Monday, December 16, 2013

Just Missing the Mark Again, Katie Couric Airs HPV Followup Segment

Back on December 4, award-winning journalist Katie Couric aired a mindnumbingly bad episode of her show Katie. Throwing her credibility and journalistic ethics to the wind, she made her show a platform for the anti-vaccine organization SaneVax, which promotes the erroneous belief that Gardasil, among others, is horribly dangerous and is killing our kids, going so far as to make available a guide on how to blame the vaccine if anything bad happens to your child at some point after they receive it. The episode featured two women, one (Emily Tarsell, National Vaccine Information Center's Director of Gardasil Network Development) who blamed Gardasil for the death of her daughter, and one (Rosemary Mathis, Founder and Director of SaneVax) who blamed a wide range of non-specific maladies that her daughter experienced. Both guests have a vested interest in scaring people away from the vaccine. In addition, one of the primary investigators of the Gardasil (Merck) and Cervarix (GlaxoSmithKline) clinical trials, Dr. Diane Harper, appeared on the show to downplay the effectiveness of the vaccines, stating they only lasted 5 years, while overselling pap smears in such a way that it made the vaccine seem pointless. For the science and reality side of the "conversation", Couric included Dr. Mallika Marshall. Dr. Marshall did her best to point out the facts of the vaccines, but when the entire show was framed to generate fear and mistrust of the vaccine, she had a very difficult time of it.

While others focused on the myriad flaws and errors in the episode, I focused on the ethics, though I did include links to a number of other articles lambasting the show. As a journalist, Couric had a number of responsibilities to her viewers to seek out the truth and report it. Unfortunately, she and her producers opted for ratings. The Friday after the episode aired, someone at the show put up a lukewarm justification for how they opted to do the show. It did not offer any apologies, nor did it correct any of the misinformation from the episode. More criticism popped up, and Couric herself penned a "mea culpa" of sorts on the Huffington Post. It was a step in the right direction, but Couric still didn't go far enough to correct the errors and damage done by her December 4 show. She addressed some, but not all, of the problems the others pointed out, but she skipped over some very important points. To make matters worse, she did it in the wrong venue. Rather than devoting time on her show to the corrections, which would have been seen by the same audience as her original episode, she opted to address a completely different audience: the ones who were criticizing her and already knew what the problems were.

Well, it seems that the well-earned criticism has finally filtered through...kind of. This past Friday, December 13, Couric devoted her "Follow Up Friday" segment to HPV and the vaccines that prevent it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Followup: Katie Couric Addresses the Criticism...Sort Of

Last week, Katie Couric, award wining reporter and host of her own talk show, Katie, threw journalistic ethics to the wind. She hosted a show on the HPV vaccines, engaging in false balance by propping up two anti-vaccine anecdotes as being not only valid, but equivalent to the scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The backlash from science bloggers, journalists and the public was fast and brutal, pointing out all the things Ms. Couric (and her producers) did wrong.

When lukewarm justification for the way the show was done appeared on the Katie web site, it was not an apology. It did not correct any of the errors of the show. In short, it failed the ethical obligation to "admit mistakes and correct them promptly". Today, Katie Couric posted an article on the Huffington Post titled Furthering the Conversation on the HPV Vaccine. While it goes part of the way toward correcting things, it isn't quite enough.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Katie Couric Chooses Ratings Over Ethics

The blogosphere, Twitter, even mainstream news outlets have been abuzz about a recent episode of Katie Couric's show Katie. The episode, which aired December 4, 2013, was on the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that prevents infection with a virus that causes cervical cancer, head and neck cancers, warts and so forth. To give you an idea of how Couric and her producers were going to frame the discussion, here's what the teaser said:
The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.
This blurb could have been written by the National Vaccine Information Center. Just like NVIC's recent anti-flu vaccine ad and more generic anti-vaccine billboards, the topic is framed to emphasize fear and distrust of the vaccine. And after watching the show, I agree with the numerous critiques that have been levied at Couric and her producers. The flaws with the show have all been stated very capably, so I'm not going to bother repeating them. Nor will I go into detail about the human papillomavirus or the vaccines that prevent infection. If you are interested in learning any of that, take a look at the links down at the bottom of this post.

Instead, I want to talk about the effect that Couric's show may have, not to mention some of the ethical implications involved.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

VAERS a Few Things We Need to Discuss

I've been remiss. There's a topic that I've written about in passing, but I have yet to devote an entire post to it. In all this time writing about different vaccines, studies about vaccines and anti-vaccine claims, there's a subject about which I have neglected to write more about than a paragraph here or there. I'm speaking, of course, about the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. The handful of times I have written anything about VAERS (here, here, here and here), it's mainly been a very brief overview of what it is and how anti-vaccine activists like to abuse it (except that last link, which included a study using VAERS data).

So I thought I should rectify that situation. What prompted this was an exchange on Twitter with a doctor by the name of Jim Meehan, who tried to argue that the HPV vaccine is confirmed to have caused deaths...144 of them, to be precise. His reasoning is that there are 144 reports of death associated with HPV vaccine in the VAERS database. Therefore, he thinks HPV causes death:

He also tried to dismiss me and others by claiming we had financial conflicts of interest on the topic. Actually, he's rather fond of attacking the people he's arguing against, like suggesting that because they don't agree with him, they would probably also deny the Holocaust. (On further perusing his Twitter feed, he appears to be a full-on anti-vaccinationist himself, citing Robert Kennedy Jr.'s nonsense, "too many, too soon", "unvaccinated are healthier" and so on. And on even more perusing, I find that Dr. Meehan admits to being anti-vaccine:


If only I'd known that when I first saw this guy. Would've saved me a lot of time and explains a lot of his behavior. Perhaps at some point in the future I'll need to revisit this fellow.)

In the meantime, though, I thought it might be helpful to talk a little bit about VAERS: what it is, how it's supposed to be used and how it's abused.

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Honest Flu Ad

Click to enlarge.
Last week, the National Vaccine (mis-)Information Center ran an ad in a New Hampshire newspaper designed to make people fear the flu vaccine. I wrote about why the NVIC ad is misleading, as did Moms Who Vax and Epidemiological. In short, the NVIC ad played to the myth that the flu vaccine makes you sick (it doesn't) and promoted the idea that the vaccine doesn't work (it does). It also played on fears of adverse reactions to the vaccine ("know the risks"), but did not so much as hint at the benefits.

At any rate, I though I'd put together a somewhat more honest ad. Here's my take on the NVIC ad. Please feel free to share this, unaltered, far and wide. I also have a higher resolution version of it that should be good to print. E-mail me (contact info's in the sidebar) if you would like a copy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NVIC? Know the Omissions (Part 2)

Those of you who read this blog regularly know some of the common tactics that anti-vaccine activists use. They're fond of the Pharma Shill Gambit, in which they accuse those with whom they disagree as being paid by pharmaceutical companies. This allows them to blissfully dismiss anything their detractors have to say. If you're paid by pharma, after all, you're hopelessly biased and nothing you say can be taken as true or honest. Of course, it doesn't matter whether you actually get paid by pharma or not. Facts don't tend to matter much to those using the pharma shill gambit.

That brings us to another tactic: dishonest or misleading rhetoric. The less, shall we say, sophisticated anti-vaccine activists aren't all that subtle about it. They will brazenly state as truth claims that are easily shown to be wrong (e.g., the false claim that MMR has the preservative thimerosal in it, or that vaccines contain antifreeze; they don't). The more skilled among the anti-vaccine movement, however, use insinuation. They imply certain claims using language that, on the surface, is technically true or could be classified as opinion, but the unstated claim is at best misleading and at worst dangerously wrong.

The National Vaccine Information Center (a more Orwellian-named organization would be hard to find) falls into that latter category, for the most part. Take, for instance, their latest ad, placed in a local New Hampshire newspaper:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The New California Personal Belief Exemption Form Unveiled

The anti-vaccine movement is a study in contradictions. They want fewer vaccines, but advocate for actions that ensure vaccines that could be taken off the schedule aren't. They want studies done, and even get involved in their design, but then reject them when the studies produce results they don't like. And they clamor for informed consent, but then raise a stink when efforts are made at improving education and helping parents make informed choices.

That was the case last year when, in March 2012, a bill was introduced in California (AB2109) that would require parents who want to opt out of required school immunizations for their children to get information about the "benefits and risks of the immunization and the health risks of the communicable diseases listed in Section 120335 to the person and to the community" from an authorized health care provider (which was rather broadly defined). These efforts at ensuring parents make informed choices were so objectionable, that anti-vaccine pro-informed choice activists vehemently opposed the bill. Yes, in the twisted world of people like NVIC's Barbara Loe Fisher, a doctor largely responsible for a measles outbreak or certain reality-challenged celebrities, a bill that requires parents be informed tramples on parents' rights to be informed. Yeah, I don't get it either, but supposedly it makes sense to them.

At any rate, AB2109 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on September 30, 2012, but with a catch. As I wrote at the time, Gov. Brown issued a signing statement with it, stating that he would direct the Department of Public Health to allow for religious exemptions to the whole getting informed piece of the legislation, despite the fact that California does not have any religious exemptions to vaccinations. As I noted at the time, there were significant problems with this, both legal and practical.

Well, the California Department of Public Health has announced the new form and made it available here (PDF).

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Measles, Cows and an "Oh crap!" Moment

In the history of the battle against diseases, there are only two that have been completely eliminated from the wild. Smallpox had been with us for millennia, but it wasn't until sometime around the 17th century that moderately successful attempts at preventing the disease were practiced in the form of variolation, or inoculation with pus from an infected individual. This practice, though effective, carried significant risks, such as actually causing the disease or infection with some additional disease, like syphilis. Then along came Edward Jenner, who discovered that those infected with cowpox appeared to be immune to the more dangerous smallpox. He developed the first rudimentary vaccine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As medical knowledge advanced, the vaccine was refined and improved, reducing (though not eliminating) the risk of adverse effects and improving its effectiveness through booster doses. In 1967, a worldwide campaign was begun to eliminate the disease from the wild, with the last known wild case of smallpox occurring in Somalia in 1977, making it the first disease eliminated through human efforts.

The second disease that we have managed to eradicate from the wild is rinderpest, a morbillivirus closely related to human measles virus. Rinderpest was once a scourge of cattle. As with smallpox, innoculation was an early attempt to control the disease. Unlike smallpox, inoculation never really caught on, partially due to lower efficacy. Jenner's successes with vaccination using cowpox led to unsuccessful attempts to use cowpox to prevent rinderpest. Vaccines using the rinderpest virus were developed in the early 1900s, yet despite the development of effective vaccines, control efforts often took the form of wholesale slaughter of livestock when outbreaks occurred. Regional efforts at eradication of the disease began in the 1920s, but coordinated global efforts wouldn't come about for several decades. Ultimately, widespread vaccination efforts led to the last confirmed case in 2001 in Kenya. Vaccination continued for several more years, as experts suspected the virus could still be circulating among wild animal populations. In 2011, with no other cases appearing, the World Organization for Animal Health declared the disease eradicated.

We know that in the right circumstances (like when a disease is limited to a single species), and with enough effort, we can eradicate diseases. But what if a disease jumps species?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is It More Effective to Delay MMR Vaccination?

Recently, I asked the question is it safer to delay MMR vaccination?  Many of those who are opposed to the current schedule of vaccinations or have heard anti-vaccine claims and fear that vaccines somehow overwhelm an infant's immune system may put off getting their children immunized until well after the age recommended by the CDC and AAP. This decision not only leaves a child at risk of infection for a longer period, but, as I discussed in that post, new research on the MMR vaccine indicates that there is an increased risk of seizures and fever associated with delaying that vaccine. So delaying might not necessarily be safer, at least in terms of adverse reactions to the MMR vaccine. The authors of the recent paper speculated that one probable cause of this increased risk is due to a more robust immune reaction the older a child is when they receive their first dose of measles-containing vaccine.

Another recent study, Measles in Children Vaccinated With 2 Doses of MMR, by F. Defay, G. De Serres, D. M. Skowronski, N. Boulianne, M. Ouakki, M. Landry, N. Brousseau, and B. J. Ward and published online on October 21, 2013 in Pediatrics, asked a related question: does delaying the first dose of measles vaccine improve efficacy? Well, really, the question they asked was, "does age of first MMR vaccination affect vaccine efficacy in children who received 2 doses", but my paraphrase is close enough.

Friday, October 25, 2013

For Graduate Practicum, George Washington University Earns an F

Recently, news came out that Mark Geier, the man who tried to treat autistic children's autism by using a powerful drug that suppresses testosterone (essentially chemically castrating these children), the man who lost every one of his twelve state medical licenses and had a 13th denied due to his medical misconduct (to put it lightly), served as a site preceptor for a graduate student at George Washington University. Autism News Beat rightly criticized the university. That Geier was able to serve as a preceptor for a student is pretty damning, since it means that GWU did not do its due diligence to ensure that individuals who apply to be a preceptor meet certain minimum standards. Either that, or someone at GWU was actively promoting Geier's nonsense.

The problem is that a site preceptor has a number of responsibilities, according to the GW SHHS Practicum Site Preceptor Guide:
  1. Visit the Practicum Website http://www.gwumc.edu/sphhs/studentres/practicum/index.cfm and Register. (See Register: for instructions)
  2. Review and approve the Student’s Practicum Plan
  3. Negotiate payment/stipend with Student, if applicable
  4. Engage student in work and provide constructive feedback and guidance to the student
  5. Provide guidance for professional conduct
  6. Complete the following on the Practicum Website:
    a. Midpoint evaluation form in conjunction with the student
    b. Final site preceptor evaluation of student and practicum
  7. Address student’s reports of problems, including site safety issues and/or harassment
Take note of numbers 2, 4, 5 and 6. Mark Geier is not fit to fill those responsibilities, having been stripped of his medical licenses and being found by several Special Masters of the vaccine court to lack expertise in many different areas relevant to epidemiology, biostatistics and immunology. Coupled with his lack of medical ethics, it is grossly irresponsible to allow him to serve as a site preceptor for any student. Orac and Reuben Gaines have both chimed in, as well, castigating George Washington University for allowing this to happen.

And now it looks like GWU has taken notice.

More VPD Cards Available

[UPDATE 3/8/16: I am out of VPD wanted poster card sets. Thank you to everyone who requested a set! You made it all worthwhile.]

In March of this year, I announced that I was making prints of an art project of mine available for free. These were sets of sixteen 4" x 5" cards with information about each of the diseases that is prevented by a vaccine on the current childhood immunization schedule. The cards are modeled after wanted posters, complete with mug shots and vital statistics of each virus or bacterium, as well as a description of what the disease does (its modus operandi, if you will). I received a lot of positive feedback on them, and I recently sent out the last of my initial 100 sets.

Because of continued requests, I've decided to do another printing. If you would like a set of VPD cards, click on that link or click the button below or in the sidebar to the right. Remember, it's absolutely free, though if you'd really like to open your wallet, please make a donation to a science-based autism charity or to support vaccine research. Here are some suggestions, which I have supported myself, or give to your favorite charity.


Much of the information is drawn from the CDC's Pink Book chapters on each disease, which I've tried to summarize in an easy-to-read format. These cards are a great way to learn about vaccine preventable diseases. Some people have even turned the cards into a game, shuffling and dealing them out, then playing hands of "who has the worst disease".

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Is It Safer to Delay MMR Vaccination?

Most people follow the recommended schedule of childhood immunizations. They understand the importance of immunization, not only for their own children, but for their communities as well. Certainly, parents put varying degrees of thought into their decision. Some simply go along with whatever their pediatrician recommends, while others thoroughly research the vaccines their child will receive before accepting the science-based recommendations behind the current vaccination schedule. Whatever level of scrutiny they give to the issue, the majority immunize their children fully and on-schedule, barring valid medical reasons to the contrary.

Then there's the minority, the parents who either delay vaccines, spreading them out over a much greater timeframe than recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the parents who only allow some vaccines, and those who eschew vaccines altogether. Some are strongly committed to the ideology that vaccines cause all manner of maladies, often becoming quite vocal about it. Their views stem from misunderstanding of the science, confusing correlation with causation, and distrust of large corporations and the government. Some parents have simply been misled by those anti-vaccine activists. The arguments resonate on an emotional level, despite being void of scientific validity. And finally there are those who delay or skip vaccines because they lack access or the resources to keep up. They cannot afford insurance to cover the vaccines. They may not be able to take the time off from work to take their children to the doctor's office. In short, through failures of the health care system, rather than any fear or distrust of vaccines, their children are under- or unimmunized.

Whatever the reasons, the decision to delay or avoid vaccinations carries certain risks. Most readily apparent is the increased risk of infection, contributing to outbreaks in regions of low vaccination. We need only look, for example, at recent measles outbreaks (Minnesota, New South Wales, Australia, Massachusetts, Indiana, North Carolina and New York, Pakistan and Wales, Texas) to see how lack of immunization increases the risks of infection and spread of disease. Not so obvious is that delaying some vaccines increases the risk of not being fully immunized.

And now there's another risk to add to the list, at least as regards measles vaccines.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

B-lyme-y!

The last couple weekends in July and the first weekend of August, I helped out with a project down in Connecticut. It allowed me to tap into my woodworking interests and challenged me with techniques I hadn't done a great deal of before, like sculpting with a chisel and lashing several different ways. Because of time constraints, I made use of some power tools (saws, screwgun and sander), hand tools (axe, chisel, knives) and some more unusual tools (like a blowtorch). Most of the work used rough branches, rather than lumber, and some didn't involve wood at all.

The project was also a great excuse to get outside to enjoy nature, as it took me into the woods quite a bit. That was both good and bad, because, unlike the Disney (and quackery) version where nature is all happy and fluffy and nary a hair on your head will be harmed, I encountered the real nature. The more immediate problem was relatively minor: it was hot. Really, really hot. And humid. But I could live with that. I could even live with the little bit of contact dermatitis I got from either poison ivy or poison sumac that brushed my wrist against at some point without knowing it. Itchy and ugly, but luckily I'm not hypersensitive to it. What was more concerning was what I got, much like the dermatitis, without knowing it. I never noticed that I'd had a visitor that came for a bite to eat, then left without so much as a "how d'you do?". The only indication I had of the encounter came weeks later: a characteristic bulls-eye rash. I had lyme disease.

Didn't get a photo of my rash, but it looked like this.
Photo credit: James Gathany. Source: Public Health Image Library
Since there is a great deal of misconception about this disease among the public, and because more than a few people were gravely concerned when I told them, thinking that I would be in extremely poor health because of it, I figured it might be good to share my experience.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Short Vaccine Video

A reader recently sent me a link to this video. It's a nice, short, humorous way to present the impact that vaccines have had on public health.


Monday, September 16, 2013

An Anti-vaccine Activist Unsurprisingly Gets the Science Wrong

It's so cute when anti-vaccine activists try to use citations to bolster their arguments. Quite often, it seems as if they simply read the title of a study and leap to the assumption that it supports their notion that vaccines are useless, dangerous or cause autism. In those instances where they actually do get past the title, they either misinterpret the study or misrepresent the results, hoping, perhaps, that whomever they are speaking to won't go through the trouble of actually reading the citation. Actually, in most instances, they probably rely on people not reading their citations at all. It's very impressive to throw out a bunch of study titles and author names. The casual observer is likely to just think, "Huh, they must have a point. I mean, look at all of those studies."

And I can't really blame the average person for taking that approach. It takes a lot of effort and time to actually examine the citations critically. Scientific papers are generally geared toward academics, people in the same field who already have a basic background education. They understand the methods and why certain things were done, while others weren't. They know the various jargon used. The language of science is probably the biggest barrier to a layperson understanding (let alone reading) a study. After all, there are a lot of new, unknown words and, let's face it, study papers are boring (unless you have a keen and obsessive interest in the subject, maybe). But those who deny some scientific concept rely on this to overawe their audience. It allows them to use a tactic known as the Gish Gallop: throw out lots of studies that you claim support your position and depend on your audience not making the laborious effort to see if the studies say what you claim they do.

I encountered this on a small scale just recently in the comments of an article in the Independent Online discussing what happens when vaccine refusal has fatal results. When one commenter claimed that modern measles outbreaks occurred predominantly among the vaccinated, I countered with examples from recent outbreaks in which the majority (or all) of the cases were unvaccinated. A second commenter responded to me with a list of six studies purporting to support the assertion that measles outbreaks disproportionately occur among vaccinated, rather than unvaccinated, individuals. But as expected, the reality is rather different than this person claimed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sharyl Attkisson Accuses Critics of Astroturfing

Back on Monday, Labor Day, I wrote about an execrable piece of reporting that appeared on CBS This Morning just over a week ago. The story was about Dorothy Spourdalakis, mother and murderer of Alex Spourdalakis. Earlier this year, Dorothy and Alex's godmother, Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka, plotted for at least a week to kill Dorothy's son, a 14-year-old boy with severe autism. At home in the apartment in River Grove where the three of them lived together, Dorothy and Jolanta drugged him with sleeping pills, and when that did not kill him fast enough, Dorothy, as she admitted and is reported in various media outlets, used a kitchen knife to stab Alex in the chest four times, hitting his heart twice. She then slashed his wrist so severely she nearly severed his hand.

The CBS story, however, does not tell the story of cold-blooded, premeditated murder. Instead, it shows Dorothy kissing Alex and washing his feet when he is in the hospital. It portrays her as a loving mother who, pushed to extremes of stress by, as the report says, a system that failed her. What is not in that story are some very important facts that, had the reporter included them, would have made for a very, very different telling. A theme that runs throughout the whole piece was that Dorothy had no support, no help. For example, Dorothy's lawyer is shown, saying, "Every door closed. She had nowhere to go. She had nowhere to take her son. There's no help for him." That is at odds with other reports. For example, the Illinois Autism Society offered support, but Dorothy turned them down and only requested a lawyer. The state's Department of Children and Family Services offered respite care and psychological counseling, but the family refused this help. Also left out of the story is the background of the "documentary" produced by Polly Tommey, of the Autism Media Channel (AMC), as well as her connection to Andrew Wakefield, also of the AMC, who was working on the documentary before Alex's death as part of a reality TV show. And yet another factor omitted was the connection between Dr. Arthur Krigsman, who reportedly diagnosed "lesions" in Alex's stomach, and Andrew Wakefield: they used to work together at Thoughtful House in Texas, and Dr. Krigsman bases much of his treatment philosophy on Wakefield's now-retracted paper purporting to find a connection between MMR vaccine and gastrointestinal disorder. Meanwhile, Alex himself was portrayed as a violent, difficult to manage young man with no hope of a future. It is, sadly, the image that all too often is presented of those with developmental disabilities like autism. And it is false.

In the end, many science and autism bloggers rightly criticized the story for its many faults (Liz Ditz has curated a robust list of responses). Now, in my post, I did not mention the reporter's name, because, really, it isn't particularly relevant to the problems with the piece (except insofar as this particular reporter has a history of promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience). But she has been active on Twitter recently digging an even deeper hole for herself.

Monday, September 2, 2013

CBS Sympathizes with Murderers

Back in June, I wrote a post in which I tried to understand the murder of Alex Spourdalakis by his mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, and his caretaker, Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka. In particular, I noted how those who do not blame vaccines for autism properly blamed Dorothy and Jolanta for the murder, expressing sympathy and horror on behalf of Alex. Yet among the biomed and "vaccines cause autism" communities, the general spin to the story was that Dorothy was oh so distraught and just couldn't cope any more; because she had supposedly been failed by the system, poor woman that she is, she resorted to murder, putting Alex out of his misery. That is a horrible, horrible insult to a boy who suffered the ultimate abuse by those who were supposed to care for him.

That sentiment, sympathizing with a child murderer, disgusted me then and disgusts me now. Part of the tragedy of this whole thing is that we only have Dorothy's voice being heard. HIPAA regulations block any revelations from the medical professionals being vilified by murder apologists at Age of Autism, Autism Media Channel and so on. Alex's voice has been permanently silenced. To make matters worse, CBS This Morning has decided to lend their support to Alex's killers.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Follow-up on Journalist Matthew Mientka

Last week, I wrote a post in response to an article by a journalist named Matthew Mientka. His article was an illustration of sloppy, lazy journalism (though I suppose to be charitable, he may also have been overworked by Medical Daily's editors, though that just speaks even worse for the online paper). Mientka's post was so riddle with errors that could have been avoided with just a modicum of basic research. As I ended my post, I said that if he did the right thing and retracted his article, I would write a follow-up post.

Well, his article is no longer up (note I have an update at the end of my post with a link to the cached version). He does, however, have a new article up that includes a little of the original, but goes beyond that to discuss autism, MMR and thimerosal in a more expansive manner. The version that is currently up, however, is not the original.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Snapshot of the Deep Pockets of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Research is expensive. Lab techs, study coordinators, grad students and post-docs have their salaries (often a pittance compared to the importance of their work and the skills required); primary investigators (PIs) have theirs. Then there are the costs for materials - drugs or other substances under investigation, reagents, etc., as needed. Statisticians, equipment. The expenditures add up.

And PIs spend a considerable amount of their time just seeking out grants to support their research. Many rely heavily on government entities like the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funders of research in the United States. Some research funds come from industry sources, the results of which need somewhat greater levels of attention to suss out the valid results from the bias. Others find support from private donors and foundations.

This latter source is the bread and butter of cranks and pseudoscientists (well, with the addition of the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, but that's a whole other post). For example, Mark Geier (who has had his various medical licenses stripped for unethical conduct) and his son, David (who has no medical licenses and was found by the Maryland Board of Physicians to have practiced medicine without a license), essentially fund themselves through their non-profit corporations CoMeD, Inc. and Institute of Chronic Illnesses, Inc. Other anti-vaccine researchers, perhaps lacking their own wealth, rely on other individuals and families devoted to the "vaccines cause autism" myth who happen to have significant assets to fund their dubious research.

Such is the case with a new study by Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, titled Administration of aluminium to neonatal mice in vaccine-relevant amounts is associated with adverse long term neurological outcomes (back in December 2011, Orac pointed out the flaws of the study [Edited to add February 5, 2015: the study Orac discussed formed the basis for the 2013 study I discuss here.]). This study received significant funding from The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which have funded previous studies by one or both of this duo.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Matthew Mientka, MMR, Autism and Lazy Journalism

I try to be a patient person. In general, I give people the benefit of the doubt, assume that they are well-intentioned. And for the most part, I think people do try to do what is right. But every now and then, I find that my trust is misplaced. It isn't necessarily that they are malicious. No, they may just be lazy, failing to do due diligence when really they ought to do at least some measure of basic research.

Such was the case recently. I came across an article by Matthew Mientka in Medical Dailty titled Vaccines And Autism: Evidence Shows ‘Strong Link’ Between Autism And MMR Vaccine. When the post originally went up, the title was a bit different: Vaccines And Autism: New Evidence Shows 'Strong Link' Between Autism And MMR Vaccine. Notice the very slight difference? The word "new" was dropped after I called the author on some errors in his article.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Jenny McCarthy, Censorship and Free Speech

Most of you have probably heard by now that anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy has been picked to be a host on ABC's The View. Following the announcement, there was a media uproar lambasting the decision. Newspapers, magazines and blogs erupted with posts questioning the wisdom of giving her a platform with millions of viewers from which she could spew her vaccine-related misinformation and fear-mongering. Some took the angle that she should get a large platform so that more people can see just how ridiculous are her views on vaccinations. Toronto Public Health even went so far as to tweet, urging people to contact The View and ask them to get rid of her:


They aren't the only ones, either. Before the hiring was officially announced, Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy urged people to write to the producers, as did Just the Vax. There is even a Change.org petition to remove her from the show.

It isn't much of a surprise, then, that her supporters among the anti-vaccine community are all up in arms, crying "Censorship!" and lamenting about the infringement on McCarthy's First Amendment right to free speech. I didn't comment on this whole thing when the story first broke, because, well, everyone else had already said everything. But I would like to touch on that whole free speech issue a bit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt: Making It Easier to Get Sick at Hospitals

I know I've been remiss in writing new posts lately. "Real" life has intruded and kept my time limited and my mind a bit preoccupied. But I'm back, and what better way to come back from a lag than to follow up on a previous post?

At the end of May, I wrote about how Wisconsin Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt was working on legislation that would ban employers (and not just health care employers) from requiring influenza immunizations as a requirement for employment (or, as noted, even internship or being a volunteer). The bill has been submitted and has a designation, now: Assembly Bill 247. AB247 was introduced on June 17, 2013, read and referred to the Committee on Health.

The text of AB247 has not changed since I last discussed this.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Just a Plane Ride Away

He boarded the plane, heading from India back to his home in North Carolina. Around his late twenties or early thirties, he settled in for the long, trans-oceanic flight toward the end of March. He wasn't traveling alone; he had company with him, though he didn't know it at the time. In fact, he was carrying stowaways he'd picked up during his visit, and now they were replicating inside him. It was a long flight. He relaxed and waited while his fellow passengers worked feverishly.

The plane touched down. He collected his bags and started off to his home in Stokes County. Perhaps he was tired from the flight. A few days passed, and his head grew warm to the touch. Runny nose, a bit of a cough. If it weren't for the fever, it could have just been allergies. Probably just a cold picked up on the plane or during his trip. Nothing to worry about.

Also around the end of March, another individual, a Hasidic Jew from New York is flying home from London. He or she lives in a highly religious, insular community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Just as with the visitor to India, a hitchhiker accompanied them on the flight home. And just as with the fellow further south, several days after returning home, the signs of a cold begin.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I Need Some Serenity

After yesterday's post, I thought the blog could use something a bit lighter. With that in mind, I present to you, LEGO Serenity:

Isn't she shiny?
This was a gift I received recently, combining two things I love, LEGO and Firefly. This is a lovely little model created by Ichiban Toys, who have a number of other amazing custom mini-models.

Of course, what I really want is this:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Struggling to Understand the Murder of Alex Spourdalakis

Ever since I heard the news early last week that a 14-year-old autistic boy was found dead, I've been struggling to put into words how I feel and my thoughts on the issue. I got the news in rapid succession: he was found dead, he was stabbed multiple times, his mother and godmother were found in the same room, unconscious. More digging through the news: he was stabbed four times in the chest (twice of those in the heart) and his wrist was slashed nearly to the point of taking off his hand. His mother and grandmother were under the influence of sleeping pills, having taken a non-lethal overdose. They left a three-page letter explaining that they had planned over a week to kill the boy. More news reports revealed they first tried to kill him with sleeping pills, but then went for the knife when the pills didn't appear to work. The godmother also killed the cat "for fear he would be sent to a shelter". Then they wiped the knife clean, put it back in the kitchen and took sleeping pills for themselves. The two women reportedly confessed to police that they had murdered the boy, and they have been charged with first degree murder. It also came to light that the boy's mother had filed for divorce from his father in February, with a court date set for this coming Thursday, June 20. It was the father and uncle who caused the boy to be found, after failed attempts to reach the mother and son for a well checkup.

In the months leading up to the murder, the mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, with help from Age of Autism's Lisa J. Goes, appealed to others for help for her son, Alex. Per Goes' writings (and others), Alex had been taken to the hospital for severe gastrointestinal symptoms (constipation, diarrhea, pain) and had been held in restraints, naked. If their reports are to be believe, he was kept in the ER, strapped down, for 19 days straight. As others have pointed out, the narrative sounds like some key information is either misrepresented or missing. For example, it is highly unusual for a patient to be kept in the ER for an extended period of time. They would either be treated and discharged or they would be admitted to inpatient care. Further, use of restraints on patients is highly regulated. If Dorothy and Lisa's accounts are correct, not one, but two hospitals inappropriately used restrains (three hospitals, if you include Alex's second, more recent admission). Part of Dorothy's petition for help was to get the hospitals to provide gastrointestinal treatment, which included a colonoscopy, which was deemed unnecessary by an attending gastroenterologist that examined Alex. There is some suspicion that the procedures Alex's mother wanted for him included dubious biomed treatments. Some also suspect that she may have subjected Alex to MMS (bleach) enemas in an attempt to cure him of his autism. News outlets report that Dorothy was offered services for her son, which she rejected. Supporters claim the services would only have been admittance to a psychiatric facility and drugging Alex to keep him docile. Others think that it would more likely have been day or residential care.

Unfortunately, due to HIPAA privacy regulations, we only have one side of the story, told by Dorothy and her supporters. The hospitals cannot comment on any aspect of Alex's care without violating patient confidentiality laws, though the pending trial may reveal more information. We can't know for certain what treatment he received in hospital, nor the exact nature of the services that were offered. I'm not going to speculate on what treatment he did or did not receive, either at the hands of his mother or at the various hospitals to which he was taken. Rather, I want to focus on the murder itself and how people have reacted to it, including myself.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Academic Earth Takes On an Anti-vaccine Myth

Images can often speak more to us than simple words on a page (or monitor). While words do carry subtext, we frequently need to use many more words, and take up more space, to get even basic ideas across. Yet images alone have their own limitations. Bringing images and words together can help solidify an idea and make it more accessible to people. The folks over at Academic Earth have done just that. In addition to hosting open course videos and lectures from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other universities, they have put together Video Electives, short (less than 5 minute) videos and animations that cover a variety of topics.

A reader sent me a link to one of these electives, titled "Too Many, Too Soon: The Anti-Vaccine Fallacy". The video is embedded after the break below, and I think it does a good job of illustrating why the anti-vaccine argument of "too many, too soon" as it relates to supposedly overwhelming the immune system is flawed. The focus is on the antigen exposure aspect of vaccines and diseases, so I'm sure those opposed to vaccines will still cry, "but what about the other ingredients!?" It's a start, though, and is another arrow in the quiver.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wisconsin Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt Befriends the Flu

One of the greatest refuges of those opposed to sound science and science-based policy is the legislature. After all, if you have no scientific basis to your position, change the laws to support your arguments instead. That's what opponents of vaccines generally like to do. They launch PR campaigns and wine and dine Congresscritters to try to get their way, rather than conducting actual quality scientific research and publishing the results. They really don't like it when public laws that aim to protect the public health are based on science and work quite hard to get those laws quashed.

The latest effort to undermine public health comes from Wisconsin Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt. Rep. Thiesfeldt is in the process of drafting and proposing a law that would ban public health employers from requiring their employees to receive the seasonal flu vaccine as a condition of employment. The fledgling bill comes after Rep. Thiesfeldt apparently received complaints from health care workers complained that they were forced to be immunized against the flu or lose their jobs. The accompanying memo is couched in "health freedom" style language and pits individual rights against employers' (and the public's) rights.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mark Geier: Not a Leg to Stand On

Poor, poor Mark Geier. For those who don't know, Dr. Mark Geier is half of the father-son team that developed the "Lupron Protocol" for treating autism. Put simply, Geier and his son came up with the scientifically unsupported idea that testosterone and mercury bind together in humans, allegedly causing autism. His treatment for this involves dosing children with leuprolide, followed by chelation. Leuprolide (also known by the brand name Lupron) is legitimately used for treatment of precocious puberty and as part of IVF treatment. It is also used off-label to chemically castrate sex offenders.

Dr. Geier, through his Institute of Chronic Illness and Genetic Centers of America, misdiagnosed autistic children with precocious puberty so he could claim that he was using Lupron on label, rather than for an unapproved, experimental indication (i.e., autism). This also allowed him to bill insurance companies for the lupron. His actions got him into hot water with various state medical boards, starting with his medical license in Maryland being suspended on April 27, 2011. Since then, one by one, 11 of his 12 medical licenses were suspended, an application for a thirteenth license in Ohio was denied, and some of those suspensions became complete revocations. The last actions I wrote about were the revocation of his license in Missouri and suspension of his Illinois license. At the time, the only state left in which Dr. Geier could practice was Hawaii.

As of April 11, 2013, that is no longer the case.

Friday, May 10, 2013

4th Grade Creationist Science Quiz

A recent post by Phil Plait reminded my of something I came across a while back. I had intended to blog about it earlier, but I needed to make sure I could verify it before I posted it. When I first saw it, I couldn't believe that it was true. So, I did a bit of digging. No mere search on the interwebz turned up the evidence I needed. I had to trek incredible distances and delve into long-forgotten caf├ęs and cobweb bedecked back rooms. Shady characters named "Barry" become well-known to me in my quest. In the end, I discovered that what you are about to see is totally, completely as real as Miracle Max.

Brace yourselves.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sylvia Browne is a Ghoul

On November 17, 2004, an episode of the Montel Williams Show aired, featuring self-proclaimed "psychic" Sylvia Browne and Louwana Miller, who came on the show desperate for information on her daughter, who had been missing since April 21, 2003, a day before her 17th birthday. With no good leads from police or FBI and having spent considerable effort putting up fliers and talking to people, Miller finally contacted the Montel Show after seeing Browne on an episode.

According to transcripts of the episode (e.g., at StopSylvia.com, posted in 2007), Sylvia Browne told the worried mother the worst possible news: "She's not alive, honey." She described the supposed abductor as "Cuban-looking, short kind of stocky build, heavyset" and put his age at around 21 or 22. Browne also asserted that it was only one person, despite witnesses saying they saw Berry get into a car with three men. In an interview with WKYC's Bill Safos, Browne is quoted as saying:
“I think he really had a crush on her,” she said. “And I think she rebuffed him. I think she thought he was harmless enough to maybe drive her home.”
A year and a half later, in early 2006, Louwana Miller died of heart failure. She died with the belief that her daughter was dead.

Monday, May 6, 2013

MIND Institute: No Difference in Immunization Rates

There are a lot of studies on vaccines and autism. The majority (read: the ones that are well-designed to minimize the influence of biases and confounders) show that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. Or, rather, I suppose I should use a more scientific turn of phrase: they have failed to find any causal connection between the two. There are some rather bad studies (small sample sizes, methodological flaws, etc.) that anti-vaccine activists like to crow about, like a horribly flawed macaque study that should never have been approved by an IACUC (IACUCs are institutional ethics boards that review studies using animals) in which there were not enough controls, missing conflict of interest statements, missing authors, and so on. In short, it put a bunch of macaques through needless procedures and death for no reason.

Of course, the anti-vaccine folk invariably pooh-pooh the rigorous studies, saying that they are horribly tainted and unreliable, the authors in thrall to Big PharmaTM. As they rationalize away any study that doesn't agree with their near-religious adherence to their preconceived notion that vaccines are the most evilest of all evilosity, they call for "independent" research looking at vaccines and autism. However, finding what they consider to be independent researchers is a bit dicey. Funded by NIH or equivalent governmental agencies? Nope. After all, government is in league with Big PharmaTM, dontcha know. Universities? Doubtful, since a lot of universities receive grants from corporate foundations. It doesn't matter that the researchers don't actually see any of that money, of course. The merest hint of a whiff of a connection is enough for them to dismiss anything that doesn't agree with their ideology. Is there any organization that they'll trust that actually has qualified researchers who don't stand to gain from finding a vaccine-autism connection?

Well, they might be okay with the University of California-Davis MIND Institute.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 3 (Part 2)

This past Monday, I shared my recap and some thoughts on day 1 (April 6) of the 2013 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, or NECSS, held each year in New York City. NECSS is a joint effort by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. The conference is an opportunity for those interested in, well, science and skepticism to gather together for two days of talks, panels and performances that challenge you to examine what you think you know. This was the fifth year of the conference and my third year attending.

The first day opened with a look at how our minds can influence how we behave and how we perceive the world around us. From there, the program drifted into the realm of philosophy. How do skeptics determine what is right and wrong, what is ethical and moral? This included a discussion between Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer, before breaking for lunch. The afternoon kicked off with a live show of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, then a panel discussion on storytelling. Simon Singh closed out the main program with an overview of the Big Bang. But the day wasn't over with that. A fundraising reception allowed attendees to mingle with the speakers, and then it was off to Drinking Skeptically or a private show of the SGU.

It was a full first day, and day two was no less engaging.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 3 (Part 1)

Over the weekend of April 6-7, I attended the fifth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). Organized by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, NECSS is a conference that focuses on science and critical thinking. They invite scientists, educators, artists and activists on a wide range of topics, but all of which tie into those two themes. There are individual presentations, panel discussions and performance pieces. If you're interested in the first two years I attended, here are my reviews of the third NECSS and fourth NECSS conferences.

My reviews of NECSS have become a good opportunity to address just what "skepticism" means. As I've said before, colloquially, it has taken on some baggage, often carrying a pejorative connotation or equated with cynicism. A lot of people view skeptics merely as naysayers who will simply jump to "I don't believe X" or "X doesn't exist". They are often viewed as close-minded and unwilling to examine the evidence. But nothing could be further from the truth. To me, skepticism is a manner of thinking, a set of tools by which to understand the world around us. Every conclusion is provisional and open to revision, based on the available evidence. It is the application of logic and the methods of science to evaluate claims and examine data. It is not a belief system, religion, ideology, or position, and it has no subject or claim that is off-limits. Or, as the Skeptic Society says, "no sacred cows allowed". It's an approach I try to apply in my life. I may not always be successful, and I know that there are simple biases that affect me just as every other person, but I try, and I think it a noble feature when I see it in others, as well. This is a theme that came up during the conference, as well, but more on that later.

For now, on to the conference.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Measles Running Rampant in Pakistan and Wales

Whenever I hear someone say that vaccine-preventable diseases are harmless or that they are just a right of passage for children, I can't help but shake my head a bit. Part of the reason behind this mindset is a lack of experience with these diseases. Many young parents have never seen them in action. The most they know is their own childhood experiences with them; they clearly survived and, with death being thankfully uncommon, probably don't know or remember anyone who died of one of these illnesses, especially if anyone contracted a disease at a young age. And then there's the rarity of the diseases thanks to the success of vaccinations. I have to admit that before I developed an interest in vaccines and the manufactroversy surrounding them, I probably would have held a similarly flippant opinion of childhood diseases.

But I learned more about them. I read about their typical presentation, what some of the more serious complications are and how commonly they occur, and how long a person is contagious (often starting before any symptoms appear). I learned that while one needn't panic and run for the hills when there's an outbreak, a healthy respect for the seriousness of vaccine preventable diseases doesn't go amiss. Above all, I've learned that they are worth preventing, if not for one's own health, then for the health of those around them. While I might be healthy and think I might fare well if infected, the same may not be true for others I infect.

To this end, vaccinations are one of the best public health measures in modern medicine. When people avoid or reject them in sufficient numbers, we invariably see outbreaks of disease sooner or later. Outbreaks like the current measles outbreaks in Pakistan and Wales.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you probably know that on April 15, 2013 there were two explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Some of you might not be aware that I am in the Boston area. For those that do, this post is mainly to let you all know that I am okay, but I also wanted to get some of my thoughts out about the day's events. I will do my best to stick to the facts and avoid spreading unsubstantiated claims.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Pox on Health Reporting

Science and health reporting in the U.S. can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, reports on these topics are level-headed, presenting accurate information in the proper context. There is often a great deal of nuance involved. More often, though, news outlets do a less than optimal job. They oversimplify. They leave out important details. They get details wrong. They engage in inappropriate emotional appeals to spin the story, often to the detriment of truthful reporting.

You may have heard in the news, recently, of FrankieElizabeth Staiti, a 5-year-old New York kindergartener who has been barred from school because she has not received the varicella vaccine. The reason? Her pediatrician refuses to give the varicella vaccine to any child who has an infant sibling, believing that the varicella vaccine poses too great a risk, since it uses a live, weakened virus. FrankieElizabeth has a 14-week-old sister. Her mother, Elizabeth Wagner, applied for a medical exemption for her daughter, but it was rejected after the Department of Education reviewed it with her and FrankieElizabeth's pediatrician.

That is the basic story. But there are some problems with the way that a lot of outlets are reporting on this.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Off to the NECSS of Thought and Reality

Just a quick post to let you all know that tomorrow, April 5, I'm off to New York to attend NECSS, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. This will be my third year attending (here are my reviews of my first year and my second year), and I'm very excited for it. It is a great opportunity to learn about new topics, expand on what you may already know, and most importantly, meet other intelligent people. If you are going to be there, find me and say hi! Best way to reach me will probably be via Twitter (@Tweek75). I will be bringing some of my VPD Wanted Poster cards with me, so seek me out if you want a set. And just as a reminder, if you are not going to be there, but still want a set, you can click the button below to request one.


Hope to see you at NECSS!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Have You Seen This Pathogen?

UPDATE: 10/22/13: I will be printing more card sets. If you would like a set, go ahead and click the "Send Me a Set" button below or to the right and as soon as I get them in, I will send yours out.

UPDATE 9/22/13: I am currently out of card sets. If I receive enough requests, I will run another printing.

They're heeere.

Back in August 2012, I introduced a little art project I had been working on. It consisted of a series of sixteen digital posters. Since August was Immunization Awareness Month, and my posters were somewhat related, I thought it a fitting time to publish them, releasing them one a day over fifteen days (with a bonus two-for-one in the middle).

Well, I finally got around to printing up 4" x 5" cards of my Vaccine Preventable Disease Wanted Posters.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

NVIC? Know the Omissions

The National Vaccine Information Center is at it again. They have launched a two-month, multi-state billboard advertising campaign to spread their misinformation and fear about vaccines. They are calling this the "Know the Risks" campaign. For the months of March and April, billboards like this will "grace" the landscape around Austin, TX; Chicago, IL; Phoenix, AZ; Portland, OR; and Tucson, AZ:

Something seems to be missing...
Image credit: Voices for Vaccines
According to the press release, they claim their goal is to "encourage well informed vaccine decision-making". However, as we've seen before, NVIC's founder, Barbara Loe Fisher, appears to have little problem promoting blatantly incorrect information regarding vaccines. The first thing I noticed when I saw the above billboard was that something rather important to being "well informed" was missing: knowing the benefits of vaccinations. Yes, making an informed choice requires knowing the risks and failures, but the benefits are also needed. It also helps to put the risks into context by knowing how likely it is to occur, and how that compares to similar risks from the diseases that are prevented by vaccines.

Leaving important information like that out (or even just the fact that there are benefits) strikes me as a dishonest tactic. But let's take a closer look at this.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Ask for Evidence: Making Sense About Science

Every now and then, I learn more about an organization that does really good things. What I learn about them and the people I meet impress me enough to take a break from my usual musings to help spread the word about them. Last month, I became more acquainted with a group that I had already heard about, but didn't know much about them. That changed when I met Julia Wilson, Development Manager for the U.K.-based organization Sense About Science.

Sense About Science is a non-profit charity whose goal is to change how we talk about science and evidence. Their goal is to help people understand a variety of scientific concepts, such as peer review, basic statistics, how to design a fair test of a claim, and the nature of scientific evidence. They have gathered a database of over 5,000 scientists, researchers and other specialists (if you're a scientist and want to help, you can!), connecting them with people who have questions about some scientific claim they've heard. It can be anything from climate change to dodgy medical claims. They also engage young scientists to take an active role in public discussions about science, through their Voice of Young Science program.

They have had great success in the U.K. and have recently launched a campaign here in the U.S.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Do I Do This?

The other day, I received an email from someone via my other site, asking why I do this. Why do I speak out against anti-vaccine myths and put so much time and effort into that site (and this blog), when I state I have no financial ties to any pharmaceutical companies. Is it just a "labour of love because [I am] concerned for humanity"? Where does my passion come from? What intrigued me about this was that it came shortly after my experience with the Vermont Digger and the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, the latter of whom, along with Laura Condon of the National Vaccine Information Center, accused me of being a Pharma ShillTM and/or paid by Dr. Paul Offit. And certainly there are hints that the non-vaccinating individual who emailed me suspected that, my honest statements notwithstanding, I really was paid to write and comment.

Just to reiterate, I receive no money or any other compensation from a pharmaceutical company to write about vaccines in any manner. I hold no stocks (unless there happen to be some in the mutual funds in my retirement account, over which I have no control). I receive no checks, dinners, or quid pro quos. A kind fellow by the moniker Eric TF Bat kindly provided me with hosting space on his domain for my AntiAntiVax site for free after several fellow commenters at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog recommended I turn one of my comments into a web site so people would have a permanent place to point people to when countering anti-vaccine myths. I don't know Eric outside of that context. As for my blog, well, it's hosted by Blogger (clearly), which is also free. I have paid for my domain name out of my own pocket. And I use my own free time to write. Some people garden. I blog. So there's my financial situation regarding my countering of myths and misinformation regarding vaccines. I don't get squat, and I would not accept any money from a pharmaceutical company, either, even if they offered it to me.

So, if I don't get paid, why the hell do I do this?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Continuing Fall of the House of Geier

Most of you no doubt know the names of Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David Geier. I've written about them a fair bit, starting with the suspension of Mark Geier's medical license in Maryland and following the saga as his licenses in various states were suspended and, eventually, permanently revoked. Mark and David are the duo who came up with what came to be known as the Lupron Protocol to supposedly treat autism. Following on the mistaken notion that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, they developed their idea after reading a single study from 1968 finding that, when dissolving testosterone and mercuric chloride in hot benzene, the testosterone and mercury compound bind together. Ignoring the fact that living beings are not in the habit of having a hot benzene environment inside them, the Geiers coupled this testosterone-mercury complex idea with research finding that autism may be linked, in some cases, to high levels of testosterone. Needless to say, their protocol not only didn't work, but it put children at increased risk for no benefit. And to make things worse, since Lupron is not approved for the treatment of autism, Dr. Geier "diagnosed" his patients with precocious puberty so he could charge it to insurance companies.

At any rate, Mark Geier's medical career is pretty much shot. But I always wondered what, if anything, would happen to those who worked at his numerous, nationwide clinics? Would any of them be held accountable? It looks like at least one of Geier's partners is not faring too well, either.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Poking a Wasp Nest

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about two bills that had been introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives, H.114 and H.138, that would improve public health by tightening up religious and philosophical exemptions in public schools and, in the case of H.114, child care facilities. The first bill was introduced as a result of the pertussis epidemics going around the country, with Vermont being the second-hardest hit in 2012, with 100.4 cases per 100,000 people, roughly 7.5 times the national average of 13.4 cases per 100,000 people. This outbreak was driven by several potential factors: waning immunity in teens (necessitating an additional booster), possible mutations in the bacteria (rendering the vaccine less effective), pockets of low vaccine uptake (e.g, a 13.16% overall opt-out for philosophical reasons among kindergarteners [Excel file] in Vermont private schools in the 2011-2012 school year, and a 9.73% opt-out among middle schoolers), and adults whose immunity had waned (nationally, adults have historically had poor pertussis vaccine uptake). The second bill focuses on keeping herd immunity at necessary levels within public schools, by implementing temporary bans on religious and philosophical exemptions on a vaccine- and school-specific basis when immunization rates fall below 90%.

As I mentioned in my previous post, both bills face an uphill battle. Some legislators, like Rep. Mike Fisher, chair of the House Committee on Health Care, and gubernatorial appointees, like Health Commissioner Harry Chen, seem not to want to deal with the headaches that come part-and-parcel with the topics of immunizations and exemptions. Last year, they got an earful from individuals opposed to vaccines, resulting in the blunting of a bill that took a small step toward improved public health. This year does not look to be much different, as the same people, the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, are once again rallying their forces to lobby legislators to oppose these bills.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oregon Looks to Educate, Improve Public Health

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about two bills introduced in Vermont aimed at improving public health through modifications of the state's religious and philosophical exemption laws. One, H.114, would remove non-medical exemptions for the pertussis vaccine, since Vermont had the second highest incidence of pertussis in the entire nation in 2012. The other bill, H.138, would only suspend non-medical exemptions on a vaccine- and school-specific basis if uptake for the vaccine at the school drops below 90%. Once uptakes improve to 90% or more, non-medical exemptions will once more be allowed.

Now it's Oregon's turn to work on boosting public health.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Vermont Rolls Up Its Sleeves Again

Last year, Vermont legislators debated a bill that tried to eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions from school immunizations. It was rather hotly contested, with anti-vaccine activists up in arms and the misnamed National Vaccine Information Center urging people to write to their state congresscritters to oppose the bill. In the end, a sort of compromise was reached. The bill was signed into law, but with rather significant revisions. Parents in Vermont can still get a religious or philosophical exemption for their child, but they must sign a statement indicating that they have reviewed the educational material provided to them and that they understand that their decision increases the risk of disease for their child and those around them, including children with special health needs in the child's school who may suffer serious complications if infected. It's one of the more strongly worded laws requiring education before an exemption is granted. It would have been better if the law had passed as originally written, but baby steps.

Well, it looks like the sponsor of that bill is back in action this year. Rep. George Till (D-Chittenden) and others have introduced two new bills (H.114, full text available here, and H.138, full text here) that are more narrowly focused. While still addressing the concerns of religious and philosophical exemptions, the bills focus on pertussis immunization and individual schools, respectively.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Happy (Belated) Blogiversary

So, I missed my own blogiversary yesterday. At least I remembered it was sometime in February. At any rate, three years ago, on February 5, 2010, I started this blog. Back then, it was name Silenced by Age of Autism. It was an apt name at the time, since my primary intention was to give people a voice to post their comments that the editors at Age of Autism blog censored. I had attempted to engage Kim Stagliano and some of the other commenters over at AoA in reasonable discussion. I followed their commenting guidelines. I kept my tone civil, even though I disagreed with what they were saying, and yet they saw fit to ban me. And even though I asked, I still have not received any answer.

Not that I need one. Age of Autism is an echo chamber of anti-vaccine conspiracy-think. The editors want to give parents who mistakenly believe that vaccines cause autism a "safe" and "comfortable" place to gather. By that, they mean no dissenting opinions; no questioning of the status quo. Such things might make people feel uncomfortable (having their beliefs questioned) and, horror of horrors, it make them actually think, and no one enjoys that. So instead, if it looks like someone can pose a serious threat to the calm, tranquil, hate-fueled environs of AoA, they are silenced. That's how it all started, but things have changed.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

There is a certain lie that floats about anti-vaccine groups. Before I go on, let me be clear about my use of that word: "lie". Because of certain, um, frivolous proclivities among some of the folks who perpetuate this lie, I feel it behooves me to define just what I mean. In this post, I am going to use the term "lie" with it's definition of "a falsehood". It should not be construed, unless I explicitly state otherwise, that I am implying an intention to deceive on the part of the person uttering this lie. Suffice to say that, whether through deliberate action or mere misunderstanding, many among the anti-vaccine movement persist in forwarding this lie, this falsehood, as if it were truth.

Now what lie am I going on about? This: "the Supreme Court of the United States has completely shielded vaccine manufacturers from product liability". You've no doubt heard some version of this before, often in the form "parents can't sue vaccine manufacturers". As it is frequently stated by those opposed to vaccinations, this simply is not true. Some parents just repeat this because they read it somewhere and believed it. They haven't actually read the relevant documents to find out for themselves what's really going on. I don't blame them for that. It's sloppy thinking and intellectually lazy, but I'm not going to harp on it. I'd just recommend that they (temporarily) put aside their blinders, read the actual source documents and think for themselves. Don't even take my word for it.

Then there are those who ought to know better, and, I suspect, probably do. Whether they just really do not understand or are knowingly misrepresenting facts, there are those who hold themselves out as fierce advocates of informed consent who, if they were truly devoted to that, would actually present truth, rather than falsehood. People like Barbara Loe Fisher.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Voices for Vaccines, Bust a Move, Burning Bridges

I've been having trouble focusing on blogging lately. A combination of lack of time and lack of will have led to a bit of a dry period. It's not that there isn't a lot to write about; there's tons. But I've been having trouble finding the motivation.

Recently, though, there are a few things that have cropped up that I felt I should write about. Each one could be the subject of a short post, but since they're all rather timely, I thought I'd just cram them all into a single post. I've put in some subject headers to help you skip around, if you prefer, but I hope you'll read it all.

Enjoy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Stop Criticizing Me or I'll Blow Up the Internet!

There is something strangely fascinating about the tactics that anti-vaccine cranks use. Reading their various rants and how they react to critical refutation of their arguments, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that these are angry people. Ruled by their emotions, I wonder if they ever actually take the time to distance themselves from anything to think it through before reacting. We've seen it time and time again. Some of the things they say and do, particularly when they've had at least a little time to consider their actions, just astound me.

The latest in the "And you thought that was a good idea?" line of actions comes from Hollie. Hollie has a Facebook page called Motherhood: The Truth. (I have this image of a bunch of young moms sitting around a table with cards in their hands: "I play 'Timeout', followed by 'Warrior Mommy'.") On this site, apparently after some folks posted comments taking her to task for her anti-vaccine claims, vaccine-related posts are taboo (unless, of course, they're anti-vaccine...then it's okay). At any rate, the folks on the Anti Vax Wall Of Shame (AVWOS) countered her claims, which Hollie didn't like. No, not at all. So what did she do? She targeted one of the members of AVWOS.

Monday, January 14, 2013

In the Midst of an Outbreak: Better to Immunize or Not?

The flu season is well and fully upon us. In the U.S., the season generally begins in October and runs through May, with a peak sometime in February. There are a number of factors that may play a role in this cyclic nature of influenza, ranging from people being indoors more in the winter, thereby creating greater opportunity for the virus to spread, to less UV radiation that would otherwise kill the virus. Whatever the reason, the cycle is rather predictable.

This season, the flu has hit hard and early:

Source: CDC Influenza Weekly Report, January 14, 2013
The red line is the current season. Unlike most seasons, we're taking a track similar to the 2003-2004 season, with an early peak. This has led a number of regions to declare a public health emergency, meaning that states can release more resources to fight the spread of disease, such as allowing expansion of immunization clinics.

With increased rates, is this sort of declaration helpful? With influenza already in full swing, will expanding immunization help, or is it a bit of a double-edged sword?