What causes ALL? An antivaxxer says—surprise!—it’s vaccines

If there’s one thing about the antivaccine movement, it’s that, to antivaxxers, vaccines not only do not protect against potentially deadly diseases, but they also cause all sorts of horrible diseases and chronic conditions. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen antivaxxers blame vaccines for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), diabetes, autoimmune diseases, asthma, allergies, and the like. They also blame vaccines for conditions like neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism. Basically, they blame vaccines for everything bad and only grudgingly credit them for anything good. And, yes, they blame vaccines for cancer. In this case, on Sherri Tenpenny‘s antivaccine blog Vaxxter, an antivaccine lawyer named John Jones blames vaccines for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It’s such an amusingly clueless post that it caught my attention, particularly given that Sherri Tenpenny has decided to recycle and regurgitate a whole bunch of misinformation and lies about me and Deepak Chopra decided to do a passive-aggressive “Is this true?” Tweet:

I’m really getting up in the world, aren’t I, to have Deepak Chopra taking a shot at me. Also, Tenpenny must be really annoyed at my deconstruction of her antivax idiocy last week. Anyway, feel free to go over there and make fun of the post, if you’re so inclined.

Who is Mr. Jones? He describes himself as a lawyer with a PhD in political science with “additional areas of expertise and special knowledge including applied statistics, etymology, political communications/public relations, litigation and court procedure” and a “particular interest in the science and history of vaccines.” Ri-ight He also states that he trained himself in Kevin Trudeau’s mega-memory system and views the current system of learning as a scam. Lovely.

In any event, here’s his post over on Sherri Tenpenny’s antivaccine blog Vaxxter. After reading an article quoting Mel Greaves in Science Daily about our lack of understanding of childhood leukemia. He proposed a “two-hit” hypothesis for the pathogenesis of ALL, starting with a predisposing mutation and then exposure to certain childhood infections, but mainly in children who experienced “clean” childhoods in the first year of life, without much interaction with other infants or older children. He even managed to get this hypothesis published in Nature Reviews Cancer, especially given that Greaves also hypothesizes that the risk of ALL can be lowered by changing the child’s microbiome. That sort of speculation from scientists is normally like catnip to antivaxxers, and you can see why antivaxxers would be drawn to Greaves’ research.

Surprisingly, though, Mr. Jones is not a fan. He even had an email exchange with Prof. Greaves, labeling his claims “problematic” and “unfalsifiable.” I actually agree that Prof. Greaves’ claims are a bit out there and would be difficult to falsify or demonstrate, but you can tell by the fact that I’m writing this post that I find Jones’ alternative “explanation” to be far more “problematic” than Prof. Greaves’ hypothesis. You’ll see why in a second.

First, Mr. Jones proudly lets his Dunning-Kruger freak flag fly:

Indeed I am a skeptic. This man claims to have studied ALL for 40 years. He thinks that ALL might be preventable by boosting the gut microbiome? He wants to give safe bacterial species to infants? That is the extent of his discovery after 40 years? And now he plans on giving mice cancer (euphemistically described as a mouse model). What about all his scientific speculations about ALL due to inherited genes, chance, and diet?

Well, no matter. I have neither been knighted nor given public monies to speculate about childhood leukemia for 40 years, but I do know how to read, analyze and interpret data. So I donated my time to review mainstream science claims about ALL, as well as the peer-reviewed literature – even earlier works by Dr. Greaves himself.

Translation: “I don’t have any training, but I’m going to speculate based on cherry picked literature and confusing correlation with causation anyway. Also, I have a huge bug up my butt about people with real expertise, like real scientists, and think my own uninformed opinion is of equal or greater value.”

I’m sure you can guess quite readily what Mr. Jones is going to blame for the increase in ALL incidence over the last few decades. If you can’t, you soon will when Mr. Jones notes that the peak incidence of ALL and AML (acute myeloid leukemia) is between ages 3 and 5. What other condition is most commonly diagnosed around ages 3 and 5? (Regular readers know.) Yes, I’m referring to autism, whose first symptoms are frequently noticed by parents around that age, leading to a diagnosis. You can see where Mr. Jones is going with this. It’s got to be the vaccines! He even writes about graphs he presents showing peak incidences of ALL and AML at around age 3:

This image alone should tell us that vaccines are the cause, or at least associated with, all diagnoses of ALL, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

No. No it doesn’t. First off, the graphs only show a peak incidence at age 3 of ALL, with AML not demonstrating such a peak. Second, it shows that the peak at age 3 is very much attenuated in African-American children compared to Asians and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites. I’m sorry, but vaccination rates are not that different between black children and children of these other races. Also, if you look at Figure 1 of the same paper, you’ll see that, although ALL incidence has been increasing since 1992, it hasn’t been increasing particularly fast.

Before he can really get to blaming vaccines for ALL, Mr. Jones needs to try to swat down the pesky science demonstrating that ALL. First, he writes:

Around the world, records show that cancer rates are expected to increase as the population ages. Editors at the American National Cancer Institute have declared that “Cancer rates always increase over time. They even offer some data:

• Cancer occurs more frequently in adolescents and young adults (ages 15 to 39 years) than in younger children.

• According to the NCI Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program (7), each year in 2011–2015 there were:
  • 16 cancer diagnoses per 100,000 children ages 0 to 14 years
  • 72 cancer diagnoses per 100,000 adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 39 years
  • 953 cancer diagnoses per 100,000 adults aged 40 years or older

Yes, cancer tends to be a disease of aging. However, there are cancers that are far more common in children than in adults, and there always have been. Among these have been the leukemias and lymphomas. However, ALL and AML are also diagnosed in adults, with children between 0-14 years of age only accounting for 22% and 4% of cases, respectively. Yes, adults get ALL, too.

Next up, Mr. Jones scoffs:

So what is ALL, and why would its incidence rates befall the young, contrary to other cancers? Apostolidou et al. (2007) define Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia as “a heterogeneous group of disorders that result from the clonal proliferation and expansion of malignant lymphoid cells in the bone marrow, blood, and other organs.”

Hmm. Maybe a better description, in plain language, would be “too many bad cells.”

And scoffs again:

In their article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hunger and Mullighan (2015) insist that the underlying mechanism [of ALL] involves multiple genetic mutations [sic] that results in rapid cell division.

And there it is. The scientists have an explanation. That leukemia comes from bad genes, is a wrong premise, of course, can easily be disproved. But as a rhetorical device, for MDs and Pharma, every gene theory is the gift that keeps on giving (disease), while assuaging their ignorance and their guilt.

Yes, like so many antivaxxers, Mr. Jones ignorantly scoffs at any disease that’s caused primarily by genes. Of course, there is an argument to be had regarding how much of the contribution to any cancer’s pathogenesis is genetic mutation versus epigenetic, versus metabolic, but that’s a high level debate reserved for scientists who actually know the data, clinical and experimental, about cancer and have the understanding of the relevant biology necessary to debate the evidence. Not for Mr. Jones is such high level thinking! Oh, no:

The claim of faulty genes (aka genetic mutation) is just another way to say: ‘it must be your fault, Mom and Dad.’ In 2007, in explaining ALL, one Canadian team actually wrote:
…[as] for childhood leukemia … its etiology remains largely unknown. [That] the early incidence [of childhood leukemia peaks] at ages 2–5 years points to disease mechanisms initiated prior to conception or during prenatal development.
Notice how these learned men (and women) so glibly declare that the mechanism for ALL is the abnormal production of lymphoblasts, and simultaneously ignore with glee the true catalyst, the vaccines.

Yes, all those pediatric oncologists and cancer researchers are hiding The One True Cause of ALL from you, those evil, toxin-ridden, fetal cell-containing, autism-inducing vaccines! And to prove it, Mr. Jones cherry picks some key quotes from this paper and a fact from a different paper:

  • “[Within the United States], incidence rates for childhood ALL in all races/ethnicities combined have increased approximately 1% per year since 1973.”
  • “Incidence rates of childhood leukemia in the United States have steadily increased over the last several decades … Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) data [show] trends in the incidence of childhood leukemia diagnosed at age 0–19 years from 1992 to 2013, overall and by age, race/ethnicity, gender, and histologic subtype. Hispanic White children were more likely than non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black or non-Hispanic Asian children to be diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) from 2009–2013. From 1992–2013, a significant increase in ALL incidence was observed for Hispanic White children (annual percent change (APC) Hispanic = 1.08, 95% CI: 0.59, 1.58); no significant increase was observed for non-Hispanic White, Black or Asian children.”
  • “From 2009 to 2013, 5,443 [American] children were diagnosed with leukemia, including 1,999 Hispanic White children (36.7% of childhood leukemia diagnoses), 2,364 non-Hispanic White children (43.4% of childhood leukemia diagnoses), 416 non-Hispanic Black children (7.6% of childhood leukemia diagnoses), 448 non-Hispanic Asian children (8.2% of childhood leukemia diagnoses), and 216 children of another racial/ethnic category. For all leukemia subtypes combined, the Age-Adjusted Incidence Rate from 2009–2013 was 6.05 per 100,000 persons for Hispanic White children, 4.45 per 100,000 persons for non-Hispanic White children, 4.21 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic Asian children, and 2.62 per 100,000 persons for non-Hispanic Black children.”
  • “Shah and Coleman (2007) report that in Europe, for 30 years, from 1970 to 1999, childhood lymphoid leukemia incidence (including acute lymphoblastic leukemia) increased significantly, by an average of 1.4% per year. non-Hispanic Asian children, and 2.62 per 100,000 persons for non-Hispanic Black children.””

Then, to my great amusement:

The first statement stands by itself. If any genetic mutation caused ALL, especially in toddlers and prepubescent children, it would naturally decline over time. Hence, ALL rates would not increase due to said mutation. But to see a 1% increase per year – akin to annual increases in autism – is a direct insult from the environment, via the needle.

Um, no. There’s no basis for Mr. Jones’ assumption that a genetic mutation causing ALL must decline in prevalence over time. He seems to be assuming Darwinian evolution and inherited cancer risk, although maybe I’m giving him too much credit in his thinking, such as it is. I can always point out that the gene mutation for sickle cell anemia remains in populations because, although the homozygous condition is devastating, the heterozygous condition provides a protective advantage against malaria. If there is an inherited gene causing ALL that also provides some sort of other advantage, its incidence won’t decline.

Mr. Jones’ next paragraph led me to chuckle even more:

The second paragraph needs a bit of explanation. The first part alludes to a Hispanic gene as the cause of ALL. The idea is hardly new – but easily debunked (see the work of Dr. Greaves, below). But the use of the term significant increase is a misleading term of art. We know that the rates of ALL in all children in the United States have increased. The word significant here means statistically significant. That is to say, the annual increases could be due to chance, but when summed over 30 years, we see a real effect – more ALL. To declare that the increase was not statistically significant is not the same as saying that cancer rates fell.

Numbers, how do they work? No, that’s not what statistically significant means. That’s not what any of this means! Next up:

The work of Parker et al. (1988), puts to rest the Hispanic-gene thesis implied by Barrington-Trimis and colleagues. In their review, Parker et al. included a comparison of children in three parts of Latin America. When comparing populations in Puerto Rico (for years 1972-82), Costa Rica (1980-83), and the City of São Paolo (1969-1978), the children of Puerto Rico had a far higher incidence of ALL – with a peak a full two years earlier than the other two. Presumably, Puerto Rican children would be on the same aggressive vaccination schedule as American Children.

That publication is over 30 years old and looked at population incidence rates during time periods ranging from the late 1960s to the early 1980s in Puerto Rico, Sao Paolo, and Costa Rica. The US vaccination schedule was far less “aggressive” back then, mainly because several of the vaccines in the schedule now hadn’t been developed yet. Basically, in the late 1970s, the US vaccination schedule consisted of these vaccines: DPT (diptheria-pertussis-tetanus), oral polio, and MMR (measles-mumps-rubella). The expansion of the vaccine schedule that antivaxxers blame for autism didn’t happen until the 1990s. That’s some fine cherry picking Mr. Jones did there! Too bad he doesn’t seem to see it:

Returning to professor Greaves, in 2016, he wrote that the annual incidence rate of ALL was between 10 to 45 cases per million. But Greaves was citing Parker et al. (1988), who looked world-wide, using pre-1980 data. That is to say, in the 1970s, at the national level, ALL rates for various countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, North America, and Europe, ranged from 1 to 4.5 per 100,000 – far less than what is seen in the U.S. today.

Yes, Mr. Jones both simultaneously cites this paper to “disprove” the “Hispanic gene hypothesis” of ALL while citing it just three paragraphs later to show that pre-1988 ALL incidence was lower than it is today. This deserves some serious facepalm:

Godzilla facepalm for Mr. Jones' ALL hypothesis

No, I think a second facepalm is in order:

Facepalm over Mr. Jones' ALL hypothesis
Picard disapproves.

Nope, that’s still not enough:

There we go! The Jesus facepalm!

But Mr. Jones isn’t done yet. He next pivots to attack Greaves’ observation that ALL incidence is associated with rising standards of living based on five observations linking higher socioeconomic class with increased incidence of ALL in South Africa, Australia, the Gaza strip, Nigeria, and Uganda. You can guess what he’s going to say about this:

Instead of seeing the improved economic conditions as a surrogate measure for higher vaccination rates, Greaves just thought ALL was and is inevitable.

Because, to antivaxxers, of course it is!

Of course, Greaves’ concept that “common infections” experienced between age zero and one might be protective against ALL is a concept that I rapidly saw as catnip to antivaxxers, and, even though he’s “skeptical” of Greaves’ hypothesis because it doesn’t involve vaccines, Mr. Jones can’t resist circling back around to it:

Given that ALL is a hyperimmune system response, and about only 1 in 2000 American children will get ALL, even though over 90% of all children receive multiple vaccinations, the development of a cancer illness is abnormal.

But what are these so-called common infections?

Common infections could be measles, rubella, mumps, pertussis, Haemophilus influenza b, etc. And recall, these hyperactive, inflammatory responses to vaccines are not just due to the bacterial or viral agent. Vaccines contain a host of other antigens and toxins (e.g., aluminum, glyphosate, formaldehyde, human and animal proteins), each of which generates inflammatory responses in various organs.

By the way, the common infection hypotheses is attributed to none other than Sir Mel Greaves and Dr. Mullighan. I guess that Greaves and Mullighan do think that vaccines cause ALL – they just don’t know it.

No, Greaves and Mullighan were already reaching a bit to come up with their common infection hypothesis for the pathogenesis of ALL, and knew that there was no correlation between vaccines and ALL incidence. Also, if anything, the immune response to a vaccine is not as intense, because there’s just antigen or a weakened virus, not a full-fledged infection, with all its attendant symptoms and harms.

It often seems to me that antivaxxers try to blame basically every non-infectious childhood ailment and condition on vaccines. (Strike that. There’s no “seems” about it.) Basically, any childhood illness will be blamed on vaccines, as will quite a few adult illnesses, no matter how much cherrypicking and how many contortions of logic are necessary to create the semblance of a correlation. Mr. Jones just showed us that. He and Sherri Tenpenny deserve each other.