Ad nauseum ad hominem
The case of nine year-old Hannah Poling, for whom childhood vaccines worsened a rare, underlying disorder that ultimately led to autism-like symptoms, may now affect the fate of a program that's supposed to compensate families whose children suffer rare injuries that are definitively linked to vaccines.
As part of a ruling that's supposed to be confidential, lawyers for the Department of Health and Human Services agreed to pay an as-yet undetermined amount from the federal vaccine injury compensation program to the Poling family.
Hannah had been developing normally until she received a series of shots when she was a year-and-a-half old. After that she began to regress, and developed autistic-like symptoms.
As you might guess the anti-vaccination crowd are going absolutely bonkers over this whole thing. For example:
At a news conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in Atlanta yesterday, John Gilmore of the group Autism United said the case validates his position, that vaccines can be dangerous for children.
"For the first time the court has conceded in a case that vaccines can indeed cause autism," Gilmore said.
So am I about to eat my words about vaccines? Heh. Not likely. The first thing that we all need to keep in mind when talking about this case is that, interestingly enough, the child does not have autism. Instead, what appears to have happened is that an existing condition- mitochondrial disease- was exacerbated by the vaccinations. The disease was not even caused by the vaccines, just brought out by them. A good analogy would be to a person who unknowingly has diabetes and consumes a large piece of chocolate cake. The cake, with it's high sugar content, might trigger a nonketotic hyperosmolar coma and thus make it evident that diabetes is present. Yet, the cake did not cause the disease, it just exacerbated a disorder that already existed. This is an important distinction because, in the case of diabetes, banning chocolate cake will not stop the disorder and, in the case of mitochondrial disease, banning vaccinations won't help either. Regardless, it's likely that even had the child not been vaccinated the disease would have struck anyway, possibly when she contracted a run-of-the-mill infection:
Charles Mohan, CEO of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, says he finds the government's concession in the case reasonable.
"It could have been the vaccine that exacerbated that particular underlying mitochondrial disease," Mohan said, "or in a lot of cases it's the onset of a virus, an infection, a flu, that might have the same impact."
But at the same time, says Mohan, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that vaccines themselves can cause either mitochondrial disorders or autism.
So, in short, what we see here is neither evidence that vaccines cause autism nor, in fact, evidence that vaccines caused this particular disorder. All we have is an admission by the government that there is a reasonable chance that these vaccinations inadvertently triggered an existing problem that would, otherwise, have been triggered at some point anyway.
Beyond clearing up the factual issues surrounding this case, however, I want to remark on something else. Anti-vaccine activists like to use conspiracy theories to explain the continued use of vaccines. We saw this recently here on Total Drek when Paula Rothstein*, a "holistic health counselor", dropped by and said mean things about me. She remarked:
Never mind the numerous experts with actual medical degress (not sociology) who oppose vaccines, responsible for waging whisper campaigns against vaccinations in the hopes of stopping the numerous deaths, serious adverse reactions and new diseases occuring as a result of vaccines. I say "whisper" because when they take a very visible role opposing vaccines they lose funding for projects at the very least and/or their license revoked for more adamant opposition.
So, according to her, many medical professionals secretly oppose vaccines but refrain from making their objections public for fear of reprisals from some overwhelmingly-powerful pro-vaccine cabal. The thing is, the ruling being discussed above was guaranteed to set the anti-vaccination crowd off. It has autism-like symptoms, it involves vaccines, it has the government paying damages, it's perfect for propaganda purposes. And, indeed, I have little doubt that it will be used for such. Nevertheless, the government decided that there was enough evidence that vaccines were a proximate cause of harm to award damages, and damn the consequences for the autism-vaccine street fight. These are not the actions of a self-interested cabal steamrolling over the little guy. These are, rather, the actions of a reasonably responsible agency listening to the evidence and arguments and trying to see justice done.
And that, I think, is the take-home here: when push came to shove, knowing how much trouble it might stir up, the government did the right thing. If you think vaccines are to blame for autism, fine, we can talk about that. Let's talk about evidence and studies and causal chains. But can we just knock off the conspiracy theories and personal attacks already?
That someone disagrees with you does not mean that they lack personal integrity.
UPDATE: For a far more thorough discussion of this issue, see this.
* I feel compelled to note the following, which appears elsewhere: "Paula Rothstein has been involved in the natural health industry for over 10 years with a specific emphasis on promoting products and introducing lifestyle changes which address chronic diseases relating to high levels of toxicity." [emphasis added] Indeed, if you examine her blog it's quite clear that she's involved in selling certain products and, according to available information, is a distributor for Waiora. Given her own concerns about the financial ties between scientists and vaccine-makers, I think it appropriate to point out that she has a financial interest of her own in fear of vaccines and modern medicine.
As a final note to Paula Rothstein: Worry not, I fully intend to view your suggested movie and respond to your comments more fully. Thank you for your patience.