wakefield himself was not nearly so circumspect. In a press conference announcing the Lancet study, he said:

He told journalists it was a “moral issue” and he could no longer support the continued use of the three-in-one jab for measles, mumps and rubella.

“Urgent further research is needed to determine whether MMR may give rise to this complication in a small number of people,” Dr Wakefield said at the time.

And so began one of the most contentious health stories of this generation.

Wakefield’s Lancet paper, even interpreted as sympathetically as possible, concluded nothing that justified such language. Yet his rhetoric, along with sensationalistic and credulous British journalists, ignited a firestorm of fear over the MMR that has not yet subsided now, over a decade later. Vaccination rates plummeted in the UK, and measles, a disease once thought to be under control, has surged back and become endemic again. It is a feat that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey appear to be trying to replicate right here in the U.S. with their wonderfully Orwellian-named Green Our Vaccines activism and ceaseless promotion of anti-vaccine messages.

More recently, at the Autism Omnibus hearings, we learned from a world expert in the polymerase chain reaction, Dr Stephen Bustin, that the techniques used in the laboratory running PCR on the clinical specimens from Wakefield’s clinical trial were so shoddy, so devoid of routine controls necessary in any PCR experiment, that the measles sequences reported as amplified in Wakefield’s followup to his Lancet study were false positives derived from plasmids with measles sequences in them contaminating the laboratory. Then, in late 2008, Mady Hornig and colleagues at Columbia University published an attempted replication of Wakefield’s study. They failed. There was no association between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression, nor could Hornig find any evidence that measles in the gut was any more common in the autistic children studied than in the neurotypical controls. This study was particularly devastating to Wakefield because it was carried out by a researcher who had previously been sympathetic to the myth that vaccines cause autism, as evidenced by her infamous “rain mouse” study and, even more close to home, using the same laboratory that had performed Wakefield’s PCR, which had apparently cleaned up its act in the years following its work on Wakefield’s specimens.

When it comes to the science, there is no doubt. No reputable scientist has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings, and there is a remarkable convergence and agreement of findings of major studies looking for a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism: There ain’t one. Indeed, closing out 2009 was the publication of yet another study that failed to find any correlation between MMR and autism, or, as I put it at the time, yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield’s repeated claims that the MMR can cause or “trigger” autism in some children is deader than dead as a scientific hypothesis and without a basis in scientific or clinical evidence. True, Wakefield tried to counter with a horribly unethical and badly designed primate study that seemed custom-designed to be used in court rather than in the court of scientific inquiry. It didn’t help and only made Wakefield’s Thoughtful House, Wakefield’s Fortress of Solitude in Texas to which he retreated in the wake of the revelations about his conduct, look even worse. Even a credulously “balanced” TV story by NBC news and Matt Lauer couldn’t hide the dubiousness nature of what goes on there.

Of course, while the science refuting Wakefield’s pseudoscience and evidence showing Wakefield to be incompetent and unethical continued to roll in, a little less than a year ago, it got even worse for him. Brian Deer reported that Wakefield very well may have engaged in scientific fraud in the “research” (and I do use the term loosely) that led to the publication of his Lancet paper in 1999. Through it all, the General Medical Council began an inquiry into whether Andrew Wakefield behaved unethically in the “research” that resulted in his 1999 Lancet report. It should be pointed out that the investigation of the GMC began before Deer’s latest revelation of potential fraud; rather it was far more concerned with how Wakefield ran his study and recruited patients. Nonetheless, the revelations nearly a year ago about Wakefield’s playing fast and loose with research methodology could not help but contribute to the sense that the Good Ship Wakefield had been torpedoed below the water line and was taking on water fast.

As the investigation and hearings wound on seemingly endlessly for two and a half years, Wakefield’s supporters intermittently waged an increasingly histrionic and ridiculous propaganda offensive to try to preemptively discredit the GMC’s findings. As it became clear that finally after all this time the GMC was on the verge of announcing its ruling, I noticed that the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism was ramping up an increasingly bizarre and unhinged last minute propaganda campaign, complete with reposting a hilariously inapt post by Mark Blaxill comparing Wakefield to Galileo and the GMC to the Inquisition, complete with references to Stalin and Mao (I suppose I should be relieved that Blaxill refrained from playing the Hitler card); a defense of “that paper” by Wakefield himself; claims that parent witnesses had been “silenced” at the GMC hearings; and a whole series of posts by John Stone trying to discredit the GMC.

And then on Thursday, the GMC ruled.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism

Arguably, the genesis of the most recent iteration of the anti-vaccine movement dates back to 1998, when a remarkably incompetent researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a trial lawyer-funded “study” in the Lancet that purported to find a link between “autistic enterocolitis” and measles vaccination with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) trivalent vaccine. In the wake of that publication was born a scare over the MMR that persists to this day, 11 years later. Although peer reviewers forced the actual contents of the paper to be more circumspect, in the press Wakefield promoted the idea that the MMR vaccine either predisposes, causes, or triggers autistic regressions. Even though over the next several years, investigations by investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed that not only was Wakefield’s research funded by trial lawyers looking to sue vaccine manufacturers for “vaccine injury” when he did his research (for which he is now being charged by the U.K.’s General Medical Council with scientific misconduct), but during the Autism Omnibus trial testimony by a world-renowed expert in PCR technology showed that he was incompetent. Even worse for Wakefield, in February 2009 Brian Deer published a news expose based on strong evidence that Wakefield may very well have falsified data for his Lancet paper.

None of this mattered. Andrew Wakefield still enjoys a cult of personality among the anti-vaccine crowd that no revelation seems able to dislodge, even the revelation that at the time he was both in the pay of trial lawyers and working on his study, Andrew Wakefield was also applying for a patent for a rival measles vaccine. Indeed, the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism bestowed upon him last year its “Galileo Award” as the “persecuted” scientist supposedly fighting for truth, justice, and anti-vaccinationism against the pharma-funded or brainwashed minions of the “Church of the Immaculate Vaccination.” In the meantime, MMR uptake rates in the U.K. have plummeted over the last decade, far below the level needed for herd immunity, to the point where, last year the Health Protection Agency declared measles to be once again endemic in the U.K., 14 years after the local transmission of measles had been halted.

Since Wakefield’s study was released, a number of studies have shown that there is no epidemiologically detectable link between vaccination with MMR and autism, including one by a researcher who once appeared to be a believer in the idea that vaccines are somehow linked with autism, Mady Hornig. Hornig actually tried very hard to replicate Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study, only this time with more children, and she found no link between MMR and autism using methodology similar to Wakefield’s. None of these studies has had any effect on the anti-vaccine movement, except to motivate them to circle the wagons even more, as J.B. Handley of Generation Rescue did when he launched a website called Fourteen Studies, whose purposes are to launch fallacious and pseudoscientific attacks on studies failing to find a link between vaccines and autism (often involving accusations of being a “pharma shill”), to promote the lousy science that gives the appearance of supporting the hypothesis that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and then slime anyone who points out how deceptive their attacks were.

Now, yet another study has been released studying whether there is a link between MMR vaccination and autism. Yet another study has failed to find a link between MMR vaccination and autism. Yet another study is all set to be attacked by Generation Rescue and the anti-vaccine movement. The sad and sordid history of reactions of the anti-vaccine movement to studies that do not support its belief in the unsinkable rubber duck of a myth that vaccines cause autism. This study was published online in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal by a group from Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Jagiellonian University, Collegium Medicum, Krakow, Poland (a Polish group, my people!) and entitled Lack of Association Between Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination and Autism in Children: A Case-Control Study. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR causes or contributes to autism. Indeed, this study not only shows that MMR vaccination is not associated with autism but that it may even be protective against autism. True, for reasons I will discuss shortly, I doubt that that latter interpretation is true, but there’s no doubt that this study is powerful evidence against the view that there is an association between MMR and autism. Unfortunately, I fear that all the nails in my local Home Depot would not be enough to keep the zombie of this pseudoscience from rising from its grave yet again.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Vaccines

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A Not-So-Split Decision

For those who battle tirelessly against the never ending onslaught of anti-vaccine propaganda, misinformation, and fear, there was great news the other day from Merck. The pharmaceutical company, and maker of the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, has decided not to resume production of the individual, or “split”, components of the vaccine. A Merck representative made the announcement during a meeting of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Tuesday. During previous ACIP meetings, science experts on that committee presented compelling arguments against  continued, large scale production of the monovalent components of the MMR vaccine, which were echoed by scientists in Merck’s vaccine division. In a moment, I’ll discuss the arguments against the split vaccine, and why this is so important a decision. First, some background on the issue of splitting the MMR.
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