Yes, and it could have been prevented.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, a recent outbreak of measles in the Twin Cities area was caused in part by former doctor and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s influential but fraudulent study suggesting a connection between child vaccination and autism.
So why weren’t the children vaccinated?
Several of the parents informed the Health Department they had avoided the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine out of concerns their children would be at risk of autism.
If you read this blog at all (or any other skeptic blog, for that matter) you know this already. But once more, with feeling…
None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Nil.
Ok, I’m starting to get worked up. It happens when I talk about vaccines especially.
Why? Well usually when a scientist’s outlandish claims get debunked it is an “I told you so!” situation.
But when children (or anyone) get hurt or hospitalized as a result of those outlandish claims, it becomes a “Bang your head against the wall because this could have been prevented” situation.
Maybe we could call this a “Wakefield” situation; a “When Are Kids Ever going to Forgive us for letting Idiots Endanger their Lives with Debunked science” situation.
The reality is starting to set in, as Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, lays out:
Hospitalizations and deaths have occurred—all preventable, had the children been immunized. In the U.S., some parents withhold vaccines; others stretch out the vaccination schedule, leaving children susceptible to disease for longer than they should.
I don’t know if the damage caused by that original Wakefield paper will ever be fully undone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to undo as much as possible.
The blogosphere is teeming with articles regarding a couple of recent wins for skepticism. I’ll save the best for last.
The first such win is the admission by the makers of Power Balance, a bracelet designed to increase sport performance. How you ask? The website states that
Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.
Sound like bullplop? Well it is bullplop.
Making these kinds of statements was a violation of Australian trade practices. Why? The press release to Australian media by Power Balance says it all:
In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.
We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.
If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.
Big time win for the skeptical movement, since they were instrumental in bringing about this admission from Power Balance.
So that’s great. But this one is awesome!
Our dear friend
Doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose study linking vaccines to autism (retracted study, btw) sparked an anti-vaccine movement and a huge public health risk, is in the news again. If you have read my blog before, you know that I am not his biggest fan.
Although he has had his medical license stripped and paper retracted by the Lancet, the anti-vaccine movement persisted, painting Wakefield as some kind of martyr; hung out to dry by Big Pharma for trying to tell the “truth” about vaccines.
Well yet another blow has been struck against this movement, and its a doozy.
After seeing the data, the father of one of the children in the study said
His misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable. His motives for this I may never know.
The piece is well written and documents Deer’s investigations into Wakefield’s research. I encourage you to read the whole text, but here are the key points:
Three of nine children reported with regressive autism did not have autism diagnosed at all. Only one child clearly had regressive autism
Despite the paper claiming that all 12 children were “previously normal,” five had documented pre-existing developmental concerns
Some children were reported to have experienced first behavioural symptoms within days of MMR, but the records documented these as starting some months after vaccination
In nine cases, unremarkable colonic histopathology results—noting no or minimal fluctuations in inflammatory cell populations—were changed after a medical school “research review” to “non-specific colitis”
The parents of eight children were reported as blaming MMR, but 11 families made this allegation at the hospital. The exclusion of three allegations—all giving times to onset of problems in months—helped to create the appearance of a 14 day temporal link
- Patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation
So basically, he lied. He’s a dirty rotten liar-liar-pants-on-fire.
But what was his motivation? From the CNN news article:
Deer said Wakefield “chiseled” the data before him, “falsifying medical histories of children and essentially concocting a picture, which was the picture he was contracted to find by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers and to create a vaccine scare.”
According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers.
Wakefield continues to defend himself by playing the fall-guy to Big Pharma:
Wakefield dismissed Brian Deer, the writer of the British Medical Journal articles, as “a hit man who has been brought in to take me down” by pharmaceutical interests.
The evidence against Wakefield was already overwhelming. But this story has hit the news media hard. It is a huge blow to the anti-vaxxers. Why do I think this? Well what did the anti-vaccine movement’s and Andrew Wakefield’s most prolific and outspoken public relations person, Jenny McCarthy, say about this story?
Actress Jenny McCarthy, founder of Generation Rescue and whose son also has autism, declined to comment on Wednesday’s developments
Your friends are abandoning you Andrew Wakefield. The truth is finally starting to become clear to everyone. You have duped a generation of mothers into thinking that vaccines cause autism, and children have died because of it.
I’m mad. I mean I’m really really REALLY mad!
The anti-vaccine movement has been gaining strength in recent years. This will result in the deaths of young children and infants.
It is already happening.
An epidemic of Whooping Cough (Pertussis) is currently in progress in California. Pertussis is a disease preventable through vaccination. Even though the vaccine is not 100% effective, when enough people get vaccinated the incidence of the disease declines.
Unfortunately, vaccination rates in California have been dropping for several years. We are seeing the largest outbreak of Pertussis in California in over 50 years.
5 infants under 3 months of age have already died.
Why is this happening? Well, in 1998 a British man named Andrew Wakefield was developing an alternative to the Mumps-Measles-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. So, with funding from a law firm (which was suing the current manufacturer of the MMR vaccine), Wakefield performed a study.
He paid 12 children who were attending his child’s birthday party £5 to take a blood sample from them (yes, at the party). He then used these samples to draw a link between the MMR vaccine and Autism spectrum disorders.
This study was poor, the data was faked, and the paper was later retracted by the journal in which it was published. Wakefield was then stripped of his medical license. He moved from the UK to the United States.
There, he got himself a foot soldier: Jenny McCarthy.
I sure wouldn’t mind her on MY team…
She went on Oprah and other TV shows shouting to the rafters that vaccines gave her son autism. These claims were not scientifically grounded.
In the years since, the MMR vaccine and others have been studied and re-studied by labs all over the world. The conclusion is unanimous:
VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM.
But sadly, this is not the end of the story. The anti-vaccine movement has gotten very good at being conspiracy theorists. They think the pharmaceutical companies are all behind these studies. This is false.
They claimed it was Thimerosol, an ingredient in the MMR vaccine. Thimerosol was removed, and autism rates have not dropped. They were wrong.
They are extremely proficient at using the ad hominem fallacy by personally attacking those who are trying to get the truth out there. Their attacks are pathetic, ungrounded, and often flat out lies.
They use straw man arguments to attempt to discredit the studies done by real scientists. This is a tactic used by other pseudoscience proponents like those who believe in Sasquatch, Astrology, and Homeopathy. It is misleading and horrible that they would do this.
Let me make this perfectly clear. WE are the good guys. The science guys. The ones who know that vaccines work. WE are the ones trying to save children’s lives.
We are losing.
But we will continue to fight. We will continue to spread our message and save as many children as we can.
You can help. You can read the literature, you can spread the word. You can also go out and get your booster shots. As a population, we can completely eliminate Whooping Cough, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and many others. It is possible.
We just need YOUR help.
It doesn’t matter how bad the horror movie is: Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw XII (or whatever one they are on now), all terrible. And all of them kill (pun intended) at the box office.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love watching disembowelments as much as the next guy. But even those who like these movies admit they are poorly crafted, poorly acted, and poorly written.
So that is all well and good when it comes to entertainment, but when people use fear to promote bad science, then it pisses me off. Pisses me right off.
There is no greater example of this right now than the Anti-vaccine movement. These chuckleheads (that’s me cleaning up my language) have been fear mongering for years now, scaring parents into thinking that vaccines are linked to autism.
Let me say this loud and clear. Vaccines are NOT linked to autism. There is NOT A SHRED of scientific evidence which links vaccines to autism.
Now a bit of history, as this is the first time I’ve discussed this on this blog.
In 1998, a man named Andrew Wakefield published a study in a prestigious scientific journal called The Lancet. This study reported bowel symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders. Wakefield used anecdotal evidence from the parents of these children to draw a causal link between the receipt of the Mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism.
This study was riddled with bad science. You can read a great debunking of the paper here, but the end result was in February 2010 the Lancet formally retracted the paper, stating that
“…it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.”
In May 2010, Wakefield had his medical license revoked in the United Kingdom, and is no longer allowed to practice medicine.
Unfortunately, none of this has swayed his supporters. He has moved to the United States and is now being portrayed as a martyr, wronged by the government and his peers. He is also profiting quite nicely from the whole debacle, having just written a book supporting the anti-vaccine movement (you can read a great skeptical review of the book from Science-Based Medicine).
But the real truth is that he is a douche. No nice way of putting that one.
So that is the history, what about the science? Well there have been many studies looking for the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine. For a small sampling of these studies, see ‘Further Reading’ below.
At first it was thought that it was the Thiomersol, an ingredient in the MMR vaccine. Thiomersol is an organomercury compound used as a preservative in the MMR vaccine. Although no scientific evidence found a link between Thiomersol and autism, fears of a link lead the FDA to remove Thiomersol from the MMR vaccine in 2001. It was predicted by the anti-vaccine movement that a decrease in the rate of autism diagnosis would be seen. However, cases of autism continue to increase despite the removal of Thiomersol.
It was also thought that the “large” number of immunizations given to infants at a young age overloaded the immune system, leading to negative effects such as autism. However, a recent study reveals that there is no benefit to any alternative immunization schedules. In fact, children are constantly exposed to many more antigens on a daily basis than they are exposed to in a round of vaccines.
There are lots of tidbits such as that these which completely disprove the Anti-Vaccine arguments. Yet they refuse to accept the scientific evidence and vaccination rates all over the world are dropping.
This has led to an increase in diagnosis of measels and pertussis all over the world. These diseases can be fatal in infants, and unfortunately, incidence of these and other preventable diseases will continue to increase if the anti-vaxxers get their wish.
This HAS to stop. Children are dying. Parents are scared. And for no reason whatsoever. I know it is tough not to listen to Jenny McCarthy, but she is not a scientist. Listen to your doctor. Listen to the scientists.
Let’s get something straight about Jenny McCarthy. She is misinformed. She is misguided. She has been duped by bad scientists (read: douchebags). But she is a mother, and her child has been afflicted with an illness. Can we really blame her for overreacting? She truly believes she is fighting for children, and in the end, we are all on the same side. Nor do I blame parents for being apprehensive about getting their children vaccinated.
So who are the enemies? Who are the bad guys in this story? Well, Andrew Wakefield for one. The media is another. Picture yourself watching TV. On one channel is an unattractive scientist in a white lab coat, holding up a black and white graph and saying “Look, vaccines don’t cause autism!”. Now change channels. There is pretty Jenny McCarthy with a tear in her eye, saying how she watched the “life go out” of her child’s eyes as he was inoculated (she has since changed her tune about this, now saying it was a gradual transition in her child’s behaviour). Obviously McCarthy will make more of an impact. This is the fear they use to try to sell their story. Clearly, they have no science to back it up, so they need to use fear. Rarely do studies that contradict the Vaccine-Autism link get top billing. But anything that will instill fear in a parent will get the lead story on the evening news.
Now, we may not be able to win this fight overnight. But we can make whatever difference we can. Tell your friends and family that vaccines are safe. If you are a new parent, please read about the safety of vaccines. It will take some effort to find the good information, but you can find it.
Honda H, Shimizu Y, Rutter M (2005). “No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study”. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 46 (6): 572–9.
Doja A, Roberts W (2006). “Immunizations and autism: a review of the literature”. Can J Neurol Sci 33 (4): 341–6.
Mrozek-Budzyn D, Kiełtyka A, Majewska R (2010). “Lack of association between measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and autism in children: a case-control study”. Pediatr Infect Dis J 29 (5):397-400.
Miller L, Reynolds J (2009). “Autism and vaccination – the current evidence”. J Spec Pediatr Nurs 14 (3):166-72.