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Vaccine rejectionism’s fresh start

November 3rd, 2010 · 6 Comments · Critical thinking, Junk science


Anti-vaccine groups are calling for a “fresh start” in their campaign to turn parents against childhood immunizations. Editors and reporters can expect to be plied with the same old whine, disguised in new bottles.

“For too long, the media has misrepresented or oversimplified the science surrounding the autism and vaccines controversy,” says the fringe anti-vaccine group SafeMinds. “Our concerns do not fit neatly into a ‘sound bite world.’ So, we are going to work towards explaining this story in clearly understandable, user-friendly chunks in the hopes that it is a compelling story that people will share.” The group is launching its fresh start media blitz with a four-minute YouTube video with scary sound effects and the same out-of-context sound bites that the group says don’t work. Still, the video contains a few clues to what America’s anti-vaccine movement is up to, so it’s worth unpacking.

A voice-of-doom narrator wastes no time: “Listen to mainstream science and the media, and you might think the vaccine-autism debate is over and done with.” We see a montage of pro-vaccine journal articles, media headlines, and blog posts. “The vaccine autism drumbeat is steady.”

There was a time not long ago that the drumbeat of credulous news and entertainment media coverage was steady, and largely tilted against vaccines. That drumbeat was further evidence, SafeMinds and other vaccine rejectionists assured us, that the medical community was poisoning children. But much has changed in the last few years. The US Federal Court of Claims has ruled that vaccines don’t cause autism. Major media outlets have published well researched investigations of  vaccine rejectionism and its quack autism cure franchise. The ongoing pertussis outbreak in California, and the death of ten infants are tied to the tragically misguided beliefs of vaccine rejecting parents. If this was an opera, SafeMinds’ fresh start would be the proverbial fat lady. And what is she telling us? “Don’t believe the science. Don’t believe skeptical news reports. Don’t believe the NIH, CDC, AAP, WHO, the Red Cross, Every Child By Two, the Institute of Medicine, or your family’s doctor. The jury is still out. Embrace the fear, no matter how unfounded.”

For the anti-vaccine message to succeed, SafeMinds needs to redefine some crucial terms. One is “scientist”. The overwhelming consensus among bona-fide researchers, those who devote their careers to studying vaccine safety, pediatric neurology, toxicology and other relevant fields, is that there is no association between vaccines and autism. Regardless, the SafeMinds voice of doom tells us that not all scientists agree. But the same thing can be said about creationism, or holocaust denial. Scientists come in all flavors, including botanists, metallurgists, and primatologists. Does it really matter what a cardiologist such as Dr. Bernadine Healy, who hasn’t published original research in 20 years, thinks about vaccines? SafeMinds thinks so.

“But this view is not unanimous, not among scientists,” says the narrator. Cut to a Healy interview where the GHW Bush-era NIH director and political appointee says “I think the government or former health officials in the government have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick.” Healy, who once shilled for the tobacco industry, is raising concerns that have been asked and answered. Study after study, more than 30 in all, have looked for associations between vaccines and autism, and found none. Studies carried out on three continents going back to the 90s.

The video segues into perky Katie Couric reporting that “federal officials have conceded that vaccines have contributed to autism-like symptoms in one child.” We see the child’s parents, Jon and Teri Poling, at a news conference when they told the world their daughter, Hannah, was developing normally until she received “nine vaccines in one day.”

There is, of course, much that the Polings and SafeMinds aren’t telling us about this case. For a more complete picture, go here,  here, and here. The sound bite version is this: Hannah Poling had a mitochondrial disorder, a very rare condition that impacts the cells ability to produce energy. Children with the condition are extremely vulnerable to fevers, which makes it more important to protect them against vaccine preventable diseases. Whether the vaccines triggered the girl’s encephalopathy is unknowable, as any infection could have cause her tragic condition. Medical records show the girl had a history of ear infections before her regression. Her own doctors described Hannah’s symptoms as having “features of autism” – not autism.

Next up on the video is Dr. Julie Gerberding, former CDC head, who says, well, some of what I just wrote in the last paragraph: “We all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids, so (the Poling child) got immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccine, and if you’re predisposed to the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage, and some of the symptoms can have characteristics of autism.”

The narrator tells us that even medical journals question the conventional wisdom that vaccines don’t cause autism, and we see  The Journal of Child Neurology nameplate, and some text from a 2008 study by John Shoffner, MD, titled Fever Plus Mitochondrial Disease Could Be Risk Factors for Autistic Regression.

Once again, SafeMinds is being disingenous. Shoffner, an Atlanta-based neurologist, told Time Magazine that he was “genuinely puzzled” by the court’s judgment in the Poling case. “Shoffner, who has been studying and treating these disorders for 20 years, says it’s impossible to say whether Hannah’s mitochondrial disorder was, in fact, a pre-existing condition that set the stage for her autism (as the government contends) or if it developed along with her autism.”

Now the video turns from Poling to misinterpret an HHS statement.  “In fact, HHS openly admits to paying out for injuries related to autism, although most media refuse to report this.” Here’s the actual HHS quote: “We have compensated cases in which children have exhibited brain disease and symptoms including autistic behavior.”

A few points to remember. Vaccine Court has awarded compensation in roughly 2300 cases since 1988. Given a prevalence of 1:100 for autistic spectrum disorders, we can expect by chance alone that 23 of those cases involve children who exhibited symptoms of autism.

Point number two: the first Vaccine Court case alleging a vaccine caused autism wasn’t filed until 1999 – one year after Mr. Andrew Wakefield kick started the latest wave of vaccine rejectionism with his fraudulent Lancet study. If vaccines have always caused autism, why did it take 11 years for the first case to show up in Vaccine Court?

A child with autism is not the same as a child whose autism was caused by vaccines. That question was dealt with, and disposed of, by the US Federal Court of Claims following a lengthy trial in which the petitioners’ attorney were afforded every opportunity to make their case. They failed spectacularly. “Indeed, hundreds of brain damage and seizure disorder injuries have been paid out in Vaccine Court,” says the narrator, over a montage of irrelevant court decisions. “Many of them also involve autism.”

But autism is not brain damage. A lion’s share of the 630 cases involving “brain damage” and 634 cases involving seizure disorder cited by SafeMinds involved the whole cell pertussis vaccine. The government paid out tens of millions in those cases despite that fact that science has never linked DTP to encephalopathy or seizure disorders. Indeed, seizure disorder was dropped as a DTP table injury in 2005. Finally, the big finish. “When it comes to autism, who are you going to believe?” asks the narrator, in a classic straw man set up. “This?” (cue Dr. Nancy Snyderman rightly chastising Matt Lauer for lazily dismissing anti-vaccine crankery as “controversial”) “Or this?” (a split-screen array of talking heads Healy, Couric, and Gerberding, and a misleading report by CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson).

Finally the big finish, as the voice of doom entones “So you can see that vaccines don’t cause autism. Except for when they do.”  The video closes with a call to action: “Get the facts. Know the whole story”, and we’re told to visit the fact-free SafeMinds website.

It is human nature to long for fresh starts, and the chance to undo past mistakes. But fresh starts are only beneficial when lessons are learned. SafeMinds shows no evidence that it has learned anything from its past public relations blunders. It still misrepresent studies, and relies on naked appeals to authority rather than data and logic. That’s a shame. The world needs watchdogs, and SafeMinds could contribute by advocating for families with autism, or sticking to best available science when it tells us to “know the whole story.” Instead we get a twisted agenda, born of fear and misunderstanding, which has long since curdled into resentment and anger. That’s far from a fresh start. Families deserve better. We all do.



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Harold L Doherty // Nov 3, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Good grief Charlie Brown. In one breath you dimiss former NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healey and later in the same rant … er comment … you mock those who disagree with, amongst others, the NIH? Are you still pretending to be an evidence based resource for journalists?

  • 2 autblog // Nov 4, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Golly gee Harold, Healy left the NIH nearly 20 years ago. Heck, Google University wasn’t even open then!

  • 3 Kev // Nov 4, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I agree with Harold, irrelevant tobacco scientists who were last in a position of real power 20 years or so ago are *way* more persuasive than some scientist writing papers now!

    Harold, what did Lucy used to do to Charlie Brown every time she promised this time she’d not whisk the ball away? Imagine ‘the point’ is the ball, you’re Charlie Brown and the real world is Lucy. Get me now?

  • 4 autblog // Nov 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Healy left NIH is 1993, so I was wrong. She has only been irrelevant for 17 years. ANB regrets the error.

  • 5 sheldon101 // Nov 6, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    My main stamping ground is huffingt0n-post where I try to bring some sanity to the comments made.

    What’s surprising to me is the number of people who don’t understand the difference between autism or similar (a diagnosis) and autistic-type symptoms.

    It is a pretty simple distinction. Here’s an example. Someone is diagnosed with influenza versus someone who has influenza-like symptoms such as fever. When it comes to fever we know that it is merely a symptom — it isn’t a diagnosis or explanation of the cause of the fever. We know that fever can be caused by many different causes.

    When it comes to the video, I think those who made understand this difference, but are willing to ignore it because they are less interested in accuracy than in effective propaganda.

  • 6 Sullivan // Nov 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I like the split screen thing. Sort of the “Brady Bunch” version of the vaccine/autism debate.

    As to Bernadine Healy…has she said anything on this subject in the past couple of years?

    Also, I find it interesting that those who rely on Dr. Healy conveniently forget that she didn’t promote the idea of an epidemic at all. Much to the contrary, her focus was on the “susceptible group” idea.

    She says that people shouldn’t turn their back on a hypothesis because one is afraid of what they might find. She did walk the walk. She didn’t turn her back on the hypothesis that second hand tobacco smoke is benign, and she accepted money from tobacco companies to promote that idea. That’s what she did after leaving the NIH.

    I have yet to find an apology from her for that period of her career. If someone can point me to one, I would greatly appreciate it.

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