No, Lawrence Solomon, UNICEF and WHO are not trying to sterilize women with tetanus vaccines!

There are some antivaccine lies that just never die. Well, actually, most of them are very much like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger in that, just when you think you’ve killed them at the end of the latest confrontation, they always come back. Always. As an example of this, let’s go back four months ago. Remember back in November when I discussed a particularly pernicious antivaccine lie that’s been spread by Kenyan Catholic Bishops and the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association? It was the claim that the tetanus vaccine used to prevent neonatal tetanus in young women in Kenya is laced with a “sterilization chemical” that causes miscarriages. As I described in my own inimitable fashion, it’s been a particularly dumb conspiracy theory that nonetheless seems to have legs. Similar claims, dating back at least to the 1990s, that there is “something” in vaccines that results in infertility and sterilization, have been unfortunately very effective in frightening people in Third World countries and have played a major role in antivaccine campaigns that have delayed the eradication of polio.

Enter Lawrence Solomon. You remember Lawrence Solomon, don’t you? He’s what I referred to last summer as a rising star in the antivaccine movement. A conservative columnist for the Financial Post, when first we met him he was complaining about a “conservative ‘failure’ of skepticism” on vaccines because, apparently, conservatives haven’t been antivaccine enough for his liking. (Maybe he’s happier with more recent developments.) Indeed, Solomon used some seriously brain dead arguments about herd immunity indistinguishable from the nonsense they regularly spew over at the antivaccine crank blog, that wretched hive of scum and quackery known as Age of Autism. He’s also a rather obnoxious Twitter presence, frequently “challenging” people to prove him wrong, apparently not realizing that his arguments are such hoary antivaccine nuggets (of the variety produced out of the hind ends of mice and other rodents) that I and most skeptical bloggers already have numerous times over the years.

Speaking of AoA, it would seem that Solomon decided to get into the antivaccine website/blog business and directly compete with AoA. He’s recently launched a site called VaccineFactCheck. It’s generally a repository for antivaccine misinformation that, Solomon being the inexperienced pseudoscience activist that he is, makes The Thinking Moms’ Revolution look as though they are actually living up to their deluded sense that they are thinking, and that’s hard to do. As an example, I present to you Solomon’s post Vatican: UNICEF and WHO are sterilizing girls through vaccines.

Brace yourself. Stupid is coming:

Vatican Radio last week charged that United Nations organizations promoting population control are using vaccines to surreptitiously sterilize women in Third World countries. Kenya’s Ministry of Health, along with the UN organizations — World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF — deny the charges, which carry the full weight of the Vatican. Vatican Radio is the official “voice of the Pope and the Church in dialogue with the World.”

“Catholic Bishops in Kenya have been opposed to the nationwide Tetanus Vaccination Campaign targeting 2.3 million Kenyan women and girls of reproductive age between 15-49 years, terming the campaign a secret government plan to sterilize women and control population growth,” reported Vatican Radio, as it took the occasion of the ordination of a Kenyan Bishop, Joseph Obanyi Sagwe, as an opportunity to remind the world of its concern.

Is this the same nonsense that the Kenyan Bishops were spouting in November that I deconstructed in detail? Why yes. Yes it is. Notice how Solomon pointedly describes Vatican Radio as the “voice of the Pope and Church in dialogue with the world,” as if to imply that the Vatican actually endorses the position of the Catholic Bishops. In fact, the article cited is a pretty dry, straightforward news report about the ordination as Bishop of Kakamega of Joseph Obanyi Sagwe that mentions the factoid about Kenyan bishops’ claims about the tetanus in passing, along with a bunch of other facts about the ordination. It neither endorses nor refutes the Kenyan Bishops’ claims about the tetanus vaccine. I also note that Solomon’s very headline also tries to make it sound as though the Vatican itself is accusing UNICEF and the WHO of trying to sterilize girls in Kenya using vaccines. The Vatican endorses no such claim.

None of that stops Solomon from continuing to parrot the very pseudoscience and misinformation that surfaced about the tetanus vaccine back in November. I refuted them then, and Dr. Jen Gunter just refuted them yesterday. Doubling down on the misinformation, Solomon even posted a follow up to his original article implying that the Vatican was endorsing the Kenyan Bishops’ claim that UNICEF and the WHO are spreading around tetanus vaccines laced with hCG to sterilize their girls with a disingenuous “Q&A” about hCG in a vaccine might cause sterility. One notes that he refers directly to the “Vatican’s explosive charge” here. Once again, as the news story makes clear, there is no evidence to indicate that it is the Vatican that is making this charge. It is clearly the Kenyan Bishops who are making this charge. The two are not the same. Bishops do not necessarily speak for the Vatican, and Vatican Radio just reported it as a single paragraph in a straight news story.

In any case, Solomon, ever the clueless antivaccine flack, believes a lot of nonsense in order to believe there’s any credibility to the Kenyan Bishop’s charges:

Have UNICEF, WHO and the Kenyan government been secretly using HCG-laced tetanus vaccines as a population control measure, as the Vatican and its Kenyan bishops maintain? The bishops sent vials of the tetanus vaccines from the batch reserved for females of reproductive age to four unrelated laboratories inside and outside Kenya. All four showed that the tetanus vaccines were laced with HCG. In contrast, tests performed on 50 vials of tetanus vaccines for general use in the population showed all 50 to be clear of HCG.

I discussed this all in detail before, but I suppose I should do it briefly (for Orac) again.

Before you can understand the why the claim that beta-hCG is in the tetanus vaccine would produce fear that the vaccine is in reality a sterilization agent, you need to know about a previous experimental vaccine. hCG is what is commonly referred to as the “pregnancy hormone.” Pregnancy tests are based on detecting hCG, which can first be detected about 11 days after conception and whose levels rise rapidly thereafter, peaking in the first 8-11 weeks of pregnancy. In the past, attempts have been made to produce a vaccine that targets hCG and thus results in the inability to conceive a child. It is a technique that falls under the category of immunocontraception. It takes little more than a quick trip to Wikipedia (among other sources) to learn that as far back as the 1970s, hCG was conjugated to a protein known as the tetanus toxoid in order to make a vaccine against hCG. The reason is that hCG itself did not provoke enough of an immune response. It’s not necessary to know all the details and history. However, from the 1970s on, there have been clinical trials of such vaccine contraceptives using hCG, and it is possible to prevent pregnancy by this approach, although antibody response against hCG declines with time.

Now here’s the problem. As the WHO has already noted, even if the findings of beta-hCG in the vaccine vials were real, hCG is present at far too low a level to be an effective immunocontraceptive, and the blood tests presented by the Kenyan Catholic Doctors Association are actually do not show any evidence of beta-hCG being used to sterilize women:

Additionally, the findings of the laboratory tests purported to be from a woman called St. Michael (explained below) all come out with normal values from the reference values assuming that the woman is not pregnant. The highest level of the β-HCG hormone was found to be 1.12 mIU/ml (and 1.2 mIU/ml for S-Quantitative β-HCG). There was no control used (or presented) and it would have been interesting to see what the result will be with tap water. There is a situation where ant- β-HCG antibodies can be produced by the body and that can act as a contraceptive, however, this requires the administration of at-least 100 to 500 micrograms of HCG bound to tetanus vaccine (about 11,904,000 to 59,520,000 mIU/ml of the same hormone where currently less than 1 mIU-ml has been reported from the lab results.

Also, as Dr. Gunter notes, the Kenyan Catholic Doctors Association didn’t actually measure beta-hCG in vaccines, but reported values from the blood of women vaccinated with the tetanus vaccine. She also pointed out:

Tetanus vaccine laced with the beta-hCG hormone wouldn’t do anything anyway. After all women inject themselves with beta-hCG to trigger ovulation in infertility therapy all the time. I hope I don’t have to point out that it would be rather counter productive to use an abortifacient in infertility therapy. Also, hCG doesn’t have a very long half-life, i.e. it clears the system pretty quickly. It is usually undetectable by 7 days after injection, which is why after hCG injections women typically wait at least a week to do a pregnancy test to avoid false positive from the injection. Then there is the basic physiologic/evolutionary concept that a hormone dangerous to pregnancy wouldn’t be produced in pregnancy. And if you believe in intelligent design, no omnipotent intelligent being would design pregnancy that way either!

Finally, Solomon, like the Kenyan Bishops, is about 20 years out of date. The vaccine in which hCG was linked to the tetanus toxoid was tested back in the 1990s more than 20 years ago, which, not coincidentally, is around the time that claims that UNICEF and the WHO are trying to sterilize young women in the Third World with vaccines started popping up in the Philippines. It is possible to prevent pregnancy by this approach, but antibody response to hCG declines with time and the contraceptive activity is not sufficiently durable to be useful as a long-term contraceptive. Moreover, as I discussed last time the original scientist who developed the hCG-tetanus toxoid vaccine to be used as a contraceptive pointed out that a similar hCG vaccine using a different carrier, LTB, is now being tested. He also pointed out that the tetanus toxoid carrier was replaced with LTB to avoid the very misinformation that has been associated with the valuable tetanus vaccination.

Lawrence Solomon likes to claim that he’s not antivaccine but that he’s just citing facts. However, with launch of his new website, and his parroting long-discredited antivaccine conspiracy theories like the one claiming that the WHO and UNICEF are trying to use the tetanus vaccine to sterilize young women in Third World countries, Solomon has officially entered the territory of Age of Autism,, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, and other rabidly antivaccine propaganda websites. That is not a good place to be, and he’s not even particularly smart or creative in his regurgitation of antivaccine pseudoscience. Worse, as Jen Gunter points out, neonatal tetanus is deadly. Lawrence Solomon is thus helping to perpetuate misinformation that will lead to the painful deaths of Third World newborns from neonatal tetanus.

Oh, and Mr. Solomon should also realize that even one of the originators of this claim, MaterCare, even issued a press release that basically says, “Oops, we were wrong!” without actually admitting any real error, even saying in one of its numbered points that the “language used and the accusations in Kenya are almost identical to the 1990’s scenarios” and even goes so far as to characterize what’s going on in Kenya as “an unfortunate re-cycling of inaccurate information.”

Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers are back.