Antivaccine journalist Sharyl Attkisson tries once again to convince us that vaccines cause autism

Of all the clueless antivaccinationist out there, one stands out as being particularly dangerous to public health. That person is the antivaccine reporter whom I’ve periodically been forced to castigate ever since around 2007 when she laid down such a seethingly hot bit of napalm-grade antivaccine stupid that she grabbed my attention with her combination of ignorance and arrogance (a.k.a., the arrogance of ignorance or the Dunning-Kruger effect), Sharyl Attkisson. Since then, Attkisson has managed to get on my radar through her sucking up to Andrew Wakefield, playing footsie with the antivaccine cranks at Age of Autism, deceptively promoting the Hannah Poling case for antivaccine propaganda, and exploiting the murder of an autistic teen to promote antivaccine views last year. Back in March, she resigned from CBS News, reportedly due to frustration over what she perceived to be the network’s liberal bias and lack of dedication to investigative reporting. I had wondered what she’s been up to since then.

I probably shouldn’t have. If anything, her departure from CBS News has led her to her becoming, if anything, even a bigger crank than she was before. I learned this when a reader made me aware of a post on her website entitled The Search for Safer Vaccines. It’s a classic example of the sort of conspiracy mongering that should have gotten her canned from CBS News a long time ago but somehow didn’t, beginning with:

Vaccine-injured children who end up with autism are quietly winning their cases in federal court, but only when they focus on using the more general terminology of “brain damage” rather than calling it “autism.”

No, no, no, no, no! It is the antivaccinationists—like Attkisson—who conflate autism with “brain damage,” not the Vaccine Court. A perfect example of that was an unethical little human subjects study that never had IRB approval from Pace Law School that did not show what its investigators thought it showed; that is, that the Vaccine Court had compensated 83 families for vaccine-induced autism, using exactly the same sort of verbal prestidigitation that deceptively conflates brain damage from encephalitis that results in autism-like symptoms with autism caused by vaccines itself. As I discussed in detail, though, given that the authors could only find documentation of autistic symptoms for only 39 of these children and that this was out of approximately 2,500 children compensated, the proportion of children compensated by the Vaccine Court who had a diagnosis of autism was not outside the estimated prevalence of the condition in the general population.

Thus does Sharyl Attkisson discover the tragic case of Elias Tembenis, a boy who developed seizures after the DTaP combination vaccine back in 2010. Surprisingly (to me, at least) I had never discussed this case before, although Elias had been featured on various antivaccine websites before as slam-dunk evidence that vaccines cause autism and kill. Fortunately, those same websites also include links to the actual Vaccine Court ruling. But first, let’s see what Attkisson has to say about it:

Take the tragic case of little Elias Tembenis. It could teach us something about how to make vaccination even safer for at risk children. Who could be against the idea of making vaccination–or anything–as safe as it can possibly be?

Yet raising this simple and logical question has largely been made taboo by pharmaceutical interests and vaccine activists who have long fought a PR campaign to squelch any discussion about vaccine safety and the autism connection; and have falsely portrayed journalists and researchers who pursue it as “anti-vaccine.” The vaccine pharmaceutical activists troll the web for scientific studies and articles that investigate vaccine side effects and then use social media, bloggers and other forums to launch their attacks and incorrectly claim the autism link has been “debunked.” They monitor and edit Wikipedia pages in an effort to downplay research that demonstrates associations between vaccines and autism, and to disparage those who investigate the links. They apply pressure to managers of news organizations that employ journalists who dare to explore the factual connections between vaccines and various serious side effects.

Yes, here we go again. Attkisson and other journalists who swallow the antivaccine line are “falsely portrayed” as being “anti-vaccine” by evil pharma drones who want to “squelch” The Truth any discussion of vaccine safety and the imagined connection between vaccines and autism. And, of course, they maintain a conspiracy to attack The Truth any discussion of a vaccine-autism connection by the Brave Maverick Seekers of Truth like Attkisson and her hero Andrew Wakefield. To do so, under the orders of Lord Draconis Zeneca (praise be pharma’s name), these “vaccine pharmaceutical activists” attack the Brave Maverick Seekers of Truth through social media and proclaim the vaccine-autism link “debunked. Of course, the vaccine-autism link has been pretty thoroughly debunked. It’s been extensively studied over and over again, and not a whiff of a hint of a correlation between vaccines and autism has ever been found by reputable researchers. I say “reputable,” of course, because a lot of disreputable researchers, such as Andrew Wakefield, Mark and David Geier, and the like have carried out truly bad studies and claimed to have found a correlation between vaccines and autism. “Claimed” is the key word, because, as I’ve discussed from the very beginning of this blog nearly a decade ago more times than I can even remember anymore, these claims invariably fall apart, as the massive flaws in the studies claiming to have found correlations invariably make themselves known with only a cursory examination of their methodologies by knowledgeable people.

One can’t help but wonder whether there’s a bit of a personal note in there as well. Notice how she complains about these very same “vaccine pharmaceutical activists” supposedly complaining to managers of news organizations that employ journalists like her. I can only hope that many of our number have complained to CBS News about Sharyl Attkisson’s misinformed, deceptive, and just plain wrong reporting about vaccines. Of course, methinks the lady doth protest too much, because Attkisson’s been doing the antivaccine reporting thing at least seven years (that I know about) and CBS News never fired her, even after she compromised journalistic integrity by having undisclosed contacts with an antivaccine group and failing to disclose that her sources consisted mainly of antivaccine activists and a company associated with Andrew Wakefield. Of course, she’s not the only one who gets complaints sent to her employers.

So what really happened to Elias? First, it’s interesting to note that the story to which Attkisson links is three and a half years old. It had been rehashed across the antivaccine blogosphere back in late 2010 and early 2011, although to me it was not at all clear how old the article is when I looked at it. It bore a copyright of 2014 beneath it and there was no date.

Be that as it may, the story of Elias Tembenis is not as clear-cut as antivaccinationists would like you to think. If you read the ruling and Seth Mnookin’s discussion of the case from 2010, you’ll see that. First of all, Elias’ death was years after his original reaction to the DTaP vaccine. Elias was born on August 23, 2000, and his development appeared normal during the first few months of his life. On December 26, 2000, at age 4 months Elias received the second dose of the DTaP vaccine. From here, Mnookin describes what happened:

The next day, Elias’s parents discovered him having a seizure in his crib and took him to the emergency room. At this point, the clarity regarding his medical history begins to grow more opaque. On the one hand, Elias’s white blood cell count were elevated enough to suggest that the seizure was the result of a previous infection and not a reaction to a vaccine-induced fever; his head circumference was in the 95th percentile for his age, which raised warned flags for a rare genetic condition called Sotos syndrome. (Wikipedia’s description of Sotos syndrome is included at the end of this post) On the other hand, the temporal connection between his DTaP vaccination and his initial seizure suggested some causal correlation was possible, and while Elias’s father’s head was in the 95th percentile for adults, he was perfectly healthy.

The ruling discusses how Elias had a number of seizures over the next several months, several of which required admission to the hospital, and how he didn’t receive his six month DTaP vaccine but was noted in March 2001 to be “an alert, chubby, vigorous, handsome infant.” A year later, on February 25, 2002, he received his next DTaP vaccine. In September 2002, Elias’ father wrote a letter to his pediatrician describing how Elias had experienced 40 seizure bouts between his four month and 18 month checkups.

Mnookin describes what happened after:

By the time Elias was eighteen months old, his doctors indicated that he showed signs of a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. As time went on, his seizures all but disappeared — he only had one between the beginning of 2003 and the end of 2006 — but it became more obvious that he did, indeed, have a pervasive developmental disorder. Despite a lingering uncertainty over his correct diagnosis, his medical charts repeatedly mentioned Sotos syndrome.

About a year later, on November 16, 2007, when Elias was seven years old, he was brought to the hospital with a cough and fever, after which he went into status epilepticus. This is a condition in which a seizure becomes intractable. Most seizures are limited in duration and don’t last more than a few minutes. Status epilepticus is a tonic-clonic seizure (i.e., a a “classic” seizure, exactly the sort of seizures that most people picture when they hear the word “seizure”) that keeps going on and on and on and on. It’s a life-threatening emergency, and in Elias’ case he developed bradycardia (a slow heart rate) and then went into cardiac arrest.

This is, as are all deaths of children, a tragic case, but it also demonstrates how fluid the concept of causation can be in vaccine court. In essence, this is a classic case of the Vaccine Court ruling based on “50% and a feather.” For instance, the judge wrote:

The preponderance of evidence standard under the Vaccine Act requires proof that a vaccine more likely than not caused the vaccinee’s injury. Althen, 418 F.3d at 1279. Causation is determined on a case-by-case basis, with “no hard and fast per se scientific or medical rules.” Knudsen, 35 F.3d at 548. A petitioner may use circumstantial evidence to prove her case, and 10 “close calls” regarding causation must be resolved in favor of the petitioner. Althen, 418 F.3d at 1280.

In other words, contrary to the claims of antivaccinationists about the Vaccine Court, the court bends over backwards to give the petitioner the benefit of the doubt, noting elsewhere:

I find that Petitioners have established that, in circumstances like Elias’s, a complex febrile seizure can lead to epilepsy. Further, Petitioners have established a logical sequences of cause and effect showing that Elias’s vaccine-induced complex febrile seizure was a legal cause of his subsequent epilepsy. Although the record shows that Elias may have suffered from other conditions, unrelated to vaccination, that increased his risk of developing epilepsy, Respondent [i.e., the federal government] has not shown that those conditions were at work here. In essence, Respondent’s argument is that the vaccination did not cause the epilepsy because, based on the statistics, it is more likely that Elias’s epilepsy was caused by a congenital condition than by a vaccine reaction. This fact, alone, is insufficient to negate causation.

Followed elsewhere in the ruling by:

Although petitioners have not proven that Elias’s DTaP vaccination was a medically certain cause of his epilepsy and subsequent death, that is not the standard for causation under the Vaccine Act. In enacting the Vaccine Act, Congress made a deliberate choice not to impose on petitioners the burden of producing conclusive scientific proof that an unlikely event actually occurred. Instead a petitioner must only provide reliable scientific evidence to support vaccine causation.

In other words, there’s a heck of a lot of uncertainty whether the DTaP vaccine had anything to do with Elias’ first seizure, his seizure disorder, and, ultimately, his death. The link was, at best, tenuous even for the Vaccine Court and great evidence that, if anything, the Vaccine Court tends to be a bit too lenient in its standards of evidence more than anything else.

So what was Attkisson about bringing up this story? Hell if I know. She repeats the same claim that was in her three and a half year old article, namely that the government won’t study the question: Why are the vast majority of kids apparently vaccinated safely, but a minority become seriously ill, brain-damaged or even die? The problem, of course, is that this is a false premise. Antivaccinationists claim that there are lots of “vaccine-injured” children out there, including autism as such a “vaccine injury,” even though there is no evidence that vaccines have anything to do with autism.

What I wonder even more is: Why now? Why is Attkisson resurrecting this issue again on her own website three and a half years later, linking ot her old CBS News article about it from then as though it were new? Who knows? My guess is that it’s a cry for relevance and an attempt to claim once again that vaccines cause autism.