Given the ongoing (and increasing) measles outbreak linked initially to Disneyland, it’s hard for me not to revisit the topic from time to time. This time around, there are two issues I wish to discuss, one political and one that is a combination of medical and political. After all, it was just one week ago when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stepped in it by advocating parental choice in vaccines, as if parents don’t already have a choice. He rapidly had to walk it back, and his ill-considered remarks were almost certainly not evidence that he is antivaccine. They are, however, evidence that he doesn’t understand that we do not have “forced vaccination” in this country (we have school vaccine mandates). Parents already have choice in 48 states, given that only two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) do not allow belief-based non-medical exemptions, be they religious exemptions, personal belief-exemptions, or both, to school vaccine mandates. It also came out that in 2009 while running for Governor, Christie met with Louise Kuo Habakus (who is antivaccine) and the NJ Coalition for Vaccine Choice, a very vocal NJ antivaccine coalition whose member organization list reads like a who’s who of the national antivaccine movement and includes Life Health Choices, the antivaccine organization founded by Habakus. He even wrote a letter promising that as governor he would stand with them in “their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”
It’s also evidence that vaccine mandates are becoming even more politicized. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul, on the very same day, provided more such evidence when he claimed on a conservative talk radio show that he’s seen children with severe neurological problems after vaccination, the implication being that he believed these children’s problems were linked to vaccination. Later, in a testy exchange with a CNBC reporter, who asked him whether he had really said that he thought vaccines should be voluntary, Paul sarcastically replied, “I guess being for freedom would be unusual.” Later in the exchange, after repeating the same antivaccine talking points that he had related earlier in the day, he said, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” You get the idea. He, too, ultimately had to back off a bit, famously showing himself getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, but given that Paul has had a long history of making similar comments, this was almost certainly strategic.
Last week, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” wasn’t so happy.
One of the disadvantages of posting once a week is that, unless I muscle in on someone else’s day I can’t respond rapidly to stories that appear early. Of course the flip side of that is that if a story appears over the weekend it’s all mine, and, besides, I have my not-so-super-secret other blog to respond to issues that occur earlier in the week. Another advantage is that, if I do decide to write about something from earlier in the week, I have the advantage of time to think.
You’ve probably figured out that what I’m referring to is the latest measles outbreak. Not surprisingly, it happened in the Los Angeles area. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), it happened at Disneyland. I say “not surprisingly” because it’s been well-publicized over the last few years that there are pockets of low vaccine uptake and high personal belief exemptions in California, complete with measles and pertussis outbreaks. This is thanks to pockets of affluent, entitled parents full of the Dunning-Kruger effect who think that they can learn as much about vaccines and autism via Google University as pediatricians and researchers who have devoted their entire professional careers to studying them. Of course, these parents are also facilitated by pediatricians who cater to their fears, the most famous of whom is Dr. Bob Sears, whose The Vaccine Book is a very popular, reasonable-sounding (to parents not aware of the antivaccine tropes within) bit of antivax lite, but there is also our old buddy Dr. Jay Gordon and a host of others.
So what happened at Disneyland? On January 7, the California Department of Public Health confirmed seven measles cases:
Since the press release was originally issued on Thursday by now surely most of you have seen the news stories that popped up beginning yesterday morning with headlines like “CDC Warning: Flu Viruses Mutate and Evade Current Vaccine“, or “Flu vaccine protects against wrong strain, US health officials warn“, or “Flu shots may not be good match for 2014-15 virus, CDC says“, or “Health Officials Warn This Year’s Flu Vaccine Won’t Prevent New H3N2 Strain Of Influenza“. You get the idea. This year, apparently, the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as health officials and physicians would like. How could this have happened?
Those of you who are knowledgeable about the flu vaccine know that, as useful as it is, it’s not one of the greatest vaccines as far as effectiveness. Actually, that’s not true. Its effectiveness can and does vary considerably from year to year. The reason is simple. There are many strains of influenza, and the vaccine as currently formulated generally only covers a handful of strains. Basically, every year the World Health Organization, in collaboration with the CDC and other health organizations throughout the world, has to make an educated guess which strains of influenza will be circulating the following winter. Many months’ lead time is required because vaccine manufacturers require it to develop and test the new formulations and then to ramp up their manufacturing capabilities and distribute the vaccine. Generally, the WHO chooses the three strains it deems most likely to cause significant human suffering and death in the coming flu season. Specifically, the chosen strains are the H1N1, H3N2, and Type-B, although, starting with the 2012–2013 Northern Hemisphere influenza season, the WHO has also recommended a second B-strain for use in quadrivalent (four strain) vaccines. Basically, the WHO coordinates the contents of the vaccine each year to contain the most likely strains of the virus to attack the next year. Wikipedia has a helpful article that lists the formulations of all the flu vaccines recommended for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres dating back to 1998, to give you an idea what’s been recommended in the past. Also, there are exceptions. In the 2009-2010 season, for example, the H1N1 pandemic was occurring, and it was recommended that everyone be vaccinated against H1N1 in addition to the normal flu vaccine.
There are many conspiracy theories about vaccines, and they circulate almost continuously. Some are relatively new, but most are at least a few years old. They all tend to fall into several defined types, such as the “CDC whistleblower” story, which posits that the “CDC knew” all these years that vaccines cause autism but covered it up, even going so far as to commit scientific fraud to do so. Of the many other myths about vaccines that stubbornly persist despite all evidence showing them not only to be untrue but to be risibly, pseudoscientifically untrue, among whose number are myths that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that so resembles shaken baby syndrome (more correctly called abusive head trauma) that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, the antivaccine conspiracy theory that vaccines are being used for population control is one of the most persistent. In this myth, vaccines are not designed to protect populations of impoverished nations against diseases like the measles, which still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year outside of developed countries. Oh, no. Rather, according to this myth, vaccines are in fact a surreptitious instrument of population control designed to render people sterile, for whatever nefarious reasons the powers that be have to want to control the population.
You might recall how a few years ago antivaccinationists leaped on a statement by Bill Gates that “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that [population] by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.” They used it to accuse Gates of being a eugenicist and that vaccines were in actuality an instrument of global depopulation. It was a ridiculous charge of course. In context, it was clear that Gates was referring to how the expected population increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion could be blunted by providing good health care, including reproductive care and vaccines, to impoverished people in regions where the population increases are expected to be greatest. He was clearly referring to decreasing the expected population increase by 10% or 15%, meaning that instead of going up to 9 billion the population would only increase to between 7.65 and 8.1 billion. In other words, he was referring to how good health care could decrease the expected rate of population growth, not how vaccines could be used to depopulate the world. However, because of the prevalence of the myth that vaccines are sterilizing agents intended for global depopulation, the charge that Gates is a eugenicist, as obviously off base as it is to reasonable people, resonated in the anti-science world of antivaccinationists. Similar claims, namely that there is “something” in vaccines that results in infertility and sterilization, have been unfortunately very effective in frightening people in Third World countries and have played a major role in antivaccine campaigns that have delayed the eradication of polio.
Gayle DeLong has been diagnosed with what she refers to as “autism-induced breast cancer”. She’s even given it an abbreviation, AIBC. Unfortunately, as you might be able to tell by the name she’s given her breast cancer, she is also showing signs of falling into the same errors in thinking with respect to her breast cancer as she clearly has with respect to autism. As a breast cancer surgeon, regardless of my personal opinion of DeLong’s anti-vaccine beliefs, I can only hope that she comes to her senses and undergoes science-based treatment, but I fear she will not, as you will see. Her brief post announcing her diagnosis and blaming it on autism, however, does provide what I like to call a “teachable moment” about cancer.
We’ve met DeLong before on this blog. For instance, she published an execrably bad study that—of course!—tried to link vaccine to autism and failed miserably, despite doing some amazing contortions of analysis, combining diagnoses willy-nilly, all in the service of the discredited vaccine-autism hypothesis. As I said at the time, it just goes to show that someone who is an associate professor of economics and finance shouldn’t be doing epidemiological research. As I also described at the time, if the sorts of analytical techniques she used in her study are acceptable in the world of economics and finance, no wonder our economy has been so screwed up for so long. Another time, DeLong wrote a broadside against the regulatory machinery that oversees vaccine development and safety that was full of the usual antivaccine misinformation, tropes, and pseudoscience and hugely exaggerated perceived “conflicts of interest” among the various parties.
The antivaccine movement and conspiracy theories go together like beer and Buffalo wings, except that neither are as good as, yes, beer and Buffalo wings. (Maybe it’s more like manure and compost.) In any case, the antivaccine movement is rife with conspiracy theories. I’ve heard and written about more than I can remember right now, and I’m under no illusion that I’ve heard anywhere near all of them. Indeed, it seems that every month I see a new one.
There is, however, a granddaddy of conspiracy theories among antivaccinationists, or, as it’s been called, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. That conspiracy theory postulates that “they” (in the U.S, the CDC) have known for a long time that vaccines cause autism, but “they” are covering it up. In other words, the CDC has, according to this conspiracy theory, been intentionally hiding and suppressing evidence that antivaccinationists were right all along and vaccines do cause autism. Never mind what the science really says (that vaccines do work don’t cause autism)! To the antivaccine contingent, that science is “fraudulent” and the CDC knew it! Why do you think that the antivaccine movement, in particular Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., went full mental jacket when Poul Thorsen was accused of financial shenanigans (i.e., fraud) with grant money from the federal government? It was a perfect story to distract from the inconvenient lack of science supporting the antivaccine view that vaccines cause autism. More importantly, from the antivaccine standpoint, it was seen as “validation” that the CDC studies failing to find a link between autism and vaccines were either fraudulent or incompetently performed. Why? Because Thorsen was co-investigator on a couple of the key studies that failed to find a link between the MMR and autism, antivaccinationists thought that his apparent financial fraud must mean that he committed scientific fraud. They’re the same thing, right? Well, not really. There were a lot of co-investigators, and Thorsen was only a middle author on those studies.
The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.
— John Wooden
Regular readers might have gathered from reading this blog that we are not particularly fond of naturopaths. Actually, naturopaths themselves might be perfectly nice people; rather it’s naturopathy we don’t like, mainly because it is a cornucopia of quackery based on prescientific vitalism mixed with a Chinese restaurant menu “one from column A, two from column B” approach to picking quackery and pseudoscience to apply to patients. Indeed, Scott Gavura features as an excellent recurring series “Naturopathy vs. Science,” which has included editions such as the Facts Edition, Prenatal Vitamins, Vaccination Edition, Allergy Edition, and, of course, the Infertility Edition. Of course, as I’ve pointed out, any “discipline” that counts homeopathy as an integral part of it, as naturopathy does to the point of requiring many hours of homeopathy instruction in naturopathy school and including it as part of its licensing examination, cannot ever be considered to be science-based, and this blog is, after all, Science-based Medicine. Not surprisingly, we oppose any licensing or expansion of the scope of practice of naturopaths, because, as we’ve explained time and time again, naturopathy is pseudoscience and quackery.
A couple of weeks ago, over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, I was “celebrating” (if you will) Naturopathy Week. During that week, one of my readers brought to my attention something that, more than anything else, shows the truth of the quote with which I started this post and another similar quote by J.C. Watts that goes, “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” I’m referring to the contents of a subreddit posted by a user going by the ‘nym “Naturowhat,” Read what naturopaths say to one another. Conclusion: manipulative, poorly trained, and a threat to public health. Now, I’m not a big fan of Reddit, largely because I can’t figure out how to find things easily, and I hate the sheer ugly and user hostile format of it. However, beggars can’t be choosers; so Reddit it was to examine what naturopaths say to each other when they think no one is looking. I hadn’t planned to comment on this again, but Jann Bellamy thought that our readers would be interested, and who am I to question Jann’s judgment, particularly on a weekend when I was deep into grant writing?
As the time came to do my usual weekly post for this blog, I was torn over what to write about. Regular readers might have noticed that a certain dubious cancer doctor about whom I’ve written twice before has been agitating in the comments for me to pay attention to him, after having sent more e-mails to me and various deans at my medical school “challenging” me to publish a link to his results and threatening to go to the local press to see if he can drum up interest in this “battle.” I’ve been assiduously ignoring him, but over time the irritation factor made me want to tell him, “Be very careful what you ask for. You might just get it.” Then I’d make this week’s post about him, even though I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of giving in to his harassment and giving him what he wants.
That’s why I have to thank the ever-intrepid investigative reporter Brian Deer for providing me an alternative topic that is way more important than some self-important little quack and a compelling topic to blog about in its own right. Brian Deer, as you might recall, remains the one journalist who was able to crack the facade of seeming scientific legitimacy built up by antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield and demonstrate that (1) Wakefield’s work concluding that the MMR vaccine was associated with “autistic enterocolitis” was bought and paid for by a solicitor named Richard Barr, who represented British parents looking to sue vaccine manufacturers, to the tune of over £400,000; (2) Wakefield expected to make over £72 million a year selling a test for which Wakefield had filed a patent application in March 1995 claiming that “Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may be diagnosed by detecting measles virus in bowel tissue, bowel products or body fluids”; and Wakefield’s case series published in The Lancet in 1998 was fraudulent, the equivalent of what Deer correctly characterized as “Piltdown medicine.” Ultimately, these revelations led to Wakefield’s being completely discredited to the point where The Lancet retracted his paper and even Thoughtful House, the autism quackery clinic in Austin, TX where Wakefield had a cushy, well-paid position as scientific director, had to give him the boot. Yes, Wakefield is a fraud, and it’s only a shame that it took over a decade for it to be demonstrated.
As much as I hate how it took discrediting Wakefield the man as a fraud rather than just discrediting his bogus science to really begin to turn the tide against the annoying propensity of journalists to look to Wakefield or his acolytes for “equal time” and “balance” whenever stories about autism and vaccines reared their ugly heads, I can’t argue with the results. Wakefield is well and truly discredited now, so much so that, as I noted, his prominent involvement probably ruined any chance promoters of the “CDC whistleblower” scam ever had to get any traction from the mainstream press.
What is sometimes forgotten is the effect Wakefield’s message has had on parents. These are the sorts of parents who tend to congregate into groups designed to promote the idea that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism, such as the bloggers at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, the equally cranky blog The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, or groups like The Canary Party. It is Wakefield’s message and the “autism biomed” quackery that it spawned that have led to unknown numbers of autistic children being subjected to the rankest form of quackery in order to “recover” them, up to and including dubious stem cell therapies and bleach enemas.