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Journal Club Debunks Anti-Vaccine Myths

American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009.  

The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:

  1. MMR causes autism.
  2. Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
  3. Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.

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Posted in: Vaccines

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Chelation: Compounding Pharmacy’s Problems

Chelation is the provision of a substance to increase the body’s excretion of heavy metals. In poisoning situations (lead, aluminum, iron, etc.), chelation is medically necessary, objectively effective, and approved for use. But the same term has a completely different meaning in the alternative medicine universe, where proponents often believe heavy metal toxicity is the “one true cause” of disease, and chelation can undo microvascular inflammation, atherosclerosis, and even aging itself. From early days as an unproven treatment of coronary artery disease, its use has expanded to include autism, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and dozens of other diseases. Today, chelation is widely available. Regrettably, my own profession, pharmacy,  facilitates this pseudoscience by manufacturing and selling chelation products.

Provoked urine tests are a common entry point to chelation therapy. Patients are given a product to provoke heavy metal excretion. The urine is tested and the patient is informed that they’re “toxic” and require chelation. Unfortunately, these results are meaningless and provide no evidence that chelation is medically necessary. But that’s the justification used for advocating a treatment regimen that will be useless at best and fatal at worst. A recent Medical Letter review concluded:

Medical Letter consultants believe that the use of chelation therapy in non-standard protocols for unsubstantiated indications should be discouraged. The results of provoked urine testing are not an acceptable basis for such treatment.

Providing chelation to patients isn’t a straightforward matter. It’s typically an intravenous infusion (though there are some oral products). Unless you’re part of the dubious TACT trial, which has administration centres across the United States and Canada, there are few products commercially available. For example, edetate calcium disodium (EDTA) is approved for sale in the United States but not Canada. Edetate disodium (also called EDTA) is not approved for sale in either country. But these products are widely available: they’re manufactured by pharmacists in pharmacies.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals

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Using attacks on science by the anti-vaccine movement as a “teachable moment”

Last week, I wrote one of my usual ridiculously detailed posts analyzing a recent study (Price et al) that, if science and reason ruled, would be the last nail in the coffin of the hypothesis connecting autism with the mercury-containing preservative, thimerosal, which used to be in many childhood vaccines but was phased out beginning in 1999 and disappearing in infant vaccines except for the flu vaccine by early 2002. Of course, for at least the last five years, the thimerosal-autism hypothesis has been a notion whose coffin already had so many nails pounded into it that Price et al probably had a hard time finding even a tiny area of virgin wood into which to pound even a tiny nail of a study published in an impact factor one journal, much less the spike that their study in Pediatrics represented.

Unfortunately, as we know, in the anti-vaccine movement unreason rules, and, not unexpectedly, as a result this study has changed little in the debate, the fortuitously ironic happenstance of its being released the day before Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted’s anti-mercury screed Age of Autism not withstanding. To physicians and scientists, it is another strong piece of data being added to the confluence of evidence that has shown no link between mercury in vaccines and autism (or vaccines themselves and autism, for that matter). It is yet another confirmation that vaccines are safe. In contrast, to the anti-vaccine movement, it is simply yet another confirmation that the CDC is hopelessly biased, that scientists are in on a conspiracy to suppress The Truth, and that they are the poor persecuted minority, the only ones who know What Is Really Going On.

When I wrote my post last week, I didn’t know whether or not it would be worth my while to comment on the response of anti-vaccine activists to the study. The reason is that, as fun as it is to reveal their responses to be as vacuous as they are, I wasn’t sure that it would be educational. Granted, sometimes educational value takes a back seat to criticism, but sometimes it’s just too easy. In any case, by mid-week, there had been virtually no criticism of the study yet from the usual sources; so I figured it to be a moot point whether or not I would end up writing about this study one last time. Then, on Thursday morning I noted an e-mail in my in box. In order to keep my finger on the pulse of various pseudoscience movements, I subscribe to e-mail lists of various crank organizations, one of which is Generation Rescue and another of which is SafeMinds. SafeMinds, as you may recall, is the organization headed up by Sallie Bernard. As you may also recall, Bernard was originally on the external consulting committee that participated in the design of Price et al, and, before it, Thompson et al, the two of which ultimately made up a one-two punch against the mercury-autism hypothesis. When she saw that the results of Thompson et al were going against her idea and that no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders was showing up in the preliminary analyses, she resigned from the committee and started attacking Thompson et al. What surprised me was that she wasn’t ready with a criticism of Price et al when it was released.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Vaccines

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Brain Balance

A member of Quackwatch’s Healthfraud discussion list recently reported from a health fair:

One booth was a bit of a mystery for me: Brain Balance. “Is your child struggling with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, or other related disorders?” A quick glance at their website makes it seem that they may be legitimate.

No, a quick glance at their website makes it seem that they are not legitimate, and a more detailed examination confirms that initial impression. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The final nail in the mercury-autism hypothesis?

PROLOGUE: BAD LUCK AND BAD TIMING

Two and a half years ago, very early in the history of this blog, I wrote one of my usual logorrheic (although I prefer the word “comprehensive”) posts entitled Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis. In that post, I characterized the scientifically discredited notion that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in several childhood vaccines was the cause of the “autism epidemic” as “one of the most pernicious medical myths of recent years.” And so it is. I like to characterize the notion that thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs) cause autism as the American version of the British myth, popularized by Andrew Wakefield and a sensationalistic British press, that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism and “autistic enterocolitis.”

Both notions were based on confusing correlation with causation, aided and abetted by some truly bad science, and both notions have been painfully difficult to dislodge. Indeed, in the case of Wakefield, only now that Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice in the U.K. by its General Medical Council, leading to The Lancet finally doing what it should have done six years ago and retracting Wakefield’s 1998 study that sparked the MMR frenzy in the U.K. and arguably kickstarted the modern anti-vaccine movement, do I sense that journalists are finally “getting” that science does not support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield may be trying to fight back with his book Callous Disregard after his disgrace was complete, basking in the glow of admiration of die-hard anti-vaccine groups, but, for now, at least, Wakefield and his MMR fear mongering are yesterday’s news, and that’s a very good thing indeed–at least for as long as it lasts.

Perhaps it is the fall of Andy Wakefield that has led to an apparent resurgence of the concept that mercury in TCVs somehow causes autism, after having faded into the background after the CDC and AAP recommended that thimerosal be removed from all childhood vaccines in 1999 and the last TCV having expired towards the end of 2001. After all, if the hypothesis that TCVs cause autism had been correct, we should have expected to see a marked decrease in the incidence of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) within about 5 years of 2002, given that the vast majority of cases of ASDs are diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 5. We have not, and, even though its adherents have kept moving the goalposts back regarding the date that we should start to see a leveling off and drop in the incidence of ASDs, starting with 2005, then 2007, and now, apparently, 2011 (which is only less than four months away, by the way), even Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine organization originally founded by J.B. Handley and his wife, namely Generation Rescue, began demphasizing mercury in 2007, after having stated flatly on its website that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” for so long. Since then, “too many, too soon” has been the favored propaganda talking point.

Of course, not every crank is ready to abandon the myth that TCVs cause autism. Indeed, tomorrow two mercury militia “heavy hitters” and bloggers for the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted, will be releasing a book entitled Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Manmade Epidemic. In anticipation, four weeks ago I actually e-mailed the publicist to send me a review copy of Age of Autism. I have yet to receive the book. I wonder why. Be that as it may, it amuses me that the official release of the release of the not-so-dynamic duo of the mercury militia’s book actually will one day after a study that is arguably the last nail in the coffin of the very dead hypothesis that TCVs cause autism was released. Either the great pharma conspiracy is far more conniving and effective than even J.B. Handley thinks, or Blaxill and Olmsted’s luck is just that bad. As I anticipate the conspiracy mongering posts about this bad timing aside, let’s just take a look at this last coffin nail, which is a study by Price et al that was released today in the journal Pediatrics entitled Prenatal and Infant Exposure to Thimerosal From Vaccines and Immunoglobulins and Risk of Autism.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Terrible Anti-Vaccine Study, Terrible Reporting

One of my goals in writing for this blog is to educate the general public about how to evaluate a scientific study, specifically medical studies. New studies are being reported in the press all the time, and the analysis provided by your average journalist leaves much to be desired. Generally, they fail to put the study into context, often get the bottom line incorrect, and then some headline writer puts a sensationalistic bow on top.

In addition to mediocre science journalism we also face dedicated ideological groups who go out of their way to spin, distort, and mutilate the scientific literature all in one direction. The anti-vaccine community is a shining example of this – they can dismiss any study whose conclusions they do not like, while promoting any horrible worthless study as long as it casts suspicion on vaccines.

Yesterday on Age of Autism (the propaganda blog for Generation Rescue) Mark Blaxill gave us another example of this, presenting a terrible pilot study as if we could draw any conclusions from it. The study is yet another publication apparently squeezed out of the same data set that Laura Hewitson has been milking for several years now - a study involving macaque infants and vaccinations. In this study Hewitson claims a significant difference in brain maturation between vaccinated and unvaccinated macaque infants, by MRI and PET analysis. Blaxill presents the study without noting any of its crippling limitations, and the commenters predictably gush.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The genetics of autism

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) actually represent a rather large continuum of conditions that range from very severe neurodevelopmental delay and abnormalities to the relatively mild. In severe cases, the child is nonverbal and displays a fairly well-characterized set of behaviors, including repetitive behaviors such as “stimming” (for example, hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling, and body rocking.), restricted behavior and focus, ritualistic behavior, and compulsive behaviors. In more mild cases, less severe compulsion, restriction of behavior and focus, and ritualistic behaviors do not necessarily preclude functioning independently in society, but such children and adults may have significant difficulties with social interactions and communication. Because ASDs represent a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders whose symptoms typically first manifest themselves to parents between the ages of two and three, the idea that vaccines cause autism and ASDs has been startlingly difficult to dislodge and has fueled an anti-vaccine movement, both here in the U.S. and in other developed nations, particularly the U.K. and Australia. This movement has been stubbornly resistant to multiple scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines in autism or the other favorite bogeyman of the anti-vaccine movement, the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines in the U.S. until the end of 2001. Add to that the rising apparent prevalence of ASDs, and, confusing correlation with causation, the anti-vaccine movement concludes that vaccines must be the reason for the “autism epidemic.”

In reality, autism and ASDs appear to be increasing in prevalence due to diagnostic substition, better screening, and the broadening of the diagnostic criteria that occurred in 1994. Autism prevalence does not appear to be rising, at least not dramatically, at all, as the prevalence of ASDs, when assessed carefully, appears to be similar in adults as it is in children. If the true prevalence rate of autism and ASDs has increased, it has not increased by very much. In reality autism appears to have a major and probably predominant genetic component, and several scientific studies over the last few years have linked autism with various genetic abnormalities. Not surprisingly, given the varied presentation and severity of ASDs, these studies have not managed to identify single genes that produce autism or ASDs with a high degree of penetrance (probability of causing the phenotype if the gene is present). Indeed, one can argue that the state of current evidence is that ASDs are due to multiple genes, perhaps dozens or hundreds. Again, this is not surprising given the heterogeneity of ASD severity, presentation, and symptoms.

One of the more surprising studies supporting a genetic basis for autism appeared to much fanfare in Nature last week. The study by Pinto et al, looks at the functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders. Its results are rather surprising in that the large team of investigators (studies of this type take a lot of people to carry out) found that it may be relatively uncommon copy number variations in various genes that lead to the phenotype of autism or ASDs.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Nine differences between “us and them,” nine straw men burning

I’ll start this post by admitting right up front: I blatantly stole the idea for the title of this post from Mark Crislip’s most excellently infamous post Nine questions, nine answers. Why? Because I really liked that post and felt like it. Also, there seems to be something about the number nine among anti-vaccine zealots: Nine “questions.” Nine circles of hell.

Nine straw men.

I’m referring to an amazing post that appeared on the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism over the weekend by contributing editor Julie Obradovic entitled The Difference Between You and Me. In this post, Julie describes not one difference, but nine differences, that she perceives between herself (and, apparently, by generalization other parents who have become believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism) and people like SBM contributors and (I hope) the vast majority of our readers, who support science-based medicine, understanding that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and that, most importantly, science not only does not support the belief that vaccines cause autism but provides us with copious evidence that there almost certainly no link between the two. Actually, there are more than nine differences, as Ms. Obradovic packs multiple apparently related differences around each of her nine “differences” and then complains that Alison Singer and, apparently by generalization the rest of us who support SBM and oppose the anti-vaccine movement, misrepresent the reasons why she and her merry band of anti-vaccine activists reject the science that has failed spectacularly to validate their deeply held belief that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of other health consequences. Her post ends up being a collection of straw men constructed to Burning Man size, each of which she then applies a flamethrower of burning nonsense to with self-righteous gusto.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, 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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Bogus Diagnostic Tests

A few years ago a friend asked me to comment on advice given to her adult daughter by a psychiatrist whom she’d consulted for depression. The psychiatrist had recommended testing samples of saliva and urine for hormone and neurotransmitter levels, the results of which would likely indicate a need for supplements to correct deficiencies or imbalances. According to the psychiatrist, who had an academic appointment at a medical school in New York City, “I have been using these supplements with a great deal of success.” My friend is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, but this made her a little uncomfortable. In that, she was entirely justified.

During our recent panel discussion at the NECSS, a member of the audience identified himself as a clinical pathologist at a major medical center, and wondered what he might do to become involved in the good fight against encroaching pseudoscience in medical schools. Clinical pathology is the medical specialty that concerns itself, in summary, with laboratory tests—their development, their validity, their interpretation, their usefulness and, by implication, their misuse. A topic that we haven’t much featured on SBM (we touched upon it here, here and here, and probably elsewhere) is that of bogus laboratory or other diagnostic tests.

Early in my own education in modern quackery, I found it particularly distasteful not merely that quacks misuse laboratory tests, but that several commercial laboratories market misleading tests. To the untrained eye these laboratories appear to be legitimate, even to the point of their being approved by apparently legitimate certifying bodies. We’ll discuss that below, but first let’s look more closely at the psychiatrist’s recommendations to my friend’s daughter and at other examples of bogus tests.

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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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