Friday, September 19, 2014

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Arrr. Ahoy there, mateys! It be Talk Like a Pirate Day. Time t' hoist the jolie rouge. Avast, ye wee creepies, for ye'll have no quarter.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace Does Not Vaccine Injury Make

Arsenic and Old Lace
In 1939, playwright Joseph Kesselring wrote a play titled Arsenic and Old Lace, which was made into a film released in 1944. The basic plot of the comedy surrounds a family whose members are insane killers, including two elderly aunts who give their elderly male guests elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide, then bury the bodies in the basement. It is a classic piece of theatre and film, whose events may have been inspired by the sort of real life events discussed in Deborah Blum's book, The Poisoner's Handbook.

While the events of the play set the stage for a dark comedy, the real-life equivalents are no laughing matter. In fact, as recently as 2010, someone in Maine poisoned members of their church by lacing coffee with arsenic. Sixteen people tried the coffee, complaining of its bitter taste. Symptoms came on quickly, causing thirteen of the coffee drinkers to seek medical attention, with eight of them requiring hospitalization. One person died from acute arsenic poisoning. The perpetrator committed suicide five days after the event. It's an example of the deliberate contamination of something normally benign to inflict serious injury and death. No reasonable person would look at this incident and claim that coffee is harmful and should be avoided.

Anti-vaccine activists, on the other hand, aren't exactly reasonable people.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Package Inserts - Understanding What They Do (and Don't) Say

With the whole twitter tantrum over a supposed coverup revealed by an alleged whistleblower that really is much ado about nothing, a topic arose that I realized I hadn't written about before, other than in passing. It came up again last week when anti-vaccine activists tried to hijack the Twitter hashtag #vaccinesNOVA by astroturfing it with tons of copy-pasted tweets, rather than actually watching the excellent NOVA episode Vaccines - Calling the Shots and having a mature conversation about vaccines. It's the same tactic they used with the #CDCwhistleblower hashtag. They merely copied and pasted from a list of prepared tweets, rather than offering any original thoughts of their own, because they are convinced that they already know everything and have nothing to learn from a very informative program. If there's even a whiff of pro-vaccine message to a show or post, count on anti-vaxxers to rail and scream, rather than actually watching or reading, let alone understand.

At any rate, I engaged one of those tweeting easily disproved nonsense to #vaccinesNOVA. This individual brought up vaccine package inserts, pointing out that one vaccine insert actually mentions "autism" in the adverse events section. They linked to the insert for Tripedia, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). In their mind, this was ironclad proof that even vaccine manufacturers admit that vaccines cause autism. Of course, this person ignored the other bits in the paragraph that mentioned autism (emphasis added):
Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include...autism...Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting. Because these events are reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequencies or to establish a causal relationship to components of Tripedia vaccine.
In other words, autism was included because it was deemed either serious or was frequently reported, not because there was any causal relationship found between the vaccine and autism. It is far from being the slamdunk "gotcha!" that my interlocutor thought it was. But it prompted me to consider how many people probably do not understand just what the package insert for a vaccine (or any other drug) actually is or what its contents mean.

So here we go, a primer on drug package inserts and what they mean for a lay audience.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Integrity and Honesty, Part 2

J.B. Handley
Integrity and honesty are pretty important to me. If someone gives their word about something, I expect them to keep it. If, through no fault of their own, they fail to follow through on their word, that's one thing. But if they make a promise to do (or not do) something and then break that promise, well, let's just say that it does not reflect well upon them. Even worse when that breach of trust comes amidst other comments that demonstrate a disregard for ethical conduct.

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt unless I have really good evidence otherwise. Even if I disagree with someone, my first response, in general, is to assume that they have good intentions and mean well. Perhaps it's a naive approach, but I would rather approach others how I would like to be approached. I don't want to be prejudged, so I try not to do so to others. But that can only last so long in the face of contradicting evidence.

Such is the case recently with J.B. Handley, founder of Generation Rescue.

Monday, September 8, 2014

MMR, the CDC and Brian Hooker: A Guide for Parents and the Media

The anti-vaccine community has been in a tizzy lately over a supposed "CDC whistleblower", Dr. William W. Thompson, who, according to them, revealed fraud at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To bolster their claim, they point to a new study from one of their own, Brian S. Hooker, that purports to show evidence of an increased risk of autism among African American boys who receive their first MMR vaccine late. However, the claims appear to be hollow and unfounded, and so they have chosen to rely on emotional arguments that may sound convincing to those who are not familiar with the issues and people involved. In a truly egregious fashion, they have erroneously and cynically compared this whole thing to the Tuskegee syphilis study, and equated the CDC with Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, combined.

With that in mind, here is a brief FAQ for parents, news media and others to help them understand what the claims are and what the evidence actually says. The questions below have been raised or implied by anti-vaccine activists. Hopefully, this will prevent inaccurate reporting and help parents feel reassured about the MMR vaccine.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

CDC Whistleblower William Thompson Breaks Silence

Things have certainly been progressing quickly in wooville, specifically in the anti-vaccine neighborhood. Earlier this month, anti-vaccine activist and petitioner in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Brian S. Hooker, PhD, published a study in the journal Translational Neurodegeneration titled Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. Basically, Hooker took a dataset that was used by CDC researchers DeStefano et al. in their 2004 study looking at whether on-time, slightly late or late MMR vaccination was more common among autism cases than among controls. It was a case-control study that looked at both a large population, as well as a smaller population limited to those who had a Georgia birth certificate. After receiving word from a whistleblower that the DeStefano study found an association among African American males, but did not include that in the finished report, Hooker waded in to find the holy grail of government malfeasance and cover-up. Except, he did not use the same methods to examine the data that the CDC did. Using a dataset designed for a case-control study, he conducted a cohort study, applied statistics inappropriately and reached a spurious conclusion.

Although it made a splash among the conspiracy-minded, it didn't garner much attention right away. Science bloggers held off putting up any immediate posts, opting instead to examine the study to see if Hooker's methods were sound, particularly since his conclusion had no plausible biological basis. In the interim, the British doctor who engaged in research fraud and was stripped of his medical license, Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, put together a video in which he exploited the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in a cynical attempt at using the race card to drum up outrage at the CDC. At the same time, he said the CDC was actually worse than Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Wakefield also included in his video carefully edited snippets of audio recordings that, presumably, are the whistleblower. He released two versions of that video, one with the whistleblower's name bleeped out and his voice distorted, and one where the audio is unobscured and his name, William Thompson, is plainly stated. Interestingly, anti-vaccine blogger Jake Crosby condemned Wakefield for outing Thompson without Thompson's permission, an allegation that Wakefield strongly denied.

Early this week, science bloggers began posting their analyses of Hooker's study, noting the flaws and questioning the validity of its conclusions. They also pointed out that not one anti-vaccine activist called out Andrew Wakefield for race-baiting, but instead praised and shared his video, the implication of which is that one of the original DeStefano authors was a race traitor.

On Tuesday evening, the Wakefield/Hooker sycophants threw a collective tantrum on Twitter, whining about how no one takes them seriously.

That brings us to the momentous events of Wednesday.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Anti-vaccine Activists Throw Twitter Tantrum

Unlike Kitty, the anti-
vaxxers don't learn.
Last night, in a stunning display of groupthink, a whole bunch (gaggle? swarm? what's the collective noun for a group of loons?) of anti-vaccine activists took to Twitter in a cynical ploy to draw attention to their latest torturing of science and statistics. I'm talking about the recently published paper by Brian Hooker that appears to have used an improper study design and the wrong statistical measures to reach a preconceived conclusion that MMR vaccine is associated with autism, except that it showed there was zero association with any children except for African American boys who were vaccinated off-schedule. They used the hashtag #CDCwhistleblower to do what really amounted to the social media equivalent of a temper tantrum, whining about how the mainstream media is not reporting on the study. It was really a sad display, as they simply all copied and pasted from the same list of talking points, not even adding their own interpretation. And when presented with links to analyses of Hooker's study, they didn't even bother reading. Instead, what we got were the shameless exploitation of victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, implications that one of the DeStefano authors was a race-traitor and whining that no one was taking them seriously, all while posting links to a video in which the CDC is compared to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot. Oh, and accusing the mainstream media that they want to cover the story of being part of the cover-up. And they wonder why people think they're missing a few screws?

Just a short post to let y'all know about the shameful, sad display. Without any actual science on their side, they're left with smearing those they don't like and trying to game the system. I'll leave it at that, as it doesn't warrant a full-length post.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Andrew Wakefield Tortures History

I've written before about how the anti-vaccine movement regularly gets the science wrong (see, for example, here and here). Most often, it involves how they interpret (or, rather, misinterpret) studies that they think support their view that vaccines are the root of all evil, causing all manner of disorders. They regularly misrepresent and torture the scientific literature to fit their agenda. But occasionally, it involves actually attempting to do science themselves, the latest of which being a study recently published by Vaccine Injury Compensation Program petitioner, Brian Hooker, PhD and funded by the anti-vaccine group Focus Autism. This study has been examined by an epidemiologist, another epidemiologist, and a cancer researcher. The players have also been examined by a dyslexia consultant and autism advocate (see also here). This study, in addition to being of questionable validity, has spawned quite the brouhaha among anti-vaccine activists. In short, Hooker took a dataset that was analyzed by a group of CDC investigators. Their finding was that age at first vaccination with MMR did not appear to [edited to clarify and correct] affect the risk of be associated with autism [ETA: cases (those with autism) were no more or less likely to have been vaccinated with MMR than controls before 18, 24 and 36 months; the study design could not establish causation, only correlation]. The results of their study were published as a case-control study. Hooker used the same dataset to create a cohort study and found that there was no increased risk of autism in any of the groups (i.e., MMR does not cause autism) except one: African American males, for which he puportedly found a 3.36-fold increased risk of autism when they were vaccinated between 24 and 31 months. Read the two posts by those epidemiologists for why his analysis is suspect.

I'm not going to go into the science behind the studies, because it relies very heavily on statistics, and I'm not a statistician or epidemiologist. As an aside, neither is Dr. Hooker. Instead, I want to focus on some statements made by one Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who committed scientific fraud, resulting in the full retraction of his 1998 case series study on MMR and the stripping of his medical license. Wakefield boldly added himself to the list of not only torturing science, but now adds to his accomplishments torturing history and ethics (granted, we already knew he was ethically challenged). You see, in his videos (here and here) about the alleged "whistleblower", William Thompson,Wakefield compared the purported "cover-up" to the Tuskegee syphilis debacle. It's a false comparison used simply to inflame people and claim the race card.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

For Balance, We Turn To... - Jen Eyer Edition

This seems to be the week for lazy journalists falling for the false balance that is the epitome of sloppy reporting. I had originally planned to write about this particular bit of nonsense yesterday, but the article giving a platform to anti-vaccine bully Becky Estepp took precedence. Also, Dr. Steven Novella and Orac both beat me to the punch. But, there's still plenty of meat in the story to go around.

I'm talking about the latest verbal vomitus from anti-vaccine activist Mary Tocco, titled No one should be forced to vaccinate their children". Ms. Tocco's letter was in response to a science-based op-ed, "Anti-vaccination movement threatens the health, safety and well-being of Michigan children", by Dr. Anthony F. Ogjnan and Dr. Sandro Cinti. The original letter is well worth the read, particularly for those who live in Michigan and are concerned about their legislators being gulled by the dishonest misinformation campaigns of anti-vaccine groups, like Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines (MOMV - apparently Ms. Tocco is as bad at making acronyms as she is at everything else, since she calls it "MOM", i.e., "Michigan Opposing Mandatory"). Ms. Tocco's response is an exercise in name that logical fallacy and an excellent illustration of how "research" (in anti-vaccine world) is a far cry from actual research in the real world. I'm not going to delve into her letter very much, since Dr. Novella and Orac both covered a good deal of what was wrong with it, but I will point my readers to discussions of how Ms. Tocco she tried to twist the Bible to support her ideology.

What I want to focus on is the person responsible for giving Ms. Tocco space to spew her bile, Michigan Live's Director of Community Engagement, Jen Eyer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

For Balance, We Turn To...

Over a dozen current and former students in the Carlsbad High School broadcast journalism program have found themselves in the middle of a long-running bullies' rights and health debate after they produced the film Tangible Harm. We turn to Candy Wenpigzfly for her armchair report.

The film debuted online more than a year after it was completed. Students say that's largely due to the backlash they've faced, even during the production stage.

Chad Stryker, an intern with this station, worked on the film during his junior year. He said the idea came from the San Diego Traffic Circle Club two years ago. Their members were impressed by the students' previous award-winning documentaries and wanted the journalism class to do one on the topic of bullying victims' health and rights.

"We told the Traffic Circle Club we would do the film, but only on our terms. That meant we would approach the subject with serious journalism and investigation," Stryker said. "We wanted to make sure the story we would end up telling would be unbiased and free of the false balance so common among many media outlets. We would go where the evidence led."