Those of us who have been following the antivaccine movement and the sorts of claims that its members are seldom surprised by what antivaxxers blame on vaccines. Basically, antivaxxers blame everything on vaccines: autism, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), cancer, and more diseases and health conditions than I can easily list here. We’ve discussed at one time or another nearly all of these claims and why they’re bogus. However, there’s one claim that I don’t recall having discussed here before. So I have to thank antivaccine leader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his antivaccine group Children’s Health Defense for providing me with the opportunity to do so by publishing a post last month, “Weighing Down Childhood: Are Vaccines and Glyphosate Contributing to Childhood Obesity?” Here’s a hint: Betteridge’s law of headlines definitely applies here, no matter how much RFK Jr. and whoever wrote this pile of antivaccine pseudoscience wants to lead you to believe otherwise.
Naturally, the “Children’s Health Defense Team” starts out by confusing correlation with causation:
Over the past several decades, the experience of childhood has changed fundamentally for many American children. Impairing their ability to climb trees and run races, over a third are encumbered—at even the youngest ages—with runaway weight and associated sequelae like high blood pressure and, as the CDC has just reported, diabetes. As of 2015-16, about 13.7 million U.S. children and adolescents—roughly one in five (18.5%)—were obese, and another 17% were overweight. Even worse, a third of those classified as obese fell into the category of “extreme obesity.”
In the adolescent age group (12- to 19-year-olds), obesity prevalence—at 21%—has quadrupled since the 1980s, generating $14 billion in annual direct health expenses. Researchers are even more concerned, however, by the worsening picture in 2- to 5-year-olds. Studies show that early-onset weight gain has long-term risks; when children start kindergarten overweight, they are four times more likely to become obese by eighth grade as normal-weight kindergartners. In less than a decade (from 2007-08 to 2015-16), the prevalence of obesity and severe obesity in the 2- to 5-year age group rose from 10% to 14%. In the most recent two-year cycle, this sharp increase in preschool-age children—particularly boys, African Americans and Hispanics—prompted researchers to fret about the obesity epidemic having become “endemic.” At a societal level, experts warn that “The obesity epidemic threatens to shorten life expectancy . . . and bankrupt the health care system.”
Yes, the obesity epidemic is a major problem, contributing to increases in heart disease, type II diabetes, and a large number of other health problems. For reasons that remain unclear but appear to be due to a combination of increasing calorie intake and decreasing activity, beginning in the 1980s the prevalence of obesity, including extreme or morbid obesity, has skyrocketed. Particularly concerning is the increase in the prevalence of obesity among children because obese children tend to become obese adults, with all the health problems that obesity entails.
Of course, one thing that we’re quite sure is not behind the obesity epidemic is vaccines. Naturally, that means that the antivaccine propaganda crew at Children’s Health Defense will try to blame the childhood obesity epidemic on—you guessed it!—vaccines:
In multiple papers published over the last decade and a half, immunologist JB Classen has been making the case that “vaccine induced immune overload”—which he also refers to as “iatrogenic immune stimulation”—is a primary cause of the obesity epidemic and other inflammatory disease epidemics. Arguing that a “huge increase” in inflammation-associated disorders has followed on the heels of the “massive increase” in the childhood vaccine schedule, Classen points out that “The epidemic of obesity in US children has a statistically significant positive correlation with the number of vaccine doses recommended,” with similar trends evident for hypertension and metabolic syndrome.
I do so love antivaccine “logic”. The prevalence of obesity has increased dramatically since the late 1970s/early 1980s, and there are more vaccines on the CDC recommended childhood vaccine schedule now than there were 40 years ago. Ergo, it must be the vaccines! It’s exactly the same flawed logic that led antivaxxers to claim that the prevalence of autism, which has been increasing since the early 1990s, and its apparent correlation with expansion of the number of vaccines on the childhood schedule must mean that vaccines cause autism.
But who is “J.B. Classen”? I recall having heard of him before. An example is this mention of him on this blog in a post by John Snyder from over ten years ago. It turns out that J.B. Classen is John Bartholomew Classen, a well-known antivaccine activist who usually goes by the Bart Classen. According to Wikipedia, Dr. Classen received his MD from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1988 and also has an MBA from Columbia University. Unsurprisingly, he’s been quoted by Sharyl Attkisson, a reporter who’s become an antivaccine activist and conspiracy theorist in her own right. Classen’s website, Vaccines.net, is pretty rudimentary but does proclaim:
The content of this site is not intended to be anti-immunization but instead to promote the concept that the goal of immunization is to promote health not eradicate infections. It is hoped that through the collection and dissemination of information about the chronic effects of vaccines, safer immunization practices will become available for those who choose to be immunized.
Ah, yes, the “I’m not ‘antivaccine’; I’m a pro-safe vaccine” gambit, beloved of antivaxxers going back at least to Jenny McCarthy 13 years ago. Naturally, after proclaiming himself a “vaccine safety advocate”, Dr. Classen then goes on to spout antivaccine misinformation:
There is growing evidence that immunization causes a large number of other chronic diseases including autism, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, cancers, and Gulf War Syndrome. Data linking these diseases to vaccines includes human and animal data. In many cases, the increased risk of developing these diseases following immunization exceeds the risk of infectious complications prevented by immunization.
In other words, “I’m not antivaccine, but I believe that vaccines cause every disease under the sun and are riskier than infectious disease”. Actually, that’s the very definition of being antivaccine.
But what about the publications cited by Children’s Health Defense? One link is to a press release by Dr. Classen, who apparently has his own company, Classen Immunotherepeutics, Inc., which is described thusly:
Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. is a privately held research stage biopharmaceutical company devoted to discovering safer uses of vaccines, drugs, devices, chemicals and related products. Classen Immunotherapies discovered that common vaccines are one of the most important causes of diabetes in children and in highly immunized adults. Management believes that many drugs and chemicals also cause severe adverse events that have not yet been discovered. Epidemiology and other tools can be used to identify high risk situations where the use of a drug or other agent should be avoided. Examples of situations where use of a drug should be avoided include situations where serious adverse drug drug interactions are common and situations where serious adverse interactions between drugs and existing medical conditions are common.
Classen Immunotherapies believes that research to discover adverse events has been severely hampered because there has been little financial incentive to discover adverse events and little incentive for manufacturers to disclose adverse events. As a results many individuals have been unnecessarily injured by drug adverse events and drug adverse events are now one of the largest causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. Classen Immunotherapies has developed and patented methods which create financial incentives for finding and disclosing adverse event information. These methods pertain to patenting the disclosure of adverse events.
Translation: “I’m not antivaccine. I just believe that vaccines cause all sorts of horrible things and run a company whose purpose is to show that.”
Back to the first citation, a press release. Since it’s a press release, I’ll ignore it and go straight to the paper that it’s announcing, a 2017 paper in the Journal of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity. The first thing I noticed is that the journal appears to be a predatory open access journal. The second thing I noticed is that this is a review article, not an original study. Let’s just say that it’s a very…selective…reading of the medical literature with respect to the obesity epidemic.
The reasoning behind the paper is basically this. Obesity is associated with inflammation, which can contribute to the production of glucocorticoids, which can cause obesity. Vaccines, according to Classen, cause “immune overload”. Unsurprisingly, the studies to which Classen links to support his claim that vaccines cause “immune overload” are all publications by—you guessed it!—Bart Classen. I was particularly amused by this paper that claims to have found that the incidence autism is correlated with the incidence of type I but not type II diabetes, his conclusion being that this indicates that vaccines cause autism and immune-mediated type I diabetes. No, seriously. I’m not making this up. Unsurprisingly, there’s no controlling for appropriate confounders, and the statistical analysis is rudimentary. In fact, Classen seems unduly impressed by observations that obesity is negatively correlated with type I diabetes as an indication that vaccines cause type I diabetes.
Another part of Classen’s argument seems to be that vaccines can cause the release of cytokines associated with obesity and the metabolic syndrome. (Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, and frequently can lead to type II diabetes, among other conditions.) Of course, in metabolic syndrome, those cytokines are chronically elevated. Classen’s argument isn’t even coherent. On the one hand, he’s saying that autism is associated with type I but not type II diabetes (and not obesity), indicating that both are caused by vaccines. On the other hand, he’s saying that vaccines activate inflammatory cytokines leading to obesity.
Conveniently enough, Classen has an explanation:
Classen’s numerous publications focus not just on obesity but also on other immune-mediated conditions such as diabetes (types 1 and 2) and metabolic syndrome. As a result of his analyses, he makes the crucial observation that the “clinical manifestation of disease depends on one’s physiologic response to inflammation.” Stated another way, he proposes that vaccine-induced immune overload may lead to different outcomes in different individuals—explaining the many parallel childhood epidemics we are observing.
In other words, vaccines cause whatever disease Classen wants to believe they cause because everyone’s different and they can do different things in different people.
Of course, if it isn’t vaccines, it has to be glyphosate, the pesticide in RoundUp, because antivaccine views frequently co-localize in the same people as antivaccine views:
As one of the most widely used chemicals in the world, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) deserves particular attention. MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff and coauthor Anthony Samsel acknowledge the likely contribution of other environmental toxins but argue that glyphosate is the most significant “because it is pervasive and it is often handled carelessly due to its perceived nontoxicity.” Seneff and Samsel link glyphosate to three key biological disruptions—gut dysbiosis, impaired sulfate transport and suppression of a biologically important family of enzymes—all of which can explain the epidemics of obesity as well as numerous other chronic conditions. Insidiously, glyphosate also disrupts the body’s ability to detoxify other environmental toxins, leading to “synergistic enhancement of toxicity.” In addition, Seneff has pointed out elsewhere that glyphosate “has made its way into several widely used vaccines,” and especially the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
You might remember Stephanie Seneff. She’s a computer scientist at MIT who thinks that gives her sufficient expertise in epidemiology to do studies in it. Among her wilder claims is that glyphosate, GMOs, and other modern lifestyle factors are responsible for the recent increase in concussions. She’s long been claiming that glyphosate causes autism. Perhaps my favorite claim of hers is that by 2025 half of all children will be autistic. Truly, Seneff is a master of inappropriately confusing correlation with causation.
To be honest, I’m rather amused. This is the best that Children’s Health Defense can come up with in terms of evidence, the ramblings of two antivaccine cranks who do horrible science that’s in conflict with what we do know? (There is no good evidence linking vaccines to obesity, for instance.) RFK, Jr. really is scraping the bottom of the barrel.