Another zombie antivaccine study rises from the grave

There are a thousand crappy studies out there carried out with the explicit (although often unspoken) goal of demonizing vaccines by “proving” that they cause autism. Indeed, over the last 12+ years that I’ve been blogging here, I’ve deconstructed more such studies than I can remember—or would care to remember if I could. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about some of these studies, it’s that they’re like the killers in 1980s slasher flicks. You remember them? Killing machines like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, who mowed through teens misbehaving (often by having sex) for the whole movie, only to be killed at the end of the movie. Wait. Strike that. Instead say: to appear to be killed at the end of the movie. As any horror flick fan knows, the killer (or monster, come to think of it) might appear to be dead at the end of the movie, but they always, always, always come back in the sequel to kill again, at least if there’s money to be made. Antivaccine pseudoscience is a lot like that. Whenever a truly awful study that should never have been accepted in the first place for publication in a peer-reviewed journal is retracted, you can be sure that it won’t be too long before it is magically resurrected and rears its ugly head again in some form or another, to be wielded not just as a weapon to frighten parents with but as a bogus example of how the peer-reviewed medical literature “suppresses” science that doesn’t support vaccines, to be used to feed the conspiracy theories behind the antivaccine movement. Same as it ever was.

So it was with some amusement that I saw not just one, but two posts over at that now demoted lesser wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism, touting a “suppressed study.” (Natural News is now the Big Kahuna when it comes to being the One True Wretched Hive of Scum and Quackery. Besides, compared to NN, AoA is truly a piker.) First, there’s Kevin Barry, author of the definitive “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory magnum opus, dropping a turd entitled First Peer-Reviewed Study of Vaccinated versus Unvaccinated Children (Censored by an International Scientific Journal) Now Public. Not to be outdone, Mark Blaxill (remember Mark Blaxill?) laid down an equally stinky bit of brown entitled Stunner in First-ever “vax/unvax” study: Vaxxed Kids Have 4.7 Fold Higher Risk of Autism. Elsewhere, there’s a post referenced by Barry by James Grundvig entitled Censored Study of Vaccinated vs. Unvaccinated sees Daylight. You can see right away elements that antivaxers love, in particular a “study” (if you can call it that) that purports to validate their belief that vaccines cause autism, neurologic damage, and autoimmune diseases—human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Then, of course, there has to be a coverup. In the case of the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory it’s supposedly the CDC covering up slam-dunk evidence that vaccines cause autism. Here, it’s, well, someone covering up the results of this “vaxed versus unvaxed study.”

Let’s see what’s got the antivaxers so excited. First, Mark Blaxill:

In a development that autism parents have long anticipated, the first-ever, peer-reviewed study comparing total health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated children was released on line yesterday. According to sources close to the project, the study had been reviewed and accepted by two different journals, both of which pulled back on their approval once the political implications of the findings became clear. That’s largely because, as parents have long expected, the rate of autism is significantly higher in the vaccinated group, a finding that could shake vaccine safety claims just as the first president who has ever stated a belief in a link between vaccines and autism has taken office.

Well, no. Not exactly, as you will soon see. But what about Barry:

Today, a groundbreaking new study of the overall health of vaccinated and unvaccinated children has been released to the public for the first time. The critically important new pilot study has been posted on line.

The paper was leaked to journalist and author James Grundvig, who published an article describing aspects of the study on Medium on February 22, 2017. Grundvig describes how the paper was leaked to him (and others?), and he describes how he authenticated it with the study’s author and with the journal which censored it.

Oooh. The story was leaked! Let’s see what Grundvig claims:

After 30 years of the government immunizing the vaccine makers from harm, the long-delayed, first-of-its-kind study on “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” children has arrived. From five years of designing and conducting the epidemiology survey to more than one censorship roadblock from scientific journals to thwart the study’s findings — a damning indictment against vaccines being a false flag cure-all — it appeared in the public domain.

For six hours on Valentine’s Day, the 34-page study breached daylight for six hours before the url link vanished. Leaked from a source, giving the release the half-life of a firefly, afforded enough time to download the document and share with the study’s author, who confirmed its authenticity.

Vaccination and Health Outcomes: A Survey of 6- to 12-year-old Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Children based on Mothers’ Reports, by Anthony R. Mawson, et al., reads like dozens of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) population-based studies that found “no association” between vaccines and autism. Except this came out of Dr. Mawson’s School of Public Health Initiative at Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi, co-financed by non-profit organizations in Generation Rescue, Inc., and the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute, with not a single government dime spent.

Wait, what? This study was funded by antivaxers? After all, Generation Rescue was founded by J.B. Handley to promote the idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism, and later Jenny McCarthy herself became its president. Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute is about as antivaccine as it gets. Indeed, I just mentioned the CMSRI three weeks ago, when it was promoting a study that claimed to show that vaccines were hopelessly “dirty” and “contaminated” but in reality showed nothing of the sort. Just peruse the CMSRI website. Look at its Scientific Advisory Board, which is packed to the gills with “luminaries” of antivaccine pseudoscience, such as Chris Shaw, Yehuda Shoenfeld, Stephanie Seneff, and more. Antivaxers might scream “Unfair!” at my harping on the funding source, but they do exactly the same thing—and actually, to some extent, rightly so—when examining pharmaceutical company-funded studies showing vaccine safety. Unfortunately, they appear not to apply the same standard to studies they like.

Be that as it may, this study sounded very, very familiar to me. So I typed “Mawson” into the search box of the ol’ blog, and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before I found an old post entitled Antivaccinationists promote a bogus internet “survey.” Hilarity ensues as it’s retracted. It was the study that Barry promoted near the end of his book Vaccine Whistleblower: Autism Exposing Research Fraud at the CDC and that CMSRI promoted. Remember, CMSRI is Claire Dwoskin’s antivaccine group, and the Dwoskins are known for spreading their wealth around to antivaccine causes. The article was also only ever posted in abstract form on Frontiers in Public Health and then removed, as explained in a Tweet (geez, is everything explained in a Tweet?) not long after in response to a question about why there was no full text of the study available:

Grundvig wrote the editors:

The paper, however, wasn’t retracted; it was “unaccepted,” according to Mawson via email. That means Frontiers didn’t retract it, since it was never officially published. What’s left for a study after its accepted, reviewed 80,000 times in less than 100 hours? . . . Censorship.

Beyond that clarification, Mawson wrote: “I am not allowed to comment on the paper/work by my Dean.”

Melissa Cochrane, the communications manager for Frontiers Journal, which is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, replied via email:

“As we have previously noted, this article was provisionally accepted but not published. In response to concerns raised regarding the abstract and the provisional PDF — which were made provisionally available online — Frontiers then reopened its review. Following further manuscript assessment by the Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Public Health, in consultation with an external expert, the manuscript was subsequently rejected, not retracted as retraction can only occur once a paper has been officially published and indexed.

“The rejection was due to severe limitations in the validity of the results.”

First, I find it rather unlikely that Mawson’s dean told him not to comment on the paper. This is the sort of thing that would very much go against academic culture. Second, Frontiers journals tend to be very poor quality, with highly dubious peer review. That’s been my experience and the experience of quite a few academics with whom I’ve corresponded. No doubt the same thing happened with Mawson’s paper, given that it was reviewed by a chiropractor and Indian psychiatrists who appeared to have none of the expertise necessary to review such a paper. That’s why it actually surprised me that the editors “unaccepted” the paper, no matter how bad it was. (And, as I recounted, it was very, very bad indeed.)

And now it’s back, just like Jason or Michael Myers killing his first teen at the beginning of a sequel to the last movie, where he appeared to be almost certainly dead. So what, if anything, has changed in the new version of the study? It’s really damned hard to say. Again, like last time, there appears to be nothing more than the abstract, which is apparently what Barry and Blaxill mean by the “leaked” study, but unlike last time there are a few bullet points supplied by Blaxill It still reports data from 415 mothers providing data on 666 children in an anonymous survey of home-schooled children (which, of course, is already an unrepresentative source). In any case, here’s what Blaxill claims that Mawson found:

Vaccinated children were significantly less likely than the unvaccinated to have been diagnosed with chickenpox and pertussis, but significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with other infections, allergies and NDDs (defined as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and/or a learning disability).

At least mMawson found that the pertussis and chickenpox vaccines work. I suppose that’s something. And, here is what he refers to as the chronic illness detail:

Vaccinated children were significantly more likely than the unvaccinated to have been diagnosed with the following chronic illnesses:

  • 7-fold higher odds of any neurodevelopmental disorder (i.e., learning disability, ADHD, or ASD)
  • 2-fold increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”)
  • 2-fold increase in ADHD
  • 2-fold increase in learning disabilities
  • 1-fold increase in allergic rhinitis
  • 9-fold increase in other allergies
  • 9-fold increase in eczema/atopic dermatitis
  • 4-fold increase in any chronic 
  • No significant differences were observed with regard to cancer, chronic fatigue, conduct disorder, Crohn’s disease, depression, Types 1 or 2 diabetes, encephalopathy, epilepsy, hearing loss, high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, seizures, and Tourette’s syndrome. However, larger samples would be needed to detect group differences in these less common conditions.

And acute illnesses:

  • Vaccinated children were significantly less likely than unvaccinated children to have had chickenpox or whooping cough (p<0.001).
  • Vaccinated children had a 3.8-fold increased odds of middle ear infections and a 5.9-fold increased odds of being diagnosed with pneumonia compared to unvaccinated children.
  • No significant differences were seen between the two groups with regard to Hepatitis A or B, high fever in the past 6 months, measles, mumps, meningitis (viral or bacterial), influenza, or rotavirus.

And finally:

In regression analyses, vaccination was associated with a significant 3.1-fold increased odds of neurodevelopmental disorders (combining the diagnoses of ASD, ADHD, and learning disability), after controlling for other factors. An important detail emerged regarding a possible synergism between vaccination and preterm birth. In a final adjusted statistical model, vaccination but not preterm birth remained associated with NDD, as defined, while the interaction of preterm birth and vaccination was associated with a 6.6-fold increased odds of NDD (95% Confidence Interval: 2.8, 15.5).

Not surprisingly, an antivaxer ate it up:

“I am delighted to see a properly analyzed study on vaccine safety” said Dr. Lyons-Weiler, CEO and President of the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge. “Unlike past studies, which ignored the interaction term, Dr. Mawson and colleagues followed appropriate steps toward interpreting the significance of the interaction between variables. The study reported a significant interaction effect between pre-term birth, and vaccination as a 6.6-fold increase in the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

“This study, however, as a survey study, is potentially subject to variation due to responses from well-intended participants. The next logical step would be additional, larger studies that would try to replicate the results using electronic medical health records – by independent investigators not involved in profiting from vaccines”, said Dr. Lyons-Weiler.

Um, no. This report by Blaxill gives us a bit more detail than the previous abstract, but not much more. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the actual paper has not yet been published anywhere in the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, if the paper had truly been accepted for publication, “leaking” it and letting antivaxers publish its abstract plus other findings would very make most reputable journals quite cross (as my British friends would say) and might even endanger the publication of the paper. Be that as it may, we still don’t have what we need to critically evaluate this study the way it needs to be evaluated. Even so, from what I can see now, nothing has changed in regards to what a piece of crap this survey is. Again, this survey questioned 415 mothers of 666 children educated at home. Not only is that not a representative sample, given that all the children are home-schooled, it’s not even a very big sample. Remember when I discussed the statistical issues in doing even an epidemiological “vaxed versus unvaxed” study? To find any statistically significant, much less clinically significant differences in health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated children would require huge numbers, and who knows if Mawson controlled for confounders properly. I tend to doubt it, and there were probably a lot of confounding factors to deal with.

As I’ve related before, parents who choose to home school are not like your average parents. There are likely to be a lot of confounding factors that go along with home schooling, including the association between home schooling and antivaccine views. This association showed up in this very survey in its originally (briefly) published form in that it reports that 39% of the children in the survey were completely unvaccinated. This is not representative of the general population, by any stretch of the imagination, where in general the number of totally unvaccinated children number in the low single digits. Add to that the likelihood of selective memory and reporting, and the likelihood of this survey providing useful information is vanishingly small. Of course, surveys are not the best means of gathering health data. Yes, I know. The NIH does surveys. I’ve even discussed one of them, specifically in relationship to how much “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) people use. However, while such surveys can be useful for assessing the sorts of treatments people partake in, they’re not quite as useful for assessing whether there are correlations between health practices (e.g., vaccination) and health outcomes (e.g., autism and ADHD).

It is, of course, a myth that no studies have compared the health of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. There have been several, and all of the ones not done by antivaxers have found either no difference in chronic disease or better health outcomes in the vaccinated population. Yet, antivaxers believe beyond faith and evidence that a “vaxed/unvaxed” study will validate their belief in the evils of vaccines, which is why the latch on to lousy studies like Mawson’s It’s also why his crappy anonymous survey of an unrepresentative population of children that was so bad that a Frontiers journal actually “unaccepted” it has risen from the grave again to be sold as having been “suppressed” and now “leaked” to the antivaccine faithful as slam-dunk evidence that mandates a much bigger “vaxed versus unvaxed” study.

Same as it ever was.