Hey, where is everybody? The “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy continues apace

vaccine(1)

Here it is, Tuesday already, and the antivaccine underground is still on full mental jacket alert over the biggest story the antivaccine movement has seen in a while. Fortunately, it’s a story that’s been largely ignored by the mainstream media, which tells me that maybe, just maybe, the mainstream media has figured out that it shouldn’t give undue credence to cranks. I’m referring, of course, to the claim that the CDC has for 13 years been covering up smoking gun evidence that the MMR vaccine when administered before 36 months causes autism in African-American males.

Ironically, as I pointed out when I first noted the emergence of this kerfuffle, the risibly incompetent “reanalysis” of the study (Destefano et al) by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker that failed to find an earlier age of first MMR vaccination in autistic children compared to neurotypical controls (hey, it was a case control study; so I have to be precise here in stating what it found) actually showed for all groups examined other than African-American males that there was no correlation between age of first MMR and autism, and, as I pointed out in both of my posts, it doesn’t even convincingly show such a relation. Given that most of the antivaccinationists glomming on to the study as “smoking gun” evidence of a CDC conspiracy are white, one can’t help but marvel how they oblivious they are to what Hooker’s “reanalysis” actually showed. None of that stopped Andrew Wakefield (and some of his supporters) from engaging in some truly despicable race baiting, comparing this CDC “coverup” to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

In any case, I hadn’t been planning on writing about this again right just now, having figured that two posts are enough, but the developments keep rolling in. so I can’t resist one more post. Besides, as we know from the countdown of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, “First thou pullest the Holy Pin. Then thou must count to three. Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither shalt thou count two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the number of the counting, be reached, then lobbest thou the Holy Hand Grenade in the direction of thine foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.” Unfortunately, I’m under no illusion that antivaccine nonsense shall “snuff it,” even though it is indeed naughty in the Lord’s sight, but here goes.

First up, after complaining about how long it’s taken the CDC to make a response to this kerfuffle, it finally did so yesterday afternoon:

CDC shares with parents and others great concern about the number of children with autism spectrum disorder.

CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on autism, search for factors that put children at risk for autism and look for possible causes. While doing so, we work to develop resources that help identify children with autism as early as possible so they can benefit from intervention services.

CDC’s study about age at first Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism, published in Pediatrics in 2004, included boys and girls from different ethnic groups, including black children. The manuscript presented the results on two sets of children:

  1. All children who were initially recruited for the study, and
  2. the subset of children who had a Georgia birth certificate.

Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.

The study looked at different age groups: children vaccinated by 18 months, 24 months, and 36 months. The findings revealed that vaccination between 24 and 36 months was slightly more common among children with autism, and that association was strongest among children 3-5 years of age. The authors reported this finding was most likely a result of immunization requirements for preschool special education program attendance in children with autism.

The data CDC collected for this study continue to be available for analysis by others. CDC welcomes analysis by others that can be submitted for peer-review and publication. For more information on how to access this public-use dataset please go to the this webpage.

Additional studies and a more recent rigorous review by the Institute of Medicine have found that MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.

Vaccines protect the health of children in the United States so well that most parents today have never seen first-hand the devastating consequences of diseases now stopped by vaccines.

However, our 2014 measles count is the highest number since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. We do not want to lose any opportunity to protect all of our children when we have the means to do so.

I’m actually rather torn by this statement. When I first saw it, it annoyed me. It was so milquetoast, so vague. It didn’t address the heart of the attempt at a manufactroversy, namely what on earth is going on with CDC senior scientist William Thompson, who was represented by Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker as having “confessed” to grave malfeasance and fraud with respect to this study using cherry picked sound bites with no context claimed to be by Thompson himself intermingled with Hooker making all sorts of claims of suppression of the “real” results. On the other hand, this antivaccine manufactroversy hasn’t hit the mainstream press much yet, other than a couple of outlets that I’ve seen. Thus far, it’s been confined to the antivaccine and quack crankosphere. So maybe it’s not a horrible idea not to mention Thompson, Hooker, or Wakefield. Certainly Hooker and Wakefield don’t deserve to be considered on the same level as someone like Thompson, even if he did somehow make the huge mistake of speaking with Hooker. Stick to the science. However, if this is all that the CDC was going to come out with, it boggles the mind that this statement wasn’t released on Friday, when the social media storm really erupted. In any case, it strikes me as too little, too late, but for what it is it does have some positives, particularly the statement that the data continue to be available for analysis and that the CDC welcomes such analyses by others that can be submitted for peer reviewed studies.

More interesting to me, and something I wanted to discuss a bit more yesterday but ran out of steam, is a letter from William Thompson to Julie Gerberding, the then head of the CDC published by Mike Adams. It’s dated February 2, 2004, and it strikes me as a bit odd. It doesn’t look like a letter, as it’s not signed and not on CDC letterhead, although it is a scanned image. On the other hand, it doesn’t look like an e-mail, either. There are no e-mail addresses, no headers, no nothing. Very odd. Right away, that makes me wonder about its authenticity. On the other hand, if you look at the text in more detail, it starts to look more authentic. Why? Because there’s nothing whatsoever there that suggests a conspiracy or coverup at all, Mike Adam’s hyperventilating otherwise. Here’s the whole text:

Dear Dr. Gerberding:

We’ve not met yet to discuss these matters, but I’m sure you’re aware of the Institute of Medicine Meeting regarding vaccines and autism that will take place on February 9th. I will be presenting the summary of our results from the Metropolitan Atlanta Autism Case-Control Study and I will have to present several problematic results relating to statistical associations between the receipt of MMR vaccine and autism.

It’s my understanding that you are aware of several news articles published over the last two week suggesting that Representative David Weldon is still waiting for a response from you regarding two letters he sent you regarding issues surrounding the integrity of your scientists in the National Immunization Program. I’ve repeatedly asked individuals in the NIP Office of the Directors Office why you haven’t responded directly to the issues raised in those letters, and I’m very disappointed with the answers I’ve received to date. In addition, I’ve repeatedly told indivdiuals in the NIP OD over the last several years that they’re doing a very poor job representing immunization safety issues and that we’re losing the public relations war.

On Friday afternoon, January 30th, I presented the draft slides for IOM presentation to Dr. Steve Cochi and Dr. Melinda Wharton. The first thing I stated to both of them was my sincere concern regarding presenting this work to the Institute of Medicine if you had not replied to Representative Weldon’s letters. I have attached the draft slides for your review. I have been told that you have suggested that the science speak for itself. In general, I agree with that statement, but as you know, the science also needs advocates who can get the real scientific message to the public.

In contrast to NIP’s failure to be proactive in addressing immunization safety issues, you have done an amazingly effective job addressing the press on a wide range of controversial public health issues, including SARS, Monkey Pox, and Influenza. The CDC needs your leadership here because I may very well be presenting data before a hostile crowd of parents with autistic children who have been told not to trust the CDC. I believe it is your responsibility and duty to respond in writing to Representative Weldon’s letters before the Institute of Medicine meeting and make those letters public. Otherwise, you give the appearance of agreeing with what he has been suggested in those correspondences and you’re putting one of your own scientists in harms way.This is not the time for our leadership to act politically. It is a time for our leadership to stand by their scientists and do the right thing. Please assist me in this matter and respond to Representative Weldon’s concerns in writing prior to my presentation on February 9th.

Sincerely,

William W. Thompson, PhD
Epidemiologist
Immunization Safety Branch

Going along with this letter is this interview with Adams;

First off, dammit, can’t antivaccinationists understand that a 3.4-fold increased risk is NOT a 340% increased risk. It’s a 240% increased risk. These people are numerically illiterate; no wonder they’re impressed with Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis.” The rest of it is nothing new, nothing that I haven’t discussed before here and here (and, of course, in this very post). The only difference is more race-baiting despicableness added to Andrew Wakefield’s and Brian Hooker’s race-bating despicableness. Oh, and libeling Julie Gerberding. Adams charges that she definitely had been offered a quid pro quo for allegedly having quashed the finding that the MMR vaccine causes autism in African-American children. Oh, and totally misinterpreting Thompson’s letter.

Second, do you see a hint of a conspiracy or desire to cover up data here? I don’t, but then I’m not Mike Adams or an antivaccine conspiracy theorist flogging this latest conspiracy theory. Indeed, as I read this, all I could think of is: Is this the best Wakefield and Hooker have got? What I see in this letter is a scientist begging his boss to respond to a legislator’s rabble rousing. In fact, these letters from Rep. David Weldon, MD, to Julie Gerberding can be found online on various antivaccine websites. For instance, here is Weldon’s letter dated October 31, 2003. Here is the second letter, dated January 21, 2004.

If you read Weldon’s letters, you’ll note that they have nothing to do with Destefano et al. They’re both about the Verstraeten study, which is the study at the heart of what I called yesterday the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (at least in the US) and deconstructed in detail earlier this year. Basically, Weldon, even though he’s a physician, fell for the Simpsonwood conference conspiracy theory, promoted a year and a half later by antivaccine crank Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., hook, line, and sinker. The first letter basically regurgitates the “concerns” being promoted by the antivaccine movement at the time. The second letter turned up the heat, trying to persuade Gerberding to postpone the IOM conference until the “concern” about the Verstraeten study had been addressed. As we all know, the IOM conference did go on and the IOM report strongly stated that there was no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism.

I can understand why Thompson, if this letter is genuine, was concerned. David Weldon was making hay with the antivaccine underground, which back in 2003 and 2004 hadn’t yet been completely revealed to be the total cranks they are, such that they could be safely ignored. Thompson sounds as though he were concerned that he was being thrown to the wolves without adequate backup. He sounds as though he were pleading for the CDC to come out more strongly on the science of vaccine safety, disagreeing that letting the science showing vaccines to be safe speak for itself is enough. He was right. Science and medicine communicators are needed, because the antivaccine movement will do everything in its power to make sure that the science doesn’t speak for itself.

As they are doing now with this manufactured controversy about a CDC “whistleblower.”

Fortunately, things don’t appear to be going quite the way that Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker had hoped. It’s gotten to the point where the Age of Autism’s “media editor” is crying out, “Where is the New York Times? Where is the Washington Post? Where is Fox News, CNN, CBS, and NBC? Where is the press? Anyone?” Meanwhile, we see antivaccinationists on Twitter lamenting:

And setting up a Twitter party tonight:

Far be it from me to suggest to interested Tweeple that, if they’re bored and in the mood for fun, they consider joining the party on Tuesday 8/26 from 7-10pm with the #CDCwhistleblower hashtag. To quote Andrew Wakefield’s characterization of what William Thompson allegedly said: Do what you think is best.

It’s gotten so bad that conspiracy loon John Rapaport relates:

I have it on good authority that over 200 mothers of autistic children are readying a class-action suit. They already have an attorney.

They will sue, at the very least, the authors of the 2004 DeStefano study that claimed there was no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

CDC whistleblower William Thompson, who was one of the authors of that study—and then exposed it as a fraud—should take notice.

He can become a witness for these mothers, or if he goes into seclusion and refuses to make a clear, complete, and definitive public statement, he could wind up being sued.

CDC whistleblower Thompson has a lawyer, Rick Morgan of Morgan Verkamp LLC (LinkedIn profile here).

Like any lawyer, Morgan has one and only one objective: protect his client.

This is Morgan’s current position: His client Thompson is satisfied that, with accurate data on the 2004 study now finally available, the scientific community will be able to assess it and come to a conclusion about it…and Thompson has no plans to make a public statement or enter into a discussion on these matters.

We’ll see if this remains true.

Anyone who thinks “the scientific community” will expose the true dangers of the MMR vaccine and tie it to autism is dreaming.

If Thompson isn’t going to step before cameras and say, “Here I am, I’m William Thompson, I was part of a massive fraud, here’s what we did, here’s how we did it, here is who knew about it…” then he could end up as a defendant in a class-action suit.

Yes, it sounds as though, having failed to get Thompson to come forward and publicly accuse the CDC of a coverup, the antivaccine movement is reduced to applying pressure through legal threats of a class action suit. It’s probably an empty threat, but, as I’m reminded any time someone makes vacuous threats to sue me for libel, people can sue anybody for any reason. Even if the lawsuit is baseless, it takes time, effort, and, above all, money to defend. Even if the suit is quickly dismissed at an early stage, it’s still damned expensive to retain legal counsel even for that, and the early proceedings can easily drag one’s reputation through the mud if the plaintiff wants to do some dragging.

You know, regardless of what really happened, I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for Thompson now. If he had what he thought to be innocent correspondence and later conversations with Hooker, I bet he had no idea how fast the antivaccine movement would turn on him if their plan to manufacture a “whistleblower” controversy alleging that the CDC had engaged in a massive coverup failed to generate much coverage in the mainstream press and he didn’t give them what they wanted: A face of a senior scientist from the CDC to put on their charges. He’s basically screwed, regardless of what he actually did or what his motives for doing it were.