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Spourdalakis trial could be a year away

October 7th, 2015 · 1 Comment · Tragedy

Just setting a trial date for the Illinois mother who admitted to the 2013 murder of her son, Alex Spourdalakis, could take six to eight months, according to the woman’s lawyer.

Attorney Michael Botti will ask a circuit court judge for a continuance on November 24.  “We’re still in the discovery phase, and it could be six to eight months before a trial date is even set,” he said.

Dorothy Spourdalakis, of River Grove, admitted to police that she and Alex’s godmother, Agatha Skrodzka, first drugged and then stabbed to death her 14-year-old son. The murder occurred June 8, 2013. Gotti said he hasn’t decided yet if the two women will be tried together. Skrodzka’s attorney is Cook County public defender Jennifer Gill.

Alex Spourdalakis

Alex Spourdalakis

Police said the two women attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, and passed out in Dorothy’s apartment. The scene was discovered hours later by Dorothy’s ex-husband, Minas, and his brother-in-law.

The two women explained in a letter found at the scene that they killed the boy because his emotional condition had deteriorated following a prolonged illness, according to prosecutors.

Botti said insanity is only one of the defense strategies he is exploring for his client. “Right now we’re seeking out experts,” he said.

Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced ex-physician whose fraudulent 1998 paper jump-started America’s anti-vaccine movement, was filming a documentary about Alex in the months leading up to the murder. Wakefield has been in speaking and fund-raising mode since he lost his medical license in 2010, appearing before anti-vaccine groups and opening up to conspiracy-minded talk show hosts. He has also praised parents who would rather kill their autistic child than leave them alone in the world. In May, 2010, he told this story to 40 people in Chicago’s Grant Park:

“About 15 years ago a mother from London approached me and said ‘Do not judge me too harshly Dr. Wakefield, but when I die I am taking my son with me. You see, I’m all he has. I’m the only one who loves him.’”

“I didn’t judge,” said Wakefield. “I was moved by the love that a mother must have for her child that she would take his life rather than have him fall upon a society that really didn’t give a damn.”

The mother had also attracted the attention of online anti-vaccine parents who push unproven, “alternative” medical treatments for autism.

Three months before the murder, Dorothy wrote this about Alex on an online anti-vaccine blog:

“We (autism parents) as a group have been deceived and lied to long enough. Our children have paid and are continuing to pay the ultimate price because of greed. The health care system has failed terribly. It is our responsibility to continue to bring about change.”

Botti says Dorothy Spourdalakis “tried everything she could do” for Alex, but that the boy “was failed” by every medical professional who looked at him. “They just wrote him off because he was autistic.”

One of those medical professionals was Arthur Krigsman, a pediatrician, gastroenterologist, and anti-vaccine personality who has worked in the past with Wakefield. Just three months prior to the murder, Wakefield and others drove Alex and his mother to see Krigsman in New York, where Dorothy and Alex stayed in a hotel for two weeks. Krigsman tested Alex for Lyme Disease, and claims he found numerous lesions in Alex’s gut, but that diagnosis has not been confirmed.


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Usman’s consent decree wrongly identifies reviewing physician as Feinberg faculty

January 6th, 2015 · 6 Comments · Careless sourcing

Why is Dr. Charles Dumont identified as a faculty member at the Northwestern University School of Medicine on Dr. Anju Usman’s court papers?

Dumont is a licensed pediatrician at Chicago’s “Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern”, where he also practices homeopathy and acupuncture. But he is not a faculty member at the Northwestern University School of Medicine, nor is the Raby Institute Affiliated with the Feinburg School of Medicine at Northwestern.


Dr. Charles Dumont

Usman, a pediatrician from Naperville, Illinois, was disciplined last month for administering  to children “medically unwarranted treatment that may potentially result in permanent disabling injuries”.  Her sentence included a minimum one year probation, a $10,000 fine, and mandatory classes in medical ethics. She was also ordered to submit ten active patient files to Dumont every quarter for his review. Usman reportedly chose Dumont as the physician who will assess and review her paperwork.

Susan Hofer, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees Usman’s probation, says it is not unusual for a defendant in a case such as Usman’s to recommend a supervising physician. But Hofer is unable to explain why the court incorrectly identified Dumont as a Feinburg faculty member, and says she is looking into the matter.

Usman’s “medically unwarranted” practices were the subject of a Chicago Tribune investigation in 2009. Her Naperville clinic offers chelation and hyperbaric oxygen treatments. Dumont is no stranger to unproven treatments.  Just last summer, he spoke on “Use of Clinical Homeopathy in Autism Spectrum Disorder” at the International Conference of Clinical Homeopathy in Los Angeles.

There is no scientific evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for autism, or any thing else for that matter.

The Raby Institute offers a smorgasbord of unproven alternative medical practices, including Reiki healing, healing touch, qi gong, body talk, and cranial sacral therapy. And this:

Vibrational Medicine
Nearly everything around us that we touch and see carries a unique vibrational energy signature—a living pulse that connects all things. Vibrational medicine incorporates the use of this chi energy within living organisms such as plants, gemstones and crystals, water, sunlight, and even the foods we eat, to help us balance the energies in our own bodies. Vibrational medicine therapies include color therapy, crystal therapy, flower essence therapies, grounding, and herbal therapies.

Dumont served as an expert witness in 2012 for Boiron, the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products, which was targeted in a class action suit for fraud and violation of consumer protection laws. In deposition, he was challenged as to the effectiveness of homeopathy. The plaintiff’s attorney asked:

Q. do you have any idea how these (Boiron’s products) are supposed work to accomplish these purposes?

A. No one has any hypothesis within the scientific community how they work.

Q. And that includes you?

A. That includes me. I would have the Nobel prize if I knew.

Boiron eventually settled the case without admitting wrong doing, by agreeing to changes in product labeling. One change included the notice “These ‘Uses’ have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”


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Unethical DAN doctor to be supervised by acupuncturist

December 30th, 2014 · 5 Comments · Facepalm

An Illinois doctor who subjects autistic children to “unwarranted, dangerous therapies” must have her work reviewed by an acupuncturist. The state medical board also fined Dr. Anju Usman $10,000, ordered her to take additional medical education classes, and placed her on probation for at least one year, as part of her plea agreement with state regulators.

The acupuncturist, Dr. Robert Charles Dumont, is a pediatrician, and a member of the faculty of the Integrative Medicine Department of Northwestern University School of Medicine. According to the consent decree, Usman “shall submit ten active patient charts on a quarterly basis” to Dumont. When asked if Usman is allowed to select which charts will be reviewed, a medical board spokesperson referred the reporter to the language in the consent decree.

Usman suggested to regulators the doctor who will be reviewing her charts, according to Usman’s attorney.


Dr. Anju Usman

Usman is director of True Health Medical Center in Naperville, Illinois and owner of Pure Compounding Pharmacy. She a is regular presenter at Autism One, an annual gathering of vendors, providers, quasi-researchers and desperate parents.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation says Usman provided “medically unwarranted treatment that may potentially result in permanent disabling injuries” to a boy that Usman started seeing in the spring of 2002, when the child was not quite two years old. Records indicate Usman diagnosed the boy with a calcium-to-zinc imbalance, yeast, “dysbiosis”, low zinc, heavy metal toxicity, and abnormally high levels of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, tin, titanium and selenium. Usman prescribed chelation, a hormone modulator, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which regulators describe as an “extreme departure from rational medical judgment.”

The complaint against Usman was filed by the boy’s father in 2009. A year later, he sued Usman and Dr. Daniel Rossignol of Melbourne, Fla. for harming the child with “dangerous and unnecessary experimental treatments.” A Chicago-area lab, Doctor’s Data, was also sued. The plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the suit in 2014, but will reportedly reinstate it in 2015 or later.

Usman was the subject of a 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation into questionable medical practices aimed at treating autism. The article noted that Usman and Rossignol “are stars of Defeat Autism Now!, having trained thousands of clinicians…  They are listed on the group’s online clinician registry, a first stop for many parents of children with autism seeking alternative treatment.”

Usman’s name is also connected to the 2005 death of Tariq Nadama, a five-year-old boy who died at the hands of Dr. Roy Kerry. Usman diagnosed the boy with high aluminum levels, then referred him to Kerry, an ear-nose-throat specialist in Pennsylvania. Kerry treated the child for lead poisoning, even though his blood lead levels were below that which indicates the need for chelation.



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September is “Toxic Celebrity Endorsement Awareness Month” at State Farm Insurance!

September 23rd, 2014 · 4 Comments · Careless sourcing

The small but noisy minority of people who still believe that vaccines cause autism can’t catch a break.

First they lost on the science. They’ve been laughed out of the courts. Most news media have caught on. And now corporate America realizes how toxic this movement has become.

Take the recent example of Rob Schneider, a D-list actor and 90s SNL cast member, who recently landed a sweet endorsement gig with State Farm Insurance. Well, not anymore. Schneider is also an outspoken anti-vaccine zealot, and was dropped by the insurance giant only days following a social media campaign by public health advocates.

Schneider, 50,  is given to such pronouncements as “The doctors are not gonna tell you both sides of the issue… they’re told by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, that (vaccines are) completely safe.” He once left this online comment: “We must challenge the assumption that vaccination mandates are strictly necessary for the public good. These mandates have not been studied empirically.” And it’s been a month since Schneider warned the Governor of California that the CDC is deliberately covering up data which prove the MMR vaccine causes autism in African American children. That letter, sent to the governor’s Deputy Legislative Secretary Lark Park in late August, came at the same time that Schneider inked an advertising deal with State Farm Insurance.


It appears that the suits at State Farm were unprepared for the blow back. When asked to comment, a company spokesperson told PRWeek that Schneider’s ad neither informs or entertains, but rather “has unintentionally been used as a platform for discussion unrelated to the products and services we provide. With that, we are working to remove the ad from our rotation at this time.”

So preventing disease is irrelevant to the products and services of a company that provides health insurance? Funny thing, that. State Farm was a proud supporter of National Immunization Awareness Month in 2013. According to its press release, “Getting vaccinated is an important action to help protect against serious and sometimes deadly diseases. Keep you and your family safe and healthy with regular immunizations.”

Ray Lehmann at, seems to agree. The industry insider explains why State Farm passed on Schneider’s brand of science denial and paranoia – “Insurance companies are in the business of managing and mitigating risk. That should render associating with a high-profile disseminator of false information that could do catastrophic harm to public health off the table.”

Online blogger ChowBabe, who was instrumental in the pro-vaccine social media campaign, said Schneider’s response to his critics was also a liability to State Farm. “We never specifically called for threats of boycotts of either State Farm or Mr. Schneider, nor was that our desire. We just wanted the best possible outcome with the least possible collateral damage. Mr. Schneider, besides having the opportunity to state that his anti-vaccination views are only opinion, at least could have shown consideration for his co-actors in that spot and prevented their loss of residuals from the ad being pulled. Sadly, he chose instead to stick to his conspiracy theories. It wasn’t the perfect outcome, but it was the best outcome for the promotion of the safety of public health.”



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Live blogging the autism hearing

May 20th, 2014 · 11 Comments · Easy marks, Research

8:07 am – They dropped the epidemic reference. The hearing is now called “Examining the federal response to autism spectrum disorders.” Rep. John Mica (R-FL) is the chair, instead of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Arson).

The purpose of the hearing is to examine federal spending on autism related research and services.

Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) plugs the Affordable Care Act – “Autism is no longer treated as a pre-existing condition.”  He’s recapping the history and purpose of the IACC.

Rep. Bill Posey, R-FL, gives a shout out to SAFE MINDS, the anti-vaccine group. Now he is talking about vaccine safety. He wants a study to compare health outcomes of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. “The science is overwhelming” that there is an environomental component to “the skyrocketing rate of autism.”

He says the IACC is obstructing further research into the environmental causes of autism. “The NIH is ignoring what parents have known for many years.”

Mica introduces the panel:  Dr. Tom Insel, dirctor of the NIH; Michael Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Dept. of Ed; and Marsha Crosse, Health Care Director from the Government Accountability Office.

Insel starts off. Things are moving fast in autism research. 2,000 people from 35 countries recently met at the IMFAR conference in Atlanta.

“The good news is the science is moving quickly, and the investments we’ve made will soon mitigate” the costs of ASDs.

Yudin talks about IDEA, which included autism in 1994. “More than 30 years of research shows students with disabilities do better when held to high expectations.”

Marsha Crosse says 12 federal agencies were awarded $1.4 billion between 2009 and 2012. The combating autism act coordinates that spending. She says there is a potential for duplicative efforts, and better coordination is needed between researching agencies.

Insel: “We need more people working on the same problems, using the same techniques, to get an many answers as possible.” That’s how science works.

“What you’re seeing as a problem (duplication of efforts) we’re seeing as an essential need.”


Insel says the “potential” for duplication is not the same as “actual cases of duplication.”

Connolly goes after the GAO for hindering autism research. “I think it is irresponsible for the GAO” to suggest that 84% of research projects have the potential for duplication.” Crosse doesn’t have the scientific qualifications to make the statement.

Connolly has a better grasp of the scientific method that your average congress critter.

Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA), defends the GAO reports.

Posey again. “Some folks believe the government has made a strategic error” in focusing on genetics rather than environment. He is reading from a prepared statement, possibly from SAFE MINDS.

Insel says genomics is a tool, “an engine for discovery”, to find mechanisms for disease. He’s schooling Posey.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 9.39.32 AM

Posey: “Please don’t  mistake me for someone who wants to abandon genomic research.”

Posey asks about a chelation study that was proposed several years ago. Insel says it didn’t pass IRB approval.

Now Posey asks about a vaxed v. unvaxed study. “Where do you come down on that?”

Insel says there have been many studies looking at the role of vaccines in autism. “There is no evidence there.” Talk about duplicative efforts.

Now Posey brings up Poul Thorsen. How embarrassing for the congressman from Florida.

Posey is getting testy now talking about vax v unvax studies. “The international scumbag Poul Thorsen.” Posey thinks that every vaccine/autism study has a Thorsen connection!

“One decent study can remove the thimerosal question once and for all.”







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Chili’s cancels benefit for anti-vaccine group

April 7th, 2014 · 6 Comments · Kudos


A spokesperson for Chili’s Grill and Bar announced Sunday that Monday’s Give Back Event which would have benefited an anti-vaccine group has been cancelled. Below is the statement from Brinker International, the restaurant’s parent corporation.

Statement from Chili’s Grill & Bar

“Chili’s Grill & Bar is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests. We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili’s, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments.”

The National Autism Association has responded with a curious mix of humility and non-apology.

Thank you to all of our supporters, and thank you to Chili’s for taking a chance on us. Though NAA has changed our mission and efforts in recent years to focus on autism safety, namely wandering prevention, controversial views about vaccines remained on our website. Because of guest feedback about these views, Chili’s has opted to cancel tomorrow’s event. We respect their decision and ask everyone to please speak words of love and kindness. NAA has evolved as our children’s needs have evolved. Our Big Red Safety Box Program very much helps protect children and adults with autism from wandering-related emergencies. We will continue to provide boxes as funding becomes available. Again, thank you for your support and your positive messages that represent our entire autism community.

? Please note: Chili’s leadership team has made the difficult decision to cancel Monday’s Give Back Event. Chili’s remains committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism and so this decision was not made lightly. As you know, Chili’s wants to make every Guest feel special and that includes listening to feedback from their Guests about this event.”



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Chilis Grill and Bar serving vaccine rejectionism

April 4th, 2014 · 6 Comments · Facepalm

Chilis Grill and Bar, which operates over 1200 restaurants, refuses to explain its plan to donate 10% of its sales on April 7 to the National Autism Association,  a well-known anti-vaccine advocacy group.

“Right now we are coming up with what we are going to say about it,” a corporate spokesperson told AutismNewsBeat. She promised to call back when information becomes available.

The chain is owned by Brinker International, which also operates Maggiano Little Italy. Revenue for 2012 was reportedly $2.8 billion.

Chili’s, a Texas corporation, has been operating restaurants for 37 years, with locations in 31 foreign countries and two U.S. territories. According to Brinker’s 2012 annual report, average annual sales volume per Chili’s restaurant in 2012 was $3 million. Ten percent of one day’s sales, spread among 1,249 locations, could net nearly $1 million.

Chili’s largesse has not gone unnoticed. “In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, Chili’s is planning to donate 10% of customers’ checks on April 7 to the National Autism Association, a charity with controversial views about vaccinations,” notes Business Insider. “While companies are free to support organizations they wish, it’s worth noting the damage to come from lobbying by anti-vaccine groups.”

Chilis announced its “Give Back Event” in an April 2 press release that cited a “broken cheeseburger” as the inspiration for the company’s focus on autism.

The story began at a Chili’s in Midvale, Utah where a server presented a little girl with her Kid’s Cheeseburger cut in half. Unbeknownst to the server, however, Chili’s standard presentation of a sliced cheeseburger signified the burger was “broken” to the guest. The server quickly had a new dish made and while the deed was seemingly small for the restaurant team, it made a profound impact on the child and her family as she joyfully kissed the “fixed” cheeseburger.

A family member’s Facebook post thanking the restaurant for their care in the matter garnered attention from national media and thousands of Chili’s fans. Since then, the server and young girl’s friendship has continued and inspired the brand’s recent efforts to support the autism community. On Monday, April 7 as part of National Autism Awareness Month, participating Chili’s restaurants nationwide will host a Give Back Event, donating 10 percent of qualifying guest checks to the National Autism Association (NAA).

“The ‘Broken Cheeseburger’ story shines a light on the caring spirit and actions of Chili’s team members. These moments happen in our restaurants every day, at every table, at every Chili’s across the country,” said Krista Gibson, chief marketing officer for Chili’s Grill & Bar. “We are proud to support the National Autism Association while celebrating one of the brand’s favorite stories of hospitality during nationally recognized Autism Awareness Month.”

The press release further describes the NAA as “a nonprofit organization providing research funding, advocacy, support and education for the autism community with the goal of helping all affected by the neurodevelopmental disorder reach their full potential.”

Backlash against Chilis’ support of NAA clearly caught the company off guard. It took nearly 48 hours for the corporation to issue a statement explaining that “The intent of this fundraiser was not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism.”

The NAA regularly invites discredited medical professionals to speak at its annual conferences, including Mr. Andrew Wakesfield, whose fraudulent 1998 Lancet article caused vaccination rates to plummet in Europe and the US. Another speaker was Dr. Anju Usman who, in 2006, referred a five-year-old autistic boy to a chelationist, Dr. Roy Kerry. The boy later died in Kerry’s care, as the boy’s mother helplessly watched.

 UPDATE: Chilis released the following statement.

When choosing a charitable partner for our Give Back Events, both locally and nationally, we are committed to supporting organizations dedicated to helping children and their families. The intent of this fundraiser was not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism. Our choice to partner with the National Autism Association was based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism.


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CDC reports 1:68 prevalence for
autism spectrum disorders

March 27th, 2014 · 1 Comment · Research

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 eight-year-olds) in multiple communities in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  This new estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than previous estimates reported in 2012 of 1 in 88 children (11.3 per 1,000 eight year olds) being identified with an autism spectrum disorder.  The number of children identified with ASD ranged from 1 in 175 children in Alabama to 1 in 45 children in New Jersey.

This is the sixth survey reported from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, an active surveillance system set up in 2000. In 2010, it gathered medical and school records for eight year olds from 11 ADDM sites in the United States. Surveillance is conducted in two phases. The first consists of screening evaluations performed by professional providers in the pediatric health clinics, specialized programs, and public schools.  In the second phase, records are reviewed by trained clinicians to determine ASD case status. A child meets case definition for ASD if a comprehensive evaluation ofhat child is consistent with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified (including atypical autism), or Asperger disorder.

The upward trend in prevalence is consistent with recent studies conducted in the US and Canada. It can be attributed in large part to a combination of better detection methods, increased training of medical professionals, diagnostic subsition, and greater public awareness of the disorder.

Only 80% of all children identified as autistic had previous eligibility for autism special education services, or a DSM-IV diagnosis. That percentage is nearly the same as for the last two ADDM surveys, which indicates a large population of autistic children who are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.


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To reporters on the eve of Autism Awareness Month

March 24th, 2014 · 11 Comments · Critical thinking, Research

April is Autism Awareness Month, when the words “Somebody get me an autism story” can be heard in newsrooms across the country. Some reporters will answer the call with factually accurate, nuanced, informative pieces that add value to the public’s store of knowledge. Others will just phone in their reports, literally and figuratively. And a few will embarrass themselves.

sick-tpwrtrIn the six years that I’ve been monitoring America’s anti-vaccine movement, there’s been a sea change in how news and entertainment media have given voice to anti-vaccine advocates. There was a time when credulous reporters and editors could be tricked into balancing scientific fact with unconfirmed anecdote. By 2004, nearly every major news media outlet in the US had fallen for the ruse, reporting, for example, that the MMR vaccine “might cause autism.” The lure of angry parents, defensive doctors, and tongue-tied CDC officials were just too tempting.

The idea never made much sense to vaccine researchers, but editors were too busy following the controversy to notice. They saw Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist ,whose 1998 Lancet article jump-started the moribund US anti-vaccine movement. In 2000, 60 Minutes broadcast a parent’s impassioned speech against the MMR vaccine, followed by Wakefield’s opinion that the vaccine was not safe. In 2004, a more serious journalist, Brian Deer, uncovered Wakefield’s real story: crooked trial lawyers in the UK had paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds to fabricate a connection between the MMR and autism. The Lancet has since retracted Wakefield’s article, and England’s medical board revoked his license three years ago. These days, among major media outlets, only Fox News can be counted on to give anti-vaccine propaganda the time of day. Otherwise, the major networks and newspapers long ago learned their lesson – there is no “other side” to the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccines don’t cause autism, and the consequences of not vaccinating are far, far worse than the one in a million chance that a child might suffer serious harm from a vaccine.

But news media have, for the most part, wised up, thanks to Wakefield’s perfidy and downfall. His Lancet article loaded the anti-vaccine movement’s Beretta, but reporters gleefully squeezed the trigger, over and over. That stopped, for the most part, when Wakefield lost his UK medical license and subsequently fled to America to spend me time with his fellow grifters in the autism cure industry.

Occasionally a major news outlet, or a media luminary, suffers a relapse. We saw that last fall when Katie Couric let her guests make up their own facts about the HPV vaccine, which saves lives and has an excellent safety record. And Fox News can always be counted on to fall off the wagon, recently reporting, for instance, that “autism disorders are greatly linked with environmental factors.”

Bob Woodward, whose reporting rightfully drove a crooked politician from the White House, once outlined three things that a responsible journalist does when covering a story. They are worth reviewing.

First, check your sources. Is the man telling you that vaccines cause autism a bona fide researcher with relevant training and experience, or a disgraced gastroenterologist driven from his native country? Hollywood celebrities can reliably tell you how much fun George Clooney’s pool house is, but aren’t reliable when it comes to matters of toxicology, immunology, pediatric neurology and other words ending with -ology.

Don’t assume that just because somebody has an MD or PhD after her name means she’s an expert on autism. A PhD chemist from Kentucky once tried to sell an industrial chelating agent as a diet supplement for autistic children, until the FDA shut him down. Apparently, diet supplements must be edible. The autism cure industry is rife with MDs who claim they are treating and “recovering” children with chemical castration drugs, stem cell transplants, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, anti-fungals and, I kid you not, bleach enemas. Jenny McCarthy’s annual trade fair and revival meeting, AutismOne, promotes all of these “treatments” and more.

Checking sources “means checking everything, talking to half a dozen or even a dozen people for a day story. If it’s something longer, you want to totally surround and saturate the subject,” says Woodward. That’s good advice whether you’re covering the Pentagon, the FDA, or autism.

Second, you need documentation. “I have not really ever seen a story in a newspaper or on television or even on radio,” says Woodward, “that couldn’t be enhanced with some sort of documentation that would support or add more detail to what the story is about.”

On the autism news beat, the best documentation are peer-reviewed studies. This means the study has been published in a respectable scientific journal with a “high impact factor.” Look it up. Be aware of “pay to play” journals that will publish just about anything for a price. Despite its respectable name, The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons is one such pay to play journal. The ironically-named Medical Veritas is another. Disgraced British gastroenterologist Mr. Andrew Wakefield started his own journal, Autism Insights, to publish articles that might exonerate his fraud. It didn’t work.

If somebody tells you parents have recovered their autistic children with restrictive diets and fecal transplants (we’re not making that up), ask for documentation. Are there clinical trials? Where were the case studies published? If your source tells you the drug companies are blocking the studies because they can’t make money from poop, then you’re hooked yourself a conspiracy theorist with possible mommy issues.

Third,  check information first hand. Or as Woodward puts it: “Get your ass out of your chair and get over there.”  If your source is legitimate, you should be able to verify what she’s telling you. A staple of Autism Awareness Month reporting is “Somebody is helping people with autism” story. It could be a school district that just snagged a grant to help educate children with developmental delay.  Or maybe a helper dog is making life better for a child with autism. These stories give us hope, and are a welcome relief from the doom and gloom crowd who characterize autism, and thus some children and adults, as train wrecks and lost souls.

But there is a more troubling side to the “somebody is helping” narrative. That’s when a source tells you she is “recovering children” with restrictive diets, off-label drug use, and worse. Health care fraud is a $100 billion a year racket, and the bad guys know about autism. The illegitimate autism cure industry is a target-rich environment, but the only way you’ll learn about it is to check your information first hand.

Keep your stories simple and focused. Unless you are familiar with the autism news beat, the more you venture into the weeds, the more likely you are to leave your readers with the wrong impression. Keep these facts in mind:

  • There is no evidence for an autism epidemic. It’s tempting to write about autism rates “skyrocketing”, “mushrooming” and “exploding”, or about the coming “tsunami” of young autistic adults. But words like “rate” and “epidemic” have specific meanings. If you want to compare, say, the change in the number of children receiving autism diagnoses over the last 20 years, then talk to an epidemiologist about the difference between prevalence and incidence. Don’t just assume.
  • Autism covers a wide variety of behaviors, from very severe to just quirky. What connects these individuals is the need for support and accommodation. That’s your story. What is the school, workplace, family, etc. doing to help these individuals become productive members of society? And how are families adjusting and coping with the disorder? Autism is not a death sentence. It’s developmental delay, not stasis. These individuals continue to grow and learn and adapt, albeit at their own pace.

Above all, beware of your source’s agenda. There is no credible evidence that autism is a medical condition. “We cannot cure what is not a sickness,” says former Miss America contestant Alexis Wineman, who has autism. “But we can begin to understand autism, and help those with the condition to unlock the potential that lies within all of us.” That’s your story, too. If somebody tells you autism causes brain inflammation, is caused by a leaky gut, or can be fixed by a chiropractor, ask for proof. And don’t hold your breath while you wait.



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The Weather Channel rains on anti-vaccine parade

March 1st, 2014 · No Comments · Critical thinking, Narrative

Add The Weather Channel to the growing list of media outlets gunning for the anti-vaccine movement.  In “The Dangerous History of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracies”, Jeffrey Kopman forgoes false balance, and instead calls out the fraud, paranoia, and general scientific illiteracy of a movement that recklessly endangers public health. The money quote:

Part of [the movement’s continuation] comes from not fully understanding the science,” said Paul Spearman, MD. “When someone is maybe not well educated in the science, they can latch onto internet based theories of what is going on [that] say the scientific community is trying to mislead you.”

“The ‘conspiracy theory’ that vaccine manufacturers are hiding the truth about MMR and autism is fuelled by parents’ need to know what is causing autism, despite the fact that no large study has replicated Wakefield’s findings,” said Margaret Spoelstra, executive director of Autism Ontario, in a 2010 article published in the journal CMAJ.

The scientific community refers to this type of reaction as “confirmation bias.”

Essentially, vaccines are used as a scapegoat — an explanation for the not yet explainable. Parents believe that vaccines cause autism, and seek out evidence to confirm the idea, often leading to rationalizations that aren’t actually true.

Kopman also fingers the mendacious National Vaccine Information Center and Jenny McCarthy’s Generation Rescue as major purveyors of anti-vaccine propaganda.

Even though several studies have debunked the retracted 1998 Wakefield study, the anti-vaccine movement clings to anecdotal evidence and the logical fallacy that correlation implies causation. For example, the National Vaccine Information Center, an organization dedicated to preventing vaccine injuries through public education states on their website, “At the heart of the debate stand a few courageous physicians whose independent, multi-disciplinary approach to investigating the possible biological mechanisms of vaccine-induced autism is serving as a counterweight to the steadfast denials by infectious disease specialists and government health officials defending current mass vaccination policies.”

The organization — which is linked to Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy’s own vaccination awareness organization — also cites a few prominent stories of parents whose children developed health problems after receiving a vaccine.

Can the Cooking Channel be far behind?


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