Field of Science

Vaccines, autism, and Obama

I’m really disappointed in my candidate.

I recently put a “Scientists for Obama” bumper sticker on my car, because I liked his positions on science and other issues, but this week he joined McCain and Clinton on the bad science bandwagon that continues to attempt to link vaccines to autism.

First, McCain made a statement that “there’s strong evidence that indicates it’s [the rise of autism] got to do with a preservative in vaccines.” In fact there is no evidence in support of this and much evidence against it. Then Clinton answered, in response to a questionnaire from an autism activist group (which is promoting the bogus vaccine-autism link), that she was “committed to ... find the causes of autism, including ... vaccines,” and further that “we don’t know what kind of link there is between vaccines and autism, but we should find out.” Wrong, Senator Clinton – we do know what kind of link there is, because we’ve run dozens of studies, and the answer is that there is no link. No link!

And finally, most recently, our last hope, Barack Obama, who had stayed out of it, said at a rally this week that “some people are suspicious that it’s [autism is] connected to the vaccines.... The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.” Wrong, Senator Obama. The science is as conclusive as it can get, and there is no link. Unfortunately, most people – and most Senators, it seems – don’t understand that scientific methods cannot prove a negative. So if there is no link between A and B, you can study it to death, and the best you can say is that “we failed to find a link.”

I blogged on the autism-vaccine issue not long ago, so I won’t repeat that here, except to remind readers that the controversy all started (see my earlier blogpost) with a fraudulent study by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet arguing for a link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield's data was collected fraudulently, and after the fraud came out – including Wakefield’s financial interest in the study – his own co-authors repudiated him and retracted their findings. Wakefield is under criminal investigation in the UK, so he relocated to the U.S., where our lax regulations have allowed him to set up shop again, offering his own brand of “help” to parents of autistic children. Meanwhile he tours the U.S. giving talks and interviews, pushing this bad science, and making plenty of money off the parents of autistic children.

The blogs I’ve seen on this have multiple responses from vaccine-autism believers, including parents with heartbreaking personal stories, and a growing number of journalists who are astonishingly ignorant of science (including David Kirby at the Huffington Post, who seems to think he’s figured it all out). They are all wrong, but their activism continues to muddy the waters and confuse the public. There are numerous sites explaining the science in more measured terms, including the Institute of Medicine’s detailed reports, and it’s a shame that the science is being shouted down.

I wrote to Senator Obama today – on his campaign website – asking him to talk to a real scientist about this issue and to reconsider his statements. If he doesn’t – and I don’t expect that his staff will even tell him about my comments – then we’re left with three leading candidates who are all misinformed on this important public health issue. My only (slight) consolation is that Obama’s statement is the most muted of the three, since he didn’t actually assert that there was a link, just that the science was inconclusive. If I get a reply from the Obama campaign, I'll be sure to post it here.

5 comments:

  1. Pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot. You criticize David Kirby for pretending to have it all figured out - them make many assumptions and errors yourself and present them as facts.

    I don't know what causes autism...nobody does. But I am all for scientific investigations and the freedom to explore a hypothesis without special interests and politics getting in the way.

    You say that Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study. Yet in everything I have read and in direct communication with the Lancet they confirm that the study itself stands - the criticisms and investigation surround the funding and consents - not the findings.

    In addition, you mention that Dr. Wakefield is under criminal investigation. Where did you find that information? I see that he is currently in the midst of a procedural hearing to determine any misconduct - similar to going before the medical board in the US. I see absolutely nothing about a criminal investigation.

    As for your allegations and innuendo about him setting up a shop and making lots of money off parents...from my research I see that he is not a clinician, he simply runs a research program at an institutions with other doctors that are actually treating the kids. So how, exactly, is he raising money off of children if he isn't seeing them clinically and is doing research (and from what I can find it is mostly in the lab - not even clinical studies).

    I genuinely don't know if he or his colleagues are right or wrong. I will leave that to the medical boards and journals to decide. I am not a patient of a doctor like this but I do have a child with autism. I simply get tired of people pretending to be black and white and standing on a soapbox preaching the truth when they themselves haven't sought out the truth. If you are going to present yourself as an authority, particularly to a presidential candidate, shouldn't you take the time to learn the facts before you pass along second hand allegations?

    You are obviously entitled to your opinion, but present it as opinion, not fact. It is unbecoming of someone that says they are a scientist to do otherwise.

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  2. One thing I have to admit about this issue, it makes people emotional. Let me try to present a few facts to set things straight:

    “You say that Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study. Yet in everything I have read and in direct communication with the Lancet they confirm that the study itself stands - the criticisms and investigation surround the funding and consents - not the findings.”

    The journal cannot retract a study unless all the authors agree. Wakefield refused to retract it, but 10 of the 13 authors wrote a retraction once they discovered the fraud. The fraud consisted of several actions by Wakefield: (1) unbeknownst to most of his co-authors, the children in the original study (and there were only 12 of them, it was a tiny study) were not a random sample from the hospital where it was done, but were recruited through a lawyer who was hoping to launch a lawsuit against vaccine makers. (2) Wakefield’s work was also being funded through a lawyers’ group that was suing drug firms (see
    href="http://briandeer.com/wakefield/wakefield-deal.htm">http://briandeer.com/wakefield/wakefield-deal.htm
    ) (3) Wakefield was paid over 435,000 British Pounds (about $780,000) personally by the lawyers’ group who wanted to prove that the vaccine was unsafe (see the Sunday Times (London), 31 Dec 2006).

    So yes, it was fraudulent. And 10 of the 13 authors retracted it. Furthermore, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, said to the BBC that “if we had known the conflict of interest Dr Wakefield had in this work I think that would have strongly affected the peer reviewers about the credibility of this work and in my judgement it would have been rejected."

    “In addition, you mention that Dr. Wakefield is under criminal investigation. Where did you find that information? I see that he is currently in the midst of a procedural hearing to determine any misconduct - similar to going before the medical board in the US. I see absolutely nothing about a criminal investigation.”

    Yes, he’s under investigation and is likely to lose his license. The investigation is not criminal (I admit I was mistaken) – but Wakefield has been in court several times: he sued journalists and media companies, and he lost (and paid damages). The charges being brought by the UK General Medical Council must be proven using the “standard” of criminal cases – rather than civil ones – so in this sense it is a “criminal” type of investigation, but the GMC cannot impose criminal penalties.

    “So how, exactly, is he raising money off of children if he isn't seeing them clinically and is doing research (and from what I can find it is mostly in the lab - not even clinical studies).”

    See above – he made large sums from lawyers’ groups in his work back in the UK. I would never trust a scientist after learning of such an egregious conflict of interest.

    “I am not a patient of a doctor like this but I do have a child with autism.”

    I realize this is an extremely difficult burden on a parent. I am sympathetic with you and other parents, and this makes me all the more frustrated – and angry – at bad scientists like Wakefield who are taking advantage of parents. I don’t know if he is motivated by fame, fortune, or something else, but he is hurting progress, not helping it. Throwing huge sums at more studies designed to refute his original, fraudulent study is a waste.

    “If you are going to present yourself as an authority, particularly to a presidential candidate, shouldn't you take the time to learn the facts before you pass along second hand allegations?”

    I’ve presented more facts above. If a candidate really wanted to know the facts of the case and asked me, I would not present myself as an authority, but would refer him/her to one of the many scientists who have much deeper expertise.

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  3. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the added details.

    I must ask - have you read the 1998Lancet paper you refer to? I have...and while I am not a doctor I do have some experience reading research papers - admittedly mostly as a skeptical parent.

    This particular paper you refer to is a case report, correct? A case report on 12 children. It is my understanding (and correct me if I am wrong) that a case report does not need to be - and usually is not - a random sample of patients. That distinction is reserved - rightfully so - for clinical trials. But this paper (again, from my reading which could be wrong) appears to be a case report.

    You quote Richard Horton referring to the conflict of interest. But news stories last week reported that new evidence introduced at this hearing shows he did know about it and he lied under oath. It seems to be a far more complicated story than any of us were originally led to believe. I am not saying it exonerates or indicts anyone or anything, but certainly introduces a grey area.

    You quote Brian Deer. I have read everything on his website and must tell you he seems a far cry from a credible journalist. His writing is biased, his sources are sketchy and he admittedly lied about who he was to a mother to get into her home to interrogate her. That does not seem like someone I would trust in reporting important scientific information, nor someone you should be relying on for impartial information.

    You say this doctor will likely loose his license. I will reserve judgment because we are not on the panel that is hearing all the facts and the reports from the people that are there seem to vary wildly based on their own opinions...Brian Deer and parents included. I think you are, again, being incredibly presumptuous - unless you are there and hearing all of the facts yourself. If not, you should also reserve judgment until those who do have access to the facts render their decision.

    If I appear to be coming down on you it is because scientists like yourself need to be reminded to remain objective at all times - not just when it is convenient for you to do so.

    What having a child with autism has taught me is everyone has an agenda, everyone thinks they are right, and no one really knows anything. Especially in this area of research of which I have spent years studying. Perhaps if you are as sympathetic to the parents as you claim to be you will become a much needed tempered, reasonable voice rather than a reactionary, biased one. We have plenty of those to go around.

    Thank you for your time and thoughts.

    JT

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  4. Hi, Steve

    Here is an intersting paper about copy number changes associatioed to Autism:

    Science 20 April 2007,
    Vol. 316. no. 5823, pp. 445 - 449
    Strong Association of De Novo Copy Number Mutations with Autism
    by Jonathan Sebat et al.

    Tao Xie

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  5. I disagree and am saddened by your opposition to investigation. I know many children who would suffer if your desires became practice. How sad that your time is spent devoted to preventing further study.

    ReplyDelete

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