The depths of antivaccination lunacy

I’ve posted many times about the pseudoscience of the mercury militia, that group of parents, bolstered by those Don Quixotes tilting at the mercury windmills in the cause of extracting more money from the government to compensate “vaccine-injured” children with autism, Mark and David Geier. These and other luminaries of the mecury militia blame vaccines for lots of bad things, be it autism, immune problems, “autistic enterocolitis,” and generalized “mercury toxicity,” all the while asserting piously (and, most amazingly of all, with a straight face) that, oh no, they aren’t in any way “antivaccine.” Oh, yes, they “support” vaccination, but think that it’s caused all sorts of “damage” to their (and other people’s) children. One of the vilest lies of antivaccination loons, a lie that I was reminded of by Flea recently, is the claim that shaken baby syndrome (SBS), a constellation of findings associated with the abuse of babies by vigorously shaking them, is in reality a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, which, if you believe these cranks, can cause brain damage that very much looks like SBS.

No, I’m not making this one up.

As ludicrous as it sounds, there is actually a large contingent of the true antivax lunatic fringe that makes this claim and tries to torture science into supporting it. Don’t believe me? Just Google “vaccine shaken baby.” The vast majority of the initial hits that come up will be from antivaccination sites, including Whale.to, Shirley’s Wellness Cafe, Vaccine Liberation Information and Vaccine Information Service, claiming a that vaccines are the real cause of shaken baby syndrome. Only one skeptical take on this “connection” appears on the first two pages of search results, at least as of today. It’s truly a depressing thing to see, because no skeptical takes on it are to be found, at least not easily. A parent wondering if vaccines are associated with an SBS-like syndrome searching for information on the Internet will find a lot of misinformation, propaganda, and even outright lies and not a lot of reliable information.

Probably foremost among its advocates is Dr. Harold Buttram, who has made it his business to go about the country testifying for the defense in cases of shaken baby syndrome, trying to get child abusers off the hook by blaming babies’ injuries on vaccines. His most notable case was that of Alan Yurko, who was convicted of killing his infant son by shaking and who became a darling of the antivax movement as a “martyr” who was “falsely accused.” Also well-represented among this bunch is Dr. Viera Schreibner, a retired “Principle Research Scientist, with a doctorate in Natural Sciences,” who similarly peddles such pseudoscientific crap. Ironically enough, Dr. Mohammed Al-Bayati, the veterinary pathologist who used his pseudoscientific posturings to the case of Eliza Jane Scovill, the daughter of HIV-positive HIV/AIDS “dissident” Christine Maggiore (who did not take AZT to try to reduce maternal-fetal transmission of the HIV virus and breast fed her daughter, even though this increases the rate of mother-to-child transmission) to make the unlikely claim that EJ died of an allergic reaction to amoxicillin, rather than the AIDS complications of HIV encephalitis and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (which is what the pathologist found), cut his teeth doing this sort of pseudoscience for hire by writing a similarly ludicrously pseudoscientific torturing of the data to defend Alan Yurko against the charge that he killed his girlfriend’s son by shaking him. And, as though all of its other pseudoscientific and bizarre right-wing polemics masquerading as science doesn’t utterly destroy its credibility to begin with, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, through its official journal, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, has published several articles making the claim that many cases of shaken baby syndrome are misdiagnoses for vaccine injury. It’s the one claim so utterly despicable, so ungrounded in science of any kind (even more so than the whole “mercury causes autism” concept), that even the mercury militia, that lovely group who, against all emerging evidence otherwise, blames vaccines for the “autism epidemic,” wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Or so I thought. I was wrong. It turns out that Kevin Champagne, a luminary of the mercury militia, has taken to reposting material blaming vaccines for shaken baby syndrome, even going so far as to repost an article by Schrieber herself! After a news article in which a case of shaken baby syndrome was described, Mr. Champagne opined:

I will bet that this kid was vaccinated within at least 20 days of this so-called shaken baby incident and most likely was vaccinated within 72 hours of this tragic event!

The 3 month old was cranky that day, throwing up, and appeared to have some type of seizure. Jay Lapham, staff attorney for the Shaken Baby Alliance in Fort Worth, Texas said; “The three (retinal bleeding, swelling of the brain, and bleeding in the subdural area of the brain) symptoms aren’t produced in any other medical condition”.

That’s wrong. These three syptoms are also produced shortly after the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine in some children.

Don’t believe me?

Read this“Two Children Die After Administering DPT Injection and Over 100 Ill” 17 Dec 2006

Of course, it’s impossible not to point out that the article to which Mr. Champagne links mentions nothing about any of the children showing the classic signs of shaken baby syndrome, including retinal hemorrhages and subdural hematomas, much less damage to the spine or rib fractures. Advocates claiming that vaccines cause shaken baby syndrome will often make the claim that vaccines cause cerebral edema (swelling), but they never seem able to explain how vaccines would cause subdural or intracerebral bleeding that so resembles trauma that it will fool pediatricians and forensic pathologists. Most frequently, they try to link the DTP vaccine to SBS, probably because it is the vaccine for which neurologic reactions have been most frequently reported. They in essence take advantage of the fact that abusive head trauma can be sometimes difficult for physicians to recognize and that the diagnostic criteria for SBS are sometimes in dispute.

It is interesting and instructive to consider the warped rationale used by antivaxers to support their claim that vaccines cause and SBS-like syndrome. Basically, there is no data published in decent peer-reviewed journals to support an etiological link between vaccines and subdural hemorrhage. So, instead, we get various handwaving claims that vaccines somehow can cause such bleeding in “sensitive” babies. However, the physical injuries associated with SBS are harder to pin on vaccines. After all, rib fractures, spine injuries, and broken bones are frequently associated with SBS. How do the antivaxers explain that?

Easy, they blame it on scurvy. They actually claim that vaccines cause vitamin C deficiency, as “Dr.” Schriebman states here:

These days, people generally think that nobody suffers scurvy, which used to be identified with long sea voyages during which the sailors were deprived of any fresh fruit and vegetables. The reality is far from such idealised perceptions. Most people probably have only marginal reserves of vitamin C and this applies particularly to babies and small children. Administration of vaccines depletes the marginal vitamin C reserves very quickly and this results in acute scurvy.

Vaccines of the kind given to babies as early as at birth and then one month later (hepatitis B vaccine) and DPT, Polio and Hib at 6 to 8 weeks of age, contain a number of toxins. The DPT (three in one vaccine), being the toxoid vaccine, contains pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus toxins which are treated with formaldehyde to decrease their toxicity. However, all of these treated toxins (toxoids) have the ability to revert back to their original toxicity by passage in the injected individuals, as demonstrated by Samore and Siber. These toxins are capable of causing, and they demonstrably cause, serious immunological, vascular and metabolic injuries, of which scurvy is one of many documented mechanisms.

“Documented”? No, it’s not, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. The above claims are a load of hooey. There is no evidence that vaccines cause vitamin C depletion leading to fractures. There is no good data supporting the contention that DTP vaccine (or any other vaccine, for that matter) can result in the constellation of findings (subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhage, fractures) that make up SBS. In reality, it’s just a claim that unscrupulous “expert witnesses,” motivated by antivax beliefs, use to keep child abusers from the punishment they so justly deserve. As David L. Chadwick and Rob Parrish put it:

The idea that DTP injection might produce the pathology seen in SBS has begun to appear in testimony during the last few years in spite of the fact that it has not appeared in a peer-reviewed medical article. “Expert witnesses” seeking to link SBS cases to DTP immunization must create a false causal connection. This involves sophistry and a willingness to ignore all requirements for the determination of causality. They can sometimes make this connection in a courtroom where the triers of fact are medically naive.

[…]

Medical expert testimony to the effect that DTP immunization might produce pathology of the type seen in SBS is clearly irresponsible. Although there is sometimes a temporal connection between reaction of a toddler or infant to a vaccination and inflicted head injuries, this is not particularly surprising given the additional stress of caring for a child who feels mild symptoms resulting from the vaccination. This temporal connection between head injuries and vaccination should not be mistaken for proof of a direct causal connection such reasoning is not scientific, logical, or reliable enough for courtroom proof. In the absence of empirical evidence supporting the view that abreaction to DTP or other vaccines can directly cause the constellation of brain damage, intracranial bleeding and ocular damage, witnesses who purport to be able to draw such a conclusion should be prohibited from testifying in court.

Another good rebuttal of “vaccines cause SBS” antivax loons can be found here.

Trying to blame SBS on “vaccine-induced encephalitis” is perhaps the most vile, despicable depths to which antivaxers sink. Indeed, in at least one case, this unscrupulous tactic seems to have worked, when, thanks in part to the incompetence of the medical examiner and in part to the claim that SBS was really a misdiagnosis for vaccine-induced encephalitis. This is the case of Alan Yurko, who was convicted of shaking his girlfriend’s son to death but then later acquitted on appeal. As Peter Bowditch put it:

I want you to think about a dead baby. This baby was ten weeks old when he died. The autopsy revealed bleeding around the brain, in the eyes and in the spinal column. There were bruises on the sides of his head. Another thing that the autopsy showed was four broken ribs. These fractures had started to heal, and therefore indicated a pattern of physical abuse prior to the date of death. The father admitted to holding the baby by his feet and hitting him shortly before he died. I now want to you to form an opinion of the father. If you are the sort of person who opposes vaccination, you would see this man as a hero. You would see him as a martyr to the cause and would try to get him released from prison. In a breathtaking demonstration of what it can mean to believe that the end justifies the means, the anti-vaccination liars have adopted Alan Yurko as a symbol that they can use to frighten parents into refusing vaccination for their children. You can read a loathsome justification for this murderer at http://www.woodmed.com/ShakenBabyAlan.htm.

As wrong-headed and wrong on the science I had always considered the mercury militia when they claim that vaccines cause autism, I didn’t think they’d fall so low as to start parroting the lies of this crowd. Most of them probably do not. However, Kevin Champagne, unfortunately, apparently does. I don’t hang out on the Evidence of Harm discussion mailing list, but it would be interesting to see what the response of other believers in the vaccine/thimerosal/autism “connection” think of Champagne’s post.

In a future post (probably next week), I will likely take on some of the claims of this particularly virulent and despicable variety of antivaxer in more detail.