Jack’s Fourth Show: How anti-vaccine groups rebrand themselves as legitimate autism charities

There once was a time not so long ago–oh, say, four our five years–when the anti-vaccine fringe was looked upon as what it was: a fringe group, a bunch of quacks and quack advocates, all in essence one big conspiracy theory movement, in which vaccines are the One True Cause of Autism. At the time, there were two basic flavors of this movement, the American and the British variety. The British variety began back in the 1990s, fueled by Andrew Wakefield’s pseudoscience, lack of ethics, bad science, and even potentially data falsification for his original 1998 Lancet study that claimed to have linked the MMR vaccine to GI problems in autistic children. Vaccination rates plunged and measles, which was once considered largely conquered in the U.K. 14 years ago was recently declared endemic again. True, Wakefield didn’t do it by himself; he had a lot of help from sensationalistic and credulous reporters and media outlets in the U.K. Even so, the British flavor of the anti-vaccine movement was all about the MMR, fueled by anti-vaccine groups like Jabs and Cry Shame.

Here in the U.S. in the late 1990s, the anti-vaccine movement took a different tack. Based on the ever-popular crank mistake of confusing correlation with causation by noting that the number of autism diagnoses started increasing in the early 1990, around the time the vaccine schedule expanded, it fixated on a single ingredient in vaccines, a preservative known as thimerosal, which contains mercury. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, even though there was no evidence linking thimerosal-containing vaccines to autism, fears over this preservative led vaccine safety authorities in this country to recommend under the precautionary principle that it be removed from childhood vaccines, which occurred near the end of 2001. Since early 2002, thimerosal has not been used as a preservative in vaccines other than the flu vaccine, and there are thimerosal-free alternatives. Several vaccines still have trace amounts of thimerosal, but overall the total exposure to thimerosal due to childhood vaccination is lower than it’s been since the late 1980s. Unfortunately for anti-vaccine loons, autism rates have not decreased back to what they were in the late 1980s. In fact, they are still rising. Epidemiological refutation of a hypothesis doesn’t get much more resounding than that.

Of course, there are still groups that continue to promote the discredited ideas that vaccines or mercury in vaccines causes autism. These movements, epitomized by groups like Generation Rescue, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), and Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) were quite correctly relegated to the fringe, although it is true that radio and TV shows trotted out representatives with alarming frequency for “balance” whenever a little of the old manufactroversy was needed.

Starting around two or three years ago, however, there began a sea change in how anti-vaccine groups like Generation Rescue and TACA started to be viewed. No, it’s not that the views they promote are any less pseudoscientific or quacky. What happened is that GR and TACA got smart. They started cultivating an image as a normal, legitimate autism charities rather than the anti-vaccine, pro-quackery groups that they are. Then, in 2007, they took advantage of an enormous stroke of luck, namely Jenny McCarthy’s joining the vaccine/autism fringe in 2007, particularly her first appearance on Oprah in September 2007. Since then, Jenny McCarthy and her handlers have been working tirelessly to use her to “rebrand” the anti-vaccine fringe as legtimate autism charities, rather than the crank organizations that they are.

I was reminded of just how far they’ve come when a concerned reader sent me this ad for a concert promoted by a radio station in Los Angeles, JACK 93.1. The concert is called Jack’s Fourth Show and features Foreigner, the B-52s, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, Ratt, Eddie Money, Missing Persons, and–gasp!–George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. What prompted the forwarding of this ad to me was this little sentence that appeared at the bottom:

JACK’S FOURTH SHOW benefits Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), a local organization committed to furthering community education about Autism. For more information on TACA then click here.

Noooo! George! Say it ain’t so!

And what does the link say? This:

Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) provides information, resources, and support to families affected by autism. For families who have just received the autism diagnosis, TACA aims to speed up the cycle time from the autism diagnosis to effective treatments. TACA helps to strengthen the U.S. autism community by connecting families and the professionals who can help them, allowing them to share stories and information to help people with autism be the best they can be.

95% of TACA services are provided free to families.  TACA currently serves almost 15,000 families with much needed programs, educational services and support.  TACA began to serve families in Southern California in 2000 and in 2007 launched chapters outside California to help more families in need.

Sounds really benign, doesn’t it? After all, who could be upset over educational services and support? Well, yes, there’s that, but there’s also more:

TACA believes in early diagnosis, intensive therapies and medical intervention for children affected by autism. With early intervention, medical treatment unique to each person’s needs, and necessary support services for families many children can improve greatly and some can recover from their autistic symptoms. We believe the future is not defined for many children affected by autism. Hope and recovery is possible.

Note that, among the anti-vaccine/”biomedical” movement, “intensive therapies” and “medical interventions,” when coupled with the “hope and recovery is possible” mantra are code words for biomedical quackery and blaming autism on those evil Satanic vaccines. It’s the same sort of stuff that I described the yesterday. It’s support of supplements, gluten-free diets, chelation therapy, all sorts of dubious or even bogus tests for “toxins” and “heavy metals,” hyperbaric oxygen, and more. There is little or no evidence that any of these modalities do anything to “reverse” autism or result in recovery, but the quacks promoting them do make lots and lots of money selling them to credulous and/or desperate parents of autistic children.

The web page then goes on to brag:

What has JACK FM & TACA accomplished together?

Since 2006, Jack FM & TACA have  partnered together in four separate events including:  Jacks First Show, Jacks Second Show, Jacks Third Show and the Jack Open Golf Tournament.  TACA has greatly benefitted from being included in these Jack FM activities.

At these events, we touched over 48,000 people with the event announcements, TACA message, and autism disease awareness.  And countless others heard the event announcements via radio spots on Jack FM.

Ugh. First, “Hope and recovery is possible” and now “What has JACK FM & TACA accomplished together?” Note to copywriter: it’s “are possible” and “have accomplished.” I know I’m being pedantic and perhaps even a little hypocritical in making fun of some copywriter for such lapses when I get annoyed at similar comments, but it’s just one of those things that irritate me. Such grammatical lapses do however, seem appropriate for an event of this sort.

In any case, concerts like this as fundraisers are exactly the sort of thing that TACA and GR have been trying to accomplish. Indeed, the ever-reliable promoter of autism quackery and anti-vaccine nuttiness, Age of Autism, is promoting this concert. That ought to tell you all you need to know about it.

My guess is that the celebrities who are appearing at these benefit concerts, the DJ’s promoting TACA events, and the radio station executives who forged this alliance have no idea whatsoever what TACA truly is; so I’ll educate them. TACA is an only slightly less fringe group of anti-vaccine activists than Generation Rescue, which in turn is only less slightly fringe than Whale.to. It promotes the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism; the quackery that is chelation therapy for autism (a “therapy” that has resulted in the death of a child); unproven supplements for autism; and multiple other highly dubious ideas. Moreover TACA, along with GR, was one of the sponsors of Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” march on Washington in June 2008, which was antivaccine to the core.

Moreover, it’s not just TACA that’s been succeeding at rebranding itself as a legitimate autism charity. Ever since Generation Rescue rebranded itself as “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Charity,” it’s been milking the celebrity circuit for all it’s worth. For example, it’s signed up Britney Spears, Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door, and Charlie Sheen, among others, to attend its celebrity fundraisers. To bolster GR’s celebrity fundraising further, it’s also persuaded Lance Armstrong to do celebrity poker events with Jenny McCarthy and partnered with the WWE to do pro wrestling events to benefit itself. Even worse, Jenny McCarthy has parlayed her “mother warrior” persona into a gig of her own, a talk show to be developed with Oprah’s Harpo Studios. But that’s not all. GR has gotten local charities to do projects that raise money for it.

This fundraising concert for TACA is just the example of this strategy that I’ve most recently learned of. It’s all of a piece with a very conscious and calculated plan to become respectable when what TACA and GR promote is highly dubious “biomedical” treatments to which parents like Kent Heckenlively and “Mary” subject their autistic children at a cost of thousands upon thousands of dollars. It’s a profoundly cynical strategy that harnesses the altruism of celebrities, companies, and ordinary people and uses it in the service of promoting pseudoscience. Just as crank groups intentionally obscure the line between real science and pseudoscience, so, too do TACA, GR, and other groups, cloaking themselves in the mantle of concern for autistic children in order to disguise their true agenda.

It is a problem that will get worse, I predict, given that the influx of quackery into academic medicine is similarly obscuring the line between quackery and science.