By Dan Olmsted
A while back -- on September 4, 2008, in fact -- I wrote a post titled "Letting the MMR Off the Hook" that began: "The last time I saw Ian Lipkin was at the IOM Environment-and-Autism workshop last year. He was spending a lllloooottttttt of time describing some gizmotron that could do something or other to analyze some stuff that might hold clues to autism." I never published it. I'm not sure why, but I did make a note to myself that I was being "deliberately provocative," so perhaps I decided to hold off.
That, anyway, was my impression of Dr. Lipkin, and the bzzz-bzzzt-bzzzt at the meeting was that Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health -- it takes half an hour just to say the title! -- was hogging the microphone to promote, as I put it, some gizmotron, complete with a slide presentation. For all the world he looked like a salesman raising money for his lab, which sources report that in private conversations seems to be what he cares about.
I went back and found that column this week after picking up my Wall Street Journal on Monday at Starbucks and nearly spitting up my Venti Hazelnut Pike when I got to the Op-Ed page and found, by W. Ian Lipkin, "Anti-Vaccination Lunacy Won't Stop." The professor wants you to know that he was a major player in getting Robert De Niro to pull the plug on Vaxxed at the Tribeca Film Festival.
"I am among those Mr. De Niro consulted. In a 45-minute conversation with him, I recommended that the festival withdraw the film from the 'documentary' category and not screen it."
Why not just title the column "I, Ian"? 45 minutes with a big star! And a star so famously inarticulate that a glossy magazine once titled its interview with him "Fifteen Mumbling Minutes With Robert Di Niro." I am guessing, but I bet Rankin spent a llllloooottttt of time talking.
In the WSJ article, Lipkin also manages to call attention to a study he and colleagues did in September 2008 (hence the column I was writing back then), which supposedly absolved the MMR of any involvement with autism. "We tested Mr. Wakefield's two major findings. ... In our peer-reviewed study ... we found that only 20 percent of children fit the Wakefield model in receiving MMR vaccine before onset of GI disturbance and autism."
This study caused a lot of consternation at the time, not least because another author of the study, Mady Hornig, made extravagant claims about those findings and also because Hornig had long seemed sympathetic to vaccine safety concerns around not just the MMR but thimerosal. She authored the famous mouse study that showed auto-immune-susceptible mice given thimerosal chewing on each other and otherwise behaving like out-of-control autistic mice might be expected to behave.
I included her in that 2008 column, too, noting: "The last time I saw Mady Hornig she was giving me a llllooonnngggg disquisition on exactly how the measles virus could mess up kids in a way that, I swear I'm remembering this correctly, leads to autism."
And I still remember it. She was telling me how the MMR could cause autism! She was doing vaccine lunacy! We were sitting in a round glass restaurant on top of a hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, talking above karaoke, one tune being "Brown-Eyed Girl" (How's that for recall!). There was a terrible storm that I decided to leave in the middle of, and ended up at a close-by friends' house waiting it out. I, Dan Olmsted, am a trained observer. I remember these things. (And here's a what-the-heck: Back in 2005, after the Times ran its infamous Parents-vs-Science takedown of the vaccine-autism concerns, Hornig and Lipkin were among those paying a visit to the public editor to complain. Who looks a little looney now?)
So when the MMR study came out and Hornig was fronting for it, I got the feeling it was a ticket back to respectable mainstream scientism. Mark Blaxill and I addressed it in our book, The Age of Autism, in 2010.
“The Hornig study was by all accounts carefully done and the reported results valid. In the press release announcing the publication, however, Hornig went further, claiming, “The work reported here eliminates the remaining support for the hypothesis that autism with GI complaints is related to MMR vaccine exposure. We found no relationship between the timing of MMR vaccine and the onset of either GI complaints or autism.” In our view, this claim was an exaggeration. In her study, only five of the twenty-five children developed these symptoms after the MMR vaccine and therefore, only these five were comparable to the 2002 Wakefield study. In contrast to her public statement, her new study effectively confirmed that results from an earlier study from the laboratory of Professor John O’Leary were correct, and identical to the results obtained by the participating laboratories, which included Wakefield’s original collaborator, as well as the CDC and Columbia lab. Far from repudiating Wakefield’s findings, it provided support for the reliability of the original analysis.”
As I look back at my e-mail traffic from the time, this observation was a pretty civil distillation of what most people in the vaccine safety community considered a stab in the back. The operative phrase was "selling out."
"Just thinking out loud," one e-mailer said. "It’s a big claim to make for a little study. The evidence is what it is. But Hornig makes a grandiose claim. It’s kind of embarrassing, like the way she overstated her mouse findings (one mice ate through the 'scalp' not, as Mady said in talks, the 'skull' of its cage mate). Mady is a good scientist and does thorough work and we should respect it. But she’s way out of her depth as a big picture interpreter."
Right on cue, the Forbes headline read: "U.S. study claims to clear MMR vaccine of autism link."
"We found no difference in children who had GI complaints and no autism and children who had autism but no GI complaints," Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University told reporters in a telephone briefing, according to Forbes, which added that "the team also collected data about the children's health and immunization histories from parents and physicians to see if vaccinations preceded either their autism or bowel trouble.
"We found no relationship between the timing of MMR vaccine and the onset of either GI complaints or autism," Dr. Mady Hornig, also of Columbia, said in a statement.
Said another of my e-mailers: "I am still actively angry at these two for their MMR capitulation and conference call about it."
I hardly think these two care. Not when they get a llllooooottttt of press coverage, have a lllooooonnggg conversation (45 whole minutes) with a big star, and get to have a five-column article in the journal titled "Anti-Vaccination Lunacy Won't Stop" all about a study that proved nothing, while hurling names like "lunatic." As a vaccine lunatic, I think I'll end with part of that post from eight years ago that never ran. So sorry if it's deliberately provocative!
I especially don't understand how you get from not finding the measles virus in some kids with autism and GI problems, to making the evening news (as Hornig did last night) by saying that there is thus no connection between the MMR and autism.
Because, there is. I strongly believe the MMR can trigger autism in vulnerable kids, and this study does nothing to knock down that idea. I'm sick and tired of studies that put the burden on the critics of the untested, unsafe and pharma-driven childhood immunization schedule by going after particular theories of causation rather than figuring out whether the MMR causes autism ONE WAY OR THE OTHER. These piecemeal studies slice off one part of the pie -- and more money from the CDC -- and then say, see, we didn't find anything so vaccines are safe. Shoot 'em up!
I have been a longtime critic of the MMR, and it comes from spending a lot of time talking to parents of kids who got the MMR (usually with some other live virus vaccine or mercury-containing shot), got sick and regressed, as well as looking at the evidence that something fishy is going on when multiple live viruses meet and greet in developing immune systems.
Is the MMR alone behind the autism epidemic? No, it is not. There has never been an autism epidemic -- pick your country -- that can be traced to the MMR alone; even in the U.S., the spike in cases starting around 1990 came too late to be wholly or solely explained by the introduction of the MMR a decade earlier. What the MMR does do, I believe, is synergize with a pre-existing vulnerability (including a crapload of mercury) to make a subset of kids autistic.
That's the kind of thing you DON'T find when you take a bunch of kids -- most of whom regressed and had GI problems BEFORE they got the MMR, for crying out loud -- and look for measles in their guts, and not find it, and give the CDC an "all clear" to keep causing autism.
The question is, what are those vulnerabilities? I've spelled this out many times in many ways, based on what is now years of reporting, researching and listening to real people. You can find at least three ways to turn the MMR into the "autism shot," as Jenny McCarthy has aptly phrased it.
First, hit very young kids with multiple live viruses, either in concurrent vaccinations or because the child actually got sick near the time of the shot (Paul Shattock in Great Britain has done fascinating research suggesting marked regression after the MMR is more likely if a child has had naturally occurring chickenpox three months either side of the MMR shot).
Second, mix in a background load of toxins -- from where you live, what you drink, other shots or power plants or whatever that add in enough mercury, aluminum, lead, arsenic etc. to dysregulate the immune system just enough to make MMR feel right at home. The mercury-containing flu shot in pregnant women and infants as young as six months could be enough to tee this up, I believe.
Third, combine the above in a child with an inherited difficulty in coping with a particular virus.
Is it really up to the parents who have witnessed these reactions and tried to warn others to figure all this out, too? No, it's not, even though many of them are doing yeoman's work on that front. It's enough to say that all the evidence of our eyes and ears implicates the MMR in autism. This is why Bernadine Healy, the former NIH head, says researchers need to find 400 kids whose parents believe they got sick and regressed as an IMMEDIATE reaction to vaccines and figure out what happened to them.
Instead, we get self-serving rubbish like this. The only really interesting thing this time is who's taking out the CDC's trash.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism