Another weak study “proves” vaccines cause autism

17 Sep

I am constantly amazed at the low level of proof people use to demonstrate that vaccines cause autism.

Case in point, David Kirby and his recent post on the Age of Autism blog (and, a I write this, The Huffington Post).

He takes an abstract from a poster session and declares victory in the war to prove vaccines cause autism.

Here’s the abstract:

CM Gallagher, MS Goodman, Graduate Program in Public
Health, Stony Brook University Medical Center, Stony Brook, NY
PURPOSE: Universal newborn immunization with hepatitis
B vaccine was recommended in 1991; however, safety
findings are mixed. The Vaccine Safety Datalink Workgroup
reported no association between hepatitis B vaccination
at birth and febrile episodes or neurological adverse
events. Other studies found positive associations between
hepatitis B vaccination and ear infection, pharyngitis, and
chronic arthritis; as well as receipt of early intervention/
special education services (EIS); in probability samples of
U.S. children. Children with autistic spectrum disorder
(ASD) comprise a growing caseload for EIS. We evaluated
the association between hepatitis B vaccination of male
neonates and parental report of ASD.
METHODS: This cross-sectional study used U.S. probability
samples obtained from National Health Interview Survey
1997–2002 datasets. Logistic regression modeling was used to
estimate the effect of neonatal hepatitis B vaccination on
ASDrisk amongboys age 3–17 years with shot records, adjusted
for race, maternal education, and two-parent household.
RESULTS:Boyswho received the hepatitis B vaccine during
the first month of life had 2.94 greater odds for ASD (nZ31
of 7,486; OR Z 2.94; p Z 0.03; 95% CI Z 1.10, 7.90)
compared to later- or unvaccinated boys.Non-Hispanicwhite
boys were 61%less likely to haveASD(ORZ0.39; pZ0.04;
95% CIZ0.16, 0.94) relative to non-white boys.
CONCLUSION: Findings suggest that U.S. male neonates
vaccinated with hepatitis B vaccine had a 3-fold greater risk
of ASD; risk was greatest for non-white boys.

What did they do? They looked at data from the National Health Interview Studies, and looked at autism and hepatitis B vaccination. They used surveys from 1997 to 2002, with children aged from 3 to 17.

Mr. Kirby was kind enough to post an image of the poster to the EOHarm group.

The autism group had 33 kids total. Of these, 9 of 31 (29%) were given the HepB vaccine. Compare this to 1,258 of 7,455 (17%) of the non-autism group who were given the HepB.

9 out of 31.

Are the red flags up yet? They should be.

Take for example kids aged 17 in the 1997 survey. When were they born? That’s right, 1980.

When was the Hepatitis B vaccine introduced? 1991. According to Mr. Kirby himself, the HepB vaccine didn’t get fully implemented until about 1996.

A lot of the kids were born before the “epidemic” of autism. No one disputes that the number of people identified with autism has gone up significantly in the last 30 years.

So, pretty much anything that changed in that time would “correlate” with autism.

This is how we get studies that “show” that Cable TV causes autism. And, now, the Hepatitis B vaccine causes autism.

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15 Responses to “Another weak study “proves” vaccines cause autism”

  1. Prometheus September 17, 2009 at 22:53 #

    I just did a couple of quick statistics on the data in this poster.

    The first thing that pops up is that the prevalence of autism in this group is 1 in 238 (in the groups with HBV data, the prevalence was 1 in 241). Seems a bit low.

    Secondly, there is no statistically significant difference between the two groups (HBV/no HBV) in their autism prevalence (p = 0.07).

    The poster gives no details about how the data was “controlled for confounders”, so it is unclear how they might have “massaged” the data into significance. No matter – with no statistically significant difference between the groups, the odds ratio is meaningless.


  2. Joseph September 17, 2009 at 23:20 #

    There’s also a potential geographic confound that is similar. The NHIS is a US-level survey, so the children are likely from many different states. Wealthier states tend to have better immunization coverage (I’ve checked the data.) It’s a wonder the non-adjusted correlation isn’t more significant.

    Then again, at the individual level, it’s possible that parents who refuse immunization tend to be wealthy (spending lots of time on the internet.) That might explain the need to control for “race, maternal education, and two-parent household” – all socio-economic variables – in order to push the numbers into a significant association. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense to me that controlling for those confounds would make the association more significant. I might have guessed the opposite.

    • Sullivan September 17, 2009 at 23:35 #


      the authors found after their regression that the odds ratio for autism for non-Hispanic whites was 0.385.

      This is polar opposite to the administrative data (which usually shows very high “odds” for whites) and against what actual prevalence studies show (no variation by race/ethnicity).

      Something is very odd with that study.

      Prometheus, thanks for that information. No difference between the groups.

  3. passionlessDrone September 18, 2009 at 01:07 #

    Hello friends –

    I believe that the authors in question had a similar study about a year ago with crazy high ORs for Hep B; the abstract couldn’t seem to decide if it was a thimerosal paper or not if I recall correctly. Someone I tend to trust told me that study had big problems; this study would seem to be no different.

    – pD

  4. Emily September 18, 2009 at 01:23 #

    What Prometheus said.

  5. Joseph September 18, 2009 at 01:57 #

    the authors found after their regression that the odds ratio for autism for non-Hispanic whites was 0.385.

    Right, that makes no sense. I can’t come up with an explanation, except to say that perhaps the figure is in error, in which case the control for confounding might be in error as well.

  6. Gene September 18, 2009 at 03:34 #

    Interesting that the poster title isn’t “Single parenting of male neonates and autism”, since the p-value for the “two-parents” variable is the most significant (although none of the p-values is anything to write home about).

  7. David N. Brown September 18, 2009 at 05:48 #

    I believe (and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned here before) that the major factors for non-vaccination are poverty, geographic isolation and proximity to organized local anti-vaccine groups. Something else that’s been discussed is some evidence that autistics have a lower vaccination rate.

  8. dr treg September 18, 2009 at 09:49 #

    re non-immunisation
    You forgot the major reason – the irresponsible media and politicians`s e.g. Tony Blair, effect on certain individuals.

  9. David N. Brown September 19, 2009 at 18:37 #

    Dr. Treg,
    While “irresponsible media and politicians” certainly deserve criticism, I don’t think they are a major factor in themselves. These are national-scale influences, and their influence should be evenly distributed through the population. But non-immunisation is clearly concentrated in relatively small regions and subpopulations (possibly the most dangerous aspect of the penomenon), which to me points to localized factors as more important. Another demographic fact that is well-established is that organized “anti-vaccination” is distinctly a middle and upper-class phenomenon, so non-immunisation among the poor can be considered a separate issue.

  10. Ed November 22, 2009 at 19:22 #

    I am equally surprised at the conclusions that are drawn by the other side of the debate from the data presented. For example, can you conclude that mercury does no harm from a study that shows it disappears from the blood stream within 3 days of injection? Can you conclude that mercury has nothing to do with autism when the rate of autism rises when mercury is withdrawn? (The correct answer is that either mercury helps the autism rate or that something else crept into the data collection.)

    I saw the CDC claim that the rate of autism was 4 in 10000 up until February 2007. In my son’s school of 250 children there were 3 autistic children at the same time and another up the road who would have been in the school except that her parents sent her to a private institution. Given that tidbit of information, should I blindly accept the CDC’s claim? Given the interest of the medical community being so pro-vax (and for good reason I might add) should I trust their opinions to be unbiased?

    I believe that this study was weak but I also have to say that this community would not recognize the weaknesses of their own studies even when it is pointed out to them.

  11. Joseph November 23, 2009 at 00:24 #

    Can you conclude that mercury has nothing to do with autism when the rate of autism rises when mercury is withdrawn? (The correct answer is that either mercury helps the autism rate or that something else crept into the data collection.)

    @Ed: Why would that be the “correct” answer? That’s nonsense. Option # 3, that autism and mercury are not associated, is clearly the most plausible one.

    Additionally, what you can say after such an observation is that one of the key predictions of the mercury hypothesis failed. Even David Kirby knew as much. He said the hypothesis would suffer a “severe blow.”

    I saw the CDC claim that the rate of autism was 4 in 10000 up until February 2007

    Where? This has to be either made up or mischaracterized.

    this community would not recognize the weaknesses of their own studies even when it is pointed out to them.

    If that’s the case, you should be able to easily demonstrate it.

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