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Ebola conspiracy theories: Same as it ever was

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Does anyone remember the H1N1 influenza pandemic? As hard as it is to believe, that was five years ago. One thing I remember about the whole thing is just how crazy both the antivaccine movement and conspiracy theorists (but I repeat myself) went attacking reasonable public health campaigns to vaccinate people against H1N1. It was truly an eye-opener, surpassing even what I expected based on my then five year experience dealing with the antivaccine movement and quacks. Besides the usual antivaccine paranoia that misrepresented and demonized the vaccine as, alternately, ineffective, full of “toxins,” a mass depopulation plot, and many other equally ridiculous fever dream nonsense, there was the quackery. One I remember quite well was the one where it was claimed that baking soda would cure H1N1. Then there was one of the usual suspects, colloidal silver, being sold as a treatment for H1N1. Then who could forget the story of Desiree Jennings, the young woman who claimed to have developed dystonia from the H1N1 vaccine but was a fraud? Truly, pandemics bring out the crazy, particularly the conspiracy theories, such as the one claiming that the H1N1 pandemic was a socialist plot by President Obama to poison Wall Street executives, which was truly weapons-grade conspiracy mongering stupidity. Oh, wait. That last one was a joke. It’s so hard to tell sometimes with these things.

Yes, pandemics and epidemics do bring out the worst in people in many ways, but particularly in terms of losing critical thinking abilities. This time around, five years later, it’s Ebola virus disease. To the average person, Ebola is way more scary than H1N1, even though H1N1, given its mode of transmission, had the potential to potentially kill far more people. Now that cases of Ebola virus disease have been reported in the US, the panic has been cranked up to 10 in certain quarters, even though the risk of an outbreak in the US comparable to what is happening in West Africa is minimal. We’ve seen quackery, too, such as homeopaths seriously claiming that they can treat and quacks advocating high dose vitamin C to “cure” Ebola. The über-quack Mike Adams is selling a “natural biopreparedness” kit to combat Ebola and pandemics, while the FDA is hard-pressed to track down all the quacks, such as hawkers of “essential oils,” who—of course!—also think that their wares can cure Ebola.

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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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Legislating Ignorance

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Science is under attack, and not just from anti-vaccine celebrities and parents with degrees from Google University. Scientific illiteracy is being woven into the very fabric of our society through legislative assault. If you dismiss this as alarmist hyperbole, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.

Every day thousands of pediatric health care providers throughout the country provide safety advice to patients and their parents during routine health maintenance visits. As part of this important routine we ask a series of standard questions to assess the safety of our patients’ environment. Some of these questions are easy and straightforward, and some are more personal and potentially awkward for patients and their parents, including questions pertaining to sexual practices and preferences and psychosocial history. An important series of questions focuses on potential hazards in the home, such as how toxins and medicines are stored, how pools are secured against curious toddlers, and whether there are guns in the home and how they are stored and secured. Parents are usually appreciative of the advice we provide, and thankful for our concern and attention to these issues. Occasionally patients or parents are taken aback by some of these questions, and very rarely they prefer not to answer them (in my 20 years in practice, I can recall only one time this has occurred). We ask these questions because accidental injuries and deaths are common occurrences in the pediatric population, and there is good evidence that patients tend to follow the advice we provide our patients. (more…)

Posted in: Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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The “CDC whistleblower saga”: Updates, backlash, and (I hope) a wrap-up

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Given that this is a holiday weekend here in the US and that I’m having a bit of a staycation right now, I had thought of simply not posting today or of rerunning a “classic” (if you want to call it that) blast from the past. But the topic I wrote about last week has only festered and grown bigger since Monday; so at the very least I felt obligated to do a post updating you, our readers, on the twists and turns that have occurred in the saga of the so-called “CDC whistleblower.” For those of you familiar with the story (not to mention following my not-so-secret other blog), much of this will be familiar, but, given that this is SBM, I felt that this material should be on record here for your edification and (hopefully) education. I’ll take (more or less) a chronological approach since last Monday and then finish up by trying to put this whole mess into perspective. This is going to be longer than even my usual posts, but I want to be authoritative. So, if you’re very familiar with what’s happened, you might want to skim everything before the “backlash” and “conclusion” sections to fill in what you might have missed. If you’re less than completely steeped in what happened, read every scintillating word!

But first, for those who might be entering this saga right now, let me recap a moment. I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, which has been flogged to death by the antivaccine movement for nearly two weeks now, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on an incompetent “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls. As I (and others) have discussed, Hooker used howlingly bad statistical methodology (for instance, analyzing case control data as a cohort study and using risibly bad statistical analyses) to torture the data until they confess that vaccines cause autism. As I said at the time, when it comes to data, call Hooker the Spanish Inquisition. Such was the weakness of what he found that, even after forcing the data to sit in the comfy chair for extended periods of time, the most damning “confession” he could get from them was a correlation between age at MMR vaccination and autism diagnoses in one small subgroup: African American males.

Based on this utterly incompetent data torture and Hooker’s apparent budding relationship with a “CDC whistleblower,” Wakefield first made a video in which this “whistleblower’s” voice was electronically altered (not to mention edited into such selective snippets that it was impossible to glean any context from his seemingly-damning statements. This video, released through Andrew Wakefield’s and Tommy Polley’s Autism Media Channel, despicably likened this CDC “cover-up” to the Tuskegee syphilis study, and finished with a flourish of Godwin-y nonsense that included Adolf Hitler (of course!), Pol Pot, and Josef Stalin, implying that the CDC’s “crimes” with respect to this alleged cover-up were just as bad. It was a breathtaking demonstration of pure stupid hyperbole. Then, a few days later, Wakefield replaced the video with the alterations in the “whistleblower’s” voice with his real voice and revealed his real name: William W. Thompson, PhD, a psychologist and senior scientist at the CDC, as well as a co-author of the study being “reanalyzed,” DeStefano et al. Now, on to the update! (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Did a high ranking whistleblower really reveal that the CDC covered up proof that vaccines cause autism in African-American boys?

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EDITOR’S UPDATE 8/28/2014: On August 27, 2014, CDC “whistleblower” William Thompson finally issued a statement through his attorney.

Here we go again.

Regular readers who pay attention to the antivaccine movement almost can’t help but have noticed that last week there was a lot of activity on antivaccine websites, blogs, and Facebook pages, as well as Twitter and Instagram feeds. For all I know, it’s all out there on Pinterest (which I’ve never really understood), Tumblr, and all those other social media sites that I don’t check much, if at all. In particular, it’s been exploding under the Twitter hashtags #CDCwhistleblower, #CDCfraud, and #CDCPantsOnFire. It’s almost impossible to have missed it if you’re plugged in and pay attention to crank websites, as many skeptics do, but here are a selection of the main stories going around over the last few days:

There are quite a few more, but these are a selection of stories appearing on the usual websites. It’s also not a new story, although it might seem as though it bubbled up suddenly out of nowhere just last week, and it comes from two of the usual suspects in antivaccine stories: Andrew Wakefield, whose pseudoscience in the service of antivaccine views we at SBM have written about many times, and Brian Hooker, someone whom you might or might not have heard of. Think of Hooker as a rising star, such as that would mean, in the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Ebola outbreaks: Science versus fear mongering and quackery

Ebola virus particles.jpg
Ebola virus particles” by Thomas W. Geisbert, Boston University School of Medicine – PLoS Pathogens, November 2008 doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1000225. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Without a doubt the big medical story of the last week or so has been the ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa, the most deadly in history thus far. Indeed, as of this writing, according to a table of known Ebola outbreaks since 1976 at Wikipedia, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three nations affected thus far, there have been 1,440 cases and 826 deaths. Worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that it is spreading faster in Africa than efforts to control it. In particular, late last week it was announced that two Americans who had been infected with Ebola were going to be flown back to the US, specifically to Emory University, for treatment, a development that ramped up the fear and misinformation about Ebola virus to even greater heights than it had already attained, which, unfortunately, were already pretty high. Indeed, the ever-reliably-histrionic Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com wrote a typically hysterical article “Infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta: Are health authorities risking a U.S. outbreak?” On Saturday, we learned that Dr. Kent Brantly, an aide worker for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity run by Franklin Graham, son of the well-known preacher, Billy Graham, who had been evacuated from Liberia aboard a private air ambulance, had arrived in Georgia.

This latest development inspired medical “experts,” such as Donald Trump, to stoke fear based on the arrival of two infected Americans in the US. For instance, last Friday, after it was first announced that the Ebola-infected Americans would be flown back to the US, Trump tweeted:

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Posted in: Epidemiology, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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Autism prevalence: Now estimated to be one in 68, and the antivaccine movement goes wild

There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.

I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.
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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, 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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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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