Okay, I had to do it.
When the Bad Astronomy blog at one of my favorite science magazines, Discover, went after Jenny McCarthy I had to respond. I began by pointing out my dismay that the vast majority of articles on the vaccine-autism theory inevitably left the impression that only Jenny McCarthy and we desperate, deluded parents were making these claims.
I thought by pointing out that the former head of the National Institute of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy, and the former Chief Science Officer for the U. K., Dr. Peter Fletcher shared many of the same concerns and supported an aggressive research program to identify environmental exposures and vulnerable sub-populations the discussion might be moved in a more reasonable direction.
And the attacks began. I’m a bad parent, society at large should be scared I teach science, and of course, that old-favorite, I should be exposed to people with infectious diseases which I would catch and die. There were also, surprisingly, a few attacks against Dr. Bernadine Healy, since she was appointed by the first President Bush, which meant, you know, she was a party hack without adequate medical credentials.
I guess it would surprise that commenter to learn Dr. Healy graduated first in her class at Hunter College, went to Vassar where she graduated summa cum laude, earned her M.D. at Harvard Medical School, and completed her training in internal medicine and cardiology at Johns Hopkins. She hardly qualifies as a “party hack” in anybody's book.
One of the most curious claims was that extensive research had been conducted showing that there was no difference between rates of autism and in vaccinated and non-vaccinated children. When I asked for those rates I got no answer.
I then told them that if they did have an answer, it should roughly resemble the study done by Generation Rescue, the results of which I’ve reprinted here.
“All vaccinated boys, compared to unvaccinated boys:
- Vaccinated boys were 155% more likely to have a neurological disorder (RR 2.55)
- Vaccinated boys were 224% more likely to have ADHD (RR 3.24)
- Vaccinated boys were 61% more likely to have autism (RR 1.61)
Older vaccinated boys, ages 11-17 (about half the boys surveyed), compared to older unvaccinated boys:
- Vaccinated boys were 158% more likely to have a neurological disorder (RR 2.58)
- Vaccinated boys were 317% more likely to have ADHD (RR 4.17)
- Vaccinated boys were 112% more likely to have autism (RR 2.12)
(Note: older children may be a more reliable indicator because many children are not diagnosed until they are 6-8 years old, and we captured data beginning at age 4.)
All vaccinated boys, removing one county with unusual results (Multnomah, OR), compared to unvaccinated boys:
- Vaccinated boys were 185% more likely to have a neurological disorder (RR 2.85)
- Vaccinated boys were 279% more likely to have ADHD (RR 3.79)
- Vaccinated boys were 146% more likely to have autism (RR 2.46)
All vaccinated boys and girls, compared to unvaccinated boys and girls:
- Vaccinated boys and girls were 120% more likely to have asthma (RR 2.20)
- No correlation established for juvenile diabetes
All vaccinated girls, compared to unvaccinated girls:
- No meaningful differences in prevalence were noted for NDs (which may be due to the smaller sample size of the study because girls represent about 20% of cases.)”
Of course, that didn’t win me any friends, either. I gave all the necessary caveats, noting that the Generation Rescue study cost less than two hundred thousand dollars and a full study should cost more and involve a greater number than the 17, 674 children surveyed, but to my knowledge it was still the only study looking at vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
It also didn’t help when I pointed out research from U.C. Davis, Harvard University, or Johns Hopkins University supporting many of the planks of the theories of the bio-med community. Even noting a recent article in Forbes magazine about research published in the Journal of Pediatrics (a journal of the American Medical Association) showing a high level of auto-immune disorders and celiac disease in the mothers of autistic children garnered no respect. The comment from one person was something along the lines of, “Oh, if it was in Forbes, then it must be true!”
In recounting this story to a friend he said he had finally lost his desire to “wrestle with pigs” as he knew he wasn’t going to change any minds. Maybe that’s good advice, but the former lawyer in me still relishes the clash of dissenting viewpoints.
The day after my battle at the Discover blog I got a book I’d long wanted to read. It was Autism – Current Theories and Evidence edited by Dr. Andrew Zimmerman of Johns Hopkins University. (Hefty price tag, too - $107 on Amazon) I’d heard Dr. Jon Poling speak positively of the book, claiming it put together much of the latest research and theories about autism while “avoiding the third-rail” of vaccines. However, after looking through the book I must respectfully disagree with Dr. Poling. It doesn’t completely avoid that third-rail.
Part VI of the book is entitled “Environmental Mechanisms and Models” with a great article by Dr. Isaac Pessah of the UC Davis MIND Institute, entitled “What We Need to Know About Gene X Environment Interactions.” It reads like a litany of what many DAN doctors have told me about the factors involved in autism. There’s a discussion of problems with neuro-transmission, chemicals that interfere with calcium signaling, and GABA transmission.
The concluding chapter was written by the always wonderful Dr. Martha Herbert, a neurologist at Harvard University, and entitled “An Expanding Spectrum of Autism Models – From Fixed Developmental Defects to Reversible Functional Impairments.” In her section “Ongoing Environmental Contributors to Chronic Encephalopathy” she writes, “For example, heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, or other neurotoxicants . . . can penetrate the nervous system. Once there, it is possible for them, by various mechanisms . . . to promote an oxidative response in these cells to stimulate a cytokine/chemokine inflammatory response within the brain. . . Various metals and persistent organic pollutants also accumulate in a number of body compartments, such as fatty tissue and liver, where they can have chronic metabolic impact such as inhibition of mitochondrial or hepatic enzymes. Viral infections might also contribute to chronic metabolic alterations.”
In the bio-medical community we talk of autism being the result of some combination of “toxins and infections”, and if you can decipher the above paragraph, it’s essentially saying the same thing.
I think it would surprise the Bad Astronomy blog and many of their commentators to understand how much convergence is taking place between the bio-med community and some of the top people in science.
Kent Heckenlively is Legal Editor of Age of Autism