A canary in the coal mine? Or a bird pining for the fjords?

Why is it that so many bloggable items tend to pop up right before holidays? Whatever the reason, whether my perception that this is the case is accurate or simply the result of confirmation bias on my part, last Friday a little tidbit of popped up that seriously tempted me to blog about it. But I was good (mostly). I resisted, figuring that, first, readership plummets during holiday weekends anyway and, second, anything worth giving an Orac-style dissection to will still be worth giving an Orac-style dissection to three days later. If it isn’t, then it probably wasn’t worth the full Orac treatment in the first place. Besides, a highly amusing (and revealing) story popped up over the weekend when the autism quackfest known as Autism One once again expelled infidels. Even better, the two infidels expelled posted detailed accounts of their experiences, which meant that it took me very little time to cook up a bit of Insolence about it. It was, after all, a holiday weekend, and I was trying to write a grant.

But now the weekend’s over, and I had to come back and look at what I first saw on Friday and see if it’s worth analyzing. Fortunately (or, depending upon your point of view, unfortunately), it is. I’m referring, of course, to the announcement of the Canary Party, which has been touted by–who else?–Age of Autism and the aforementioned quackfest known as Autism One. Heck it’s even on Facebook. Let’s take a look, as this looks to be a new tact taken by opponents of science-based medicine in general and the anti-vaccine movement in general.

First, where did the term “the Canary Party” come from? As best I can tell, it derives from a post by everyone’s favorite therapist, Ginger Taylor, who three weeks ago, in the wake of Mary Holland and company’s attempt to convince that the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program had data demonstrating a lot of children with autism in its population of compensated children, labeled these 83 children 83 canaries in the vaccine/autism coal mine. Never mind that they had to intentionally conflate “autism-like” symptoms with autism itself and that they inadvertently demonstrated that the prevalence of autism among compensated children appears not to be outside the range one would expect in the general population, accounting for the enrichment for children with neurological injury. As a result, they succeeded in doing nothing of the sort while at the same time using some rather dubious research ethics to do it. It turns out, though, that under the selective pressures of the withering criticism that fell upon Holland et al’s misbegotten attempt at epidemiology co-opted in the service of a legal argument, coupled with an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up in the form of a recent study (more in a moment), the Canary Party appears to have–shall we say–evolved before it was ever officially born. Rather than hew strictly to vaccines, the Canary Party widens its focus to encompass what it apparently perceives as all manner of environmental, pharmaceutical, and public health depredations.

Using the rather trite and obvious metaphor of the canary in a coal mine, not to mention a background color on their website that reminds me far less of canary feathers and far more of piss, the Canary Party states:

Back then, miners whose lives depended on the absence of poisons paid close attention to the absence of the canary’s song. Today, as the rising power and spread of the medical industrial complex are taking an increasing toll on human health, we need to recognize the silenced canaries all around us.

What is this toll? Nothing less than a generation of sick, injured and dying children, children who are increasingly becoming young adults. American children are over vaccinated and over medicated, over fed, undernourished and have record levels of chronic illness and developmental delay.

And what does the Canary Party base its claim that this is the sickest generation of children in American history? In part, this claim appears to be based on study that was published in Academic Pediatrics by Bethell et al few weeks ago that I actually had meant to blog about, given that John Stone used it as a reason to write an open letter to NIH Director Francis Collins “demanding answers,” but that somehow managed to slip past me. The objectives of the study were “to evaluate national and state prevalence of health problems and special health care needs in US children; to estimate health care quality related to adequacy and consistency of insurance coverage, access to specialist, mental health and preventive medical and dental care, developmental screening, and whether children meet criteria for having a medical home, including care coordination and family centeredness; and to assess differences in health and health care quality for children by insurance type, special health care needs status, race/ethnicity, and/or state of residence.”

Sounds pretty benign, right? The results, however, were admittedly disturbing, although not for the reasons that the Canary Party is trying to sell to the alternative medicine and anti-vaccine set. Basically, the investigators derived national and state level estimates from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health (N = 91 642; children aged 0-17 years). In particular, they were trying to quantify variations between children with public versus private sector health insurance, special health care needs, specific conditions, race/ethnicity, and across states. Basically, what Bethell et al found was:

An estimated 43% of US children (32 million) currently have at least 1 of 20 chronic health conditions assessed, increasing to 54.1% when overweight, obesity, or being at risk for developmental delays are included; 19.2% (14.2 million) have conditions resulting in a special health care need, a 1.6 point increase since 2003. Compared with privately insured children, the prevalence, complexity, and severity of health problems were systematically greater for the 29.1% of all children who are publicly insured children after adjusting for variations in demographic and socioeconomic factors.

One thing that this study suggests is that obesity is indeed a major problem among our children, with a whopping 43% of children whose health insurance is publicly funded being reported as obese. It also suggests that the prevalence of chronic health problems tends to be significantly higher among children who do not have private health insurance. Interestingly, when it comes to developmental delays, more parents whose children had publicly funded insurance reported screening for development, social or behavioral delays using standardized parent-completed tools than parents with private insurance, which might account for the higher prevalence of developmental delays observed among publicly insured children. Also reported were rather wide variations in prevalence of various conditions by state and that 5.7 million (23.5%) “had parents who reported their [health insurance] coverage was never or only sometimes adequate in terms of coverage, access to, and costs of needed health care for their child,” with reports of insurance inadequacy ranging from 16.2% in Hawaii to 31.3% in Minnesota.

Obviously, this study has a number of limitations, the most important of which being that all the results are self-reported and that there was no verification by medical records. To put it into context, here is one of the graphs from the paper; this one shows the prevalence of health conditions reported broken out to compare children with private health insurance and children with publicly funded health insurance:


Taking the results at face value, what I see is a nation of sedentary, obese children and that obesity risks future health problems associated with obesity. I also see huge disparities in childhood health care that depend on which state that child lives in, what kind of insurance that child has, and that only around 50% of children in the U.S. receive, as the authors put it, “health care that meets a basic level of quality of care.” Given that, I see a lot of room for improvement, including improving childhood access to care, finding ways to get kids to exercise more and eat healthier diets, and more services for children at risk for developmental delay. What, do you think, does the Canary Party see? Guess?

Yep, it’s the vaccines and those evil pharmaceutical companies:

In simplest terms, the medical industrial complex has launched a massive and uncontrolled experiment on a generation of Americans. In an unprecedented intervention in human immune development, this complex has succeeded in promoting an explosion in medical industry revenues and profits; this explosion has been accompanied, however, by an epidemic of death, disability and chronic disease, much of which can be traced directly to these medical and chemical exposures.

Oh, no! It’s the toxins! Actually, it’s the vaccines and the pharmaceuticals, which to these loons are more or less exactly the same thing. Or it’s the pollutants! Or it’s all of them. They just can’t seem to make up their mind which. I will give them credit for aping Dwight Eisenhower. Well, no I won’t. They clearly think it’s clever, but it’s about as obvious as the canary metaphor, although I will admit that at least using Eisenhower doesn’t require that piss-yellow background. Now there’s a visual pollutant that will make anyone sick!

In reality, though, pollutants aren’t what the Canary Party is about. True, they do mention pollution, but in actuality, as I’ve pointed out before, in the U.S. and developed countries at least, we live in a far less polluted environment than even 50 years ago. Indeed, it was only in 1948 that a killer smog killed 20 residents of Donora, a town with a population of 14,000 about 20 miles from Pittsburgh, and sickened half the population. In 1952, there was what Londoners called “the great smog of ’52” or the “big smoke,” which was estimated to have resulted in 4,000 premature deaths and the sickening of 100,000 people. No, I’m not saying that there is not a problem with pollution and that we’ve succeeded in cleaning up chemical pollutants to the point where we don’t need to worry about them, but stronger environmental laws have definitely led to a decrease in pollution, and this does not go along with an “epidemic” of environmentally-caused health problems. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but in this case there isn’t even really a correlation, is there? In reality, when you come right down to it, it’s all about the vaccines. It’s always been all about the vaccines. It always will be all about the vaccines, possibly with some rhetoric about pharmaceuticals and environmental pollutants thrown on top to disguise the true nature of the party as much as possible. Meanwhile, they call upon a mish-mash of the progressive movement, the conservative movement, the Green Party, and the Tea Party all to come together on this one issue

Of course, our friendly neighborhood anti-vaccine zealots at Age of Autism have never let me down before in making it clear it’s all about the vaccines, and they don’t let me down now. Enter John Stone:

It comes as the pharmaceutical industry and its scientists plot to further exploit vaccination mandates and their newly established prosecution immunity ever more widely (HERE ), with US children already expected to receive over one hundred vaccines in combination by the time they become adult (HERE ) – and without any studies which investigate their cumulative impact on a child’s immune system (HERE ), even if they were individually adequately tested (which they are not HERE ). I do not know when it was scientifically established that it was safe to modify a child’s immune system in this way, even before we consider all the adjuvants and excipients that are a concomitant exposure of the programme: substances which enter a child’s body through their muscles and blood stream, and not through their digestive tract.

Now, enter An American Teacher & Parent guest blogging on AoA in a post entitled Why Do We Need The Canary Party for our Health? Portrait of an American Classroom & Family:

In our family, it’s been really obvious. My least vaccinated child is by far my healthiest…rarely sick, strong, healthy, coordinated, friendly, loving, and extremely intelligent. This child has no skin issues, no gastrointestinal distress, and no allergies of any kind. My nieces, nephews and cousins who are selectively or unvaccinated are the same.

The fact of the matter is, if you lined up those children in my family of the same generation who were born and vaccinated per the CDC schedule before our child’s Autism diagnosis in 2004 and compared them to those who were born and selectively or not vaccinated after (as a result of watching the demise of our child and wanting to avoid it at all costs), the differences in their health conditions are stark, startling, and undeniable.

This teacher then lists the 17 children in his or her family and does a completely useless exercise in trying to correlate vaccination status with chronic health problems in an utterly uninformative exercise that this teacher apparently finds quite convincing.

I despair for our youth, if they’re being taught by someone with so little in the way of scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Of course, given that the anti-vaccine movement has decided to name its latest political project after a bird, it’s hard not to come back to one of my favorite schticks, which, given that I’ve long been a Monty Python fan, is obvious. Yes, I’ve done it before, but I think it bears repeating that what the Canary Party is doing is the equivalent to claiming that its link between vaccines and so many chronic health problems is pining for the fjords. In actuality, the science has been done over and over and over again. The link between vaccines and autism does not exist. It is a dead link. Or, as John Cleese would put it, it’s not pinin’! ‘It’s passed on! This link is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed this canary to the perch it’d be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolic processes are now ‘istory! It’s off the twig! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-LINK!!

Not that any of this will stop the Canary Party from nailing the poor bird to its perch to convince its followers that the link really is pining for the fjords.