Thursday, July 31, 2014

Case of Justina Pelletier Spawns Dubious Legislation

The intersection of science and politics is a very murky area. While science can and should inform policy and legislation, those who try to legislate science can easily find themselves on shaky ground. To say that politicians ought to exercise great care when introducing legislation that affects the scientific enterprise is, perhaps, a slight understatement. That is especially true when they start trying to dictate what science is and is not allowed. It's even worse when the individual politicians behind the legislation have demonstrated by past behavior that they are, shall we say, science-averse.

That's the case with a recent bill that has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Minnesota's Rep. Michele Bachmann. I won't go so far as to say that Bachmann is crazy or insane, as I'm no psychologist and there's no need to pathologize her particular brand of nonsense, but she certainly has shown that she does not understand science and her conception of the world differs quite profoundly from reality. Whether it's on the subject of evolution, climate change, or vaccines, Bachmann regularly gets the facts wrong. Now she's wading into policy governing research by introducing a bill nicknamed "Justina's Law". In a related vein, Rep. Steve Stockman has introduced what he's calling the "Parental Protection Act". Both bills are vague and stand to do more harm than good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Massachusetts Steps Closer to Expanding Autism Support

Massachusetts State House
Source: Fcb981/Wikipedia
When someone receives a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder, it profoundly impact the individual and their family. Depending on the severity, they may need only minor assistance or extensive services. Some may be able to live independently, while others require round the clock support. There may be other concurrent medical or mental health conditions, as well. In far too many states, autistic individuals fall through the cracks. It's only recently that states have started to enact legislation aimed at reforming health care coverage for those with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disability.

Massachusetts is the latest state that is close to expanding coverage and support for people with developmental disabilities. The state house of representatives unanimously passed a bill (H.4047 - An Act relative to assisting individuals with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities) that does a number of things that will hopefully improve the quality of life of those individuals and their families. The senate passed a similar version of the bill (S.2245, reprinted as S.2257), also unanimously. The next step is a compromise bill, then it's off to the governor for signature.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Top 5 Ways to Prevent Measles

Measles is pretty damn contagious. In fact, it is one of the most contagious diseases known, infecting about 90% of all susceptible contacts with as little as 0.2 viral units. It can remain active in the environment for up to two hours, in the air and on surfaces. It is remarkably well adapted to spreading from host to host and staying viable long enough to do so. But it's not so well adapted that it can do all that without causing a high rate of complications, whether it's leaving the host open to secondary bacterial infections that may cause pneumonia, ear infections and diarrhea, or invading the brain to cause encephalitis, seizures and permanent neurological injuries, or in rare cases, death.

In 2000, the U.S. eliminated endemic measles transmission, but that may be in jeopardy. This year, we have seen more cases of measles in the first six months than in the last four years. Combined. The majority of the outbreaks have been in the Ohio Amish regions, as well as among vaccine-refusing communities in other states. The common factor among all of the outbreaks is that they started when an unvaccinated individual traveled to another country in the midst of a large measles outbreak, got infected and brought the virus back to be spread around. Another commonality is that the majority of people infected in these outbreaks were either unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status.

With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to provide a list of ways (in no particular order) that you and your family can stay safe from this disease.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pre-Vaccine Declines in Measles Mortality

On Monday, I discussed "pox parties" and "measles teas", social gatherings where parents get their unvaccinated, nonimmune children together with another kid who has a disease, the purpose being to intentionally infect their kids and make them sick. It is a practice that, for at least a hundred years, has been decried by the scientific and medical community as a wretched idea, with one author describing them as "orgies of death". Indeed, in my opinion, these parties are nothing more than child abuse.

While vaccine preventable diseases are not the killers they once were, as I mentioned in passing in that post, they are still quite dangerous; diseases like diphtheria and measles should be avoided and prevented whenever possible. Anti-vaccine activists seem quite enamored with pre-vaccine mortality data. They like to point to the declining death rates from diseases and declare that vaccines not only did not save us from those diseases, but that we didn't need vaccines anyway. There are a couple of things wrong with this way of thinking. First off, it erroneously focuses on disease mortality and pretends that deaths and incidence are somehow the same thing. The implication is that the incidence, that is, the number of cases, was declining before the vaccines. Or they just come right out and say that death rate and incidence are the same:
Measles cases in all developed countries became much milder than in developing countries mainly due to improved diet. Is it logical that deaths associated with measles declined greatly without any corresponding decline in incidence?
That is, quite simply, false, not to mention sloppy thinking. Second, it ignores the non-fatal, but still quite serious, complications of diseases, such as severe dehydration, pneumonia, deafness, blindness, encephalopathy and permanent mental impairment, among others. And, yes, these diseases can still kill, even in developed nations with good healthcare like the United States.

I will readily admit, the measles vaccine did not contribute to the decline in deaths seen before the vaccine was licensed. (Duh!) But while anti-vaccine activists assert that the disease just got less dangerous on its own, they're wrong. Here's why.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Orgies of Death - The Dangerous Tradition of Pox Parties and Measles Teas

The other day, Reuben Gaines, over at The Poxes Blog, shared some information about groups on Facebook for people to arrange for the sociopathic practice of intentionally infecting their children with vaccine-preventable diseases. Groups like Rubella Immunity Network, Vaccine-Free Immunity, Chicken Pox Immunity Network and Montreal Chicken Pox Party, among others, rather than trying to protect children from disease, actively promote giving them diseases. The participants in these groups labor under the false notions that diseases like chickenpox, rubella and measles are completely harmless and that vaccinations are worthless, are more dangerous than the diseases, or both. I'm sure they truly believe that they are doing what is best for their little ones, but unfortunately, they are dangerously wrong. While most children will come through the disease unharmed, not all will. And certainly more are harmed, and die, from disease than are injured by vaccines.

Sadly, this isn't a new thing at all. Groups crop up worldwide:
Opponents of immunization often try to infect healthy children in a controlled way by holding so-called "measles parties" with an infected child at the focus, intending to provide their own children with life-long immunity.
Even as far back as 2001 in the United Kingdom, people were holding measles parties. They're in Germany, too. But as an article in SABC News notes:
There is a considerable variation across Europe, with Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands having high immunization and low death rates, while Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland have lower rates of immunization and correspondingly more deaths.
It's a tradition that goes even farther back than just 13 years.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Vaccine Resistance

Several weeks ago, while perusing the mental spewings of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice's Facebook page, I came across a post that actually got me thinking. It wasn't because the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice was actually saying something based in science or reality for a change. Rather, it made me think about what evidence was actually out there on this particular subject. They shared a link to a news story about antibiotic resistant bacteria. The news story itself, A Wake-Up Call on Antibiotic Resistance, wasn't really controversial, being an NPR story about how resistant bacteria are becoming more common and how, if we don't figure something out soon, what once were treatable, relatively benign illnesses could become deadly. But then the VCVC had to tack on this comment: Will over-vaccination cause similar problems?

My initial, knee-jerk thought was, "Of course not!" But then I paused. My skeptical nature kicked in and made me ask, what does the science actually say on the subject? Was it possible? Maybe, but the comparison to antibiotics is flawed, since antibiotics and vaccines work in very different ways. Now, if I were the VCVC, I would have stopped right there. I would have just assumed my presumptions about vaccines being bad in every conceivable way were valid and therefore over-vaccination must inevitably lead to vaccine-resistant strains of bacteria and viruses. But, thankfully, I'm not among the membership of the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice. I actually did go in search of answers, something I presume they did not bother doing, since I haven't seen any followup posts on the subject.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dear Anti-Vaxers, Thank You

With the recent release of an update on this year's measles outbreaks from the CDC, I thought this would be a good opportunity to write an open letter to all those anti-vaccine activists out there that have made the 20-year record number of measles cases so far this year possible. So here it is. To all of you out there who claim that vaccines are bad, that they cause autism, autoimmune disorders, asthma, and all manner of other maladies, thank you. To those of you who say that vaccines don't actually work or that the diseases prevented by vaccines really aren't that bad, thank you. To those of you who put yourself above everyone around you, who think only of your freedom and don't give a s*** about your family's, friends' or neighbors' health, thank you. To those of you who use religion as a cop-out, to hide behind your religion so you don't have to protect yourself, your children or those around you, thank you. Thank you for contributing to an environment of fear about vaccines. Thank you for spreading misinformation, uncertainty and doubt about vaccines. Thank you for creating regions perfect for the spread of disease. Without you, we wouldn't have been able to reach an amazing 307 cases and counting in the first five months of this year. That's higher than any other year's total number of cases since measles was eliminated from endemic transmission back in 2000. And we haven't seen so many cases so quickly since 1994.

I realize that's a little abstract, just citing numbers, so here's an image for those of you who are more visually oriented:

Soure: CDC

Man. Just look at that steep, steep line for 2014, towering over every other year in the past fourteen years. Take a bow, anti-vaxers, because that is largely your work. Know how I know it's in large part due to your work? Here's how: 200 of the 288 reported in the CDC's media release about the outbreaks were completely unvaccinated, and 58 had unknown vaccination status. And those unvaccinated folks? Ten were too young to have been vaccinated, but would have been protected by herd immunity if not for you. Eleven had missed vaccination opportunities. Again, they would likely have been protected if you hadn't done such a bang-up job jeopardizing public health. The rest of the unvaccinated were unvaccinated because of religious, philosophical or personal belief reasons.

Again, for those of you who prefer visuals, take a look:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Visible Attacks on Invisible Threat

I've been a bit slow getting around to this post, so the subject is rather old news, in blogging terms. Back at the end of April and early May, the anti-vaccine world went into a tizzy about a documentary developed by chstvFILMS (Carlsbad High School Television), an award-winning broadcast journalism program run by high school students for high school students. They have a teacher adviser and a parent volunteer to help the students, but the students do the work of writing, filming, interviewing and so forth. Several years ago, the students started work on what was intended to be a short (15 minutes or so) documentary on the immune system. What they ended up with was a roughly 45-minute documentary on vaccines, the threat of infectious diseases and the role of vaccine refusal in the spread of disease: Invisible Threat.

From the moment the students announced the project, anti-vaccine folks attacked it, with comments like this, from Age of Autism's Anne Dachel (Age of Autism, "Reporters - The Next Generation", Sept. 19, 2012):
This class assignment was a HOW-TO GUIDE on how to deceive the public by covering up relevant facts about a major issue...What was produced here was propaganda.
This, of course, without Ms. Dachel having seen the film at all. Unlike AoA's Media Director, I wanted to actually watch the film before I made any comments on it, either for or against it. So, I contacted the film's producer Lisa Posard at

Monday, May 12, 2014

Spurious Correlations

Orac alerted me to a web site that is simply wonderful. You know when you hear someone talk about the increase in the number of shots on the vaccination schedule and how it correlates to the increase in autism diagnoses in the U.S.? Send them to Things that Correlate (aka Spurious Correlations). This is an amazing site that provides all sorts of graphs showing how two completely unrelated things appear to correlate. For example, did you know that the fewer lawyers there are in the Northern Mariana Islands, the lower the divorce rate in Kentucky? It's true:

Clearly there's something going on here. There has to be a connection. I mean, how else do you explain how closely those lines match up? It can't just be coincidence. Or at least, no more coincidence than the number of vaccines on the recommended childhood schedule and autism. I guess if we want to keep couples together in Kentucky, we need to make sure that there are as few lawyers in the Northern Mariana Islands as possible. I mean, the data's right there.

This should, hopefully, illustrate how just because two things appear to be correlated, does not mean they really are, nor that there is any sort of causal connection between the two. You can even look for your own correlations by clicking on the "Discover a new correlation" link. Just pick your starting category, then your first variable and finally your second variable. You can see how close is the correlation by looking at the number in parentheses. The closer to 1, the closer the correlation. The closer to -1, the closer to an inverse correlation. Then just click on "Correlate" to see your graph.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Anti-vaxers and Math Don't Mix

This was going to be a short and quick post, but it got a little bit longer as I went. At any rate, a lot of those opposed to vaccinations will try to convince you that vaccine preventable diseases are harmless rites of passage. They will say that vaccines aren't needed because the diseases are so rare (ignoring the fact that they're rare because of vaccinations). Many also have this odd tendency to focus solely on mortality (deaths), ignoring morbidity (cases) and non-fatal complications. I encountered one such individual yesterday on Twitter. After claiming that measles was never eliminated in the U.S. by citing the number of cases from 2000 to 2014, she then questioned the 1-3 per 1,000 risk of death from the disease (actual estimates range from 1-2 per 1,000 to 1 per 3,000):