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The beginning of a very, very bad year for antivaccinationists

One thing that’s become apparent to me so far in 2009 is that, while 2008 was the year of the antivaccinationist, 2009 is already shaping up to be a very bad year for antivaccinationists. A very bad year indeed, and this is a very, very good thing–if it can be sustained.

But first, let’s take a look at last year. In 2008, Jenny McCarthy was the new and fresh celebrity face of the movement that believes that autism and all manner of other neurodevelopmental disorders are caused by vaccines and that the government and big pharma are suppressing The Truth. She had emerged in the fall of 2007 after having tried to erase from the Internet her previous involvement in the “Indigo Child” movement in preparation for becoming an “autism advocate” who could write a book that could land her on Oprah’s show. Thanks to her and, perhaps even more so to the star power of her boyfriend Jim Carrey, who is just as wrong about vaccines and medicine as Jenny is, the antivaccine movement came roaring into prominence in a way that it had never managed to pull off before. After all, let’s face it, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year and a famous comedian are far more “interesting” public figures for various media outlets to interview than previous celebrities who spearheaded the vaccine manufactroversy, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or washed-up shock jock returned from the grave of his own digging Don Imus and his wife Deirdre.

Indeed, Jenny’s combination of good looks, stupidity, and utter confidence in her Google University education, coupled with her obnoxiousness, led to her showing up all over the media in 2008. For example, on April 1 (no, I’m not making this up), she appeared on Larry King Live! and shouted down physicians who had the temerity to tell her that her Google University knowledge was just plain wrong. The pinnacle of her influence came during the summer, when, having now supplanted J.B. Handley as the public face of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue and transforming GR into “Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity,” she led the “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC. True, at most there were several hundred people there, but it got wide news attention, and Jenny was all over the news. She rapidly followed it up by releasing a second book Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show yet again.

When Amanda Peet joined the fray on the pro-vaccine side, it let the media to portray the vaccine issue as a celebrity cat fight. Meanwhile, thanks to Jenny’s ties with the Playboy organization and her celebrity friends, she was able to fill Generation Rescue’s coffers with the proceeds of celebrity “autism” events where luminaries such as Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, and Hugh Hefner would show up. Add to that her promotion of Celebrities Against Autism and her partnering with professional wrestling and celebrity poker events with Lance Armstrong, and that’s a chunk of change that’s allowed GR and the equally antivaccine and quackery-friendly TACA to rebrand themselves in the eyes of the public as respectable autism charities, rather than crank organizations pushing a scientifically discredited idea and thereby endangering public health.

Then there was the Hannah Poling case, or, as I’ve called it, evidence of the incredibly shrinking causation claim. In brief, the government awarded compensation for vaccine injury through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to the family of an unfortunate girl named Hannah Poling, manifested a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder after a “catch up” vaccination session. It was later determined that Hannah suffers from a highly unusual mitochondrial disorder, which rendered her susceptible to neurologic injury from high fevers. She had high fevers after the vaccine, but she had also had a series of ear infections. The antivaccine movement has done its best to make Hannah its poster child as “smoking gun proof” that the government had admitted that vaccines can cause autism in susceptible children, when it had done nothing of the kind. Because the science is difficult, and because mitochondrial disorders are so uncommon, though, David Kirby and his fellow mouthpieces at Age of Autism had a field day twisting the scientific evidence into an unrecognizable pretzle and, as Mark Crislip likes to say, making therapeutic (or, in this case causative) mountains out of clinical molehills.

Truly 2008 was the high water mark of the antivaccine movement.

Still, not all was positive for the the disease promotion movement (as fellow ScienceBlogger PalMD likes to refer to it), even in 2008. For example, the second half of the year, after at least four years of no activity there was actual pushback against it. Amanda Peet spearheaded the Every Child By Two initiative, which was designed to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated. Not long after, Dr. Paul Offit, to antivaccinationists the Dark Lord of Vaccines, a veritable Darth Vader, Lord Sauron, and Satan Incarnate himself, released his excellent book telling in clear, easily accessible language, exactly why scientists conclude that vaccines do not cause autism and why the various “biomedical treatments” recommended for “vaccine injury” in the form of autism are virtually all quackery. Finally, as the year wound to a close, a group of scientists from Cornell tried to replicate the results of one of the godfathers of the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s studies, starting in 1998 in The Lancet, had concluded that the measles virus in the MMR vaccine somehow invaded the gut and caused a syndrome that led to regressive autism and inflammatory bowel disease–and found no correlation between MMR vaccination and any such syndrome. Andrew Wakefield, as you recall, is the man who, more than anyone else, caused the anti-MMR scare in the U.K. and Europe that has resulted in the resurgence of measles. Indeed, he is a hero of the antivaccine movement, so much so that the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism gave him the “Galileo Award” for 2008, completely ignoring the fact that, for a “maverick scientist,” it is not sufficient to be reviled. One must also be right, which Wakefield was most assuredly not. Truly, this was a case of the Galileo Gambit taken to a ridiculous extreme.

As 2009 dawned, the antivaccine movement seemed strong and getting stronger. Having successfully framed themselves as “pro-safe vaccine, not antivaccine” and popularized the cleverly Orwellian slogans “Green Our Vaccines” and “Too Many Too Soon,” they had stoked fear of vaccination on both sides of the Atlantic, to the point where vaccination rates had begun to fall below the level necessary for herd immunity, and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases were becoming apparent. In the U.K., thanks to Andrew Wakefield and the antivaccine movement his work had spawned, over the last decade, MMR vaccination rates had fallen below 80% (and in some parts of London, below 60%), leading a disease once considered defeated to come roaring back to the point where last year U.K. health authorities had to admit that it is once again endemic. Meanwhile in the U.S., outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseaseas were occurring among unvaccinated populations, such as in Minnesota, while measles was also making a comeback.

One thing I could never understand about Andrew Wakefield is why so many believed him. The British press ate his bad science up and were complicit in contributing to the decline in vaccination rates that endanger public health now. I, for one, was not at all surprised at the first blow to the antivaccine movement that occurred in 2009, namely Brian Deer’s revelations that Andrew Wakefield had almost certainly falsified data used in his original 1998 Lancet paper. Specifically, and in brief, this is what Wakefield was found to have done:

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.

A detailed account by investigative journalist Brian Deer can be found here, as can an account of how the MMR scare led to a return of the measles.

It’s not as though this revelation should have come as a surprise. After all, the signs had all been there right from the beginning that something was not right, indeed at least as early as 2002. Indeed, advocates of science-based medicine everywhere owe Brian Deer a huge debt of gratitude for having pursued this case for so long, as this is what he found out about Wakefield and his work. Moreover, it’s not as though warning signs weren’t there in the very paper. As Brian Deer described at the University of Michigan a couple of weeks ago, something didn’t smell right in the Lancet paper. What he meant was that the results looked too good to be true. He was right.

The original 1998 Lancet paper made two key claims based on its findings studying twelve children, which, according to the Wakefield, had been, “consecutively referred to the pediatric gastroenterology unit at the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London. First, it claimed that eight of the twelve children studied had manifested developmental regression within two weeks of the MMR vaccine, and one had developed regression after a measles infection, the clear implication being that there was a close temporal relationship between MMR vaccination and the onset of regression in 75% of the children. The second claim was that all 12 of the children demonstrated “intestinal abnormalities, ranging from lymphoid nodular hyperplasia to aphthoid ulceration.” Although the paper stated that the authors “did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described” and that “virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue,” Wakefield at his press conference to announce the findings stated that he had preliminary virological evidence showing measles virus in the gut. It took him four years to follow up these results with a paper in Molecular Pathology that reported measles virus in 75/91 children with ileal inflammation and children with developmental disorders. Although Wakefield was careful not to use the word autism in the actual text of the paper–or even the word vaccine–the implication of the paper was plain, and, if it wasn’t to some, Wakefield made sure to drive home what he thought the implication was: That the MMR is associated with a syndrome of developmental disorders, including autism, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Unfortunately for Wakefield, Deer’s instincts ultimately proved to be correct. The first shoe to drop was Deer’s 2004 Channel 4 documentary exposing Wakefield’s incompetence and conflicts of interest. As it turned out, Wakefield did not have the viral data in 1998. Indeed, a young investigator named Nicholas Chadwick had been unable to detect measles virus in any of the samples from the 12 children and had told Wakefield. Wakefield kept that data out of the original Lancet paper because it did not support his hypothesis. How, then, to explain Wakefield’s subsequent paper in 2002 that reported the detection of measles virus sequences in a large proportion of the ileal biopsy specimens of children with “autistic enterocolitis”? In 2007, during the beginning of the proceedings for the test cases in the Autism Omnibus case (more on that in the next section), Stephen Bustin, arguably the preeminent expert in the use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect DNA sequences, testified for the government about the methods used in the laboratory that did the PCR analysis for Andrew Wakefield. Suffice it to say that this had to be about the sloppiest laboratory I’ve ever seen. Also suffice it to say that the negative controls were amplifying measles sequence, meaning that it was impossible to tell a signal was a true signal or a false positive. In fact, Bustin’s investigation concluded that what Wakefield was reporting was almost certainly all contamination from plasmids made in an adjacent laboratory. Ironically, this was the same laboratory that participated in the 2008 attempt to replicate Wakefield’s results. Clearly, it had cleaned up its act by then.

The other problem revealed in the 2004 documentary was that Andrew Wakefield had a massive conflict of interest. Teamed up with antivaccination crank extraordinaire Hugh Fudenberg, he had come up with a combination single agent vaccine/therapeutic (which he characterized as a “cure for autism“) agent based on the quack favorite “transfer factor.” Not only this, but he had filed patent applications for this concoction. In other words, Wakefield stood to profit handsomely if the MMR was discredited as being safe. Not long after these revelations, ten of the thirteen authors of the original 1998 Lancet report renounced its conclusions and asked to have their names removed from the paper.

But it was even worse than that.

At the end of 2006, the second shoe dropped. It turned out that Wakefield’s conflict of interest was even worse than that. In fact, it turned out that Wakefield had been paid by lawyers seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers for “injury” due to the MMR. In fact, his services had been bought and paid for to the tune of paid £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses. Neither this conflict of interest nor the conflict of interest inherent in having an alternative vaccine for measles, a single vaccine, with its patent pending were reported in the Lancet paper. It was these revelations that triggered an investigation by the General Medical Council in the U.K. into research malfeasance and ethic violations.

But it was even worse than that. Unfortunately, it took two more long years to find out just how bad.

Two weeks ago, Brian Deer reported in the Sunday Times that, not only had Andrew Wakefield had massive conflicts of interest, but he had falsified data in his original paper. Indeed, consistent with the revelations that there had never been any detectable measles viral sequences, Deer reported that one father had taken his child’s specimen to be tested by a different laboratory and that that laboratory had failed to find any trace of measles virus. More importantly, however, none of the children studied for the Lancet paper actually even came from the Royal Free Hospital’s catchment area of North London; indeed, none of them even came from London. In fact, they were not “consecutively referred,” either. Rather, they had been recruited through the anti-MMR antivaccine underground and 11/12 of them were involved in anti-MMR litigation. Thus, they were a highly selected group. In addition, ccording to Deer’s account of the records examined by the GMC, in most of these children autistic features were present before they had received their MMR vaccination and in others such features only became apparent after a much longer interval than a few days after MMR. In other words, what was reported in the Lancet paper in 1998 and what was found in the children’s medical records differed significantly.

In other words, one of two things happened, neither of which is flattering to Wakefield. Either he took the history only from parents, who were litigants in vaccine injury cases and for whom confirmation bias could easily have led to remembering incorrectly that their child’s behavioral changes were noted shortly after the MMR rather than before it or months later. If this was the case, Wakefield was a sloppy investigator for not having examined the medical records. Alternatively, Wakefield did examine the medical records and then lied about them in the Lancet paper. If this is the case, he is dishonest. As I have said before, take your pick. Either possibility makes Wakefield look very, very bad.

In fact, I might have been willing to give Wakefield somewhat of the benefit of the doubt, viewing the discrepancies between the medical records and what he reported in the Lancet paper as being yet more evidence of his incompetence and his resultant shoddy research methodology rather than dishonesty, were it not for the major discrepancies between what Wakefield said about the histology of the biopsy specimens in the paper. That was what persuaded me that Wakefield’s “research” went beyond mere incompetence and had crossed over into the realm of fraud. Specifically, what was reported in the 1998 paper does not jibe with what the pathologists who first examined the specimens saw, where, in all 12 cases, no abnormalities had been reported on the initial examination of the specimens. Yet Wakefield reported a distinctive pattern of gut inflammation, specifically “colitis and ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia.” The Lancet paper had pointed out the “uniformity” of the pathological changes. What had happened?

Not happy with the readings of the pathologists, apparently Wakefield’s research team met for a “research review” of the biopsy specimens. This in and of itself is not unusual. However, it is unusual that the research team overturned the original readings of so many of the specimens. It is even more unusual (i.e., suspicious) that the reinterpretations of the original readings all went in the same direction: towards a reading of inflammation consistent with Wakefield’s hypothesis that the measles virus from the MMR was somehow involved in causing gut abnormalities and autistic regression. Even if I wanted to attribute Wakefield’s problems to incompetence, it’s pretty hard to do, given the confluence of evidence from multiple sources pointing to malfeasance.

If the revelations about Andrew Wakefield’s research fraud were the only event thus far, 2009 would already be shaping up to be a bad year for antivaccinationists. However, less than a week after Deer’s revelations were reported, the long-awaited ruling in a huge legal action made up of approximately 5,000 parents who are convinced that vaccines caused their children’s autism. I’m referring to the Autism Omnibus proceedings.

In the U.S., because of rising litigation that jeopardized the vaccine program and threatened to drive pharmaceutical companies out of the vaccine business, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-660), which created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). The idea was to create an alternative to the tort system through which people injured by vaccines could be efficiently compensated. Vaccine litigants, if denied compensation, could still sue in conventional courts, but all claims for compensation had to go first through the VICP. Moreover, the standards of evidence in the Vaccine Court of the VICP are arguably markedly lower than in conventional federal courts. For example, regardless of whether one thinks they are too restrictive or not, in the Vaccine Court Daubert rules for scientific evidence do not apply. Indeed, all that is necessary is a scientifically plausible-sounding mechanism by which a plaintiff might have been injured by vaccines, and compensation can be awarded. In essence, lowering the Daubert standard and allowing “science” that has not yet been peer reviewed makes meeting the standard of evidence showing a 51% or greater chance that the plaintiff was injured by the vaccine in question easier because it opens the door to an antivaccinationist version of the Gish Gallop, forcing the defense to answer and refute all sorts of bad science.

Be that as it may, as the number of litigants claiming that vaccines caused their children’s autism ballooned to close to 5,000, threatening to bankrupt the VICP unless massive infusions of new money from Congress were provided, it was decided that the proceedings should be bundled into one massive legal action known as the Autism Omnibus. As part of this proceeding, litigants were to choose what they considered to be the best cases representing their hypothesis of causation by which vaccines could produce autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. The court would hear these cases, make a rulings, and then these rulings would be used as the basis for all similar cases as follows:

The Petitioners’ Steering Committee (PSC) has advanced three different theories of “general causation,” i.e., how the vaccines involved can cause autism, in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding. The Office of Special Masters (OSM) has assigned three Special Masters to resolve the autism cases. The OSM instructed the PSC to designate three “test cases” for each of the three theories, a total of nine test cases. The three theories of “general causation” are: (1) the theory that MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines can combine to cause autism; (2) the theory that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism; and, (3) the theory that MMR vaccines, without regard to any thimerosal additive, can cause autism.

After more than a year and a half after the proceedings began, on February 12, the Special Masters released its decisions on the first three test cases, Cedillo v. HHS (Case No. 98-916V), Hazlehurst v. HHS (Case No. 03-654V) and Snyder v. HHS (Case No. 01-162V). In all three cases, despite the “best” that the antivaccine contingent could throw at the courts, the Special Masters decisively rejected all three hypotheses of causation. Indeed, the results truly surprised me, as I had expected, given the extremely low bar for evidence, that there would have been a little bit of wiggle room in the decisions that would leave the door open for the antivaccine fringe to claim that there was a possibility that further causation cases would be entertained. No such wiggle room was granted. Since the decisions together run hundreds of pages, this article has become quite long, and other bloggers whom I greatly admire for their science-based content and diligence in reporting on the vaccine-autism manufactroversy have posted excerpts, I will be judicious in selecting key quotes.

First, from the ruling on Cedillo v. HHS, written by Special Master George L. Hastings, Jr., we have these:

  • “This case, however, is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories. The result of this case would be the same even if I totally ignored the epidemiologic evidence, declined to consider the video evidence, and/or excluded the testimony of Dr. Bustin. The result would be the same if I restricted my consideration to the evidence originally filed into the record of this Cedillo case, disregarding the general causation evidence from the Hazlehurst and Snyder cases. The petitioners’ evidence has been unpersuasive on many different points, concerning virtually all aspects of their causation theories, each such deficiency having been discussed in detail above. The petitioners have failed to persuade me that there is validity to any of their general causation arguments, and have also failed to persuade me that there is any substantial likelihood that Michelle’s MMR vaccination contributed in any way to the causation of any of Michelle’s own disorders.”
  • “Nor do I doubt that Michelle’s parents and relatives are sincere in their belief that the MMR vaccine played a role in causing Michelle’s devastating disorders. Certainly, the mere fact that Michelle’s autistic symptoms first became evident to her family during the months after her MMR vaccination might make them wonder about a possible causal connection. Further, the Cedillos have read about physicians who profess to believe in a causal connection between the MMR vaccine and both autism and chronic gastrointestinal problems. They have visited at least one physician, Dr. Krigsman, who has explicitly opined that Michelle’s own chronic gastrointestinal symptoms are MMR-caused. And they have even been told that a medical laboratory has positively identified the presence of the persisting vaccine-strain measles virus in Michelle’s body, years after her vaccination. After studying the extensive evidence in this case for many months, I am convinced that the reports and advice given to the Cedillos by Dr. Krigsman and some other physicians, advising the Cedillos that there is a causal connection between Michelle’s MMR vaccination and her chronic conditions, have been very wrong. Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment. Nevertheless, I can understand why the Cedillos found such reports and advice to be believable under the circumstances. I conclude that the Cedillos filed this Program claim in good faith.”

Next, from the second case, Hazlehurst v. HHS, Special Master Patricia Campbell-Smith concluded:

Having carefully and fully considered the evidence, the undersigned concludes that the combination of the thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine are not causal factors in the development of autism and therefore, could not have contributed to the development of Yates’ autism. The weight of the presented evidence that is scientifically reliable and methodologically sound does not support petitioners’ claim. Petitioners have failed to establish entitlement to compensation under the Vaccine Act.

Finally, from the third case, Snyder v. HHS, Special Master Denise Vowell wrote:

To conclude that Colten’s condition was the result of his MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll’s White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or, at least, highly improbable) things before breakfast. The families of children with ASD and the court have waited in vain for adequate evidence to support the autism-MMR hypothesis. Although I have the deepest sympathy for families like Colten’s, struggling emotionally and financially to find answers about ASD’s causes, and reliable therapies to treat ASD’s symptoms, I must decide Colten’s case based on the evidence before me. That evidence does not establish an adequate factual basis from which to conclude that Colten’s condition was caused by his vaccines.

Petitioners have not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that Colten’s condition was either caused or significantly aggravated by his vaccinations Thus, they have failed to establish entitlement to compensation and the petition for compensation is therefore DENIED.

Holy crap. That last one’s going to leave a mark. A big mark. I love it. In fact, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

A more emphatic refutation is hard to imagine. Even better, Special Master Hastings recognized one of the main drivers of the scare over the MMR and vaccines in general as a “cause” of autism: Money. Indeed, a veritable cottage industry of “biomedical” quackery, dubious therapies, and pseudoscience depends upon keeping the idea that vaccines cause autism alive. “Luminaries” of this cottage industry include the aforementioned Andrew Wakefield, who has now infested the United States (the State of Texas, specifically) with his brand of quackery at Thoughtful House, now that the U.K. is investigating him, as are Mark and David Geier, who have been touting the use of a powerful anti-sex steroid medication to treat autistic children, and, until recently, Dr. Rashid Buttar, who is now facing sanctions by the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners and has been banned from treating children. Add to that ambulance-chasing lawyers like Clifford Shoemaker, who have been raking in money hand over fist, thanks to the fact that the VICP actually pays the petitioners’ attorney fees regardless of whether the petition results in compensation, and it is easy to see why this industry won’t easily let parents be disabused of the fears over vaccines that it has stoked. (Indeed, Shoemaker even tried to abuse the subpoena process in order to quash reports of how much money he was making representing VICP litigants, an action for which he was sanctioned by the courts.) In the case of Andrew Wakefield, attorneys looking for big payouts from the pharmaceutical industry have even paid for research. Meanwhile, as documented on this blog before, some researchers producing reports implicating vaccines in autism are actually petitioners in the Autism Omnibus, for example, Laura Hewitson, whose husband works for Wakefield, while compounding pharmacies advertise their supplements and other dubious “remedies” right on the Age of Autism.

Those of us who support science- and evidence-based medicine were quite heartened by the revelations about Andrew Wakefield and the ruling in the Autism Omnibus. True, we wondered why it took 11 years for the revelations about Wakefield’s incompetence and outright fraud to see the light of day, but we were glad that they finally had. One reason is that, to the vast majority of lay people who are parents, the science is hard to understand, and the antivaccine movement had, more or less successfully, framed the issue as big pharma protecting its interests and a conflict between “brave maverick” doctors against government and pharma experts. However, fraud is something that people understand all too well. Demonstrating that Wakefield’s results were riddled not just with conflicts of interest but with outright scientific fraud made the issue very clear, driving home that there was no scientific basis to suspect that the MMR had anything to do with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. Similarly, the ruling of the Vaccine Court on the first three test cases surprised me. As I mentioned earlier, I had expected some wiggle room and was heartened to see that, contrary to what I had expected, science won unequivocally and resoundingly in court, at least in this case.

Unfortunately, the reaction of the antivaccine fringe to the rulings of the Special Masters and the revelations about Andrew Wakefield’s scientific fraud are instructive to those who might be deluded enough to believe that science or evdience matter to those who believe that vaccines cause autism. Let’s examine the reaction to the Wakefield revelations first.

I don’t know about you, but if I passionatedly believed that the MMR vaccine causes autism or, even worse, caused autism in my child, I would be feeling very betrayed right now. In fact, I’d turn on Wakefield like a wild boar. I’d be more than pissed off to find out just how deceptive, unethical, and careless about the safety of the patients whom he studied, who had been subjected to invasive procedures for no good reason and at least one of whom had suffered a major complication. But that’s just me. Apparently, that’s not the reaction of most of the antivaccine fringe. Indeed, the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism and David Kirby, along with other antivaccine groups, immediately orchestrated a smear campaign against Brian Deer based on the flimsiest of pretenses. For example, in response to Keith Olbermann’s having correctly picked Andrew Wakefield as his “worst person in the world” for February 10, 2009, David Kirby cleverly played upon Olbermann’s hatred of Rupert Murdoch, pointing out that The Times of London is a Murdoch paper. This allowed Kirby to brag before the February 11 “Worst Person in the World” segment that he had persuaded Olbermann to name Brian Deer as one of the “worst persons in the world,” even publishing the script. Truly, Olbermann had been played for a fool by the antivaccine movement. The specious claim? That somehow Deer had a huge conflict of interest because he made the complaint to the GMC about Wakefield, a meme started by the British version of David Kirby, the antivaccine “journalist” Melanie Phillips. It’s also a claim that, even if true, would mean nothing, as it does absolutely nothing to refute the findings in Deer’s reporting or the results thus far of the GMC’s investigation. Indeed, the ad hominems went beyond that. For example, Jane Bryant of OneClick Group has tried to paint Brian Deer as “out of control,” during which she couldn’t seem to resist trying homophobia on for size, stating:

By all accounts a gay man and therefore unlikely ever to have to face the multiple vaccine risk agonised over by parents from around the world in relation to their children, Brian Deer has made it his business to portray the parents of these autistic vaccine damaged children as deluded mendacious chancers.

I find this particularly ironic and despicable, given that chief antivaccine propagandist David Kirby is almost certainly also gay and that his previous jobs have included reporting for Outweek and The Advocate. One’s sexual orientation is completely irrelevant to one’s arguments. Only data, evidence, reason, and science should matter.

Finally, when all else fails, the antivaccine movement plays the conspiracy card, as John Stone of the British antivaccine group Cry Shame did on–where else?–Age of Autism:

And yet the medical and political establishment has been constructing its case against Wakefield on Deer’s reporting for the last five years. It was on the back of his first report that Wakefield was held to be “discredited” and the world was brow-beaten into believing it was so. UK National Health Service websites link up to Deer’s website, and the longest medical disciplinary hearing in British history was launched on the basis of his complaint. It is a game in which everybody hides behind everybody else, pretending they can’t be seen – but actually they are all standing there, and their trousers are down.

Never once does it occur to Stone or, for instance, any of the pro-Wakefield commenters here that the reason Wakefield is in such trouble is because he is a dishonest, incompetent, and unethical scientist. This, of course, is a perfect segue into the reaction to the Autism Omnibus rulings, which cranked the antivaccine fringe into ever more histrionic fits of conspiracy mongering. Indeed, leave it to our “old friend” J.B. Handley to connect the two by insinuating that the U.S. Department of Justice had tipped off Brian Deer somehow, so that his revelations could be published in close temporal proximity to the announcement of the first Autism Omnibus rulings:

That said, I found it rather odd that Brian Deer torpedoed Andy over the weekend with a seemingly made-up outrage piece, only days before the judges ruled in the Vaccine Court. The timing struck me as odd.

Meanwhile, the ever-reliable antivaccine advocate Kent Heckenlively, whose understanding of science is astonishingly bad, posted “analyses” of each decision. Some tidbits follow.

Regarding the Cedillo decision:

In his closing remarks he notes that the decision was not even close, and that the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a family who thought their child had been injured by a vaccine.

As much as those of who have children with autism and choose to help them are under great stress, I just viscerally respond to this attack against those physicians who are doing their best to help our children.  They choose to enter this fight, knowing they will be attacked, but strengthened by the conviction they can help some of our children.  To many of them, we owe our children’s future.  And when they have not been able to find the answer, they continue to fight.

It is apparent to anybody who looks at this unfolding tragedy that the pharmaceutical companies have no interest in helping us, the medical universities and research facilities can offer us no help, and now we know we have no friends in the vaccine court.

Regarding the Hazlehurst decision:

The sad truth of the matter is that we are massively out-gunned in terms of research dollars.  The medical personnel who undertake our cause do it knowing full well there will be many defeats.  Judges will be dazzled by experts who claim to know so much, except for the question of what causes autism.

And, finally, regarding the Snyder decision:

I’ve tried to figure out how to explain this decision, and the best I can come up with is an example from the book, “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell.  In the book Gladwell recounts the difficulty female musicians had in being hired by professional orchestras, particularly for the wind instruments.  They were thought to lack the lung capacity of men.  But when the auditions began to use screens, so the conductors couldn’t see the gender of the person playing, the number of women hired by professional orchestras increased five-fold.

Now the conductors would probably have sworn they were free of sexism, and may have truly believed it, but something else was clearly at work.  Although the claim was made that they were simply listening to the music and picking the best people, the different results obtained after the use of the screens showed a significantly different mental process going on.

I can only conclude that something similar is at work in the minds of the Special Masters, and perhaps many people who will look at what we allege.  Despite their efforts to carefully weigh the evidence, something else is tipping the scales.  I don’t believe it’s money, at least in the crudest sense of the word.  It’s money in the sense that it’s built the entire edifice and world-view in which the Special Masters are looking at these claims.

Or, to translate: The pharmaceutical companies paid for the verdict, and the judges were unconsciously biased against all those “brave maverick doctors” testifying for the plaintiffs.

But perhaps clearest, most blatant “it was fixed” argument comes from Dr. JayDon’t Call Me AntivaccineGordon in two posts he wrote for that repository for antivaccine posturing, The Huffington Post, entitled “There Is No Proof that Cigarettes Cause Cancer” and The Vaccine Court Was Wrong. Given that I eviscerated these two posts just last week, continuing to beat on them would be akin to flogging the proverbial dead horse. Nonetheless, one quote by Dr. Gordon is worth repeating one more time and emphasizing because it is so emblematic of why the myth that vaccines cause autism persists:

The proof is not there yet. It will be found. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another fifty years and hundreds of court cases to convince the government and the public. Private industry is once again duping the FDA, doctors and the public. The conflicts of interest are obscene and illegal.

His view is echoed by Barbara Fischkin:

The Vaccine Court’s decision, like so many complicated matters can be obscured by too much information and, alternately, clarified with a dose of simplicity. So here goes: This year the Vaccine Court, in looking at three specific cases, ruled that, in effect, vaccines and/or their ancillary, toxic ingredients do not cause autism. But last year – with evidence produced by a neurologist father and a mother who is a nurse and an attorney – the court ruled that, in effect vaccines could cause autism. Thousands more cases are pending which it why I believe this matter is far from settled. Ask any bookie: Second guessing an outcome with as many variables as this one is risky business.

These two quotes are good indications why these two victories for science will not, as many hope, put a damper on the antivaccine movement. They just won’t. To those who cling to the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism against the mountains of evidence that do not support it, as Kev points out, it is not about science. It is about winning and convincing people that they are right. It is about finding someone or something to “blame” for their children’s autism. To them, doctors have no authority. Scientists have no authority. The Special Masters have no authority. The scientific method means nothing. Only their personal experiences and the conclusions they draw from them, no matter how fallible humans are at drawing inferences from them, matter. To them, as Dr. Jay Gordon made explicit when he spoke to the “Green Our Vaccines” rally last summer, and said that his die hard belief that vaccines cause autism is based on states that he bases his conclusions that vaccines probably cause more harm than good on “over 30 years” of his own experience and above all (emphasis mine) “listening to you,” meaning the parents who believe vaccines “injured” their children.

That’s because the battle between parents who believe that vaccines cause autism and scientists is a battle about, more than anything else, two world views. Scientists, knowing how easily humans fool themselves into confusing correlation with causation when drawing conclusions from personal experience and anecdotes, rely on epidemiology and the scientific method to answer the question of whether vaccination is associated with autism. In contrast, the believers cannot accept that they can be fooled. Dr. Rahul K. Parikh described this conflict well in a recent article on the Omnibus decision:

Among those expressing shock and disappointment was Rebecca Estepp, the mother of an autistic child, who is one of the claimants and the national manager of the advocacy group Talk About Curing Autism. “It’s tough when you’re taking parent support calls and you hear the same story day after day,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “When does anecdotal evidence become enough?”

Her question isn’t a new one, especially in a society where belief, emotion and science so often conflict. For scientists, the answer to Estepp’s question is never. Developing a hypothesis from anecdotes or observations (whether one or a hundred of them) is merely the first step in a longer process. Next comes the hard part: testing that hypothesis to see if you can back it up with hard data, and then sharing the data with others to see if they can reproduce the findings, often multiple times.

Even more accurately, Dr. Parikh states:

Now, read that headline again: “Vaccines Didn’t Cause Autism, Court Rules.” It doesn’t say, “Vaccines Didn’t Cause Autism, a Decade’s Worth of Rigorously Conducted and Verified Medical Research Rules.” That may not be as sexy as the recent headline, but it is the truth. The scientific community disproved the vaccine-autism connection long ago, multiple times.

Which is true (except that it’s well over a decade’s worth of research), and to which I would add: The scientific community only continues to study the vaccine-autism connection, churning out negative study after negative study because it hopes to convince those who are unconvinceable by science. Indeed, just how unconvinceable they are is summed up in this poem by Rolf Hazelhurst, the father of one of the three complainants:

If we win, we keep going.
If we lose, we keep going.
If we win, the going will be easier.
If we lose, the going will be more difficult.
However, the Court rules, we will keep going.

That is a religious, cultish attitude. A little thing like a news report revealing the hero of the antivaccine movement to be a scientific fraud or a court ruling that, even under the most favorable standards of evidence imaginable, vaccines do not cause autism will not change the mind of someone like this, nor will it make the antivaccine movement have second thoughts about its cultish beliefs. The only hope that we who support science-based medicine can have is that these two body blows to the antivaccine movement will finally–finally!–drive home the message to the media that, when it comes to the claim that vaccines cause autism, there’s no there there, as they say. We can also hope that the fence-sitters, those parents who may have heard Jenny McCarthy ranting about how vaccines caused her son Evan’s autism and how she cured him with various biomedical interventions may see these two repudiations of the myth that vaccines cause autism and be reassured.

A guy can hope, can’t he?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

113 replies on “The beginning of a very, very bad year for antivaccinationists”

Whoah! Epic flogging!

Orac said, “I don’t know about you, but if I passionatedly believed that the MMR vaccine causes autism or, even worse, caused autism in my child, I would be feeling very betrayed right now. In fact, I’d turn on Wakefield like a wild boar.

That’s because you’re prepared to either change your mind based on evidence or actually say, “I was wrong”. Such a concept! Does it come from hell?

Godamnit, when are you doctors going to produce a stupidity vaccine?
We have one you say? Oh yeah, and I suppose it’s called “science education”.

A guy can hope, can’t he?

Sure thing, Orac. You’ll know that the Mercury Militia is winding down when homeopathy breathes its last; at that point the “vaccines cause autism” crowd will only have another two centuries (more or less), to run.

As a boxful of blinkenlichten, you may be around for it. I’m not expecting to.

It was Mary Poppins who believed six impossible things before breakfast. Not that that invalidates anything. 😀

You say you support evidence-based science. Where is the evidence for vaccinations? Look at the trends in disease prevalence including polio, measles and mumps and you will see the disease was already in natural decline long before the vaccines were introduced. How about the peer-reviewed science that shows unvaccinated and vaccinated populations get the same diseases at the same rates? You want science. There’s your science.

And you talk about the money to be made by antivaccinationists. What?!?! How about the billions upon billions made by Big Pharma? This commentary is dripping with hypocrisy. Who has motive? Parents of autistic children or money-hungry drug-pushers… who over and over have proved to society that they deserve no trust.

Regarding Wakefield… Have you read this: Sunday Times’ London Editor Must Quit Over False “Wakefield MMR Data Fixing” Story. Apparently the Sunday Times London printed falsities about Wakefield’s work and the writer had ties to Pharma. Ouch.

This fight is far from over. You have every right to drug your body as much as you like… but until the USA is part of communist China, us crazy, antivaccinationists will have the right to choose what we poke, prod and invade our bodies with. So gripe all you want. It just adds fuel to my fire.

It was Mary Poppins who believed six impossible things before breakfast.

Maybe they can use that argument in the appeal. It’s probably their best shot.

“You say you support evidence-based science. Where is the evidence for vaccinations? Look at the trends in disease prevalence including polio, measles and mumps and you will see the disease was already in natural decline long before the vaccines were introduced.”

Dave, cite a source for your claims. And then explain the recent resurgence in measles among the unvaccinated.

Apparently the Sunday Times London printed falsities about Wakefield’s work and the writer had ties to Pharma.

Over at LB/RB, I repeatedly asked John Stone, One Queer Fish and Isabella Thomas to show me how it is that Brian Deer’s allegations have been shown to be false. Obviously, they couldn’t show it.

A bunch of people, including Dave here, are simply asserting that the allegations of scientific fraud are false, hoping that mindless repetition will become truth somehow.

Just wondering… where in the timeline is the “House” episode where the antivax position is slapped down (twice, if memory serves, in the same episode)? Would you consider that a PR factor, or is it completely off radar?

Imagine if you will, a chef carefully heating a meat stock,reducing it down to its essence, fragrant and glossy: it’s called a *demi-glace*.Hopefully, that’s the process we’re now witnessing as the anti-vax movement is reduced down to its essential beliefs and believers.Indeed, only those most densely composed will remain sticking to the pan,as the heat increases. I can’t continue this metaphor any longer because unfortunately,unlike the example of the cautious chef, in this case there’s no way to prevent “burning”.

“Dave” above (not me) can’t even get the anti-vaxer memes correct. The vaccine-preventable diseases were NOT in decline before the vaccines came along — *fatalities* from those diseases were in decline. Measles, for example, was trucking right along at around 400,000 cases per year in the US until the advent of the vaccine.

Big pharma does not make an impressive amount of money from vaccines (with a few possible exceptions like Gardasil). And doctors certainly make no profits from administering them. Indeed, those who blather about Evil Vaccines fail to note that there would be far more money to be made in treating the vaccine-preventable diseases than in preventing them in the first place.

He finishes off with the usual accusations against Brian Deer, since he can’t very well refute the damning evidence against Wakefield. Pathetic, really.

The scientific community only continues to study the vaccine-autism connection, churning out negative study after negative study because it hopes to convince those who are unconvinceable by science.

Which is why I, at least, believe the scientific community would ideally STOP such studies and devote that scarce research funding to work that might actually produce valuable results.

Unfortunately that would hand the kooks a major propaganda weapon. So it’s probably inevitable to keep flushing money down the toilet.

Your article sounded like a great carthasis for your soul! Welcome back, and thanks for giving me some great food for thought this Monday morning. As a rebuttal to the gentlemen’s poem….”In the end, the best science will win!”

Profit to doctors and pharm companies from polio vaccine programs: $

Profit to doctors, hospitals and pharm companies from the treatment of lifelong complications of polio: $$$$$$$$$$$$

It’s funny (kinda) that the same people who are against vaccines are the same people who accuse doctors and pharm companies of blocking cancer cures, when certain vaccines actually prevent cancer (hpv and hepatitis B vaccines).

It was Mary Poppins who believed six impossible things before breakfast. Not that that invalidates anything. 😀

Maybe, I don’t remember, but the Red Queen was first:

Alice laughed. “There’s not use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Dave asks “where is the evidence for vaccinations”…
Dave, start with this:
Smallpox
Measles
Mumps
Rubella
Diphtheria
Tetanus
Hepatitis B
Polio
Haemophilus influenza type B
Influenza
Streptococcus pneumoniae (aka pneumococcus)
Varicella
and now, even Rotavirus

Hella lot of coinky-dinks, I’d say…
Now, Dave, I’ve showed you mine; why don’t you show us your evidence for vaccines causing autism?

A well-written piece, Orac. You detail the high points of the big hits against the Infectious Disease proponents.

Oh and for Antivax Dave: Read your link. It’s a blog, in which the author insists that Deer’s editor should be sacked.
He references as a source for his inside information that this is going to happen his own blog. In any other line of endeavor this is known as citing yourself or circular logic.

And no, incidents of polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other preventable diseases did not show a downward trend prior to the deployment and over 90% uptake of the vaccines.
The number of deaths immediately attributable to those illnesses declined as our ability to provide supportive care increased.
As for your second claim, let’s see the studies.
Give us some report titles, authors and publications.

This information needs to be given big-time emphasis:

In the U.S., because of rising litigation that jeopardized the vaccine program and threatened to drive pharmaceutical companies out of the vaccine business, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-660), which created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). The idea was to create an alternative to the tort system through which people injured by vaccines could be efficiently compensated. Vaccine litigants, if denied compensation, could still sue in conventional courts, but all claims for compensation had to go first through the VICP. Moreover, the standards of evidence in the Vaccine Court of the VICP are arguably markedly lower than in conventional federal courts. For example, Daubert rules for scientific evidence do not apply. Indeed, all that is necessary is a scientifically plausible-sounding mechanism by which a plaintiff might have been injured by vaccines, and compensation can be awarded. In essence, lowering the Daubert standard and allowing “science” that has not yet been peer reviewed makes meeting the standard of evidence showing a 51% or greater chance that the plaintiff was injured by the vaccine in question easier because it opened the door to an antivaccinationist version of the Gish Gallop, forcing the defense to answer and refute all sorts of bad science.

If vaccines were the gold mine the anti-vax crowd claims them to be, this fund wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

And yet, even with the burden of proof resting on the scientists, even with the deck being stacked heavily in the anti-vaxers’ favor, reason still eventually won out.

Whoa! That was a massively EPIC post. I have a feeling that I’m going to linking back to this article many times in the next several months. Well done, Orac. And welcome back.

I’ll breathe with relief when the antivaccine movement is reduced to the same standing as the Flat Earthers or the 9/11 Truthers. IOW, when it no longer poses a threat to the herd immunity. Then, and only then, their exercise of their freedom to hurt their children (to an extent) stops infringing upon my freedom to bring up my children safely.

When I blogged about the Cedillo decision (http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/2009/02/vaccination-autism-and-hasting-cedillo.html )I made the explicit comparison between that case and Kitzmiller v. Dover based on which I predicted that there would not be substantial impact on the anti-vaccination movement. Judging from the comments you’ve excerpted here that seems at least in the short run to be correct. We’ll see where we are in 6 months.

“Big pharma does not make an impressive amount of money from vaccines (with a few possible exceptions like Gardasil).”

Actually, Gardasil is not ‘netting’ all that much, given it’s ridiculously high price tag. They are still paying for the research and development costs. Profit will follow in due time once the initial R&D costs have been covered.

The other Dave,
Again, we here the ‘where’s the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study’. Here it goes again…write it down: there are sever limitations performing a vac v unvac STUDY because of the variables in either 1) FORMING the two groups (there is no way anyone will allow one group to get vaccinated and another to receive placebo) or 2) REPRESENTING the two groups from the existing population (for many sociological, economic, and demographic reasons). The best you could get is a SURVEY, not a study. The survey would not be considered particularly reliable, but nonetheless, it would likely be discredited and ignored when the results do not jive with what you want it to say, just like the Omnibus decision and study after study that is released.

Also, Dave, if you get around to it…who the hell is “Big Pharma”? The employees? The (public) shareholders? The countless clinicians that test, and the subsequent physicians that use their products? And (international) government regulatory agencies, like the CDC and the FDA, as well as other government research institutions (NIH, IOM, WHO)independent organizations (AMA, AAP, etc)…are they all too in on the conspiracy? Just how many people are you talking about here? Do they forgo vaccines for their children or do they have some special, secret vaccines? Why do these companies all collude? They compete against each other for big-margin, high profit medications. Why wouldn’t it be the same cutthroat attitude with low-margin vaccines? That goes completely against conventional wisdom and capitalist economic principles.

Or, could the simple answer be that you are using the nebulous term ‘big pharma’ like there are 5 guys hiding in a basement somewhere, plotting and scheming as they would in some movie or TV show? Can You tell us, Dave, what specifically “big pharma’ means to you?

Orac, This is one of my favorites! A job well done.

So far, the AV crowd (and by connotation, the general population) has been lucky that their efforts only lead to a resurgence of the relatively harmless measles, with a low mortality factor. How will they deal with a true lethal epidemic like small pox (eradicated in the wild, but plenty still around for “research”) with its 30 % lethality, or something as brutal as polio? We can see polio still hanging on in countries like Nigeria due to an anti-vaccine movement (not the same as ours, it has religious undertones)? Will Dave vaccinate when (taking AoA numbers and reasoning) you risk 1 in 150 chance of autism vs. 1:3 chance of death?

You say you support evidence-based science. Where is the evidence for vaccinations? Look at the trends in disease prevalence including polio, measles and mumps and you will see the disease was already in natural decline long before the vaccines were introduced.

Vaccine deniers must be huge believers in coincidence. Coincidence that polio is now, not merely “in decline,” but absent from the US. Coincidence that polio persists only in those parts of the globe with poor vaccination coverage. Coincidence that measles, too, is not merely in decline, but absent from the US (except when brought in from a foreign country to touch off mini-epidemics where there are pockets of unvaccinated people). Likewise chicken pox. Coincidence that whooping cough is absent. Coincidence that birth defects from rubella have vanished. Yes, all those diseases simply vanished of their own accord, an event unprecedented in history and inexplicable in terms of the natural history of disease, coincidentally only after vaccines against them were introduced.

Hi Orac

So what is your real name?

Mine is my real name and my qualifications include 6 in chemistry all of which tells me that if 20 PPT mercury gets tins off the supermarket shelves in 2009 for containing too much mercury then why does 130 000 000 PPT thimerosal fail to get thimerosal out of our kids vaccines?

My chemistry qualification tells me that not only is mercury the most toxic of all metals with practically no exception but that ethyl mercury with the impurity of methyl mercury organocompounds at over 1 000 000 PPT may be a problem too for safe vaccines.

Vaccine makers of world class level were comforted by the thimerosal being ok for use in 1991 and by 1999 they had totally fogotten this fact so they were quoted as calling the mercury expert Professor of Chemistry a fool for thinking we would ever put mercury in childrens vaccines.

From this date the science or fraud just gets worse.

Don’t thank me for this information as you probably already know it?

John Fryer MSc BSc Advanced Analytical Chemist

OK Orac, how do you do it? Do you have several clones of yourself processing blog posts in parallel? 🙂

An excellent post, I’ll have to forward it to a few people.

Paul

I’m a software engineer. Since software is used in medicine, does that give me justification to act like I know more than the people how actually study the stuff? Of course not. And neither does a degree in analytical chemistry give you justification to act like you know more than actual medical scientists.

I was studying chemistry before I fell in love with software engineering. It does give you some useful tools for evaluating medical claims — but only some, and you really need to be aware of the limitations of them. One of the more notable, apparently, is that it doesn’t give you basic reading comprehension. I *think* you’re referring to the EPA mercury guidelines, and then applying these to vaccines. Vaccines are administered in tiny amounts a few times in your life. You drink large amounts of water every day, and eat foods grown with even larger amounts of water. Consequently, which of these needs to be more carefully monitored for mercury levels — vaccines or groundwater?

My chemistry qualification tells me that not only is mercury the most toxic of all metals with practically no exception but that ethyl mercury with the impurity of methyl mercury organocompounds at over 1 000 000 PPT may be a problem too for safe vaccines.

While you may (or may not; personally I doubt it) be a chemist, this Epic Fail proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have ZERO conception of toxicology. The various species of mercury have completely different toxicological behavior.

Nobody with the faintest clue would EVER make such meaningless generalizations as “the most toxic of all metals” OR conflate methyl and ethyl mercury.

Ok John, did any of those qualifications tell you the thimerosal isn’t the same thing as mercury? For you to refer to it as so and make comparisons between PPT of a compound and the element itself indicates that you are flat out lying about your expertise or simply a really bad chemist. Try explaining that to some of your co-workers, but be prepared to be laughed at.

Table salt is in practically everything you eat and necessary for life. Try ingesting some Sodium or Chlorine (the elements that make it, as you are no doubt aware) sometime and tell us how it works out for you.

“….and my qualifications include 6 in chemistry…..”

Whooooo! Wow! 6? Wow.

During those 6 years, did they ever cover the difference between atoms and compounds? How about the properties of each?

Well, an analytical chemist *might* make meaningless claims like “the most toxic of all metals”. This is because toxicology is not generally taught in that line of study, unless perhaps one decided to take some biochemistry courses on the side.

@John F,

You present one of the lamer attempts at an argument from authority that I’ve seen. Seriously, who signs “BSc” after their name?

Mine is my real name and my qualifications include 6 in chemistry all of which tells me that if 20 PPT mercury gets tins off the supermarket shelves in 2009 for containing too much mercury then why does 130 000 000 PPT thimerosal fail to get thimerosal out of our kids vaccines?

@John Fryer: Your qualifications must not include Math. The guideline for canned fish, for example, is 0.5 ppm (parts per million). To get PPT (parts per trillion) you need to multiply by one million, which would be 500,000 ppt.

Be that as it may, the real problem is that you apparently don’t see that the dose, not the concentration, is what matters. Suppose I have 1 microgram of mercury in 1 milligram of water. That’s 1,000 ppm or 1,000,000,000 ppt. Yet, 1 microgram won’t hurt anyone.

Well, an analytical chemist *might* make meaningless claims like “the most toxic of all metals”.

And by doing so prove that he hasn’t the faintest clue about toxicology. (I see now that I neglected to specify those last two words in that sentence of the prior post; they were however intended.)

So, it’s fairly obvious that John Fryer is either:

1) Doesn’t really have those qualifications.
2) Knows what he is talking about, but is trying to uses big numbers and bogus correlations to make his point to people he hopes do not know any better.
3) Simply doesn’t know any better despite having experience in chemistry.

So what is it John – are you a liar, a con or a moron?

Those against vaccinations may want to read a little history of medicine and public health – infant mortality, average life expectancy. This makes it very, very apparent the impact vaccinations have had on the entire human population. Anyone with any common-sense can see the dramatic impact on populations. No longer do we need to have five children to ensure three (or two) will make it to adulthood. As a result, women no longer have to be constantly pregnant, dramatically reducing the risk of pregnancy and childbirth to the mother. OMG – I could go on and on.

Now here’s a real danger the ant-vaccinationists create – if a significant enough amount of the population is not vaccinated, it may give a disease entitie a large enough foothold so that our current vaccines are ineffective on just a small percentage of the disease. Get a large enough population (of that small population) of the disease and you will eventually get mutations of the disease resistant to current vaccines, allowing the disease to sweep through human populations again. That could knock humanity back a hundred years or so as a disease like polio, smallpox, dipthereia or TB spreads through the population again.

Combine just a little science with a knowledge of history and common sense and you can get a sense of the danger involved in non-vaccinations of populations based on faulty science.

According to google, you will see that Mr. Fryer is all over blogosphere, BSc credentials and all, talking about mercury, mercury, mercury.

….it’s #3.

Ka-POW!
Magnificent post, Orac. Thanks for a truly excellent and comprehensive review of what has often been a tragic and frustrating saga for those of us in the reality-based community.

I’ve been wondering what Paul Offit must be thinking about these recent blows to the antivax movement–has he gone on record anywhere with a reaction?

I’ve been wondering what Paul Offit must be thinking about these recent blows to the antivax movement–has he gone on record anywhere with a reaction?

All Things Considered. Short but very good report. Richard Grinker also chimes in with some insight about the merit of the claimants’ case.

Sometimes one just can wonder where the boundaries of human ignorance are.

Let’s hope 2009 continues like this for science!

Epic, Orac.

And, can I say that it’s about effing time for this to happen? Antivax is about the most ridiculous pseudoscience there is. You can talk all day about creationism or homeopathy or lizards ruling the earth, but vaccines ***prevent children from needlessly dying***. Are these cranks anti-seatbelt, too? How about anti-sanitation? Gah!

John Fryer MSc BSc Advanced Analytical Chemist

Lister: You sign all your official letters ‘Arnold Rimmer BSc’ and the BSc stands for ‘Bronze Swimming Certificate’.

Dave “Regarding Wakefield… Have you read this: Sunday Times’ London Editor Must Quit Over False “Wakefield MMR Data Fixing” Story. Apparently the Sunday Times London printed falsities about Wakefield’s work and the writer had ties to Pharma. Ouch. ”

This is amusing, I hope somebody makes a note of this so that we can come back and laugh at this in a few months time!

I’m not a scientist, I’m not a parent, I’m not a doctor, and so far as I know I have no stock in pharmaceutical companies. But I am an old fart and I remember measles, mumps and chicken pox because I had them (all my older brothers and sisters had them, one right after another. I can’t believe my mother didn’t go out of her mind).

I particularly remember the mumps. I was in first grade but boy do I still remember the mumps. Anyone who willingly, knowingly exposes a child to this kind of pain should be tied to a post so a large person with great upper-body strength can repeatedly smack them just under the jaw with an ax-handle.

The specious claim? That somehow Deer had a huge conflict of interest because he made the complaint to the GMC about Wakefield, a meme started by the British version of David Kirby, the antivaccine “journalist” Melanie Phillips. It’s also a claim that, even if true, would mean nothing, as it does absolutely nothing to refute the findings in Deer’s reporting or the results thus far of the GMC’s investigation.

The idiocy of this attack seems a sign of true desperation. By this argument, an investigative reporter who discovered evidence of a crime would be disallowed from writing an article on his findings if he reported the crime to the police.

Wow, Dave, you’re so, ummm, wrong!
I’lll sum it up very simply- whilst improvements in food and sanitation and public health measures such as quarantines all helped reduce the spread and impact of diseases, they couldn’t stop it all, and funnily enough, we all think that thousands and tens of thousands of ruined or lost lives are too many. Here’s a Making light thread with many examples of what such diseases could do to people before vaccines nearly wiped them out:
http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/010978.html

I want to know which method John Fryer used to find 130ppm of mercury in the vaccine.

“I want to know which method John Fryer used to find 130ppm of mercury in the vaccine. ”

It was the ‘pull it out of your ass’ technique.

Vaccine makers of world class level were comforted by the thimerosal being ok for use in 1991 and by 1999 they had totally fogotten this fact so they were quoted as calling the mercury expert Professor of Chemistry a fool for thinking we would ever put mercury in childrens vaccines.

I wonder who this unnamed “mercury expert Professor of Chemistry” was? Could his name start with B and rhyme with oyd Haley? I’m sure that Haley has done something useful in his career, but his mercury work has been routinely disappointing. He explains away his inability to get it published in high level journals as conspiracy against him. He is a constant embarrassment to my alma mater and some of his otherwise skeptical colleagues accept that he knows something of what he is talking about.

Shh RJ, don’t give him ideas. I at least have worked in a lab for a couple of years, I want to see what he says about measuring it and we’ll get a handle on how nuts he is.

Whoah. I shoulda known good old John “I have a BsC” Fryar would show up. It’s kinda like having a family gathering and knowing that crazy old Aunt Fanny will show up, even though you didn’t tell her what day the party was going to be on or when.

Thanks for the lengthy review. I doubt we’ll see this fuss begin to subside until the Omnibus cases go all the way through the regular judicial process, though that process may be accelerated by the fact that Daubert will be fully operative as a tool to help keep junk science out of the courtroom.

Speaking of Daubert [ahem] you wrote: [R]egardless of whether one thinks they are too restrictive or not, in the Vaccine Court Daubert rules for scientific evidence do not apply. Indeed, all that is necessary is a scientifically plausible-sounding mechanism by which a plaintiff might have been injured by vaccines, and compensation can be awarded.

That’s overstated. As the Special Master in the Cedillo case wrote in his decision:

“The showing of ‘causation-in-fact’ must satisfy the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard…. Under that standard, the petitioner must show that it is ‘more probable than not’ that the vaccination was the cause of the injury. The petitioner need not show that the vaccination was the sole cause or even the predominant cause of the injury or condition, but must demonstrate that the vaccination was at least a ‘substantial factor’ in causing the condition, and was a ‘but for’ cause. Thus, the petitioner must supply ‘proof of a logical sequence of cause and effect showing that the vaccination was the reason for the injury….'” [Citations omitted.]

The two key differences between what you say above and the criteria actually used by the Special Master are (1) you say all that petitioners had to come up with was something “scientifically plausible-sounding,” while the Special Master required actual “proof of a logical sequence of cause and effect showing that the vaccination was the reason for the injury;” and (2) you say petitioners only had to show an injury *might* have occurred due to vaccination, while the Special Master actually required a showing that the vaccination “was a ‘but for’ cause” (meaning but for the vaccination, autism would not have occurred). These aren’t just semantic differences, and they are probably part of the reason why I was more sanguine about the possible outcome of the Omnibus than you say you were.

I also wasn’t concerned about a possible Gish Gallop. The Gish Gallop relies on the opponent having no time to prepare for all your surprise tangents, many of which may be irrelevant. Surprise tactics are prohibited by court rules (they are grounds for overturning verdicts in jury trials, judges won’t hear such evidence in bench trials, and egregious cases can result in attorney sanctions); judicial proceedings last until they end, not in accordance with arbitrary deadlines, so respondents would have had all the time they required for cross-examination and rebuttal; and anything irrelevant to the issues would be excluded by the rules of evidence. (Certainly a witness who repeatedly tried to inject irrelevant material would sorely try the patience of a judge, or in the case of the Omnibus, the Special Master, thus hurting petitioners’ case rather than helping it.)

Regarding Wakefield, I was struck by the following item from an article you linked: “Also among those named as being paid from the legal aid fund was a referee for one of Wakefield’s papers, who was allowed £40,000.” (Emphasis added.) Holy moly!

A TCV actually contains approx. 25 ppm of thimerosal, or 25,000,000 ppt. The calculation is straightforward (you don’t even need a calculator). John Fryer’s estimate was off by half an order of magnitude.

That’s ppm weight. There’s also ppm volume, which is calculated differently.

John Fryer:
It doesn’t take the combined efforts of the CIA and the NSA to discover Orac’s real world identity. It’s just common internet courtesy/etiquette to respect his nom de plume used here on Respectful Insolence. Suffice it to say, Orac is what he claims to be- a surgeon-scientist MD/PhD.

Given your supposed qualifications, you must already know the following (Almost anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes researching this subject is also aware of these facts, and we all grow weary of repeating them over and over), so don’t thank me:

*The dose makes the poison, not the concentration.
*Mercury is an element which can exist in elemental form or in compound with other elements, such as in Thimerosal.
*Not all mercury containing compounds have the same toxicity.
*Even if Thimerosal were found to be the most deadly toxic substance in the universe, that would not support the hypothesis that Thimerosal causes autism.
*No routine childhood vaccines in the US have contained thimerosal since 201, and MMR never had did. (So what, exactly is your point, anyway?)

By John Fryer’s logic, a 1cc drop of water at 100 degrees C is just as dangerous as a pot of boiling water.

Scientists often tend to be nervous about complex scientific questions being placed in the hands of judges who generally lack formal scientific training. Yet there have been a number of recent cases that have increased my respect for the capacity of judges to adjudicate such matters. It seems that judges trained in the rules of logic and evidence can do a very good job when assisted by expert scientific testimony. The decisions in this case are an excellent example of rigorous scientific reasoning. Considering that science lacks any kind of formal mechanism for balancing the weight of scientific evidence and coming to a judgement, and the ability of pressure groups like the Discovery Institute and Generation Rescue to manipulate the media to produce the illusion of scientific controversy, it is encouraging to see the judicial system step into this role successfully when called upon to do so.

Excellent post, but I note one stumbling-block in the text:

However, less than a week after Deer’s revelations were reported, the long-awaited ruling in a huge legal action made up of approximately 5,000 parents who are convinced that vaccines caused their children’s autism.

In lengthy sentence, the long-awaited verb not. 😉

All that one can say is, perhaps, that, the Kool-aid once drunk, it’s far harder to get it out of one’s system. Not that one would recommend chelation or anything like that here, but maybe several more doses of thoughtful self-examination.

Excellent post Orac. I bet it felt good to get that out of your system. Does anyone know when the GMC case against Wakefield is due to end?
Thank heavens Dawn isn’t here anymore, though there will be others. Arguing with them has given me the ammo to confront the anti-vaxxers, but regretably it’ll take the death of several children from measles to finally kick these nuts off our media.

Wow. Epic post. Thanks so much for linking to my articles.

One more element in the saga — the FDA’s recent dismissal of CoMeD’s second petition demanding immediate revocation of the licenses of all FDA-approved products containing thimerosal or other mercury derivatives. (CoMeD consists of Geier Père et Fils, Paul King, Lisa Sykes, Brian Hooker, and a number of other parent-petitioners.) The FDA ruling was issued in November 2008, but wasn’t published online until January 27, 2009. It’s a blow-by-blow analysis of the relevant studies that emerged after CoMeD’s first and equally unsuccessful petition to the FDA — a petition originally submitted in 2004, and eventually dismissed in September 2006.

I’m just wondering when mercury became more toxic than plutonium.

Because by that kind of qualification…shit, I’m already dead, and have been, along with my high school chem teacher, and the cheerleader who poured about an ounce of mercury into her hand, and then slapped her other hand into that puddle, spraying us all with it, since um…1983. FYI, mercury smells kinda nasty…when it’s all over your face. (No I don’t know why she did it. I was standing there when she said “Hey, watch this”, pour, swish, SLAP. Probably the only time I said motherfucker, cocksucker and bitch in front of a teacher and didn’t get in trouble.)

So that cheerleader, she’s not just dead, she’s DAID.

I didn’t realize I had been dead for almost 26 years…evidently, zombies can conceive. Who knew?

John Fryer MSc BSc Advanced Analytical Chemist:

… 20 PPT mercury [in tins] … 130 000 000 PPT thimerosal [in vaccines] …

LOL WTF? I may not be one o’them elitist MSc BSc Advanced Analytical Chemist types, but at least I’d have the good sense to go double-check my figures before spouting them as fact. And that’s without even considering what the relative dosages of tuna fish and vaccine might be.

(Oh, and John, your diploma mill called: they’d like their letters back.)

The only hope that we who support science-based medicine can have is that these two body blows to the antivaccine movement will finally–finally!–drive home the message to the media that, when it comes to the claim that vaccines cause autism, there’s no there there, as they say.

I’m rather pessimistic on that front. Conflict sells news. Human tragedy sells news. The “little guy” taking on “the big evil companies” sells news. I fear that the media will only stop reporting on this when its thoroughly been played out, regardless of how much evidence comes forth.

Given the choice between admitting they were duped and believing that the growing weight of scientific evidence is wrong and part of of a conspiracy of thousands, the antivaxers will choose the latter. You see this sort of denial in the victims of Ponzi schemes.

We once wound up insuring a vehicle through an insurance agent in the small Mennonite town of Linden in central Alberta that was later the center of a Madoff syle Ponzi scheme that later spread to Cardston, A Moromon town in southern Alberta. A few years later we heard a interview with the insurance agent and the RCMP fraud squad officer who was investigating the case. The mountie said that he was not getting much cooperation from the victims because they refused to believe they had been conned. Instead they believed that the long gone perpetrator was in the US trying to find their money. The insurance agent said that he had advised people to stay away from the fraud from the start and had lost a lot a friends as a result. I am sure that is Bernie Madoff hadn’t confessed many of his victims would be claiming that he was being persecuted.

People will believe the most preposterous things rather than admit they were conned.

One more element in the saga — the FDA’s recent dismissal of CoMeD’s second petition demanding immediate revocation of the licenses of all FDA-approved products containing thimerosal or other mercury derivatives. (CoMeD consists of Geier Père et Fils, Paul King, Lisa Sykes, Brian Hooker, and a number of other parent-petitioners.) The FDA ruling was issued in November 2008, but wasn’t published online until January 27, 2009. It’s a blow-by-blow analysis of the relevant studies that emerged after CoMeD’s first and equally unsuccessful petition to the FDA — a petition originally submitted in 2004, and eventually dismissed in September 2006.

The FDA opinion includes a nice explanation of why safety limits for mercury in water and fish are not relevant to vaccinations:

For example, MacMillan (1987)….discusses the safety framework for neurobehavioral toxicity. The structure of this framework is based on long-term exposures of test animals to neurotoxic substances with the intent of determining no-observed-effect levels (NOEL), no-observed-adverse-effect (NOAEL) and lowest-observed-adverse-effect levels (LOAEL). The adverse effects measured are changes compared to control animals in a range of sensory, motor and behavioral test. This analysis leads to an acceptable daily intake (ADI) determination of the compound in question. The determination of an ADI is an amount of the neurotoxin that would be acceptable if the amount were received every day. Daily exposure to ethylmercury is not the pattern of human exposure from vaccinations, which normally occurs only intermittently, often only on an annual basis. You cite papers that discuss the problem of using biomarkers to estimate methylmercury exposures and argue that the methylmercury reference dose may have been set too high. Recent studies have concluded that the benefits of eating fish may outweigh the risk associated with increased methylmercury exposure which implies that the reference dose for exposures that occur through fish may be too low.

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