Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Deadly Manufactroversy of Autism and Vaccines

In last week's eSkeptic, the email newsletter of the Skeptic Society, Dr. Harriet Hall states that there is no scientific controversy over the value of vaccines for public health or their association with autism. None.

Instead, we have a "manufactured controversy," brought on by junk science, misguided thinking, celebrity worship, and hysteria.

Thousands of parents have been frightened into rejecting or delaying immunizations for their children. The immunization rate has dropped, resulting in the return of endemic measles in the U.K. and various outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. Children have died. Herd immunity has been lost. The public health consequences are serious and are likely to get worse before they get better — a load of unscientific nonsense has put us all at risk.

Dr. Hall identifies the source of the problem with a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published an article in a respected medical journal suggesting a link between autism and vaccination in 12 children. Despite the disclaimers and weak connections in the article, Wakefield held a press conference recommending stopping certain injections.

Wakefield’s data was later discredited (more about that later) but even if it had been right, it wouldn’t have been good science. To show that intestinal inflammation is linked to autism, you would have to compare the rate in autistic children to the rate in non-autistic children. Wakefield used no controls. To implicate the MMR vaccine, you would have to show that the rate of autism was greater in children who got the vaccine and verify that autism developed after the shot. Wakefield made no attempt to do that.

Later researchers were unable to duplicate Wakefield's research--itself based on a small sample size--and 10 of the 12 co-authors of the article issued retractions. But the damage had been done. Immunization in the U.K. dropped significantly, childhood diseases like measles increased, and several children died unnecessarily.

Despite Wakefield's research and reputation in the U.K. being completely discredited, he currently works in an autism clinic in the U.S. and has many followers who insist he was right.

Dr. Hall also identifies celebrity spokespersons such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey who speak out against vaccinations at every opportunity.

Jenny and her cohorts claim they are not anti-vaccine, but they are certainly a good facsimile thereof. The goalposts keep moving. First it was the MMR vaccine, then it was thimerosal, then it was mercury from all sources, then it was other vaccine ingredients, then it was too many vaccines, then it was giving vaccines too early. They will not be satisfied until science can offer a 100% safe and a 100% effective vaccine proven to have no side effects of any kind even in a rare susceptible individual. That’s not going to happen in this universe.

The result of this is that many treatable diseases which Western countries had gotten under control have become pandemics again, and the false information is diverting attention away from legitimate research into effective treatments both for deadly diseases and autism.

An anti-anti-vaccine backlash is now afoot. Outbreaks of vaccine- preventable diseases are being reported. Scientists are speaking out. Blogs like Respectful Insolence and Science-Based Medicine have covered the subject in depth. The Chicago Tribune published an exposé of the Geiers.9 Even Reader’s Digest has contradicted Jenny. They said that vaccines save lives and do not cause autism and hey stressed that the science is not on Jenny’s side. Let us hope that sanity will prevail before too many more children die from vaccine-preventable diseases. They are dying now. The Jenny McCarthy Body Count webpage is keeping track of the numbers.

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