By Anne Dachel
At noon on Tuesday, March 22, I went online for “an hour-long chat about vaccines, vaccine safety, the anti-vaccine movement and vaccine injury, with the Tribune's health reporter Trine Tsouderos and panelist Dr. Paul Offit.”
Here’s how Offit was described:
“Dr. Offit, a pediatrician, is the co-inventor of the RotaTeq rotavirus vaccine, chief of the division of infectious diseases at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the new book, ‘Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.’ Offit is an expert on vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement. He has written widely about the science behind them in both books, the popular press and medical journals, debunking common myths about these ubiquitous medical interventions.”
(The online chat was done with typed comments from participants that appeared on the screen and several minutes later there’d be a typed response from Offit or Tsouderos. You can read what was said here: http://www.latimes.com/health/ct-health-chat-vaccines,0,7963322.htmlstory)
I’ve noticed that whenever Offit gets the floor to talk about vaccine safety, there’s never a problem with vaccines and there’s never a real concern over autism. The only thing wrong is that a vocal minority of parents are questioning the mandated schedule and creating fear and distrust. And this was the tone of that day’s chat.
There were 22 questions posted and answered. And although the discussion was supposed to be about “vaccines, vaccine safety, the anti-vaccine movement and vaccine injury,” it really wasn’t.
In answer to one question, Offit said, “Vaccines are well-tested before they're given to children in concomitant-use studies. Vaccines cannot be added to the schedule unless it has been clearly shown that the new vaccine does not interfere with the safety or immunogenicity of existing vaccines and that the existing vaccines don't interfere with the safety or immunogenicity profile of the new vaccine. Also, the immunological challenge from vaccines is pretty trivial when compared with the challenges babies typically encounters in the environment.”
He added, “Clearly, more vaccines have been added. As technology improves, it's been easier to make some vaccines now than we could in the past. Specific advances have occurred in protein chemistry, protein purification, and recombinant DNA technology. All has made for better, safer vaccines.”
To another question Offit replied, “The problem with today's vaccine safety discussion is that most of what you read or hear about aren't really problems with vaccines (e.g., autism, learning disabilities, MS, diabetes, and others).” Offit blamed the controversy over vaccine safety on “inaccurate websites on the Internet.”
So it was clear that neither “vaccine safety” nor “vaccine injury” were really topics for discussion since as Offit informed us, we already have the safest vaccines possible and there’s no link to serious side effects. That left us with most of the hour devoted to “the anti-vaccine movement.”
Of the 22 questions, only two were actually on vaccine safety. One was from Jamie Deckoff-Jones MD:
“Are you concerned that the current epidemics of ME/CFS, ASD and GWI are related to vaccines? These neuroimmune disease cohorts are all of mysterious etiology and share many clinical similarities: sensory and cognitive processing deficits, susceptibility to and inability to clear certain infections, an unusual susceptibility to stress, increased oxidative stress, glutathione depletion, methylation blocks, mitochondrial defects, high levels of heavy metals, inflammatory bowel issues, hormone abnormalities and a suspicion that vaccines are implicated in pathogenesis.
The pathology in humans is extremely similar to what is known of simple retroviral infections in animals. We have evidence that xenotropic and polytropic MuLVs are infecting humans (Lombardi et al Science Oct 2009, Lo et al PNAS Sept 2010). Given the history of the use of mouse and chick embryo cells for vaccine production coinciding with the history of Epidemic Neuromyasthenia (as documented by Henderson and Shelokov, NEJM 1959), the known presence of animal retroviruses in those cells, and the documented ability of these viruses to infect human cells, aren't you the least bit concerned?”
Offit ignored most of the points Deckoff-Jones made and said simply, “The xenotropic murine retrovirus story as a cause of neurologic disease, including chronic fatigue syndrome has clearly fallen apart. And for those of us old enough to remember, many careers have fallen off a cliff claiming retroviruses as a cause of a variety of illnesses: most noteworthy, MS and Kawasaki's disease. Retroviruses are so ubiquitous and such a frequent lab contaminant that they're the Sirens of the lab.”
I actually posted my comment several days before the “chat” and it was included in the ones that Offit answered.
Me: “As a parent, an autism advocate, and a writer for the blog, Age of Autism, I would like to see Dr. Offit address the issue of a comparison study of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Why has there never been an official study comparing the health of children who are fully-vaccinated with the health of children who've never been vaccinated? If never-vaccinated kids have the same problems as average American children, including exploding rates of asthma, severe allergies, and diabetes, along with a one percent autism rate, it would be proof that vaccines aren't responsible. We could move on from this controversial issue. The failure of our health agencies and the medical community to call for such a study raises serious concerns among parents. What are these experts afraid of finding out? There are now more and more parents exempting their children from vaccinations, so the study group is out there. Why isn't Dr. Offit insisting on this research?”
Offit: “The best way to study vaccine safety is prospectively. Obviously, you could never ethically do this study prospectively because it would be unethical to withhold vaccines, which are known to prevent suffering, hospitalization, and death. Some retrospective studies are starting to emerge. One published by Charles Woods and Michael Smith in Pediatrics looked at fully vaccinated and relatively unvaccinated children and, not surprisingly, found no difference in neurological outcome. But all of the biological evidence for autism points away from vaccines, so calling for such a study seems off the point and largely unfair to parents of children with autism.”
The other twenty questions were pretty non-confrontational. They allowed Offit to proclaim the safety of vaccines and warn us about the growing danger from the “anti-vaccine movement.” They couldn’t have been more ideal for him if he’d written them himself. They included things like,
“Is there harm in stretching out the schedule of vaccinations?” (Offit: Of course there is. Children “need to be protected as soon as possible.”)
“How do we convince parents who are currently disbelievers, to vaccinate their children?”
From Stephen Barrett, MD: “Can anything be done about the problem of talk show hosts who repeatedly provide forums for guests who give irresponsible health advice?”
“Do you think we should have vaccine mandates for adults …similar to the mandates for public school children?”
From Ken Reibel: “April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. What kind of stories would you like to see the news and entertainment media cover, and what advice can you offer to general assignment reporters who are told to find an ‘autism story’?”
Offit: “I work in a hospital with David Mandell, Hakon Hakanarson, and Bob Schultz, all excellent researchers in the field of autism. And the story of the cause or causes of the disorder is clearly emerging. There's been a lot of wonderful research in this area that involves specific genes, the proteins those genes make, when they make them, structural abnormalities in the brains of children with ASD and others that offers some real hope for the future. I look forward to the time when these stories are the main story, rather than the unfortunate focus on a dead-end hypothesis like vaccines. That discussion has only hurt children with autism, causing some to miss vaccines from which they would have benefited.”
There was praise for Offit too.
From a researcher: “Paul, you are a hero to those of us that value objective science and not anecdotal nonsense.”
From a doctor: “I am currently reading your new book. It is excellent….”
Dr. Robert Block: “Paul, as President-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, I want to thank you for your work and for your book, ‘Deadly Choices.’ What is the single best strategy for helping Parents separate the junk from the real facts about vaccines?”
When I first heard about the “Live Health Chat,” I thought it was going to be a real call-in show where Offit would respond to random questions. I thought it was going to deal with vaccine injury and the one-size-fits-all vaccine schedule. I should have known better. Offit had the option of choosing questions that allowed him to promote his views and ignore anything that challenged them.
One of my friends in the autism community submitted NO LESS THAN ELEVEN QUESTIONS. Here are some of them:
--Every time someone asks you to call for a totally vaccinated v totally unvaccinated study of children you always say it's unethical. However, there are thousands of children unvaccinated in the US that you can use. Why don't you?
--You said that the study has been done of vaccinated v relatively unvaccinated. Excuse me, Dr. Offit, but that is not the same as totally unvaccinated so you cannot conclude that there were no differences.
--You say everyone needs to be vaccinated so those too young or those with immune problems who cannot be vaccinated--will be protected. Does that include our children, diagnosed with autism, who have immune dysfunction now?
--There have never been studies on the synergism of so many vaccines given at the same time. Do you dispute this?
--Since you do not believe that vaccines cause autism, then please tell me what does?
--Do you believe that autism is more than a psychological-neurological problem?
--Do you believe that the autism numbers have increased since 1940?
--Trine-Why are you responding? Do you consider yourself an expert on autism? Do you have a child with autism?
Not one of these questions was considered. Instead, Offit pretended that he had all the science on his side and he didn’t bother to get into any of the concerns of parents.
I’ve long noticed that autism is never a main focus in talks like this. It’s never anything to worry about. Offit continued to act as though genetic research is giving us substantive answers about the cause of autism and that it “offers some real hope for the future.”
(Trine Tsouderos also responded to several of the questions, but I omitted her comments in my story for the same reason she dismissed Dr. Robert Sears’s credibility. Tsouderos wrote, “One problem I have as a reporter about Dr. Sears is that he really is not an expert on vaccines at all. I would not use him in a story as an expert on vaccines.” Since she’s not even a doctor, I had to wonder why she felt qualified to take on any of the questions submitted.)
The site had a poll question: Have you vaccinated your children? And the overwhelming response was YES. Considering the topic, I had to wonder why the poll question wasn’t, Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?
If this had been a genuine discussion of vaccine safety and the controversy over vaccines, we’d have heard from more than one incredibly conflicted expert. Offit wouldn’t have controlled the discussion and he’d have had to give real answers to serious questions.
I asked for the one study that could end the debate over vaccines and autism. WE NEED THIS RESEARCH. SHOW US THE NEVER-VACCINATED KIDS WITH AUTISM. If never-vaccinated children have as much autism as fully vaccinated ones, Offit could proclaim it on every network news show. Instead, he talked around the question and made the bizarre claim that “calling for such a study seems off the point and largely unfair to parents of children with autism.”
Anyone tuning into this issue can understand the logic of my request. And the fact that Offit obfuscated and pretended that Charles Woods and Michael Smith’s look at “fully vaccinated and relatively unvaccinated children” is proof of anything, showed that Offit didn’t want to honestly address this question. Offit must have missed the letter from Lawrence Rosen, MD published in PEDIATRICS concerning this study.
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/eletters/peds.2009-2489v1 Rosen cited the inaccuracies in their findings and pointed out that they have considerable ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Smith and Woods wrote back to say that although they may have “unrelated interactions” with the vaccine makers, this study was not funded by them.
So why can’t seemingly earnest scientists like Smith and Woods do some really significant research on vaccine safety and compare the health of fully-vaccinated and never-vaccinated children? The findings they came up with are hardly noteworthy. Why not do something really worthwhile?
I’m curious about what Offit said about a vaccinated/unvaccinated study during a radio interview.
(HERE) Offit brought up a comparison study what supposedly disproved any problems with the MMR vaccine:
"Hundreds of thousands of children who got the MMR were compared with hundreds of thousands of children who didn't get MMR to see whether the risk of autism was greater in the vaccine group and it clearly wasn't."
Why did Offit allege that it would be “unethical to withhold vaccines” for such a study and yet cite research that used “hundreds of thousands of children” who weren’t vaccinated for these diseases? And why didn’t he bring up this research when he answered my question? I’m very curious about this large scale study. How did they come up with hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated kids?
There isn’t a lot of time left for Offit to put on shows like this. Right now, there’s no real concern over what autism is going to do to this nation. According to Offit, the cutting edge autism research involves hunting down the faulty genes that cause our kids to end up with autism, although no significant findings have yet come from science like this.
Offit needs to wake up to the fact that other expects aren’t convinced and they challenge all the suppositions he’s invented. I submitted a second question that never got aired: “On CBS News in 2008, Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of NIH, publicly said that we can't say there's no link between vaccines and autism without a study looking at the children who suddenly and dramatically regressed after certain routine vaccinations. Is she correct?”
If vaccines aren’t the cause for regressive autism, what happened to these kids? That may have been a question that was too tough for Offit to explain away in an online chat. He never answered it.
Offit needs to be made aware of what the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) created by Congress to deal with autism had to say about autism recently, (HERE) "Two decades ago, autism was a little-known, uncommon disorder. Today, autism is more common in the United States than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined, and the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with autism has created a national health emergency. ...
“The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prevalence estimates of ASD for children are 1 in 110 (CDC, 2009). These estimates, more than tenfold higher than two decades ago, raise several urgent questions: Why has there been such an increase in prevalence? What can be done to reverse this alarming trend? How can we improve the outcomes of people already affected, including youth and adults?”
Dr. Thomas Insel head of the IACC has talked about the fact that 80 percent of the people with autism are under the age of 18 and that we need to prepare for a million adults with autism "who may be in need of significant services.” In Offit’s “Autism’s False Prophets,” he adamantly denies this is true. According to Offit, there’s been no increase.
As for vaccines, though Offit may think that “all of the biological evidence for autism points away from vaccines,” there are a number of official vaccine-autism studies planned. This includes study announcements from the CDC, the Dept. of Health and Human Services, and the IACC. While many of us question the right of those already connected to the vaccine program to conduct such studies, one thing is obvious--this issue is as heated as ever. Vaccines have not been exonerated.
Offit ended the chat with, “Thanks, Trine. That was fun.”
It may have been a lark for Offit, but these two are going to have to try a lot harder to convince the public that they’re right, especially with a growing population of dependent adults with autism that no one can explain. They’ve got their work cut out for them.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor of Age of Autism.