Archive for Vaccines

Pertussis Epidemic 2010

Bordetella pertussis is the bacterium that causes whooping cough – the main clinical feature of which is a severe lingering cough that can last for weeks or even months. Right now we are in the midst of an epidemic of pertussis cropping up in pockets throughout the US, most notable California. According to the CDC:

During January 1– June 30, 2010, a total of 1,337 cases were reported, a 418% increase from the 258 cases reported during the same period in 2009. All cases either met the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists definitions for confirmed or probable pertussis or had an acute cough illness and Bordetella pertussis–specific nucleic acid detected by polymerase chain reaction from nasopharyngeal specimens.

In addition, if the trends continue through the end of this year, which they are likely to do, this will be the highest incidence of pertussis in almost 50 years. These numbers are not in question, but there is some discussion about what, exactly, is causing it.


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Germ theory denialism: A major strain in “alt-med” thought

The longer I’m in this whole science-based medicine thing, not to mention the whole skepticism thing, the more I realize that no form of science is immune to woo. To move away from medicine just for a moment, even though I lament just how many people do not accept evolution, for example, I can somewhat understand it. Although the basics of the science and evidence support the theory of evolution as the central organizing principle of all biology, much of the evidence is not readily apparent to those who don’t make it a calling to study biology, evolution, and speciation. It’s not like, for example, gravity, which everyone experiences and of which everyone has a “gut level” understanding. So, not unexpectedly, when the theory of evolution conflicts with a person’s religious beliefs, for most people it’s very easy to discount the massive quantities of evidence that undergird the theory of evolution. It’s not so easy to discount the evidence for gravity.

In many ways, medicine is similar to evolution, but the situation is possibly even worse. The reason is that much of the evidence in medicine is conflicting and not readily apparent to the average person. There’s more than that, though, in that there are a number of confounding factors that make it very easy to come to the wrong conclusion in medicine, particularly when looking at single cases. Placebo effects and regression to the mean, for example, can make it appear to individual patients that, for example, water (i.e., what the quackery that is homeopathy is) or placebo interventions (i.e., acupuncture) cures or improves various medical conditions. Add to that confirmation bias, the normal human cognitive quirk whereby all of us — and I do mean all of us — tend to remember information that reinforces our preexisting beliefs and to forget information that would tend to refute those beliefs — and, at the level of a single person or even practitioner, it’s very, very easy to be misled in medicine into thinking that quackery works. On the other hand, at the single patient/practitioner level, one can also see evidence of the efficacy of modern medicine; for example, when a person catches pneumonia, is treated with antibiotics, and recovers quickly. Regardless of whether they’re being used to demonstrate quackery or scientific medicine, because personal experience and the evidence that people observe at the level of the people they know can be very deceptive in medicine, science-based medicine, with its basic science underpinnings and clinical trial evidence, is necessary to try to tease out what actually works and what doesn’t.

Medicine does, however, have its version of a theory of evolution, at least in terms of how well-supported and integrated into the very fabric of medicine it is. That theory is the germ theory of disease, which, just as evolution is the organizing principle of biology, functions as the organizing principle of infectious disease in medicine. When I first became interested in skepticism and medical pseudoscience and quackery, I couldn’t envision how anyone could deny the germ theory of disease. It just didn’t compute to me, given how copious the evidence in favor of this particular theory is. It turns out that I was wrong about that, too.

On Friday there was a video released that provides a very clear, succinct explanation of germ theory denialism:


Posted in: Chiropractic, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Vaccines

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Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs

Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dear Dr. Briggs,

As you know, we’ve met twice. The first time was at the Yale “Integrative Medicine” Symposium in March. The second was in April, when Drs. Novella, Gorski and I met with you for an hour at the NCCAM in Bethesda. At the time I concluded that you favor science-based medicine, although you are in the awkward position of having to appear ‘open-minded’ about nonsense.

More about that below, but first let me address the principal reason for this letter: it is disturbing that you will shortly appear at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). It is disturbing for two reasons: first, it suggests that you know little about the tenets and methods of the group that you’ll be addressing; second, your presence will be interpreted as an endorsement of those methods and of that group—whether or not that is your intention. If you read nothing more of this letter or its links, please read the following articles (they’re “part of your education,” as my 91 y.o. mother used to say to me):

Naturopathy: A Critical Appraisal

Naturopathy, Pseudoscience, and Medicine: Myths and Fallacies vs Truth

The first article is an introduction to the group to which you will be speaking; the second is my response to complaints, from that group and a few of its apologists, about the first article. It was a surprise to me that the editor, George Lundberg, preferred that I make my response a comprehensive one.

Thus the second article inevitably became the crash course—call it CAM for Smarties—that your predecessors never offered you, replete with examples of useless and dangerous pseudoscientific methods, real science being brought to bear in evaluating such methods, proponents’ inaccurate or cherry-picked citations of biomedical literature, bits of pertinent but little-known history, the standard logical fallacies, embarrassing socio-political machinations, wasteful and dangerous ‘research’ (funded—unwittingly, I’m sure—by the NCCAM), bait-and-switch labeling of rational methods as “CAM,” vacuous assertions about ‘toxins’ and “curing the underlying cause, not just suppressing the symptoms,” anti-vaccination hysteria, misleading language, the obligatory recycling of psychokinesis claims, and more.


Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, 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.


Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Shingles Vaccine (Zostavax) Confirmed Safe

Shingles (herpes zoster) is no fun. It usually begins with a couple of days of pain, then a painful rash breaks out and lasts a couple of weeks. The rash consists of blisters that eventually break open, crust over, and consolidate into an ugly plaque. It is localized to one side of the body and to a stripe of skin corresponding to the dermatomal distribution of a sensory nerve. Very rarely a shingles infection can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death. More commonly, patients develop postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) in the area where the rash was. The overall incidence of PHN is 20%; after the age of 60 this rises to 40%, and after age 70 it rises to 50%. It can be excruciatingly painful, resistant to treatment, and can last for years or even a lifetime.

Posted in: Vaccines

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The price of opposing medical pseudoscience

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a followup to a post from two weeks ago entitled In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit. If you haven’t read that post before, you might want to go back and read it now before proceeding with this post. Please also note the disclaimer.

I want to beg your indulgence this week, hoping that my history as a blogger here on SBM and then as managing editor allows me that. Today’s post will be a little different because last week was really, really, hectic. First and foremost, I was busy writing a preapplication for a Susan J. Komen Foundation grant for a deadline of last Friday. The Komen Foundation, it turns out, has changed its procedures this year so that the preapplication is now evaluated much more rigorously. It’s no longer looked at just to make sure that the proposed project matches the subject matter and criteria for the request for applications (RFA). This year, the preapplication actually matters! Moreover, it’s so long that writing it is practically like writing the entire grant, other than the budget. But I got it done, and it looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. None of that is any guarantee that Komen will invite us to submit a full application, but I’m hopeful because if it does we should have a good shot at the grant.

Then, this weekend I had to pivot on a dime and return to writing the R01 I had been working on with my collaborator. To make the July resubmission deadline, it has to be done, in the can, and submitted by this Friday. In any case, these are the reasons why this post is likely to be uncharacteristically personal in nature.

Oh, those reasons plus a little bit of character assassination launched at me on Monday by Jake Crosby over at the Age of Autism, entitled David Gorski’s Financial Pharma Ties: What He Didn’t Tell You.

Posted in: Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Medical Voices: Always in Error, Never in Doubt

I have discussed two articles from the web site Medical Voices, one with 9 questions, the other on mumps. There are, I think, 18 web pages of articles about vaccines on that web site. I am uncertain as to the true number of pages of information as the navigation buttons at the bottom of the pages do not always seem to function correctly. That such a problem exists suggests that no one has bothered, like me, to go through the web site to read all the essays. Or maybe it is me and the price of using the Chrome browser. Anyway, there are a large collection of essays that serves as a rich vein of iron pyrite to mine for topics. At about 5 entries to a page, evaluating at a pace of about one monthly, it would take years to analyze all the misinformation on Medical Voices.

It occurs to me that at the center of each article is a nut of misinformation (or sometimes as many as nine) that serves as the core fallacy of that article. I want to emphasize that I am using ‘nut’ as a metaphor for seed, not in its other, more colloquial, meaning. So rather than an in-depth evaluation of each article (although some will warrant a future, more through review), I thought it would be interesting to identify the nut in each article and why it is wrong. So, in the spirit, but not the intellectual rigor, of Generation Rescue‘s “14 Studies“, let’s sort through the nuts …


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.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit

EDITOR’S NOTICE: NOTE THE DISCLAIMER. Also note that there is a followup to this post entitled The price of opposing medical pseudoscience that is highly recommended after you read this post.

The “pharma shill gambit”: The quack’s favorite flavor of ad hominem argument

One of the very favorite and most commonly used tactics to attack criticism in the armamentarium of pseudoscientists, cranks, and quacks (not to mention politicians) is the ad hominem fallacy. In this fallacy, rather than addressing the actual evidence and science that demonstrate their favorite brand of woo to be nothing more than fairy dust, the idea is to preemptively attack and discredit the person. The ad hominem is not just insults or concluding that someone is ignorant because, well, they say ignorant things and make stupid arguments (in which case calling someone stupid or ignorant might just be drawing a valid, albeit impolitic, conclusion from observations of that person’s behavior), but rather arguing or insinuating that you shouldn’t accept someone’s arguments not because their arguments are weak but because they have this personal characteristic or that or belong to this group or that. Truly, the ad hominem is right up there with demanding public “debates” with skeptics as a favored defense strategy of cranks of all stripes.

Among the very favorite flavors of ad hominem attack used by quacks, cranks, and pseudoscientists is the fallacy of poisoning the well. This particular fallacy alludes to the medieval European myth that the Black Plague was caused by Jews poisoning town wells. Not surprisingly, this myth was used as a justification for pogroms and the persecution of the Jews. The idea is to poison how others view your opponent by preemptively attacking them. Well do I know this fallacy, having been at the receiving end of it many times! Basically, it involves invoking something bad or biased about a person’s situation or personality and then using a phrase something like, “Of course he (or she) would say that” to dismiss a person’s arguments, the implication being that the person receives such benefits from holding the position being attacked or has such a personality that he couldn’t argue otherwise regardless of the evidence. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, far and away the most common use of the ad hominem from quacks and pseudoscientists is what I once described as “the pharma shill gambit.” The idea behind this gambit when it comes to attacking those of us who promote science-based medicine is to tar one’s opponent as being a “shill” for big pharma or claiming that we have a conflict of interest so blatant that “of course we would say that.” In most cases, the bogey man is big pharma, in whose pockets we SBM bloggers are supposed to be safely (and profitably) ensconced, blogging away in our underwear for big bucks and, following the orders of our supposed paymasters, attacking anything that has even a whiff of being “alternative” or that “questions” the safety and/or efficacy of vaccines.

While I realize that there is such a thing as an “astroturf” campaign, in the vast majority of cases, the pharma shill gambit is nothing more than the variant of the ad hominem fallacy known as poisoning the well. I also realize that conflicts of interest (COIs) matter, particularly undisclosed COIs. Indeed, I wrote a rather lengthy post (I know, I know, do I write any other length of post?) about 8 months ago laying out my views regarding COIs in science-based medicine. The short version is that we all have COIs of some sort or another, be they financial, belief-based, or emotional, and more disclosure is usually better, to let the reader decide for himself. As far as COIs related to big pharma or finances, I think Mark Crislip put it quite well in his most recent Quackcast when he said that if a study is funded by big pharma, he decreases the strength of the evidence in his mind by a set amount. However, evidence is evidence, and, although it is reasonable to increase one’s level of skepticism if there is a major COI involving the authors, be it big pharma or otherwise, it is not reasonable to use that COI as the sole reason for rejecting its findings out of hand. That’s just an intellectually lazy excuse to dismiss the study, nothing more. Indeed, one prominent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist or quack is that in general scientists understand this and struggle to assign the correct degree of skepticism due to a COI when analyzing scientific studies, while quacks and pseudoscientists do not. It’s far easier for them just to put their fingers in their ears and scream “Conflict of interest! Conflict of interest!” and then use that to dismiss completely their opponent’s argument. It’s simple, neat, and it doesn’t require all that nasty thinking and weighing of evidence..

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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