Salon – Inside the vaccine scare

22 Sep

Salon redeems itself from producing what Orac at the time called biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd ever dropped on the web.

Three years ago Salon published the notoriously innacurate ramblings of RFK Jr. After uproar in the web science community and numerous fixes and amends to the original piece, what was left was still an awful piece of credulous rubbish.

It seems that Salon learnt their lesson. This time, they have ensured that the person talking about vaccines and autism is a _scientist_ as oppose to a crowd-pleasing politician.

Rahul Parikh has published a review of Paul Offit’s Autism’s False Prophets which differs so wildly from the RFK Jr debacle that its almost impossible to think of them being in the same publication.

I don’t want to do a review of a review as that would be bizarre and unnecessary but Parikh makes some key points that I want to address. The first one is the way the book starts.

Early in Dr. Paul A. Offit’s new book, “Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure,” he describes a threatening letter he received from a man in Seattle. “I will hang you by you neck until you are dead!” it read. The FBI deemed the threat credible, assigning Offit a protective officer who, for the next few months, followed him “to and from lunch, a gun hanging at his side.” He then recalls a suspicious phone call from a man who recited the names of Offit’s two children and where they went to school: “His implication was clear. He knew where my children went to school. The he hung up.” These days, the hospital he works in regularly screens his mail for suspicious packages.

Such stories usually come from pro-choice physicians on the front lines of the abortion debate. But Offit is no obstetrician. Rather, he is a baby doctor — the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The threats against him and his family have come not from antiabortion advocates, but rather from anti-vaccine crusaders who believe that vaccines cause autism. Offit, it turns out, has been targeted by them because he helped to develop a vaccine that prevents rotavirus, a serious gastrointestinal infection in children, and because he has been staunchly pro-vaccine in a time when there are many doubts about their safety.

It is amazing that we should be in a situation where a doctor who is actively saving lives is being targeted for that very fact. What is even more amazing is the fact that the very antivaxers who hate Offit so much simply don’t believe he _is_ being targeted. A few comments from Lisa Jo Rudy’s piece on Offit’s book illustrate this perfectly:

It’s very hard to judge the seriousness claims like Offit’s….

Mark Blaxill, Safe Minds.

I have heard Dr. Offitt make his claims of threats, etc. on more than one occasion. But I have never seen any real evidence of those alleged threats.

Wade Rankin, autism/antivax blogger

I would suggest that a reference to the possibility that some agency or company would harm one’s children in the future could be construed and repeated as a “threat” to one’s children if that threat would help to garner sympathy and label an opposing side as nuts.

Mike B

An amazing reaction. They genuinely hate Paul Offit so much that they think he is making up threats made to his children. And they think he’s doing it to ‘garner sympathy and label an opposing side as nuts’. This is the type of denial and refusal to see their own shortcomings that has led to the sorry state of autism/vaccine science in the first place.

Parikh also documents the reality of the science today and the reality of how the wider world views the autism/anti-vaccine community.

Despite what Wakefield claimed in his paper, his hospital’s ethics committee never approved his experiments to put children to sleep under general anesthesia, do spinal taps on them, take biopsies of their intestines (one of the children was hospitalized after his colon perforated in several places) and take volumes of blood from their veins. Deer also discovered serious conflicts of interest: Wakefield’s research was secretly bankrolled by a personal injury lawyer whose clients were suing MMR makers. Wakefield himself was given close to a million dollars to prove that the MMR caused autism. He had filed a patent for a new MMR vaccine at the same time he was doing his research. Upon learning this, Lancet retracted his paper, and he was charged with professional misconduct in 2005. If he is found guilty of misconduct, he will never practice medicine in the U.K. again.

The people in the autism/anti-vaccine community see Wakefield as a persecuted hero. Everyone else in the entire world who takes an interest in the matter sees him as a weak man who tried to game people – and did. Possibly he still is.

This level of disconnect between what those in the autism/antivax community see as the reality and the _actual_ reality is sometimes shocking. Even for me who has been in the front line of this debate for five years now, some of the things I read about and see from these people make my jaw drop.

I blogged about an example of this not long ago when Safe Minds Board Member Heidi Roger stated that Polio could be preferable to autism – and even that death could be better than autism.

This is a sadly far from uncommon opinion amongst a certain type of autism/antivax believer. To sum up their personality type would, I think, bring a sizeable minority of them very close to Munchausen syndrome by proxy/ Fabricated or induced illness , the indications of which seem very familiar to me from reading the Yahoo groups over the last few years:

* A child who has one or more medical problems that do not respond to treatment or that follow an unusual course that is persistent, puzzling and unexplained.
* Physical or laboratory findings that are highly unusual, discrepant with history, or physically or clinically impossible.
* A parent who appears to be medically knowledgeable and/or fascinated with medical details and hospital gossip, appears to enjoy the hospital environment, and expresses interest in the details of other patients’ problems.
* A highly attentive parent who is reluctant to leave their child’s side and who themselves seem to require constant attention.
* A parent who appears to be unusually calm in the face of serious difficulties in their child’s medical course while being highly supportive and encouraging of the physician, or one who is angry, devalues staff, and demands further intervention, more procedures, second opinions, and transfers to other, more sophisticated, facilities.
* The suspected parent may work in the health care field themselves or profess interest in a health-related job.
* The signs and symptoms of a child’s illness do not occur in the parent’s absence (hospitalization and careful monitoring may be necessary to establish this causal relationship).
* A family history of similar or unexplained illness or death in a sibling.
* A parent with symptoms similar to their child’s own medical problems or an illness history that itself is puzzling and unusual.
* A suspected emotionally distant relationship between parents; the spouse often fails to visit the patient and has little contact with physicians even when the child is hospitalized with serious illness.
* A parent who reports dramatic, negative events, such as house fires, burglaries, or car accidents, that affect them and their family while their child is undergoing treatment.
* A parent who seems to have an insatiable need for adulation or who makes self-serving efforts for public acknowledgment of their abilities.

I might catch some flak for making this comparison but whilst I am not suggesting that everyone autism/antivax adherent is MSbP or FII, I do think – as I say – a sizeable minority are. In the list above I have emboldened the characteristics I personally have seen lots of evidence of.

At any rate, whether there is genuine evidence of MSbP or FII or not, there is definitely an ongoing unreality to a certain group of peoples lives with autism. Why? To pretend to themselves they have total control over something that they do not understand? To medicalise something in order to keep alive the hope of a medical cure? To fuel their pre-existing lust for conspiracy theories? All of the above? None? Something else?

It gets to a point when it starts to not matter. When autistic children are literally being experimented on with absolutely no control in place like they are being with chelation, like they are being with Lupron and like they now are being with OSR we have to do something. When children in the UK are dying of vaccine preventable disease and children in the US are being hospitalised then we need to do something.

Paul Offit did something.

12 Responses to “Salon – Inside the vaccine scare”

  1. isles September 22, 2008 at 16:21 #

    No flak about the MSbP conjecture here. I think the possibility is one that should be investigated. Some of those biomeddler parents seem to get way too much personal satisfaction out of recounting the travails of living with their kids. I don’t know who should do it, but someone ought to act on the realization that we need to be concerned for the kids’ welfare and not the parents’ potentially hurt feelings.

    Every scientist who studies vaccines should be joining Dr. Offit in public advocacy. I can understand that it takes cojones, but again – kids’ health versus grownups’ comfort.

  2. RJ September 22, 2008 at 16:27 #

    “I might catch some flak for making this comparison but whilst I am not suggesting that everyone autism/antivax adherent is MSbP or FII, I do think – as I say – a sizeable minority are. In the list above I have emboldened the characteristics I personally have seen lots of evidence of.”

    I agree with you 100%.

  3. Joseph September 22, 2008 at 16:38 #

    Considering similar threats have been made on the web and in mailing lists, I think Wade and the rest are being disingenuous. Another argument that I’ve heard is that, if the threats were true, Offit would’ve contacted the police. In the book he clearly indicates he did, so that’s a moot point.

  4. Prometheus September 22, 2008 at 19:28 #

    I’d like to point out that in Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP) the “identified patient” (i.e. the “proxy”) does not have to be completely well. They may – and, in fact, often do – have a real illness that is magnified and embroidered upon by the parent .

    Like autism itself, MSbP is merely one extreme of a spectrum, ranging from the parent who “enhances” their child’s temperature by a degree to get a priority office visit to the parent who fabricates a serious illness in an otherwise healthy child.

    We also need to consider the role of the “alternative” practitioners in initiating and perpetuating MSbP and its lesser spectrum-mates. In fact, we should consider that some of the “alternative” practitioners are themselves engaged in MSbP.


  5. GMC Observer September 22, 2008 at 23:24 #

    Certainly, in the Wakefield case, doctors at the Royal Free were very concerned about the mental state of one of the Lancet paper mothers, who has been a prominent face in the UK litigation and anti-vax campaigning. Simon Murch, one of the accused, who that self-same mother champions, had to travel to the town where she was living for an emergency conference with local doctors, they were so concerned about what she was demanding for her children. Her GP also criticised her conduct. One has to feel sympathy, but there comes a point where professionals must put the children first.

  6. orig calif biomed xprt September 22, 2008 at 23:50 #

    “We also need to consider the role of the “alternative” practitioners in initiating and perpetuating MSbP and its lesser spectrum-mates. In fact, we should consider that some of the “alternative” practitioners are themselves engaged in MSbP.”

    Thanks for this Prometheus. I got the distinct feeling of this from one BMD years back. Another parent, whose child was also a pt. (an allegedly ‘recovered’ one at that) made a comment to me (in person) that chilled me to the bone. She said, “Sometimes I have had the feeling that he’s deliberately making my child sicker. Have you ever had that feeling?” We dropped him shortly thereafter. I still cringe about this BMD. Someone made a comment the other day that we really need to focus on these practitioners and back off on some of the parents. To a certain extent I agree, as I’ve seen them use the parents as a shield. There are some parents, though, who have crossed the line (as we know). But I do feel bad for those parents who have been subject to the psychological abuse by some of these BMDs (who really do verge on the psychopathic).

  7. Wade Rankin January 14, 2009 at 02:12 #

    I have been informed that have been quoted in the above post. As it turns out, the quote attributed to me above is something I never wrote. The entire comment I left at Lisa Jo’s post is as follows:

    I have heard Dr. Offitt make his claims of threats, etc. on more than one occasion. But I have never seen any real evidence of those alleged threats. All of us who have expressed opinions in a public forum have had our share of hate mail. I know, though, that if I ever received a credible threat of violence, I would take whatever evidence I had immediately to the authorities, especially if those threats were directed at family members. Dr. Offitt may well have received something going beyond the typical nastygram; we really don’t know. And that’s the point.

    What is attributed to me above is a comment made by someone who I do not know.

    Gee Kev. For someone who excoriates others for not being 100% accurate in what they publish or post, you seem to have been a little sloppy.

  8. alyric January 14, 2009 at 02:54 #

    Wade if you accept the longer quote as your own you must surely accept the shorter one. i can’t see where the problem is really except that it isn’t Kev’s

  9. Wade Rankin January 14, 2009 at 02:58 #


    I’m more than wiling to stand by my own words . . .
    and using my own name even.

  10. Kev January 14, 2009 at 07:24 #

    Whatever you say Wade, whatever you say.

  11. Joseph January 14, 2009 at 20:16 #

    I’m confused. This is how Wade is quoted:

    I have heard Dr. Offitt make his claims of threats, etc. on more than one occasion. But I have never seen any real evidence of those alleged threats.

    This appears to be a subset of what Wade claims he said. You do see that the attribution is below the quote, right?

    BTW, Dr. Offit did go to the authorities. He says that in the book.


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