Archive for Vaccines

How not to debate a “pro-vaxer”

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

To say that the relationship that antivaccine activists have with science and fact is a tenuous, twisted one is a major understatement. Despite mountains of science that says otherwise, antivaccinationists still cling to the three core tenets of their faith, namely that (1) vaccines are ineffective (or at least nowhere near as effective as health officials claim; (2) vaccines are dangerous, causing autism, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that is misdiagnosed as shaken baby syndrome; and, of course, (3) the Truth (capital-T, of course!) is being covered up by a nefarious combination of big pharma, the medical profession, and the government (in the US, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with pediatricians to produce the recommended schedule of vaccines). Because vaccine rejectors don’t have science on their side, they have to resort strategies common to science denialists like those who reject the scientific consensus about evolution or human-caused global climate change. These fallacious strategies include (but are not limited to) selective citation of evidence (i.e., cherry picking), misrepresentation and logical fallacies, impossible expectations about what science can deliver (e.g., vaccine denialists expecting 100% efficacy and 100% safety from vaccines or cancer quacks expecting 100% cure rates and no side effects from chemotherapy); fake experts (e.g., Andrew Wakefield); and, of course, conspiracy theories. Add to that appeals to personal freedom and “health choiceüber alles and painting any form of vaccine mandate as incipient totalitarianism, with those rejecting vaccines taking on the role of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of the sorts of arguments antivaccine activists resort to.

Not surprisingly, even the most diehard antivaccine advocate can get frustrated. After all, it must be very frustrating to have one’s posterior handed to one in arguments on the science of vaccines time and time again. Of course, for that purpose, like most science denialists, antivaccine activists have the Internet. In particular, they’ve taken full advantage of Facebook, and, more recently, Twitter. One such online gathering place is the public group known as Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). I encourage pro-science advocates to peruse this group, just to see that when I refer to people being anti-vaccine, there is no doubt that that is what they are. It was there that I found a rather telling document posted, for the benefit of antivaccine advocates everywhere.

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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The suffering the search for “natural immunity” inflicts on children

Yes, there are people out there who believe that there are "natural" remedies for pertussis and willing to let their children suffer the consequences.

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, there are actually people out there who believe that there are “natural” remedies for pertussis and willing to let their children suffer the consequences.

I realize that Scott Gavura has already covered this particular case (and quite well), but it’s so egregious that I couldn’t resist discussing it myself because it is one of the most horrifying examples I’ve seen in a long time of the consequences of the sorts of beliefs that fall under the rubric of naturopathy. Quite frankly, reading the story angered me to the point that I didn’t feel it would be unduly repetitious to discuss it again. The result in this case was the prolonged and unnecessary suffering of three children, while the mother believed she was helping them.

Naturopathy is a cornucopia packed to the brim with virtually every quackery known to humankind, be it homeopathy, much of traditional Chinese medicine, vitamin C for cancer, or basically any other pseudoscientific or prescientific treatment for disease that you can imagine. I feel obligated to start most of my posts about naturopathy with a statement like this not just because it’s true but because I want to remind my readers that it’s true. I particularly want to remind my readers when I see naturopaths revealing their true quack selves when they think no one’s watching, but I want to remind them even more when I see a post like the one by a naturopath named Heather Dexter entitled Natural Remedies for Whooping Cough: Getting Through It IS Possible. The post has been disappearing and reappearing with new edits for the last few days, but it seems to have disappeared for good. Fortunately the Internet never forgets, and in addition to the versions captured by Scott, the original text can still be found on Reddit, although it takes some scrolling to find it, and, for now, a Google cache version still exists.

If you want anecdotal evidence of the depths of quackery to which naturopaths can descend, read this post now. Because the link to the original post was removed once, I saved the text and will quote it liberally, but, for whatever reason, the post appears to be up again at Like-Minded Mamas, which promises “easy, natural answers for every mama’s journey.” What Dexter sees as natural treatment of her children with whooping cough, I see as child abuse. Worse, Dexter is practicing in my own state in Grand Rapids, MI.
Dexter describes herself thusly:

Heather Dexter is a Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor, Certified Affiliated Bradley Method Instructor, Certified Holistic Doula, Certified Usui Reiki Master Practitioner.

Here’s an indication: If you believe in reiki enough to practice reiki, you are a quack.

More importantly, if you treat your children the way Dexter describes, you are a child-abusing quack, in my not-so-humble opinion. Why do I say this? Because in her post Dexter describes how she tortured her children by letting them “get through” pertussis. Let me repeat that again in a different way. She let her children suffer through the natural course of a pertussis infection in order to acquire “natural” immunity. She even brags about it near the end of her post:

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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The horrible consequences of seeking “natural” immunity: Naturopathy and Whooping Cough

Whooping cough isn't pretty

This is what whooping cough looks like. It sounds even worse.

If there’s one area of “alternative” medicine that saddens (and angers) me, it’s the antivaccine movement. Most alternative medicine only risks harm to the user. But antivaccinationists threaten public health. Their actions can harm the most vulnerable in our society – often children, and others who depend on the herd immunity that vaccination provides. After my last few naturopathy vs. science posts I thought I’d take a bit of a break with another subject. However, last week ex-naturopath (and friend of the blog) Britt Hermes flagged a post from a naturopath that stunned me. Here was antivaccinationism and naturopathy, all rolled into a blog post about three children with a parent that doesn’t vaccinate. Heather Dexter, who claims to be a “Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor” in Michigan, blogs at She recently used her blog to describe, in astonishing, horrific, gut-wrenching detail, how she let three of her children suffer with whooping cough without seeking proper medical attention. The post was pulled down after a few days, but has recently reappeared with some modifications. (The original post, which I am quoting from below, has been archived and can be found here or here). I strongly encourage you to read the entire post in its entirety. Because amazingly, not only did Heather Dexter let her three children suffer through weeks of pain with whooping cough, she also subjected them repeatedly to invasive (and useless) alternative medicine. Yet she claims to have no regrets. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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Immunity: More Than Just Antibodies and Vaccines

immunitySince I graduated from medical school, new scientific developments in immunology have been occurring at a prodigious rate. I knew I could use a refresher course, and serendipity dropped one in my mailbox in the form of a review copy of the new book Immunity, by William E. Paul, MD, chief of the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health and a major player in many of the scientific discoveries he describes. It was just what I needed. It brought me up to date, and it left me in awe of the amazing things our bodies do to keep us alive.

We are bombarded with claims that something will “boost the immune system” but the people who say that have no understanding of how the immune system really works. We have anti-vaxxers who still deny the effectiveness of vaccines and the existence of herd immunity, and who imagine all kinds of hypothetical harms from vaccines, but who have little understanding of how vaccines actually work. This book itself could serve as a sort of vaccine to immunize readers against scientifically ignorant arguments. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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Antivaccinationists and the Nation of Islam protest in front of the CDC, but don’t you dare call them “antivaccine”

Flyer for "CDC Truth" Rally. Apparently a bunch of antivaccine activists showed up in Atlanta on Saturday to annoy CDC employees and try to use the manufactured "scandal" of the so-called "CDC whistleblower" to attack vaccines. Same as it ever was.

Flyer for “CDC Truth” Rally. Apparently a bunch of antivaccine activists showed up in Atlanta on Saturday to annoy CDC employees and try to use the manufactured “scandal” of the so-called “CDC whistleblower” to attack vaccines. Same as it ever was.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to anger most antivaccine activists, it’s a skeptic calling them “antivaccine.” The reason, of course, is that (1) many of them actually believe they are “not antivaccine” but rather “pro-vaccine safety,” even though their words and actions proclaim otherwise and (2) they crave legitimacy. They want desperately to be taken seriously by the government and scientific community. The problem is that, again, by their very words and actions they make it almost impossible for anyone who knows anything about vaccines to take them seriously, except as a threat to public health. They have no one but themselves to blame, as a critical perusal of Age of Autism, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, VacTruth (and VaxTruth), or any number of antivaccine websites and blogs will indicated to anyone of a scientific bent who has the intestinal fortitude to plunge down any or all of those rabbit holes of magical thinking and pseudoscience.

Another thing that I’ve come to understand over the more than a decade that I’ve been doing this is that there is a profound tension between what I like to call the two wings of the antivaccine movement. Basically, as is the case in most political or ideological movements, antivaccine activists gravitate towards one of two views. The first (and most prominent view) tends to be the pragmatic view. These are the antivaccinationists who deny vociferously that they are “antivaccine” and instead portray themselves as “pro-safe vaccine.” They want to appear reasonable and are willing to take partial victories on an incremental path towards achieving their ends. Then there are the “loud and proud” antivaccine activists. They don’t eschew or hide from the term “antivaccine.” They embrace it and proudly proclaim that they believe that vaccines are irredeemably toxic, that they don’t protect against disease, that big pharma is a criminal syndicate intent on poisoning their children and turning them autistic, and that the CDC is complicit in the whole plot. Of course, like all ideological movements, there is not a dichotomy; rather, there is a continuous spectrum between the two. Also, in this case, the two groups differ more on tactics than actual beliefs. As I’ve found many times, push a “reasonable” antivaccinationist, one who proclaims herself “not antivaccine” but “pro-vaccine safety,” and it’s usually not hard to get them to say things indistinguishable from the hard core antivaccinationists. They’ll basically cling to their self-perception as “pro-safe vaccine, while making the same evidence-free claims that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and all the other conditions on which antivaccinationists blame vaccines.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Religion, Vaccines

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Weston Price’s Appalling Legacy

Weston A. Price Foundation: Not recommended

Weston A. Price Foundation: Not recommended

One of our readers requested a post about the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). I knew it was not a trustworthy source of medical information, but I had not imagined just how atrocious it really was. After spending some time on the website, I realized that it is not just a cornucopia of false information about dentistry and nutrition, but is full of anti-vaccine propaganda and bizarre and dangerous health advice that could result in serious harm to patients.

The purpose of the Weston A. Price Foundation

It is a non-profit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of Weston A. Price, who “established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets.” (He did no such thing!) It publishes a journal “dedicated to exploring the scientific validation of dietary, agricultural and medical traditions through the world.” That statement reveals how poorly they understand science. The purpose of science is not to “validate” traditions and beliefs; it is to ask “if” those traditions offer any demonstrable benefits, and if the beliefs correspond to reality. (more…)

Posted in: Dentistry, Nutrition, Vaccines

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Donald Trump and the dangerous vaccine politics of the 2016 Presidential race

Republican candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015,

Republican candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015

I’ve been writing about vaccines and the antivaccine movement since the turn of the millennium, first in discussion forums on Usenet, then, beginning in 2004, on my first blog (a.k.a. the still existing not-so-super-secret other blog), and finally right here on Science-Based Medicine (SBM) since 2008. Vaccines are one of the most important, if not the most important, topics on a blog like this because (1) arguably no medical intervention has prevented more deaths and suffering throughout history than vaccines; (2) few medical interventions are as safe and effective as vaccines; and (3) there is a vocal and sometimes effective contingent of people who don’t believe (1) and (2), blaming vaccines for all sorts of diseases and conditions to which science, despite many years of study, has failed to link them. The most prominent condition falsely linked to vaccines is, of course, autism, but over the years I’ve written about a host of others, including sudden infant death syndrome, shaken baby syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. In a similar vein, antivaccine activists will try to claim that vaccines are loaded with “toxins” or even tainted with fetal “parts” or cells because some vaccines’ manufacturing process involves growing virus in two cell lines that were derived from aborted fetuses many decades ago. Even the Catholic Church doesn’t say that Catholics shouldn’t use these vaccines, but that doesn’t prevent some antivaccine groups from portraying vaccines as virtually being made by scientists cackling evilly as they grind up aborted fetuses to make vaccines. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

On a strictly scientific, medical level, antivaccine claims such as the ones described above are fringe, crank viewpoints. There is no serious scientific support for any of them and lots of scientific evidence against them, particularly the most persistent myth, namely that vaccines cause autism. It also used to be the case that, politically, antivaccine views tended to be those of the fringe. Unfortunately, in the current election cycle, those fringe views seem to be coming to the fore among prominent candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. This was most evident at the second Republican Presidential debate last week, where Donald Trump spewed antivaccine tropes and neither of the two physicians also running for the Republican nomination mounted a vigorous defense of vaccines. Even candidates who have previously issued strong statements defending vaccines (Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) remained silent.

(Video of the exchange can be found here.)

How did we get to this point? And why is it that antivaccine views, which in the past were stereotypically associated with crunchy lefties in the mind of the public, seem now to have found another comfortable home among small government conservatives, including the man who currently appears to be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? In the days that followed the debate, there have been many discussions of Donald Trump’s antivaccine views, but none that take the long view. All seem to flow from the idea that it’s mainly just Donald Trump and his wacky views, rather than Trump being part of a more widespread phenomenon. I’ve frequently said that antivaccine beliefs tend to be the pseudoscience that knows no political boundaries, occurring with roughly equal frequency on the left and the right. However, it’s virtually inarguable that right now, in 2015, the loudest political voices expressing antivaccine views (or at least antivaccine-sympathetic views) are in the Republican Party. Yes, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is back in a big way, partying like it’s 1999 with Bill Maher over thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, but neither he nor Bill Maher holds public office or is currently running for office. The über-liberal website The Huffington Post might have been promoting antivaccine propaganda since its inception, but its writers are not running for office, either, and of late it seems to be much less antivaccine than before. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The Science of Mom: A Science-Based Book about Baby Care

From the author's website: "Shameless use of cute baby to promote book"

From the author’s website: “Shameless use of cute baby to promote book”

When a baby is born, parents are often awed and alarmed to find themselves responsible for this tiny new person, and they desperately want to do their very best to keep their infant safe and healthy. New mothers worry about everything from SIDS to vaccines, from feeding practices to sleep hygiene, and they are bombarded with conflicting advice about caring for their babies. Myths and misinformation abound. Finally someone has written a truly science-based guide to the first year of life: The Science of Mom. The author, Alice Callahan, is a research scientist with a PhD in nutritional biology. When her first child was born, she had a lot of questions, and thanks to her background she knew how to look for reliable answers in the scientific literature. She started writing the Science of Mom blog and eventually turned her findings into a book.

Understanding science

Her first chapter covers the important concepts for understanding how to think about scientific studies:

  • Good science is a process that takes lots of experiments, time, and people.
  • Good science is peer-reviewed.
  • One study on its own isn’t worth much, but scientific consensus is trustworthy.
  • Some studies are more valuable than others (here she covers the various types of study from animal studies through observational studies in humans to RCTs and meta-analyses).
  • Numbers matter (sample sizes).
  • Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet (here she gives some practical tips for evaluating whether a website is reliable).
  • Correlation is not causation (she uses my favorite example of the correlation between autism diagnoses and the sales of organic food).
  • We can’t eliminate risks (but science can quantify the risks and benefits and families can use the information to decide what risks they are personally willing to take).
  • Find smart allies (experts and providers you can trust).
  • Forget about perfection and pay attention to your baby.


Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition, Vaccines

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Vaccine Whistleblower: BS Hooker and William Thompson try to talk about epidemiology

Vaccine Whistleblower – a highly edited misrepresentation of the facts

Vaccine Whistleblower” – a highly edited misrepresentation of the facts.

Here we go again with the whole “CDC Whistleblower” thing, this time with a book about the recorded conversations between Brian J. Hooker and William Thompson. Well, not the whole conversations, of course. If they were to release the whole conversations, we might get the truth, and the truth always gets in the way of the antivax crowd. Instead, we get an edited transcript of the conversations between those two in which, according to them and the book’s editors and authors, there is some sort of massive cover-up at all levels of science, government, and public health. What’s the cover-up? As usual, vaccines are evil and whatnot.

I’m not going to review the whole book for you because Dr. Gorski has already done so, and Dorit Reiss has discussed the legal aspects of what is discussed in the book. You can go read his review and/or Prof. Reiss’ analysis and then come back, or stay here and read what I have to say about the failed attempts at epidemiology from both BS Hooker and Thompson.

Let’s start by reviewing BS Hooker’s credentials. He is a bioengineer and chemical engineer, not an epidemiologist, despite what the author of the book wants you to believe:

With the publication of Kevin Barry’s Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Autism Research Fraud at the CDC, any claims of credibility for the CDC’s science has collapsed. Barry built his book upon four legally taped conversations between CDC senior vaccine safety scientist Dr. William Thompson and Simpson College professor and epidemiologist, Dr. Brian Hooker.

Later in the book, in the transcript of one of the conversations between BS Hooker and Thompson, BS gets a list of things he needs to do to earn an “honorary” degree in epidemiology. Among those things was to look at some of the earlier studies that Thompson had coauthored. And BS did. He would go on to write a flawed paper that I critiqued here and ended up being retracted, as I told you about here. That paper alone should tell you everything you need to know about BS Hooker’s epidemiological understanding, but the transcripts given to us by his camp in the form of the book really reveal his ignorance.

So let’s go through the calls we have transcripts for and pick at the epidemiological and biostatistical missteps that Thompson suggests for BS Hooker. (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Vaccine Whistleblower: An antivaccine “exposé” full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

– Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5


"Vaccine Whistleblower"? More like the next Andrew Wakefield in the making.

“Vaccine Whistleblower”? More like the next Andrew Wakefield in the making, albeit a shy, really pissed off Andrew Wakefield.

I don’t review books that often. The reason is simple. My posts for this blog sometimes take as much as a several hours to write (particularly my more “epic” ones that surpass 5,000 words), and I usually don’t have the time to add several more hours to the task by reading an entire book. Also, by the time I’ve read a book I might want to review, weeks—or even months—have often passed, and a review is no longer of much interest to our readers anyway. Fortunately, Harriet does an admirable job of reviewing books for us.

Today, I’m making an exception for a book hot off the presses. The main reason is curiosity, because the book is about a topic that I’ve blogged about three times here and several times more for my not-so-super-secret other blog, and I really wanted to find out more about what was going on. I didn’t expect to find out what really happened, because I knew from the beginning that the book, Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Research Fraud at the CDC by an antivaccine lawyer named Kevin Barry, would be highly biased. However, as I found out a few weeks ago, the book promised four complete transcripts of telephone conversations between the “CDC whistleblower,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) psychologist named William W. Thompson who has been a co-investigator on important CDC studies since the late 1990s.

Given my rather public skepticism about the particulars of Thompson’s story, I was quite surprised when my request to Barry’s publicist for a review copy of Vaccine Whistleblower was enthusiastically answered in the affirmative, thus giving me time to read the e-book before it was released. I also sent a copy of the book to a law professor familiar with the saga, Dorit Reiss, to write a legal perspective (also being published on SBM today) which is why I will say little about this aspect of the book in my discussion. In addition, René Najera has examined the book from a statisticians’ standpoint.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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