Total Drek

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Ad nauseum ad hominem

Folks who follow the news may already be aware of recent events surrounding the ongoing vaccine-autism insanity. Specifically, you know that the Federal Government recently decided to award damages to the parents of a child who developed autism-like symptoms following a series of vaccinations:

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.

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Blogger newsocprof said...

here, here! i just picked up a parenting magazine that was being handed out to parents at my daughter's daycare... the lead article was on autism.

one quote from a doc saying no evidence followed by 5 detailed stories of mothers who buy the vaccine link (including Jenny McCarthy -- so you've got the celebrity push too) and much use of the word "believe."

I have two autistics in my family and all of this drives me nuts -- the number of people who consider not vaccinating because of this is scary. As if things aren't bad enough, let's add a resurgence of polio into the mix...

Friday, March 07, 2008 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

I dunno...this post doesn't follow your usual careful reasoning.

A good analogy would be to a person who unknowingly has diabetes and consumes a large piece of chocolate cake.

Except that the government doesn't force people to consume large pieces of chocolate cake.

There is a lot that is wrong - very wrong - with the legislation around vaccinations, with the schedule of vaccinations, and with the vaccinations themselves. Parents are right to be concerned. Unfortunately, there is very little unbiased information out there. The CDC is concerned with public health, not individual health, and pretty much recommends that everyone, with very few exceptions, get all the recommended vaccinations. The anti-vaccination groups very often do not have solid research behind them, and they spew misinformation.

It is very difficult to find solid information.

And there are also questions about how vaccinations affect our immune systems, particularly when we are giving 2-6 at any given time (to infants - my vets don't even recommend giving more than one per month to my animals) and when they have not been tested over the longterm.

I've read a lot about the autism - MMR debate, and it sounds like it's a lot more complicated than either side in this would have us believe. For example, the vaccine itself is not necessarily the main issue, but the mercury in vaccines (and yes, we are still getting vaccines with mercury in them, even though we're told we're not), the fact that Big Pharma will not sell measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines separately, nor will it separate diptheria, pertussis, and tetanus, and the CDC's aggressive vaccination scheduling are serious issues.

Saturday, March 08, 2008 5:14:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...


Well, I'll concede that the fact that eating cake isn't compulsory is a weak point in the analogy. I object, however, to your unfounded insinuation that my posts are usually carefully reasoned. Honestly! I have a reputation to maintain!

There's a lot in your comment that demonstrates your concern, but not a lot to really back it up. I understand what you're saying about the CDC being interested in promoting vaccination but, really, the reasoning there is probably two-fold: (1) We know the risks of the agents we're vaccinating against versus the mostly speculative risk from vaccines and (2) we need high rates of coverage to get the most benefit. Under the circumstances it's hard to blame them.

The comparison to the vet is, I think, spurious. My vet has no particular concerns about giving multiple vaccinations and, in any case, dogs/cats are not human. Their immune systems are not identical to our own and the vaccines we produce for them are not held to the same standards as ours.

You're right- the vaccines themselves are not the main issue. Yet, there is no reproducible evidence that thiomersal is responsible for autism or other neurological disorder. The studies that claim a connection have almost uniformly been discredited and attempts to confirm the alleged causal mechanisms have fallen flat. The evidence does not, at present, suggest that the very small levels of mercury present in some vaccines are causing any problems.

The reference to big pharma is, I think, most interesting. Sometimes the claim is made that unsafe vaccines are pushed because it makes money for pharmaceutical companies. Yet, it's actually more profitable to treat a disease than it is to vaccinate against it. If we want to invoke a profit motive, then big pharma should be just as interested as anyone in outlawing vaccines so it can go back to selling lots of antibiotics, antivirals, and good 'ol iron lungs.

Monday, March 10, 2008 9:10:00 AM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

I understand what you're saying about the CDC being interested in promoting vaccination but, really, the reasoning there is probably two-fold: (1) We know the risks of the agents we're vaccinating against versus the mostly speculative risk from vaccines and (2) we need high rates of coverage to get the most benefit.

It's not a matter of blaming them - I'm just saying, this is their bias. They accept that the risk of mass vaccination is that some people will have serious, adverse reactions. The problem for parents is to determine whether the risk for your own child is greater from the disease or from the vaccination. And it's hard, if you feel that they're at greater risk from the disease, to justify immunizing them in the name of public health.

Chicken pox is a good example of this. The vaccine has not been tested longterm, but we're still immunizing our kids from what is generally a simple childhood illness (with some severe cases, yes). And we're doing it, not because chicken pox is a huge threat, but because parents miss a lot of work when their kids get chicken pox, and this is preventable, so...

I would rather they do the longterm testing, first.

Re. the comparison to the vet - the point is that it's a shock to the system, and that if even vets (and yours might not, but I've now seen a few specialists in NY, SD, and MN, and they all do) are saying it's too much of a shock to an animal's immune system to recommend more than one vaccination in a month - and if, on top of that, my pediatrician tells me the same thing - then, you know, I have cause to question the CDC's immunization plan, which is set up to ensure that everyone get all the necessary vaccinations, but not in a way that will help prevent adverse reactions. Their concern is simply getting that injection into as many people as possible, so they target infants because they figure that parents will bring their newborns in for at least a couple of check-ups. So they mandate the schedule. It's just absurd, and it has nothing to do with what is good for the infant at that particular moment.

I'll accept your statements about mercury/thimerosal - I haven't read much on this since my son was a lot younger.

Re. big pharma - the thing is, they still refuse to sell the individual vaccines, so parents do not have a choice in many cases if they want to do one vaccination at a time. And it does make a difference in how the baby reacts. We don't have to be talking about serious reactions, but when you get more than one vaccine at once, it's not uncommon to have swelling and pain at the site and to be feverish and not feel well for the next couple of days. My son is really sensitive to this, and I resented that I had to subject him to that. I mean, yeah, of course, I'd rather deal with that than with Whooping Cough, but it comes down to profit - Pharma makes more selling the packaged vaccines.

And now, I hear, they're planning to do 6, 8, 10 in one shots for newborns. Yuck.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 7:48:00 PM  

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