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Monkey business in autism research, part II

Over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed something about the anti-vaccine movement. Specifically, I’ve noticed that the mavens of pseudoscience that make up the movement seem to have turned their sights with a vengeance on the Hepatitis B vaccine. The reason for this new tactic, I believe, is fairly obvious. The fact that the Hep B vaccine is administered shortly after birth seems somehow to enrage the anti-vaccine movement more than just about any other vaccine. Moreover, given that, aside from maternal-child transmission when the mother is infected, hepatitis B is usually only contracted through either bloodborne contact (the sharing of needles, the administration of contaminated blood) or sexual activity, it’s very easy for anti-vaccinationists to make a superficially plausible-sounding argument that it’s not a necessary vaccine, even though there are reasonable rationales for giving it to infants. The image of sticking a needle into a newborn infant trumps that, though, at least for the anti-vaccine movement. Another possibility, suggested by Steve Novella just yesterday, is that, with the collapse under a overwhelmingly huge pile of evidence of the idea that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that used to be used in childhood vaccines until 2001, caused an “epidemic” of autism and the failure of the “too many too soon” slogan to convince anyone who is not already an anti-vaccinationist, the movement needed a new bogeyman to blame for autism. The hepatitis B vaccine, which was added to the pediatric vaccination schedule in the 1990s, around the right time to confuse correlation with causation when it comes to the increase in autism diagnoses (just like thimerosal) was a perfect next target, given that it’s administered shortly after birth.

Indeed, just the other day, the anti-vaccine crank groups the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), and the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism posted a call for the elimination of hepatitis B vaccination for newborns:

Washington, DC – National Vaccine Information Center and Talk About Curing Autism are calling on President Obama to order the immediate suspension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of the birth dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine after two recent studies linking the Hepatitis B vaccine to functional brain damage in U.S. male newborns and infant primates.  In a related development today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, including the Health Resources and Services Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  announced that 1 in every 91 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as reported in the November 2009 issue of Pediatrics. Previous data released by the CDC indicated a prevalence of 1 in every 150 children affected by the disorder.

Note how AoA not-so-subtly interposed the latest information about autism prevalence with its call to eliminate the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine. Very clever. By doing so, it linked the two in readers’ minds, as if one had something to do with the other. There’s no good scientific evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine has anything to do with the “autism epidemic.” Meanwhile, David Kirby is up to his usual nonsense, and the resident anti-vaccine propagandist at CBS News, Sharyl Attkisson, who has been known to feed Age of Autism information on at least one occasion in the past, served up this credulous, noncritical interview with Andrew Wakefield:

The quantity of misinformation in that single six minute video is far beyond the scope of this article. Were I to start dissecting it, I would not have time to do what the purpose of this article was intended to do: To deal with the study Wakefield is hawking. That’s why I leave the dissection of this pièce de résistance of disingenuousness and misinformation as an exercise for SBM readers–after reading the rest of this post, of course. Trust me, it will help you.

At the heart of this latest propaganda onslaught by the anti-vaccine movement are two studies, one a restrospective study in humans and the other a study in monkeys, both of which the anti-vaccine movement is promoting as slam dunk evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine is causing all sorts of horrific problems. Taking both of them on in one post is too much, even for my logorrheic tendencies. So I’ll deal first with Wakefield’s monkey study and then, either later this week or sometime next week, hopefully discuss the human study.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The price of anti-vaccine fanaticism: Case histories

One of the major themes of SBM has been to combat one flavor of anti-SBM movement that believes, despite all the evidence otherwise, that vaccines cause autism and that autism can be reversed with all sorts of “biomedical” quackery. Many (but by no means all) of these so-called “biomedical” treatments are based on the false view that vaccines somehow caused autism. I and my fellow SBM bloggers have expended huge quantities of verbiage refuting the pseudoscience, misinformation, and outright lies regularly spread by various anti-vaccine groups and two celebrities in particular, namely Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey. Most of the time, we discuss these issues in terms of the harm to public health that is done by falling vaccination rates due to the fear engendered by the message of the anti-vaccine movement and the threat of the return of vaccine-preventable diseases that once wreaked havoc among children.

There is another price, however. There is a price that is paid by autistic children themselves and their parents. It is a price paid in money and lost time. It is a price paid in being subjected to treatments that are highly implausible from a scientific standpoint and for which there is no good scientific evidence. It is a price that can result in bankruptcy, suffering, and, yes, even death.

It is a price, I think, that is best demonstrated through a few case studies. This is a situation when anecdotes have their use.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Bill Maher endorses cancer quackery

Over the last five years or so, I’ve often asked, “Is Bill Maher really that ignorant?” I’ve come to the conclusion that he is, and a couple of weeks ago laid out the evidence why right here on this very blog. (Lately Maher has been issuing Tweets that call people who get flu shots “idiots.”) Indeed, I even included in the post perhaps the most hilariously spot-on riposte to Maher’s crankery. This occurred when Maher proclaimed that he never gets the flu and wouldn’t get the flu on an airplane, which his guest Bob Costas to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, come on, Superman!”

Bob Costas won my respect that day. My favorite part was when Maher looked at his guests, who were shifting in their seats, all embarrassed and unsure of what to say, and observed, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

Why, yes, Bill, we do. Let’s put it this way. When Age of Autism likes you, you have a serious problem when it comes to being credible about medical science.

In that same post, I complained about Maher’s being awarded the Richard Dawkins Award by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). I liken giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.

I regret nothing.

Not only do I regret nothing, but on September 18, a mere two weeks before the AAI Convention, Maher provided me with more ammunition. In fact, this is probably the most blatant bit of crankery I’ve seen from Maher in a long time. Watch and learn. The “alternative medicine” nuttery begins at around the 0:50 mark:

Laetrile? Really? Laetrile?? How 1970s cancer quackery!
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Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Crank “scientific” conferences: A parody of science-based medicine that can deceive even reputable scientists and institutions

If there’s one thing that purveyors of pseudoscientific medical modalities crave, probably above all else, it’s legitimacy. They want to be taken seriously as Real Scientists. Of course, my usual reaction to this desire is to point out that anyone can be take seriously as a real scientist if he is able to do science and that science actually shows that there is something to his claims. In other words, do his hypotheses make testable predictions, and does testing these predictions fail to falsify his hypotheses? That’s what it takes, but advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM, or, as I like to refer to it: “integrating” quackery with scientific medicine) want their woo to be considered science without actually doing the hard work of science.

There are several strategies that pseudoscientists use to give their beliefs the appearance of science, a patina of “science-y” camouflage, if you will. One, of course, is the cooptation and corruption of the language of science, which has been a frequent topic on this blog, particularly in posts written by Drs. Atwood and Sampson. Another is to produce journals that appear to be science, but are anything but. I’ve discussed one example, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons and Medical Acupuncture, but others include Homeopathy, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Medical Hypotheses, which recently was forced to retract a horrible paper by arch-HIV/AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg. What’s worse is that some of these journals are even published by what are considered major publishers, such as Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and Elsevier.

There is, however, a third strategy. How do scientists communicate their findings to other scientists, as well as meeting and mingling with other scientists? Why, they hold scientific meetings, of course! These meetings can be small or even as large as the American Association for Cancer Research meeting, which is attended by around 15,000 cancer researchers each year. So, too, do cranks hold meetings. These meetings often have all the trappings of scientific meetings, with plenary sessions, smaller parallel sessions, poster sesssions, and an exhibition hall, complete with exhibits by sponsoring companies. Sometimes these meetings can even appear so much like the real thing that they take in legitimate researchers and legitimate universities. Here, I present two examples of such conferences.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Even with the H1N1 pandemic flu strain going around, you should still be vaccinated against the seasonal flu

Even with the H1N1 pandemic flu going around you should still be vaccinated against the seasonal flu. revere has the details. Read. Enjoy. Be educated.

I guess that means Dr. Doug Bremner must think that revere is an idiot. After all, Bremner tells us that the flu vaccine is all a plot for big pharma to make money, don’t you know? Subtlety and weighing of risk-benefit ratios in a manner that doesn’t turn into an anti-big pharma rant is beyond him, as both Peter Lipson and I discussed (and Peter discussed again) not too long ago.

Fortunately it is not beyond revere to rationally weigh the risks and benefits of being vaccinated:

The truth is this. No one knows what’s going to happen. We’re all guessing. But in my estimation, the risk-benefit calculation for vaccine side-effects and flu is so markedly in favor of the vaccine that I made the decision to get vaccinated and that’s what I’d advise others, too. How confident am I? I’m confident it is the most rational thing to do given what we know.

Exactly. It is quite possible to look at the evidence and science and decide that the risk-benefit ratio is so much in favor of vaccination that it makes sense to be vaccinated. It’s also possible to look at the same literature and be less enthusiastic. You don’t need to appeal to big pharma conspiracy theories, and, in fact, such appeals only muddy the issue unnecessarily.

I’d love to see Bremner try to counter the arguments of a highly respected senior epidemiologist who can calmly discuss the pros and cons of flu vaccines from a scientific and practical standpoint based on evidence. Bremner points to “experts” who say that vaccination against the seasonal flu is a waste of money and time, but here’s one expert I bet that Bremner can’t refute. I won’t hold my breath waiting for him to try, though. It’s so much easier just to say that you’re an idiot if you get vaccinated against the seasonal flu. Obviously, in Bremner’s world, revere must be in the thrall of big pharma and pro-vaccination ideology.

Just like me, I guess.

Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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An open letter to Dr. J. Douglas Bremner

Peter Lipson wrote a post last week entitled Before You Trust That Blog…, which was a criticism of Dr. J. Douglas Bremner’s blog Before You Take That Pill. Dr. Bremner was not pleased, and posted a rebuttal entitled Response to Peter Lipson MD of “Science” Based Blogs, My Blog Does Not Suck, Yours Does. Given the kerfuffle and my role as managing editor of SBM, I felt the need to put my two cents in, which is why I’m posting this open letter to Dr. Bremner. This letter started as a much briefer response that I was going to e-mail to Dr. Bremner, but as I wrote it grew and grew to the point where I decided that, given the public nature of the disagreement between Dr. Lipson and Dr. Bremner, I might as well make my commentary public too. Consider it a bonus post from me. I still plan a post for my usual slot on Monday. In the meantime, here’s my open letter:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“There must be a reason,” or how we support our own false beliefs

ResearchBlogging.orgFor a change of pace, I want to step back from medicine for this post, although, as you will see (I hope), the study I’m going to discuss has a great deal of relevance to the topics covered regularly on this blog. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a skeptic and championing science-based medicine is just how unyielding belief in pseudscience is. Whatever realm of science in which there is pseudoscience I wander into, I find beliefs that simply will not yield to science or reason. Whether it be creationism, quackery such as homeopathy, the anti-vaccine movement, the “9/11 Truth” movement, moon hoaxers, or any of a number of pseudoscientific movements and conspiracy theories, any skeptic who ventures into discussions of such a topic with believers will become very frustrated very fast. It takes a lot of tenacity to keep going back to the well to argue the same points over and over again and refute the same nonsense you’ve refuted over and over again. Many do not have sufficient stick-to-it-iveness, leading them to throw up their hands and withdraw from the fight.

Although some of us here have blamed this phenomenon on “cultishness” and, make no mistake, I do think that there is an element of that in many of these movement, particularly the anti-vaccine movements, cultishness alone can’t explain why people hold on so hard to beliefs that are clearly not supported by science or evidence, such as the belief that vaccines are responsible for an “autism epidemic.” Then last week, what should pop up in the newsfeeds that I regularly monitor but a rather interesting article in Science Daily entitled How We Support Our False Beliefs. It was a press release about a study1 that appeared a few months ago in Sociological Inquiry, and the the study was described thusly:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The perils and pitfalls of doing a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study

The anti-vaccine movement is nothing if not plastic. It “evolves” very rapidly in response to selective pressures applied to it in the form of science refuting its key beliefs. For instance, when multiple studies looking at the MMR vaccine and autism failed to confirm the myth that the MMR causes autism or “autistic enterocolitis,” most recently late last year, it was not a problem to the anti-vaccine movement. Neither was it a major problem to the movement when multiple studies similarly failed to find a link between mercury in the preservative thimerosal that used to be in most childhood vaccines and is no more (except the flu vaccine) and autism. No problem! Andrew Wakefield is alleged, based on strong evidence, to have falsified his data alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and “autistic enterocolitis”? Fuggedabouddit! The anti-vaccine movement simply pivoted neatly, de-emphasized points that the evidence was so clearly against that even they couldn’t spin it to a positive anymore, and found new bogeymen. These days, it’s the “toxins” (such as formaldehyde and the latest antivax bogeyman, squalene), and “too many too soon” (a gambit given seeming respectability by Dr. Bob Sears and Dr. Jay Gordon, apologists for and supplicants to the anti-vaccine movement both.

However, there is one trait of the anti-vaccine movement that, however its camouflaging plumage may evolve, never, ever changes. It is as immutable as believers say that God is. That trait is that, whatever other claims, the anti-vaccine movement makes, at its core it is always about the vaccines. Always. No matter how often science fails to find a link between vaccines and autism or vaccines and whatever other horreur du jour the anti-vaccine movement tries to pin on vaccines, no matter how many studies do not support the viewpoint that vaccines cause autism, no matter how much the anti-vaccine movement tries to deny and obfuscate by saying that it is not “anti-vaccine” but rather “pro-safe vaccine,” at its core the anti-vaccine movement is about fear and loathing of vaccines. Always. When inconvenient science doesn’t support their views, anti-vaccine activists either ignore the science, distort the science, or launch ad hominems against the people doing the science or citing the science. And, as I said before, the claims of the anti-vaccine movement evolve. Never again will the anti-vaccine movement make the horrific mistake of yoking itself to a hypothesis that is as easily testable as the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism. The claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism predicted that, if thimerosal were removed from vaccines or reduced to pre-”epidemic levels” of the early 1990s, then autism rates should plummet. Thimerosal was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines (the sole exception being some flu vaccines), reducing infant mercury exposure from vaccines to levels not seen since the 1980s; yet autism rates continue to rise. This is about as resounding a refutation of the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines is a major cause or contributor to autism that even the anti-vaccine movement has backed away from the pure claim, which has now evolved to unnamed “environmental toxins,” either in concert with mercury or with other nasty things, as being the Real One True Cause of Autism.

It’s evolution in action. These new claims are much “fitter” because they are much harder to falsify through scientific research, epidemiology, and clinical trials.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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