Field of Science

The Baltimore Sun dives into the anti-vaccination pool

In recent weeks, the Baltimore Sun, once an excellent newspaper, has dived headfirst into the pool of anti-vaccination pseudoscience. With two prominent opinion pieces, the Sun has given a platform to the anti-vaccine movement that they probably didn't expect, and that they certainly didn't deserve. The puzzle is, why? Who on the Sun's editorial board decided to offer their pages to the voices of fear and unreason?

First, on June 16, the Sun printed an Opinion article by Mark Geier, where he argued that his unfounded theories about the causes of autism make it okay for him to chemically castrate young boys. (I know this sounds shocking, but it's all too true.) I wrote about Geier two years ago: he and his son David administer what they called the "Lupron protocol" to autistic boys. They charge $5000-$6000 per month for their treatment, which is based on their belief that autism is caused by an excess of testosterone. Lupron, the drug they give to children, is a testosterone-suppressing drug that is the chemical equivalent of castration. It is a harsh treatment used to treat advanced prostate cancer. There is no evidence that it helps autistic boys. When the Chicago Tribune interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor and director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, here was his reaction:
"The idea of using it [Lupron] with vulnerable children with autism, who do not have a life-threatening disease and pose no danger to anyone, without a careful trial to determine the unwanted side effects or indeed any benefits, fills me with horror."
Finally, after Geier had spent many years of selling his quack treatment to vulnerable families, the state of Maryland suspected his medical license suspected in April. Now, for reasons I cannot fathom, the Baltimore Sun has given him a huge billboard to ask for his license back so he can resume his discredited Lupron protocol.

(Geier also claims that mercury in vaccines causes the rise in testosterone levels that he claims to treat. He ignores the overwhelming evidence, re-affirmed again last year, that there is no link between mercury-containing vaccines and autism.)

This wasn't enough bad science for the Sun, which just a few weeks later published another Opinion piece, this one by anti-vaccine activist Margaret Dunkle. In her article, Dunkle claims that the vaccine schedule includes too many doses, and she further claims that these are harmful to children. This "too many, too soon" argumen is a constant refrain of the anti-vax movement (particularly Jenny McCarthy), despite the lack of science to support it. The evidence on her side: a new study published by Gayle Delong, claiming that autism rates and vaccination rates are linked. Who is Gayle Delong? It turns out she is an economist, not a scientist, and she's a board member of SafeMinds, a well-known anti-vaccination group. Delong's study has already been thoroughly debunked by Neuroskeptic, Sullivan, Liz Ditz, and others, who pointed out its deeply flawed statistics and other problems. Dunkle, though, was happy to jump on this junk science and ignore the real science.

The real science tells just the opposite tale. For example, a thorough review published in Pediatrics in 2002 showed that infants today are exposed to fewer antigens than they were 40 years ago, due to better vaccine formulations. It also found that vaccines "prevent the weakening of the immune system." Countless other articles have shown the efficacy of vaccines; the Immunize for Good site is a good source for a realistic picture of the risks versus the benefits.

Is the Baltimore Sun responsible for the anti-vaccination stories appearing on its Opinion pages? I can imagine their response: "we're just presenting both sides," they might argue. Debates are just fine when political opinions are concerned, but you don't get to argue about facts. Scientific facts are not debated from "both sides" - for example, we don't waste time arguing that diseases are caused by "miasmas" as was once believed. And when the subject is vaccines, presenting the anti-science, anti-vaccine argument has real, and harmful, consequences.

The science is clear: vaccines have been the single greatest boon to public health in the history of mankind. Vaccines have saved millions of lives, and allowed parents to live without the fear that their children will sicken and die. Here are some facts: pre-vaccination, whooping cough caused 9000 deaths per year in the U.S. Post-vaccine, this has dropped to 20 deaths per year. Pre-vaccination, there were 350,000 polio cases worldwide in 1988. In 2009, there were just 1,604, and there's a chance we can eliminate polio entirely. Back in 1921, diptheria caused 206,000 cases in the U.S. alone. In 2001, there were just 2 cases.

If we stop vaccinating, these diseases will return. And make no mistake about it: if measles, whooping cough, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases return, children will die. I'm sure that the editors of the Baltimore Sun don't want this to happen. But through their ignorance of the science around vaccines, they have allowed their newspaper to become a voice for a dangerously misinformed group of activists whose main goal is to stop vaccines.

How to correct the damage? Well, the Sun could publish multiple articles on their Opinion pages explaining how many lives vaccines have saved. They could help to re-educate parents about how valuable these medicines are, so they will demand them for their children, rather than refusing them as some parents now do. I have only a faint hope that the Sun's editors will take such action, but I'm calling for it anyway. They owe it to the public.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent post. If you haven't already seen it, Penn and Teller have given (what I think) is the clearest and most concise anti-anti-vaccination argument.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfdZTZQvuCo

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  2. I should have warned that Penn uses some colorful language, for those with sensitive ears.

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  3. not sure the link to changes in disease rate pre and post vaccination is completly watertight; you would also have to look at changes in housing, drinking water quality etc.
    I'm not disputing that vaccines are helpful; just that this particular link did not seem to be the *highest* quality, rigorous science - I have heard, but never seen the data, that for many communicable diseases, rates started dropping sharply before widespread vaccination, due to gov't installing sewage treatment and clean drinking water.

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  4. Anon: the link to reductions in infectious disease post-vaccination is perhaps the most watertight connection in any biomedical science. Smallpox was eliminated from the planet through vaccination. Polio has been eliminated from the U.S., Europe, and almost all other countries through vaccination. What you probably heard was a claim often made by anti-vaccination groups, but no serious scientist believes that vaccines haven't caused huge reductions in disease.

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  5. Read "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear" by Seth Mnookin. It gives the full story of Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent research and the terrible harm it and the still powerful anti-vaccine movement continue to wreak.

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  6. Jerrold - I agree, that's a good resource for the lay reader. Seth sent me a pre-publication copy and it's an excellent book. Another very good reference is Paul Offit's book, Autism's False Prophets.

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