Former NIH director Bernadine Healy joins ranks of pseudoscientists

It’s very sad to learn that someone in a position of scientific prominence has thrown her support to irrationality, unreason, and pseudoscience. This has happened before – as when noted physicist Peter Duesberg became a prominent AIDS denialist - but I still hate to see it. Perhaps I just have high expectations of people with scientific training.

Today’s topic is Bernadine Healy, former Director of the National Institutes of Health, who has very publicly joined pseudoscientist Andrew Wakefield and his compatriots who support the claim that vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Actually, Wakefield is worse, since he’s the person who nearly single-handedly invented the claim and made it public with his poorly done, and probably fraudulent, 1998 study in The Lancet.)

Bernadine Healy now writes a blog for U.S. News & World Report, and in her most recent posting she comes out very publicly in favor of “more research” on the link between autism and vaccines. Actually she’s been singing this tune for quite a while – she wrote a similar article a year ago. Healy’s argument is that she is in “the crossfire” in this debate, and she wants to pretend that she’s just being reasonable, trying to mediate between two passionate advocacy groups. “These are all reasonable issues, and considering them with some flexibility would go a long way to resolving many of the frictions aired by Larry King.”

What?? [Excuse me while I take a few deep, calming breaths.] Dr. Healy, do you seriously believe that we should let Larry King determine the direction of public health research? How the heck did you ever get the job of NIH Director? (Actually, this is easy to find out – she got it because she was a prominent Republican – unlike other NIH directors, she was never a highly-regarded biomedical scientist. She went on to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate. She only lasted 2 years as NIH director. She later became head of the U.S. Red Cross, but only lasted 2 years there as well. End of digression.)

After setting herself up as a supposed "reasonable" voice, Healy goes on to make a series of poorly reasoned arguments, repeating some wildly misleading claims and outright falsehoods, making it clear where her sympathies lie. Healy has swallowed the pseudoscientific nonsense of the anti-vaccinationists hook, line, and sinker. Her article reads like a manifesto of the prominent anti-vax group Generation Rescue, whom she cites as if they are a source for scientific data. (I guess the former NIH director doesn't know how to use NIH's PubMed literature database.)

Of course, other anti-vaccinationists love this stuff – and they love her. David Kirby, the journalist who makes his living by scaring people about vaccines, has applauded her on his Huffington Post blog. (The Huffington Post has provided a platform for many anti-vaccinationists, unfortunately.) Age of Autism, another prominent anti-vaccination group, made her their “Person of the Year” in 2008 – which any decent scientist should be ashamed of.

Let’s look at just two of Healy's many false arguments. She writes that “shockingly, a study comparing groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated children… is long overdue.” Here, she is parroting a call by Jenny McCarthy for such a study – nice job, Dr. Healy, taking your scientific advice from a former Playboy playmate. The fact is that this study has already been done – multiple times, in fact. Studies in the 1990’s and 2000’s involving over one million children have compared groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated children and found no link between vaccines and autism, and no link between thimerosal and autism. That’s right, Dr. Healy – you could look it up if you cared, but apparently you don’t.

Second, she asks “are we overvaccinating our children?” This is right out of the Generation Rescue talking points list. There is no scientific evidence that "overvaccinating" is a problem – the word itself is an invention of the anti-vaccination groups. In fact, we have dramatically reduced the rates of many childhood illnesses, some of them fatal, through the wide use of vaccines. There are millions of people alive today who would be dead if not for vaccines. Ever heard of polio and smallpox, Dr. Healy? But that’s not enough for Healy – she just wants to perpetuate the myth that this is a serious scientific question. Without any scientific evidence to support her, she questions the need for vaccines against chicken pox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – ignoring the enormous public health benefits that we have derived from vaccines against these illnesses.

She even throws in outright falsehoods such as “Influenza vaccine [is] mandated here starting at age 6 months.” Sorry, but no, Dr. Healy, the flu vaccine is not mandatory. The CDC recommends the vaccine, but that is a far cry from “mandating” it. In fact, the CDC recommendation is necessary in order to get health insurance companies in the U.S. to cover the vaccine. This is ridiculously easy to look up, so I have to conclude that Healy just doesn’t care.

Bernadine Healy is using her status as a former NIH Director to give her credibility on the vaccine-autism question. Sadly, it seems to be working - she's certainly attracted a great deal of attention, and all because of her implied claim to expertise on any biomedical issue. But it appears that she's more interested in the media attention (Larry King Live!) than the facts.

For more on this issue, I highly recommend Orac’s recent post on this topic. He eloquently expresses the excruciating pain that many of us feel at the inexcusable stupidity expressed by ex-NIH Director Healy. And kudos to blogger Josh Witten for adding Bernadine Healy to his “Festival of Idiots.” I couldn’t agree more.


  1. job, Dr. Healy, taking your scientific advice from a former Playboy playmate

    Whats up with that? I'm sure there have been plenty of highly intelligent Playmates throughout the years.

  2. Well, not that I need to defend the intelligence of Playboy Playmates, but this particular one (Jenny McCarthy) is completely ignorant of science and medicine, and through her anti-vaccination campaign has already done tremendous harm to the public.

    But I was being sarcastic, of course.

  3. "That’s right, Dr. Healy – you could look it up if you cared, but apparently you don’t."
    Could you tell me where to look it up because when I google up trials vaccinated and unvaccinated children and autism.It would seem that unvaccinated children are healthier. thank you

  4. It's relatively easy to find these things on PubMed, but Google is most definitely not the way to do it. There are many studies, but here is one of the largest, involving over 537,000 children (compared to just 12 in Wakefield's original study):
    K. Madsen et al., A Population-Based Study of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccination and Autism, New England Journal of Medicine, 347:1477-1482 (November 7, 2002).

    In this study, the vaccinated children were slightly LESS LIKELY to become autistic. The authors' own conclusion is "This study provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism."

    Here's a few more for you. Dr. Healy should be able to find all of these and more, if she cared about understanding the science:

    Farrington CP, Miller E, Taylor B (2001) MMR and autism: further evidence against a causal association. Vaccine 19: 3632–3635.

    Fombonne E, Chakrabarti S (2001) No evidence for a new variant of measles-mumps-rubella-induced autism. Pediatrics 108: E58.

    Fombonne et al (2006) Pervasive developmental disorders in Montreal, Quebec, Canada: prevalence and links with immunizations. Pediatrics 118: e139–150.

    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: 572–579.

    Kaye JA, et al (2001) Mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine and the incidence of autism recorded by general practitioners: a time trend analysis. BMJ 322: 460–463.

    Lingam R, et al. (2003) Prevalence of autism and parentally reported triggers in a north east London population. Arch Dis Child 88: 666–670.

    Makela A, Nuorti JP, Peltola H (2002) Neurologic disorders after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. Pediatrics 110: 957–963.

    Patja A, et al. (2000) Serious adverse events after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination during a fourteen-year prospective follow-up. Pediatr Infect Dis J 19: 1127–1134.

    Peltola H, et al. (1998) No evidence for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine-associated inflammatory bowel disease or autism in a 14-year prospective study. Lancet 351: 1327–1328.

  5. Some famous philosopher once said that you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. Hence, calling for more research does not make one a pseudoscientist. On the contrary, research DEFINES science. (Objective research, that is.) Anyway, even if something APPEARS to be absolute and air-sealed, things are not always what they seem. "We haven't found it" does not in any way mean "It doesn't exist."

  6. Precisely! This is why I spend all my days in the basement trying to discover the philosopher's stone so I can turn gold into lead. Just because no one has managed to do it in hundreds of years doesn't mean I can't discover the correct formula! I'm hoping to direct millions of dollars in taxpayer money that is otherwise going to cancer and Parkinson's disease research to my search!


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