Wired Magazine’s recent cover story on autism, written by Amy Wallace, is titled “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.” (HERE) For any reader hoping for an unbiased, objective discourse on the current state of autism research, the title alone tells you that won’t be happening.
Ms. Wallace’s piece is, in fact, a glowing portrayal of one man, Paul Offit, and his relentless pursuit of the idea that vaccines simply cannot have anything to do with the autism epidemic, since the autism epidemic doesn’t even exist, and vaccines have been proven not to cause autism, and vaccines are much more good than bad, so let’s get on with it already.
As someone who has studied Mr. Offit’s talking points closely for the past 5 years, I was struck by how closely Amy Wallace seemed to echo the points that Offit frequently makes in both the press and medical journals, not only on the specific scientific questions that have and haven’t been answered surrounding many aspects of autism, but even on the more psychoanalytical questions surrounding WHY parents do the things they do (like avoid vaccines). In fact, I can’t find a single original thought or idea in the article from Ms. Wallace that I haven’t previously heard Paul Offit say, nor a single case where her ideas appear to deviate or disagree with any of the positions he takes or has taken in the past: Amy Wallace and Mr. Offit appear to be in perfect harmony.
Ms. Wallace also violates, quite clearly, her own ruminations (which I have heard Offit discuss before) about the reticence required in discourse and debate by true “scientists” that us non-scientists don’t have to abide by: “But researchers, alas, can’t respond with the same forceful certainty that the doubters are able to deploy — not if they’re going to follow the rules of science.” As you will see in a moment, Ms. Wallace’s writing is in fact filled with this “forceful certainty”, starting with the cover of Wired Magazine that states, quite forcefully and most certainly, “Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism.”
You see, Ms. Wallace gives the reader the strong impression that she is one of them, the scientists, someone who knows what the science does and doesn’t say and who knows that this silly debate -- that vaccines may cause autism -- is a debate who’s time has past, because, you know, the science shows us that.
One of the oddest things about Ms. Wallace’s article is the characters she allows into the debate to highlight the two sides of this conflict and tell her story. In one corner, and the corner where she spends most of her time, is Paul Offit, a doctor. He is joined by “science”, an omnipotent force, and a force that in Ms. Wallace’s world always agrees with Offit’s points (and hers, since they’re the same points). In the other corner, the corner that us lowly anti-vaccinationists have been relegated to, she shows only civilian parents: Jenny McCarthy, Barbara Loe Fisher, and Curt Linderman. Three parents. No doctors. No scientists. Like the NY Times, it’s parents vs. research. Where’s our science? In the world Amy Wallace creates, it doesn’t exist.
When it comes to facts, particularly the facts that matter most in the debate over autism, I believe Ms. Wallace fails miserably, and in many cases she simply states things that are unsupportable or quite simple to prove as untrue. I hope that this discourse, by focusing on the very specific things that Ms. Wallace wrote and the ACTUAL state of science in the autism world, will cause Ms. Wallace to correct her one-sided article, so that parents who read Wired Magazine will have a more accurate portrayal of the current reality of our understanding of autism.
Ms. Wallace’s first, and most glaring failure of fact has to do with the initial fork in the road in the autism debate, the question as to whether or not autism is genetic. Co-mingled with the question of the genetic origin of autism is the question of whether or not the prevalence of autism is truly on the rise. These two questions, which tend to move in tandem, affect everything else about the understanding of autism. If autism is genetic, then it’s always been with us. If it’s always been with us, then there’s no reason for alarm, these kids have always been here, just as they are right now. For parents, just accept it, do your ABA, and give your kids the best possible life they can live, they’ll always have autism.
On the other hand, if autism is NOT genetic, but rather a product of the environment, than the prevalence numbers that are REPORTEDLY up are also TRULY up, and we have a massive problem on our hands, because then something somewhere is CAUSING autism in children who may otherwise not have it. And, if something is causing autism, we damn well better figure out what it is. And, if we figure out what it is then maybe, just maybe, we can try to reverse whatever damage it caused in our children.
So, the facts around these two relatively straightforward points – genetics and true prevalence – mean positively everything in the autism debate.
Where does Ms. Wallace fall on these two points? It’s not hard to guess.
1. Autism Prevalence
Ms. Wallace writes:
“the so-called epidemic, researchers assert, is the result of improved diagnosis, which has identified as autistic many kids who once might have been labeled mentally retarded or just plain slow.”
There are actually two separate points made in the above quote by Ms. Wallace, which I contend to be factually incorrect on both counts:
Firstly, Ms. Wallace dusts-off a rarely used (these days) older theory that the increase in autism prevalence can be explained away by children who would have previously been diagnosed as something else now diagnosed with autism, aka, “diagnostic substitution.” Frankly, it’s been years since I have seen this argument used, most recently by Paul Offit.
The notion of diagnostic substitution was thoroughly debunked in a paper in, of all places, Pediatrics, published in 2005 by Craig Newschaffer, PhD of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health called, “National Autism Prevalence Trends From United States Special Education Data.” Newschaffer writes:
“Prevalence trends for the mental retardation and speech/language categories have not increased over time. This is of particular interest because it has been speculated that children who in past years might have been classified in one or another of these categories are now being classified in the autism category and this “diagnostic shifting” could be responsible for prevalence increases. Because there was no indication of decreases in one or another of these categories concomitant with, and of similar magnitude to, increases in autism classification prevalence, these data do not support the hypothesis of diagnostic shifting.”
It’s hard to me more clear than that. In a peer-reviewed, published study, the diagnostic substitution argument was put to rest over 4 years ago, a lifetime in autism research. I will now call out, in bold so you can keep track, the first of many factual errors by Amy Wallace:
Factual Error #1: Ms. Wallace contends diagnostic substitution accounts for the rise in autism prevalence, a theory long since debunked in Pediatrics (amongst other places).
Secondly, Ms. Wallace calls this the “so-called autism epidemic” implying that the uptick in actual autism cases is not real. I’m particularly puzzled by journalists who continue, willingly, to flirt with the notion that autism may have always been with us at the very same rate it is today. Just as a person getting around in the world, you’d think that’d be hard to swallow. Certainly, I’ve never met a parent in any community in our age range (I just turned 40) who isn’t trying to figure out where the hell all these kids with autism suddenly came from, alongside both teachers and other educators. But, what does the science say?
This puzzles me even more. The science is quite clear on the reality of rising prevalence. In fact, as an LA-based journalist, you’d think Ms. Wallace would have seen all the recent press on this very issue. Between California having the most reliable autism statistics in the country and also being home to the MIND Institute, it’s hard for me to believe Ms. Wallace missed the headline that ran in January 2009:
UC DAVIS M.I.N.D. INSTITUTE STUDY SHOWS CALIFORNIA'S AUTISM INCREASE NOT DUE TO BETTER COUNTING, DIAGNOSIS (HERE)
If she’d taken the time, Ms. Wallace could have also read on for further details:
A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted — and the trend shows no sign of abating.
Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, results from the study also suggest that research should shift from genetics to the host of chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment that are likely at the root of changes in the neurodevelopment of California’s children. “It’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California,” said UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of environmental and occupational health and epidemiology and an internationally respected autism researcher.
The study, called “The Rise in Autism and the Role of Age at Diagnosis”, can be read (HERE).
And, this isn’t the first time California has led the way in clarifying that the rise in autism prevalence is very real. Back in 2002, the same MIND Institute, one of the most respected autism research organizations in the world, issued a report to the California legislature(HERE) that said:
"There is no evidence that a loosening in the diagnostic criteria has contributed to increased number of autism clients...we conclude that some, if not all, of the observed increase represents a true increase in cases of autism in California...a purely genetic basis for autism does not fully explain the increasing autism prevalence. Other theories that attempt to better explain the observed increase in autism cases include environmental exposures to substances such as mercury; viral exposures; autoimmune disorders; and childhood vaccinations."
From these two studies, in Ms. Wallace’s home state no less, we see statements that are bold and unequivocal, and fly directly in the face of Ms. Wallace’s inaccurate and misguided statement that we have a “so-called autism epidemic” that isn’t really real. In fact, having spent time with many autism researchers, including many who believe the autism-vaccine connection has neither been proven nor disproven, I’ve yet to meet one who argued that the rise in prevalence is artificial. I only read about it in puff journalism pieces, particularly ones where Paul Offit has been interviewed (which is most). As an aside, Paul Offit is not viewed as a player in the autism debate, but rather as a sideshow, and one that annoys many mainstream researchers. Offit doesn’t sit on the board of Autism Speaks, he sits on the board of Every Child By Two (a front group for vaccine makers). He’s beloved by public health officials who promote vaccines, not autism scientists.
Factual Error #2: Ms. Wallace implies the autism epidemic is not actually real, when recent peer-reviewed published evidence supports a true rise in prevalence.
Ms. Wallace’s errors in discussing genetics are even more striking and, I contend, should be immediately rectified because they leave the reader of Wired with a completely erroneous sense of the current reality of autism research. Here’s her quote:
“In fact, the growing body of science indicates that the autistic spectrum — which may well turn out to encompass several discrete conditions — may largely be genetic in origin. In April, the journal Nature published two studies that analyzed the genes of almost 10,000 people and identified a common genetic variant present in approximately 65 percent of autistic children.”
Ms. Wallace again makes two separate misstatements here that must be addressed:
First, Ms. Wallace suggests that the “the growing body of science indicates that the autistic spectrum may largely be genetic in origin.” This comment is interesting, particularly given what a crisis the current world of genetic researchers are going through, as described in an excellent article published in the New York Times in April of this year called, “Genes Show Limited Value in Predicting Diseases”:
“The genetic analysis of common disease is turning out to be a lot more complex than expected. Since the human genome was decoded in 2003, researchers have been developing a powerful method for comparing the genomes of patients and healthy people, with the hope of pinpointing the DNA changes responsible for common diseases. This method, called a genomewide association study, has proved technically successful despite many skeptics’ initial doubts. But it has been disappointing in that the kind of genetic variation it detects has turned out to explain surprisingly little of the genetic links to most diseases…Unlike the rare diseases caused by a change affecting only one gene, common diseases like cancer and diabetes are caused by a set of several genetic variations in each person. Since these common diseases generally strike later in life, after people have had children, the theory has been that natural selection is powerless to weed them out. The problem addressed in the commentaries is that these diseases were expected to be promoted by genetic variations that are common in the population. More than 100 genomewide association studies, often involving thousands of patients in several countries, have now been completed for many diseases, and some common variants have been found. But in almost all cases they carry only a modest risk for the disease. Most of the genetic link to disease remains unexplained.”
Autism is one of the many diseases where the search for common variants has been a bust. Like clockwork, a new finding of a variant in autism is announced in one study, only to be unreproducible in the next (due to random chance common in genome-wide analysis) and explained perfectly by Mark Blaxill (HERE). If autism were genetic, children would need to have specific genes in order to have the disorder, and none have been found.
A new genome-wide study on autism (more on the study in a moment) appeared in the journal Nature in October 2009. The researchers, from Harvard and MIT, were surprisingly forthright in characterizing the current state of genetic autism research:
“Modern approaches that harness genome-scale technologies have begun to yield some insights into autism and its genetic underpinnings. However, the relative importance of common genetic variants, which are generally present in the human population at a frequency of about 5%, as well as other forms of genetic variation, remains an unresolved question…Although the Nature paper identifies a handful of new genes and genomic regions, the researchers emphasize that the findings are just one piece of a very large — and mostly unfinished — puzzle.”
Unresolved? Mostly unfinished puzzle? Unlike Ms. Wallace, these researchers don’t sound very definitive. In fact, in the study itself, the researchers spell it out even more clearly, saying “attempts to identify specific susceptibility genes [to autism] have thus far met with limited success.”
Looking at the website of Autism Speaks, an organization that has had frequent run-ins with our community but certainly stands alone as the largest organization dedicated to autism science states:
“The best scientific evidence available to us today points toward a potential for various combinations of factors causing autism – multiple genetic components that may cause autism on their own or possibly when combined with exposure to as yet undetermined environmental factors.”
When Ms. Wallace discusses this “growing body of scientific evidence” pointing to genetics I say, “where?” Not to be outdone, I’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. Francis Collins, who just happens to be the current Director of the entire National Institutes of Health:
“Genes alone do not tell the whole story. Recent increases in chronic diseases like diabetes, childhood asthma, obesity or autism cannot be due to major shifts in the human gene pool as those changes take much more time to occur. They must be due to changes in the environment, including diet and physical activity, which may produce disease in genetically predisposed persons."
Did Dr. Collins say “autism”? Yes, he did. On one side, you have the Director of the NIH and every real scientist in the autism field. On the other side, Mr. Offit and Ms. Wallace, his apparent stenographer, confuse the Wired reader with a take on genetics in the autism world they won’t find anywhere else.
Factual Error #3: Ms. Wallace implies the growing body of evidence is moving scientists towards viewing autism as genetic, which is simply untrue.
The second set of factual errors that Ms. Wallace makes related to autism and genetics are so egregious, I’m going to repeat a portion of what she wrote so I can be very clear:
“In April, the journal Nature published two studies that analyzed the genes of almost 10,000 people and identified a common genetic variant present in approximately 65 percent of autistic children.”
Ms. Wallace is correct, two studies were published in Nature in April 2009 related to autism and genetics. What Ms. Wallace fails to mention is that both studies came from the same place: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which happens to be Paul Offit’s employer.
Now, that alone doesn’t trigger the need for a retraction, although at least we have certainty as to where Ms. Wallace got all of the “facts” for her article. But the next point does. You see, Ms. Wallace is right, one of the studies did find a common genetic variant present in 65% of autistic children. But, what Ms. Wallace fails to mention, a fact that might leave the reader with a very different impression, is that 61% of the controls in the study – the children without autism – had the same variant. 65% vs. 61%? As is typically the case in genome-wide findings, it was likely the product of chance, nothing more.
(For those of you keeping track at home, read the study (HERE). If you go to table 2 on page 3, find the column labeled “Case MAF” and subtract the listed number from 1.0: So, 1.0-0.35=65%. Doing the same math with “Control MAF” gets you the 61% number.)
Factual Error #4: Ms. Wallace mentions a study in Nature that found 65% of children with autism with a specific genetic variant, but failed to mention that 61% of children without autism shared the same variant, attaching a high degree of importance in her article to a nearly irrelevant finding and misleading Wired readers.
It actually gets better. Autism studies on genetic variants are plagued by this failure of replication issue. One set of researchers runs data on hundreds of thousands of genes. Invariably, they find correlations. A new set of researchers use different subjects and try to replicate the findings and finds nothing, and then the cycle repeats itself. In the case of the genetic variant that Ms. Wallace noted, the one that 65% of the kids with autism had (5p14.1, SNP rs4307059), it didn’t take long for the failure of replication to take place.
Remember the journal article in Nature I quoted above? It came out in October, just before Ms. Wallace’s article was published. It’s called, “A genome-wide linkage and association scan reveals novel loci for autism” and the article mentions:
“Although there was significant overlap between study samples, each of these scans contained a large set of unique families, so we sought to evaluate independent evidence of the top SNP (rs4307059) reported at 5p14 [this is the gene from the CHP study Ms. Wallace cites at 65%]. This SNP happens to be directly genotyped by both Affymetrix and Illumina platforms. We have a sizable number (n 5 796) of affected subjects with two parents genotyped (and of predominantly similar European background). However, we observed no support for association at this locus (T:U 354:335 in favour of the minor allele, a trend in the opposite direction as reported).”
English translation: not only could they not find an association on the gene where Ms. Wallace reported 65% of children with autism carried it, they actually found that when they ran the numbers, the kids WITHOUT autism were MORE likely to carry it. Said differently, the chances that this variant means anything related to autism is nearly zero. Ms. Wallace, would you care to change your article?
Factual Error #5: Ms. Wallace reported on a finding of a genetic variant in 65% of children with autism (the one where she failed to mention the 61% of controls who also had it), but failed to mention that a more recent study had been unable to replicate the finding, rendering it meaningless.
When it comes to genetics, the gap between Ms. Wallace’s article and the reality of the science of autism is exceptionally wide.
So far, through 5 factual errors I have pointed out, Ms. Wallace has failed a fundamental test of presenting the current state of the science of autism. Her portrayal that autism isn’t really on the rise, that it’s the product of diagnostic substitution, and that the scientific community is moving to a gene-only model to understand autism with many exciting recent findings is simply inaccurate.
These well-worn ideas are not how real autism researchers think about the science of autism today. They are, however, talking points that Paul Offit routinely uses to provide a smokescreen covering today’s reality to unwitting journalists facing deadlines. The only way Ms. Wallace could have gotten so sidetracked, I contend, is to use Paul Offit as her only source. If there had been others, this reader contends, she would have actually quoted them in her article (Mr. Offit is the only autism “expert” quoted in the entire piece.)
3. Vaccines & Autism
The primary theme of Ms. Wallace’s article is that vaccines do not cause autism, the science has spoken, and the only reason this issue lingers is because of the irrational behavior of certain parents in general and the anti-vaccine groups in particular.
“Of all the remarkable frauds that will one day surround the autism epidemic, perhaps one of the most galling is the simple statement that the “science has spoken” and “vaccines don’t cause autism.” Anytime a public health official or other talking head states this, you can be assured that one of two things is true: they have never read the studies they are talking about, or they are lying through their teeth.”
It’s no surprise that Ms. Wallace, too, participates in this fraud, albeit even I was shocked by how clearly she does it. Here’s her words:
“To be clear, there is no credible evidence to indicate that any of this is true. None. Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethylmercury that has largely been removed from vaccines since 20011) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems.”
As I mentioned, the cover of the Wired article says “vaccines don’t cause autism”, which Ms. Wallace repeats throughout her article. And, yet, when pressed to site the specifics of what research has been done, Ms. Wallace herself spells out that only a single vaccine – MMR – has ever been studied for its relationship to autism. How do you get from one vaccine, which comprises exactly 2 of the 36 vaccines children receive before the age of 5, to saying “vaccines (including the other 34)” don’t cause autism? It’s like saying, because the Vioxx trials went well, Viagra is OK, too. Are the other 34 shots safe through the transitive property?
Just so we all understand what a blazing lie this really is, here’s a summary of shots children receive in just their first 6 months:
Birth: Hep B,
2 month visit: Hepatitis B, Rotavirus, DTP, Hib, Pneumococcal, Polio
4 month visit: Hepatitis B, Rotavirus, DTP, Hib, Pneumococcal, Polio
6 month visit: Hepatitis B, Rotavirus, DTP, Hib, Pneumococcal, Polio, Flu
In the first 6 months of life, 20 shots – and no MMR. Ms. Wallace, if a parent has their child react at one of these appointments and descend into autism, please point all of us at the science that shows it couldn’t possibly be the (unstudied) vaccines.
Factual Error #6: Ms. Wallace continually repeats the “hungry lie” that vaccines don’t cause autism when it’s a fact that only 2 of the 36 shots children receive have ever been studied for their relationship to autism.
Those who disagree with us claim that this line of thinking somehow “moves the goalposts” on the autism debate. As a point of fact, here are the only things we know with certainty:
- More children than ever are diagnosed with autism, signaling a likely environmental trigger, which many scientists and autism groups agree with.
- There are tens of thousands of case reports by parents of children with autism who regressed after a vaccine appointment
- There is scientific certainty that vaccines can cause brain injury in a subset of children, as evidenced by the vaccine injury table available at the VICP (HERE)
A genuine scientist, seeing this fact pattern for the first time, would likely approach the issue with curiosity, rather than a complaint that the rules of the game have somehow been changed. They’d probably pose, in order to get to the bottom of things, that the following studies be completed:
- A study of children who had never received vaccines to see if their rate of autism and other disorders is higher or lower (vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study)
- An animal model of the vaccine schedule, comparing a group of animals who receive the entire schedule and a group of animals who receive a placebo.
Bernadine Healy, MD, a second Director of the NIH quoted in this article, makes this point, that the work done to determine causality between vaccines and autism, really hasn’t yet been done:
"We have to take another look at that hypothesis, not deny it. I think we have the tools today that we didn't have 10 years ago, 20 yrs ago, to try and tease that out and find out if there is a susceptible group…A susceptible group does not mean that vaccines are not good. What a susceptible group will tell us is that maybe there is a group of individual who shouldn't have a particular vaccine or shouldn't have vaccines on the same schedule…I don't believe that if we identify the susceptibility group, if we identify a particular risk factor for vaccines or if we found out that maybe they should be spread out a little longer, I do not believe that the public would lose faith in vaccines… I think that the government or certain public officials in the government have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick…I haven't seen major studies that focus on 300 kids who got autistic symptoms within a period of a few weeks of a vaccine…I think public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without sufficient studies of causation…I think they have been too quick to dismiss studies in the animal laboratory either in mice, in primates, that do show some concerns with regard to certain vaccines and also to the mercury preservative in vaccines…The reason why they didn't want to look for those susceptibility groups was because they were afraid that if they found them, however big or small they were, that that would scare the public…I don't think you should ever turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you're afraid of what it might show… Populations do not test causality, they test associations. You have to go into the laboratory and you have to do designed research studies in animals…The fact that there is concern that you don't want to know that susceptible group is a real disappointment to me. You can save those children…The more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that's been done on animals. If you also look at some of these individual cases and if you look at the evidence that there is no link what I come away with is the question has not been answered."
Perhaps Ms. Wallace missed the fact that at least one approach to answering these questions is already underway, as Mark Blaxill explained (HERE):
“A research team led by scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and Thoughtful House reported today that exposure to a birth dose of a hepatitis B vaccine that included an ethyl mercury preservative caused significant delays in the development of several survival reflexes in male rhesus macaque monkeys. The findings were published on line today in the journal Neurotoxicology.[You can purchase the article from Science Direct (HERE).”
Additionally, a recent study published in the journal the Annals of Epidemiology titled “Hepatitis B Vaccination of Male Neonates and Autism” (HERE) found that “Boys who received the hepatitis B vaccine during the first month of life had 2.94 greater odds for ASD [autism] compared to later- or unvaccinated boys.”
Is Ms. Wallace the arbiter of exactly which published studies should be discussed with the readers of Wired, or did Mr. Offit not point these out to her?
Factual Error #7: Ms. Wallace contends that “there is no credible evidence to indicate that any of this is true [vaccines causing autism]” while science is actively being published that shows just the opposite.
4. Number of Shots given
Ms. Wallace writes:
“Currently the most vaccines children receive at any one time is five.”
In point of fact, children receive 6 total shots at their two, four and six months appointment, and more likely 7 since flu is now part of the recommended schedule, as you can easily enough count on the CDC’s Immunization Schedule HERE (HERE).
Factual Error #8: Ms. Wallace says that the most shots a child gets at one time is five when in fact the right number is seven, and they receive six during their 2, 4, and 6 month vaccine appointments.
5. Gastrointestinal disease and autism
Ms. Wallace writes:
“Pediatrics published an investigation of a popular hypothesis that children with autism have a higher incidence of gastrointestinal problems…The Pediatrics paper found that while autistic kids suffered more from constipation, the cause was likely behavioral, not organic; there was no significant association between autism and GI symptoms.”
It’s true, Pediatrics did publish this study, called “Incidence of Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Children With Autism.” The study took a group of autistic children and evaluated whether or not they had EVER had a wide-range of GI issues, and then compared them to children without autism. Have diarrhea for a week? To the researchers, that’d be the same as a child who had diarrhea for 5 years. As a researcher mentioned, “The importance difference is how chronic it is, not if you’ve ever had it. So having a viral illness with diarrhea that lasts for a week or two was counted the same as children who may have chronic loose stools every day of their life. They do not distinguish these issues in their study data.”
So far, nothing I’ve said makes Ms. Wallace’s approach to discussing this study a factual error. In this case, I contend her error of omission is stark. You see, a very recent study also released in 2009, was published in the journal of Autism and called, “Are there more bowel symptoms in children with autism compared to normal children and children with other neurological disorders? A case control study.” IN this study, researchers reached a completely different conclusion, using a completely different methodology, than the Pediatrics study:
“There was a significant difference in the reporting of certain bowel symptoms (constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence) and food faddiness between the autism group and the mainstream school control group…This study confirms previously reported findings of an increase in bowel symptoms in children with autism.”
And, therein lies Ms. Wallace’s first factual error. In her article, Ms. Wallace writes that the notion of GI disease and autism is a “popular hypothesis” without letting the reader know that there are, in fact, dozens of published studies documenting bowel disease in autism (HERE). Why not let the Wired reader know the subject is still up for debate, with apparently warring studies reaching different conclusions? This happens all the time in science, and quite a bit in the autism world.
To illustrate this point more fully, that many published, peer-reviewed studies have documented GI issues in children at much higher rates than controls, I will quote from just one of these many studies, “The significance of ileo-colonic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia in children with autistic spectrum disorder”, which you can read (HERE). Some study highlights:
“The prevalence of LNH [ileo-colonic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia] was significantly greater in ASD children compared with controls in the ileum (129/144 (90%) vs. 8/27 (30%), P<0.0001) and colon (88/148 (59%) vs. 7/30 (23%), P = 0.0003), whether or not controls had coexistent colonic inflammation… Ileo-colonic LNH is a characteristic pathological finding in children with ASD and gastrointestinal symptoms, and is associated with mucosal inflammation.”
Factual Error #9: Ms. Wallace says the GI-Autism relationship is a hypothesis, now disproven by one study in Pediatrics. She fails to mention the richness of the current debate and never mentions the years of published research that have reached a different conclusion, robbing the Wired reader of a true understanding.
To further the point, Autism Speaks held a conference in 2006 on gastrointestinal issues in children with autism -- from their website:
“More than 43,000 physicians across the country will receive a consensus statement that includes specific recommendations for evaluating patients who present with GI symptoms and determining an appropriate treatment plan. Gastrointestinal problems are common among children with autism and often a source of significant discomfort and distress.”
5. DTP Vaccine and Pertussis Incidence
Ms. Wallace writes:
“The risk of dying from the pertussis vaccine, by contrast, is practically nonexistent — in fact, no study has linked DTaP (the three-in-one immunization that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) to death in children.”
Looking at the Vaccine Injury Compensation website (HERE), one can quickly see that the claims for death from the DTaP vaccine currently sits at 80, with another 695 death claims for the DTP vaccine. For the 80 people who have filed a claim of death of a loved one (and often a child) from DTP, the number 80 and Ms. Wallace’s words of “practically non-existent” may be hard to reconcile. Why is Ms. Wallace trying so hard to minimize the reality that vaccines do in fact kill people? What’s wrong with some informed consent?
Factual Error #10: Ms. Wallace claims that the risk of dying from the DTaP vaccine is “practically nonexistent” when our own government is currently dealing with 80 death claims and more than 600 legacy claims of death.
Ms. Wallace writes:
“The New England Journal of Medicine laid the blame for clusters of disease outbreaks throughout the US squarely at the feet of declining vaccination rates…In the June issue of the journal Pediatrics…revealed that the number of reported pertussis cases jumped from 1,000 in 1976 to 26,000 in 2004. A disease that vaccines made rare, in other words, is making a comeback.”
Ms. Wallace implies that this uptick in pertussis cases is the “fault” of the “anti-vaccine” movement. What she fails to point out:
- Vaccinated children make up 89% of pertusiss cases. Think abut that for a second: almost all pertussis cases are kids who received the pertussis vaccine.
- And, the study authors of the study Ms. Wallace cites plainly state: “we found that physicians were more than 3 times as likely to obtain pertussis laboratory tests on unvaccinated children presenting with URI symptoms but without classic pertussis symptoms. This type of diagnostic bias could artificially elevate the relative-risk estimate.”
- Further, the study authors didn’t blame the anti-vaccine movement for the 89% of the cases of pertussis affecting vaccinated kids, they simply said unvaccinated kids were more likely to get pertussis.
In fact, and this is well known by the CDC, the problem is the pertussis vaccine itself, not parents who choose not to vaccinate. Consider this article in the Times of London regarding a study in the British Medical Journal by a team from Oxford University:
Whooping cough still infecting millions of vaccinated children
MILLIONS of British children have probably been infected with whooping cough even though they have been immunised against it. A study has found that nearly two in five children who went to their GP with a persistent cough had suffered from whooping cough, though very few doctors diagnose it. The results suggest that the whooping cough vaccine is ineffective at preventing infection, but makes symptoms less severe — thereby concealing just how common it remains.
Factual Error #11: Ms. Wallace lays the blame for the return of pertussis at the feet of parents who don’t vaccinate when in fact published studies show that the real cause is the ineffectiveness of the Pertussis vaccine, as 89% of pertussis cases are vaccinated children.
Summary & Conclusions
I have cited 11 specific factual errors in Ms. Wallace’s article in this month’s edition of Wired Magazine. I contend that Ms. Wallace’s portrayal of the current state of the many complicated debates regarding autism are highly one-sided and ultimately detrimental to Wired’s readers, preventing them from an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of this debate. Moreover, to the extent parents use Ms. Wallace’s article to help guide their thinking about either how to approach vaccines or what autism treatments to consider, her article may direct parents towards a course of action that could cause their children harm.
With a click of her keyboard, Ms. Wallace dismissed a growing movement of scientists, doctors, and parents toiling away to save their kids, without ever talking to any of our scientists or doctors. When Ms. Wallace dismisses our experiences with such a poorly researched piece, she disrespects the very real experience and journey our children have had and are facing. I know I speak for many when I say that we, as a community, are irate by the one-sided lies that Wired Magazine allowed Ms. Wallace to put in print. I look at my son, and all that he has gone through. I then think about how superficially and inaccurately Ms. Wallace approached this topic, and it really steams me.
Since the publication of her article, Ms. Wallace has been quite public in complaining about the treatment she has received from some people in our community, including myself. In Ms. Wallace’s world, this poor treatment and the use of malicious words directed at her (another act from Offit’s playbook – portray yourself as a victim) ONLY comes from our camp directed towards rational people like her, which is just another example of a falsehood. Ms. Wallace, it’s the printing of so many falsehoods in your article that you wrote and “researched” that makes us all so mad. Rather than complaining about the mean things you feel people are saying to you, perhaps you can address many of the factual mistakes you have actually made? Pretending that you know the answers and we don’t does not absolve you from dealing with the facts. The only victims in this debate are the kids. As Jim Carrey once said, “The problem is the problem.”
Recently, Ms. Wallace wrote the following:
From a father who disliked the story, a wrenching illustration of why it's so vital that research dollars not be wasted. People need help: My son was born in 2001. He was diagnosed with Autistic Disorder at 26 months. He is 8 years old now and still in diapers “We have to lock the doors, and I have to sleep in front of the front door in case he gets up and tries to leave (he loves to wander). His rages are sometimes so violent that we have to force his sisters to leave the room in case he tries to attack them. He can, in the throes of his anger, lift his 6'4", 230 lb father off of the floor,” says this dad, who is sure that the MMR and DTap vaccines caused his son’s suffering. “There is no other explanation.” Until there IS another explanation, vaccines will b falsely vilified
Ms. Wallace claims that “vaccines will b falsely vilified”, dismissing this father’s entire experience, despite my clear demonstration that Ms. Wallace has completely butchered the facts surrounding the vaccine-autism debate. If you are going to dismiss this dad’s story out of hand, you’d better be 100% sure you are right, and, Ms. Wallace, you’re not even close. To put it mildly, you owe this father a very big apology for dismissing his concerns so rudely.
Do you think Ms. Wallace needs to make some corrections? She is fond of pointing out that she gets more emails from people who agree with her than disagree…
Let her know, here: firstname.lastname@example.org
And, please let Wired’s Editor Chris Anderson know, (HERE)
If you’d like to read the best thing I have ever seen on the state of autism science, check out this document written by Thoughtful House (HERE) I will leave you all with one of my favorite editorials, written by Dr. Jon Poling, which successfully puts the reality of autism science, and Paul Offit’s minimal role in furthering this science, in proper relief. Thank you for sticking with me on this, I know it’s been a long read:
GUEST COLUMN (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Blinders won’t reduce autism
By JON POLING
Friday, March 13, 2009
For the million plus American families touched by autism, like mine, there is real urgency to find scientific answers to help loved ones and prevent future victims. Unfortunately, some doctors still fail to even accept the increasing autism rate as real, rather than their own better diagnosis.
The collateral damage of “better diagnosis,” the idea that we are simply better at detecting autism, is the abandonment of families coping with autism by the medical establishment, government and private insurance companies.
Beyond the high emotional toll autism takes on a family, many have been financially ruined. Public school systems are drowning in the red ink of educating increasing numbers of special-needs students.
Fortunately, the ‘better diagnosis’ myth has been soundly debunked. In the 2009 issue of Epidemiology, two authors analyzed 1990 through 2006 California Department of Developmental Services and U.S. Census data documenting an astronomical 700 to 800 percent rise in the disorder.
These scientists concluded that only a smaller percentage of this staggering rise can be explained by means other than a true increase.
Because purely genetic diseases do not rise precipitously, the corollary to a true autism increase is clear — genes only load the gun and it is the environment that pulls the trigger. Autism is best redefined as an environmental disease with genetic susceptibilities.
We should be investing our research dollars into discovering environmental factors that we can change, not more poorly targeted genetic studies that offer no hope of early intervention. Pesticides, mercury, aluminum, several drugs, dietary factors, infectious agents and yes — vaccines — are all in the research agenda.
An inspiring new text, “Autism-Current Theories and Evidence,” has successfully navigated the minefield of autism science without touching the “third rail,” as Dr. Sanjay Gupta aptly describes the vaccine-autism debate.
Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, who has studied autism for decades, prophetically writes, “The clinical heterogeneity of this disorder, together with the inherent dynamic changes during children’s growth and development, confound static, linear models and simplistic, unilateral approaches.”
Zimmerman’s book is dense with cutting-edge science on cell biology, metabolism, oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, auto-immunity and brain pathology. That’s right — autism isn’t simply a genetic program for brain development gone awry. Dr. Martha Herbert, of Harvard Medical School, writes the final chapter defining autism in the larger framework of a multiple organ system disease with potentially reversible impairments.
As an affected parent, I am left with a sense of hope that these professionals will produce results to stem the tide of new autism cases and ameliorate symptoms of those currently suffering.
On the other hand, Dr. Paul Offit, the vaccine inventor whose Rotateq royalty interests recently sold for a reported $182 million, has written a novel of perceived good and evil called “Autism’s False Prophets.”
The tome is largely a dramatic account of why Offit, who self-admittedly is not an autism expert, feels vaccines should be exonerated in the autism epidemic. In the story, Offit takes no prisoners, smearing characters in the vaccine-autism controversy as effortlessly as a rich cream cheese.
“False Prophets” has curiously garnered support from several senior physicians in respected medical journals.
After Offit’s drama is complete, these cheerleaders fail to realize they have traveled the road labeled “Dead End — No Through Traffic.” In his epilogue, Offit credits autism parents who have likewise gone down the dead end path to autism acceptance, without search for cause or cure.
As both parent and doctor, I cannot fathom turning my back on a child nor science, in order to avoid inconvenient questions about vaccine safety or any other reasonable environmental factor.
President Obama has recognized that “we’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate” and plans to appoint an “autism czar” to coordinate his policy efforts. Science is moving forward to connect the three dots of environment, genes and plasticity of a developing child’s brain circuitry. In the end, logic and reason will prevail over politics and profits.
• Dr. Jon Poling, an Athens neurologist, is an assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia. His daughter, Hannah Poling, has been a successful petitioner in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.
J.B.Handley is co-founder of Generation Rescue