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Anti vaccine activists are angry about a new study…and they didn’t even bother to read it

14 Mar

This is a big piece of what the “vaccines-cause-autism” idea is built on. Really bad analyses. Another study shows up showing that vaccines don’t cause autism. People immediately jump to give talking points to their community: “ignore this study! In fact, it’s just another conspiracy to defraud you!!!!!”*

But they know from history, their community doesn’t check. They don’t test whether the talking points hold up. Either that, or they really are this bad at simple math.

One reason I slowed down a lot on writing debunks of the “vaccines cause autism” community is that it’s very repetitive. It only takes a few minutes to see where they make their mistakes. I admit, I have the training and the time to do that checking, but it leaves me wondering. As in, it’s hard to not ask: “are they really this bad at science? Are they so biased they don’t know they are wrong? Or, are they lying?” I don’t know. What matters most is they are wrong. I am grateful that I had the time to spend checking their claims and was able to not get sucked into that world.

That intro aside, there was a recent study that, once again, shows that the MMR vaccine doesn’t increase autism risk. 21 years since Wakefield’s junk study and we are still spending time and money countering his misinformation. When you look at what the autism community needs, it’s just sad to see resources used this way. But I get it. The anti-vaccine community is doing real harm (note the rise in measles in the US and elsewhere). But, dang, I’d like more work done to help my kid.

So, what’s this new study? Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccination and Autism: A Nationwide Cohort Study. With the conclusion:

The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination. It adds to previous studies through significant additional statistical power and by addressing hypotheses of susceptible subgroups and clustering of cases.

Thanks for doing this, but, again, the results are not surprising in the least.

Naturally this brought about a big response from the anti-vaccine community. The go-to place for defense of “vaccines cause autism” used to be the Age of Autism blog. I went there and found they just recycled a piece from a guy named James Lyons Wieler. Apparently he was once a scientist, but he now seems to be a guy asking autism parents for money to write bad articles about how vaccines cause autism. In this case has found the “Smoking Gun” for why the MMR study is so wrong.

(1) The smoking gun is the study-wide autism rate of 0.9-1%. The rate of ASD in Denmark is 1.65%. Where are the missing cases of ASD? Given past allegations of this group’s malfeasance and fraud, the rest of the study cannot be accepted based on this disparity alone: the study group is not representative of the population being studied.

Clearly they must be fudging the data!!!!!

This appears to have become the talking point that the anti-vaccine community is passing around. It was picked up by Brian Hooker. He wrote “A Scientist’s Rebuttal to the Danish Cohort Study“:

1. Children were notably missing from the study sample:

First and foremost is the underascertainment of autism cases within their data sample. The study authors used Denmark population registries of children born in Denmark of Danish-born mothers which should reflect the current reported autism incidence in Denmark at 1.65% (Schendel et al. 2018, JAMA). However, the autism incidence within the sample of the Hviid et al. paper is 0.98%, meaning that approximately 4,400 autistic children are missing from this study. The authors do not discuss the discrepancy in the number of cases.

Again, his number 1 point, the missing children!

Even JB Handley (remember him? Yes, he’s back) wrote about this. Focusing his whole piece on this “missing” group in the MMR study: New Danish MMR study shows autism rate of 1 in 100—CDC should rush to Denmark!

2. The most compelling data in the study will never get covered: why is the autism rate in this study only 1 in 100?

Here in the U.S. we’re at 1 in 36! Shouldn’t CDC researchers rush to Denmark to figure out why their autism rate is so much lower than ours? For every 1,000 Danish kids, only 10 have autism. But here in the U.S., we have 28 per 1,000, that’s 177% more autism! I thought Paul Offit wanted everyone to believe the autism rate was the same everywhere? What gives?

Hold on to your seat, Handley. It’s about to get discussed.

I had thought I’d take the easy route and just email the study author for an explanation. That could have answered the big question for Handley, Weiler, and Hooker. But that would take a day or two to get a response from Denmark. Why not just, you know, read the paper? Or, just the introduction?

Under the “Abstract” section of the MMR paper, which has the “missing” autistic kids and a lower prevalence rate:

Participants: 657 461 children born in Denmark from 1999 through 31 December 2010, with follow-up from 1 year of age and through 31 August 2013.

Under the methods section for the earlier Denmark paper, which has the higher prevalence rate:

All live births in Denmark between 1980 and 2012 were identified in the Central Person Register and followed through 2016 for an ASD diagnosis

It’s not that hard to compare the two studies.

One study looked at Danes born from 1999 to 2010. And took data from 2013. This is the MMR study.

The other study looked at Danes born from 1980 and 2012. And took data in 2016.

Apples, meet Oranges.

Seriously, people are surprised that they came to different answers as to the overall prevalence? I mean, this is your “smoking gun”? This is the best the “vaccines cause autism” community can do? If nothing else, one study took data later than the other. You are the “it’s an epidemic!” team, surely you accept that the autism rate is higher in the later dataset.

But, hey, this didn’t take the full 5 minutes I allocated to check the claims of this “smoking gun” against this new study. I still had 4.5 minutes.

So, let’s see if the data really are compatible. Can we take the data from the prevalence study and get the same number as in the MMR study? Yes, I’m a geek and this is what I do. But we just saw that 2 Ph.D.’s (Hooker and Wieler) and a business guy (Handley) didn’t think to do that. Is it really that hard? (I do wonder how Handley made money. Seems like he must have relied on someone else to do the numbers.)

I just wrote about the autism prevalence study: Yes, there are a lot more adult autistics than commonly thought. The real question is what we do with this information. I have the graph from the prevalence study, so I ran the numbers quickly. If we limit ourselves to the autistics in the MMR study (born 1999 to 2010) and take data in 2013, we get a prevalence value of 1.02%.

1.02% using the prevalence study. Compared to 1% in the MMR study.

They are the same. No “malfeasance”. No “fraud”. No “discrepancy”. And, Mr. Handley, no evidence you can use to blame the HepB vaccine for autism.

Now for the dull part. Here’s my math.

Step 1: I digitized the graph. The red points are where I took prevalence data from the graphs. Each line represents 2 birth years, so I took points where for the age of the average kid in each cohort in 2013.

Here’s the summary table from those data points.

I did this fast. Let me know if I made a mistake. That’s why I’m showing my work. It’s not precise because, well, it’s done by hand. Also, there’s the fact that the MMR paper was for kids born from 1999 to 2010. The prevalence study has kids grouped by 2 years. So I have data for 1998-99 where I only really want 1999. It’s good enough. The “age in 2013” is what the digitizer gave me for the datapoint positions I chose. I can’t get exactly, say, 10.5. But, again, it’s good enough.

Anyway, there’s no “smoking gun” as James Lyons Weiler says. There aren’t children “notably missing” as Brian Hooker claims. And the “most compelling data” according to JB Handley is just that he can’t read a scientific paper.

This is a big piece of what the “vaccines-cause-autism” idea is built on. Really bad analyses. Another study shows up showing that vaccines don’t cause autism. People immediately jump to give talking points to their community: “ignore this study! In fact, it’s just another conspiracy to defraud you!!!!!”*

But they know from history, their community doesn’t check. They don’t test whether the talking points hold up. Either that, or they (people like Handley, Hooker and the rest) really are this bad at simple math.


By Matt Carey.

*Yeah, you guys are pushing a conspiracy theory. I know you like to say “oh, he called us conspiracy theorists, therefore we don’t have to listen to him.” Surprise me. Grow a backbone and defend the points in this commentary rather than either (a) ignoring it or (b) dismissing it because I pointed out that you are claiming scientists conspired to fool the world.

CNN: The money behind the vaccine skeptics

6 Feb

CNN Money has a short video up that makes a point that a few of us have been making for the past few years: much of the vaccine antagonistic message is funded by a few wealthy people. A good discussion can be found at A Snapshot of the Deep Pockets of the Anti-Vaccine Movement on Haprocrates Speaks. The CNN piece is called “The money behind the vaccine skeptics“. I can’t get the video to embed here, but one can find it here.

Here’s a screenshot from CNN showing the organizations, people and money that CNN discusses (click to enlarge)

cnn money

CNN points out that the self-styled National Vaccine Information Center and others (such as Chris Shaw’s group at the University of British Columbia) get a lot of money from the Dwoskin family. The Dwoskin Family Foundation told CNN that they are not antivaccine but are, instead, advocates for safer vaccines. It’s a story we hear a lot.

Claire Dwoskin is or was a board member of the NVIC and made this statement about vaccines. John Stossel had aired a piece about how his daughter had fought off a whooping cough infection and in her response to one of his producers she stated:

What his daughter went through is NOTHING compared to what the families of autistic children go through every day of their lives. No disease can match this record of human devastation. Vaccines are a holocaust of poison on our children’s brains and immune systems. Shame on you all.

I’m not sure how that sentiment fits in with being “advocates for safer vaccines”. One has to accept that vaccines are safe before advocating for safer vaccines.

Also mentioned is Barry Segal who funds Focus Autism (now Focus for Health) and A Shot of Truth. And Generation Rescue’s JB Handley and Jenny McCarthy. Both Focus Autism and Generation Rescue are noted for funding Andrew Wakefield’s “Strategic Autism Initiative”. All these groups are discussed in previous articles here at Left Brain/Right Brain.

The piece is short and perhaps that’s why they don’t mention Generation Rescue’s hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on full page ads claiming vaccines cause autism, or their poorly performed phone survey on vaccines. Lots of money spent on promoting fear and distrust of vaccines.

I’ve never seen evidence of these groups actually funding work into safer vaccines. I’ve never seen, say, funding for research into a new vaccine or even something simple like improved storage and transportation for vaccines into the developing world to reduce the use of thimerosal, a preservative these groups claim (without good evidence) cause autism and other disabilities.


Matt Carey

Is Autism Speaks supporting vaccine-autism causation proponent Congressman Bill Posey?

19 Aug

Someone forwarded an email from the “Autism Action Network” recently. The email asked people to support Congressman Bill Posey’s election campaign by attending a fundraiser. Looks like a few big donors to Mr. Posey were going to attend, including Sallie Bernard of SafeMinds and Autism Speaks. Ms. Bernard certainly is with both organizations, but I wonder if she was attending as an Autism Speaks officer or if Autism Speaks was even aware that their name was being used to promote the fundraiser.

Perhaps Ms. Bernard wasn’t aware that her Autism Speaks affiliation was being used this way. I’ve seen some of my affiliations used where I didn’t expect nor want them. Perhaps Ms. Bernard was aware that the AS affiliation was being used in this advertisement, but Autism Speaks wasn’t. Perhaps Autism Speaks was aware and supported this effort. I’m not betting heavily on that last option though.

Here’s the list of donors for the fundraiser in the email I got:

Jennifer Larson of the Canary Party and Health Freedom
Sallie Bernard of Safeminds and Autism Speaks
JB Handley of Generation Rescue
Tony Lyons of Shy[sic] Horse Publishing
Barry Segal of Focus Autism
Mark Blaxill of the Canary Party and Health Freedom
Dr. Gary Kompothecras
Teri Costigan

The Autism Speaks name adds a legitimacy to this fundraiser that the other groups just can’t. The Canary Party and Health Freedom (which I assume to be Americans for Health Choice) are basically the same people with “Canary Party” as a political party and “heath freedom” as a charity. The Canary Party/Health Freedom team is led by the same people who funded large donations to Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chair Daryl Issa ($40k plus). JB Handley is not as vocal as he once was, but he founded Generation Rescue on the notion that “autism is just a misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning“. Sky Horse publishing is boutique publisher of many of the books on vaccines and autism, including “Age of Autism” and books by Andrew Wakefield. Barry Segal (Focus Autism) has been a large supporter of groups like Generation Rescue, the Age of Autism, SafeMinds and is very vocal on his belief that vaccines cause not only autism, but many other health problems as well. Gary Kompothecras has been funding Mr. Posey for years and is an autism parent and benefactor of groups promoting the vaccine/autism idea.

Without Autism Speaks’ name added to this, this would be very clearly all about a small but wealthy group of people pushing the failed ideas of vaccines and autism. People with failed and damaging ideas have the right to lobby members of congress along with everyone else. I, for one, am glad that the vast majority of Congress has moved on from the vaccine/autism-epidemic idea. I look forward to the day when that majority reaches 100%.


By Matt Carey

Celebrities and seizures: Evan’s grandmother speaks out

12 Jan

Jenny McCarthy is the face of vaccine rejectionism in America. The story she tells of how her son, Evan, became autistic after his MMR shot is arguably the origin myth for the anti-vaccine movement, and the legions of “Warrior
Mothers
” who follow her. Now, a competing narrative from someone else close to Evan calls the myth into question. “I have such tremendous guilt for not speaking up when I knew something wasn’t right,” says Joyce Bulifant, Evan’s paternal grandmother.

“But I was afraid of Jenny, and didn’t want to be the interfering mother-in-law. I was more concerned about me than taking care of Evan.” She agreed to speak with AutismNewsBeat.

McCarthy’s many critics have pointed to her numerous contradictions. She told Oprah Winfrey, for example, and there is “no doubt in my mind” that the MMR vaccine caused her son Evan’s autism. But she has also written that Evan showed signs of delay by six months – one year before the shot. “I don’t think she’s very fond of me, but I love her because she is Evan’s mother. It makes me sad that we don’t have a true relationship,” says Bulifant. “That makes me very sad.”

– more at
autismnewsbeat.com

No, the thimerosal in the flu vaccine does not explain why autism rates did not go down

6 Oct

Surprisingly enough, there are still people promoting the idea that the rise in autism diagnoses observed over the last decades was caused by thimerosal in vaccines. The original argument was this–vaccines were added to the vaccine schedule in the 1990’s and with them the infant exposure to thimerosal increased. Concurrent with this rise in infant thimerosal exposure was a rise in autism diagnoses. Add to this a poorly concocted argument that autism resembles mercury intoxication and you have the basis for the mercury hypothesis.

Thimerosal was phased out of infant vaccines over 10 years ago. Thus, if the thimerosal hypothesis were true, reported autism rates should be declining by now. As far back as 2005 David Kirby (whose book “Evidence of Harm” played a major role in promoting the mercury hypothesis) acknowledged this point in a statement

If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.

It’s 2013. Autism rates in California have not declined. Not in Special Education. Not in the CDDS roles. And, yes, we are six years past the 2007 deadline that David Kirby gave us.

To be specific, let’s use the same method that David Kirby and others used to claim a thimerosal induced autism epidemic in the 1990’s (namely the California DDS client count–which not a good method, by the way). Autism “rates” have gone up by over 150% since thimerosal was phased out of infant vaccines. The age 3-5 bracket had about 4000 children in 2003 and is currently over 10,000.

CDDS 3-5

So we have more kids in California receiving services under the autism label than when thimerosal was in vaccines.

This is but one in a huge list of reasons why the thimerosal hypothesis doesn’t work.

But let’s go back in time a bit. Not so long ago one would hear proposals that we go back to the vaccine schedule of the early 1980’s when, it is claimed, the autism rate was 1 in 10,000. Fewer vaccines, less thimerosal, less autism. So goes the logic.

Generation Rescue, in fact, used to recommend the 1983 schedule as one of their alternative schedules

Turn back the clock
Comment: This is the schedule from 1983. If it worked for kids then, why doesn’t it work for kids now?”

Does it make sense to go back to the 1983 schedule? No. Why? OK a lot of reasons, but let’s focus on the fact that infants were exposed to more thimerosal in the 1980’s than today. Infant vaccines have no or only trace amounts of thimerosal.  So if thimerosal were the (or even a single) primary cause of autism risk, we would see autism rates lower today. To not only 1990’s levels, but to something like 1980’s reported levels. Assuming that the reported rates in the 1980’s were an accurate count of how many autistics there were then (a bad assumption but it’s the one they use).

To recap–Infant thimerosal exposure from vaccines peaked at nearly 200 micrograms in the 1990’s, up from about 100 micrograms in the 1980’s and is now less than 10 micrograms. And autism rates have not declined at all. Much less to 1980’s levels.

Once anyone says this the instant answer is that there is still thimerosal in some influenza vaccines. This, they say, is why autism rates have not declined. (note that thimerosal containing vaccines, including influenza vaccines, are banned in California for infants and pregnant women…and autism “rates” have continued to climb here).  

For completeness sake, let’s consider a kid who gets the maximum exposure to thimerosal from vaccines. I.e. a non California kid.  A kid who turns 6 months (the earliest age they will give a flu vaccine to a kid) during the flu season.  That kid will get 2 vaccines in the first year (6 and 7 months) then another influenza vaccine each year thereafter. Each with 25 micrograms of mercury from thimerosal. How does the thimerosal exposure compare to the 1983 schedule?  Take a look for yourself (exposures in micrograms of mercury from thimerosal):

1983 schedule 2013 schedule
DPT Inluenza
2 months 25
4 months 25
6 months 25 25
7 months 25
Total by 1 year 75 50
18 months 25 25
Total by 2 years 100 75
30 Months 25
Total by 3 years 100 100

So by age 3, the exposures are the same.  Except that the kid of today gets the thimerosal later and more spread out over time.  As an aside–most people who talk about the rise in thimerosal exposure during the 1990’s neglect to point out that the cumulative exposure in the 1980’s was already 100 micrograms. I.e. the “safe” level was significant.

If thimerosal were the driving force behind the rise in autism diagnoses, we should be back to 1983 levels, misrepresented by those claiming an epidemic as 1 in 10,000.  Instead we are at 1-2%.  The “rates” didn’t go down.

By this point the proponents of thimerosal are basically screaming, “you are forgetting the vaccines recommended to pregnant women!” No, I just put that off until now.  Sure, the influenza vaccine is recommended for pregnant women, but as the CDC notes:

Prior to 2009, influenza vaccination levels among pregnant women were generally low (~15%) (5,9).

So, from about 2000 to 2009 there wasn’t a big increase (or even a large part of the population) getting influenza vaccines while pregnant, nor were their children getting exposures higher than those in the 1983 schedule.

Take a look at that graph for California administrative autism prevalence again. Between 2002 (after the drawdown of thimerosal in vaccines) and 2012 the autism count doubled. Thimerosal exposure was down. A lot. Below 1990’s “epidemic” levels. Back to the 1983 “worked for kids then” levels. But autism “rates” continue to climb.

The people still pushing the idea that thimerosal is a (or even the) primary cause of autism are not unintelligent. We are talking about college educated people. Ivy league schools. A former journalist, an intellectual property expert and more. There is no math above. It’s all quite simple and straightforward. It uses the exact same logic and methodology they used to promote the idea that mercury causes autism. This is where intellectual honesty and basic integrity should kick in and get people to suck it up, admit their mistakes and start repairing the harm they have caused.

I’m not holding my breath.

By Matt Carey

No, the autism “rate” in California did not go down after removing thimerosal from vaccines

26 Feb

I recently attended a talk where the speaker showed autism prevalence by age group for a large HMO in California. The administrative prevalence (fraction of people in the HMO identified autistic) was still going up as of 2010, and the speaker indicated this trend continued to 2012. California is an interesting case study because not only was thimerosal removed from vaccines along with the rest of the U.S. starting in the late 1990’s, but the state enacted a law which required that pregnant women and children under three be given thimerosal free vaccines from 2006 onward. So, with the exception of an an exemption in 2009 and another one right now, even the influenza vaccine in thimerosal free. I bring this up because it is a common argument that somehow the exposure from the flu vaccine is keeping the rate climbing, even though at most this is a lower exposure than that from the 1990’s pediatric vaccine schedule.

This all said, the talk made me dive back into looking at autism prevalence. I decided to finally write about the fact that the autism prevalence in Denmark is higher post thimerosal than while thimerosal containing vaccines were in use. This is completely unsurprising, but a myth has been propogating that it came down and that fact was being hidden.

As it turns out I also checked back with what once was the most common source of autism data for the armchair epidemiologist: the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS). (I admit one could argue that Special Education data are the most common source for the armchair epidemiologist). The CDDS provides services to disabled Californians and keeps and makes public statistics on their client base. For a long time, every quarter they would come out with a report. For a long time, every quarter these reports would be followed by announcements about how the data showed that vaccines cause autism. One of the people you could always count on was David Kirby (author of the book, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, and basically a PR man for some of the vaccine-causation groups). Mr. Kirby went so far as to claim that these data were the “gold standard of autism epidemiology”. Well, the data had their uses (such as identifying and quantifying some of the social influences behind the increase) but it is not an easy task to get results from them. The idea that they represent an accurate count of all those with ASD’s (or even accurately account for all individuals with autistic disorder) is a stretch.

But this didn’t stop David Kirby. Back in 2005, David Kirby was claiming that there was an indication that the administrative prevalence in California was starting to drop, and if the trend continued this was a sign that the removal of thimerosal was having an effect:

Stay tuned. If the numbers in California and elsewhere continue to drop – and that still is a big if — the implication of thimerosal in the autism epidemic will be practically undeniable.

Well, by 2007 it was clear that the California data were not really showing a drop. In addition, the lack of a drop was published in 2008 as Continuing increases in autism reported to California’s developmental services system: mercury in retrograde.\

The rise in the number of autism clients in the CDDS database was key to the idea of the mercury-induced epidemic. David Kirby (and others) relied on these data and Mr. Kirby even acknowledged that the data should start showing a drop (statement from 2005):

If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.

The reason is that 5 year olds in 2007 were born after the removal of thimerosal from vaccines. Their exposure to thimerosal was much less than kids in the 1990’s. If the “thimerosal caused an autism epidemic” idea were true, the rates would have to drop. They should drop back to pre-1990 (actually pre 1980) levels if thimerosal were the main, or even a main, cause of the rise.

My recollection is that Mr. Kirby did later backpedal and claim that we would have to wait until some much later date, but it was a weak argument (even by David Kirby standards).

Sorry to keep diving into past history, but one of the strangest moments in the mecury debate (and I can use the term this time, because there was a debate) came in San Diego in 2007. David Kirby debated Arthur Allen in the UCSD Price Center (about 100 yards from my old office, as it turns out). Presented with the fact that even though thimerosal exposure from vaccines had gone down, the California numbers kept going up, David Kirby presented (in something like 100 power point slides!) a four pronged response. First was a claim that California HMO’s had stockpiled thimerosal containing vaccines, so the exposure from vaccines didn’t really go down as much as reports were claiming. Then:

1) A gigantic plume of coal smoke from Chinese power plants has settled on California, depositing lots of mercury and therefore causing the autism numbers in the state to continue to grow.

2) Bad forest fires have put tons of mercury into the air, depositing lots of mercury etc…

3) Cremations (!). The burning of dead bodies with mercury amalgam in their mouths has added even more mercury to the air.

It was a hail Mary pass, to be blunt. Lot’s of handwaving and ignoring the facts.

In 2007, the CDDS changed the way they assessed and counted their clients and they stopped publishing the quarterly reports. As you can imagine, many claimed this was part of a conspiracy to hide the fact that the autism rates were declining in California. And with that the quarterly ritual of misinterpreting and deconstrucing the data came to an end.

All amusing history, sure, but one might ask, why bring all this up again? Well, because it turns out that the CDDS started putting out quarterly reports again in 2011. Yes, there’s a gap of a few years in the data. Yes, some things changed (for example, the CDDS now shows the PDD fraction of autism client base). Given these limitations–and the other limitations in the CDDS data (i.e. they are *not* the “gold standard” of autism epidemiology), what do these data show? The upward trends continue. More individuals served by the CDDS with autism, even though thimerosal was removed from vaccines. Here’s the total–all ages–count for CDDS clients in the autism category (click to enlarge):

CDDS total

Looking at the younger age groups, those whose exposure to thimerosal is much lower than for kids born in the 1990s, there is also an increase. Here is the age 3-5 age group (click to enlarge)

CDDS 3-5

and the 6-9 age group (click to enlarge):

CDDS 6-9

9 year olds in 2012 were born in 2003. Post the removal of thimerosal nationwide. 5 year olds were born in 2007, post thimerosal nationwide and post the California law prohibiting mercury in vaccines for pregnant women and small children. In both groups, the CDDS autism counts are higher than they were in 2002 (the earliest date in the currently available data). Which, in turn, was much higher than the counts from the 1990’s. Here is a figure from the Schechter-Grether paper refenced above:

S-G CDDS paper figure

Which is all a very long way of saying: years ago the evidence was against the thimerosal/epidemic idea; it is even more clear now. For years we heard Mr. Kirby and others talk about how those responsible should step up and admit what happened. Well, the fact is they did. Now it is time for those who promoted the mercury notion to step forward and show they have the guts to admit they were wrong. Because they were. Clearly wrong. It would take a lot of guts to step forward and admit the mistakes. Even though their influence has waned, it would help the autism communities. While I have focused on David Kirby in this discussion, the list is much longer of people who should step forward. I’m not going to hold my breath.


By Matt Carey

MMR Vaccine and Autism: Vaccine Nihilism and Postmodern Science

6 Sep

In a commentary for the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Gregory A. Poland, MD writes about MMR and autism. In case you don’t get the idea of his stance from the title of the article, MMR Vaccine and Autism: Vaccine Nihilism and Postmodern Science, it starts out with a quote:

Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’m sure people will counter that they are very “smart” and “well educated” and, therefore, not ignorant when they promote the MMR/autism notion. Is it ignorance, willful ignorance, bias, dishonesty, some mix or something else entirely that is behind the perpetuation of the idea? I don’t know. On a very real level, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that the MMR hypothesis was wrong and that those who continue to promote it are causing a very real danger to society.

That said, here are Dr. Poland’s views in the introduction to his paper:

It is a truism that acting in one’s perceived self-interest is not always in one’s self-interest. Perhaps nowhere is this truer in contemporary public health than for the issue of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) immunization and persistent fears about a possible connection with autism. Although each of these 3 diseases had been controlled in the United States with the widespread use of the MMR vaccine, in the past decade those gains have been slipping. Even though the United States has had fewer than 50 measles cases per year during the past decade (mostly imported from other countries), 156 cases have already been identified in the first 6 months of 2011. 1 European countries such as England, Wales, Italy, France, Spain, and Germany are also experiencing substantial increases in measles outbreaks.

Why should we be concerned? Measles is the most transmissible human disease known. Even with modern medical care, approximately 1 of every 3000 infected persons die, and many more are hospitalized or otherwise harmed as a result. Population coverage (herd immunity) needs to be in excess of 96% to prevent outbreaks. In addition, measles is a disease for which eradication is both possible and planned, a goal that obviously cannot be met given current vaccine coverage levels.

This predictable sequence of falling coverage levels, followed by outbreaks of disease, has occurred because of decreased public confidence in the safety of the MMR vaccine. In large part, this has resulted from incorrect assertions that the vaccine plays a role in the development of autism, an idea promoted by Andrew Wakefield. No credible scientific evidence, however, supports the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and indeed, national medical authorities and scientific professional societies have unanimously …

This article is commentary (i.e. not a research article), but there are some good points and questions made:

Why in the face of nearly 2 dozen studies and every scientific committee rejecting such an MMR-autism connection does this myth persist?

As expected, he notes the celebrity aspect of the vaccine-causation notion. He also discusses the recent paper in the PACE Law Review.

Under “Moving Forward”, Dr. Poland writes:

At some point, a point I believe we have well passed, the small group of people who claim such connections, who have no new or credible data, and for which their assumptions and hypotheses have been discredited must simply be ignored by scientists and the public and, most importantly, by the media, no matter how passionate their beliefs to the contrary. Such individuals are denialists at best, and dangerous at worst. Unfortunately, the media has given celebrities who comment on an autism-MMR link far more attention than they deserve, and the public, unfamiliar with the background science, has confused celebrity status with authority. Such a phenomenon has not been lost on those wishing to continue the discussion. As an example, J. Hanlon, cofounder of Generation Rescue (an organization that advocates for an autism-MMR vaccine link) commented, in regard to the finding that both Andrew Wakefield and his assertion of a connection between autism and MMR vaccine had been discredited, that to those who believe vaccines cause autism “Andrew Wakefield was Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ all wrapped in one.”

Prediction: we will hear all about how this commentary is obviously worthless because the author didn’t correctly cite J.B. Handley. If you are wondering what I mean, read again, Mr. Handley is referred to as J. Hanlon. I wish the author hadn’t made that mistake as such small errors are exploited in exactly this way. But, at the same time, this puts some perspective on the situation regarding Mr. Handley. He is a well known name in a very small community. He has become one of the go-to people for comments critical of vaccination (as in the Jesus Christ/Nelson Mandella article).

Prediction 2: Dr. Poland’s article will be called an attempt at censorship (see the conclusion below). Probably with no sense of irony by the same people who recently stated that Autism Speaks should “Shut up, shut down and go away.”

Prediction 3: People will still refuse to see how strange the “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ” comment read to the majority of readers. OK, I am predicting the past here, but I expect this to go forward too. Dr. Poland didn’t pick this quote to place Andrew Wakefield in good light.

That all said, I agree with Dr. Poland. It is well past time for the MMR story to be set aside. Just because there are adherents to the idea doesn’t mean that news organizations need to give it false balance.

Dr. Poland concludes his article with a simple summary: the MMR/autism question has been investigated closely and no link is found. The decision to forgo immunization based on this fear is not without danger. Those who promote the MMR/autism link in the face of all the evidence are not working for the public good:

For anyone adhering to the scientific model of discovery, experimentation, and evidence, the trial is over and the jury back—there is no known scientific association between receipt of MMR vaccine and the subsequent development of autism. Making the decision to not immunize children with the MMR vaccine because of fear of such an association —rather than credible scientific evidence—places children and others at great risk as current measles outbreaks in the United States and Europe illustrate. Vaccine nihilists who continue to claim such associations are simply wrong, and they pedal an agenda other than for the public good. At this point, the antivaccine groups and conspiracy proponents promoting such an association should be ignored, much as thinking people simply ignore those who continue to insist that the earth is flat or that the US moon landing in 1969 did not really occur

He concludes simply but strongly:

There is no law against being foolish, nor any vaccine against ignorance; however, in the meantime the health of millions of children in the United States and worldwide is being placed at unnecessary and real risk through continued deliberate misinformation and discredited unscientific beliefs, and that should be a crime.