Vaccination’s vexed link to bad journalism

Since the obliteration of both Andrew Wakefield’s character and his fraudulent claims, the “vaccines cause autism” lobby has become a most fascinating creature.

On the one hand we have the devout. The fundamentalists waging an emotional jihad against academic reality. Time and again they try to resell Wakefield, sully those who exposed him, concoct some bizarre “confirmation revelation” by distorting other research or parade a wounded parent.

Some plot to sell the compensation myth using cases of children with autism who sustain a vaccine injury. Or children with complex developmental disorders and autistic-like symptoms that were exacerbated by vaccination. Well aware this is not “compensated because of autism”, their intent is to trick others into joining or rejoining their cause.

Others seek to mask their intent. The flawed August attempt by David Austin and Kerrie Shandley from Swinburne to exhume the mercury autism corpse, made it as far as The Age in Melbourne. Devotees to the mercury-in-vaccines cause and members of the Who’s Who of this junk science even these culprits had to publically admit to a meaningless sample, an unproven hypothesis. Yet still they crowed success.

Most recently independent multi-topic author Marj Lefroy joined the obfuscation approach in publishing Vaccination’s vexed link to autism – a “life and style” opinion piece. Posed as a thoughtful observation it soon gives way to a clearly predetermined agenda. All the sign posts are there. The screaming baby being jabbed in the arm file picture, the sheer ignorance of the topic of both vaccination and autism, the erroneous exaggerations, appeal to authority, the seemingly unanswered questions.

It winds up being a free kick for the “vaccines cause autism” lobby. As such it tries to get away with an appalling journalistic standard, void of corroborating research. For example the case of Hannah Poling is raised as some type of proof, yet later Lefroy brings up Dr. David Amaral – who I wrote about recently – as he’s cautiously postulating a maybe. Hannah Poling was destined to manifest the symptoms of mitochondrial enzymatic deficiency vaccines or not. Underlying causes precipitating autistic like symptoms, do not an autism diagnosis make. This is what Amarai is alluding to. Other references to soundly debunked crackpot claims in the US are most cringe-worthy.

Lefroy begins;

Vaccines and autism: why this curious case is not closed

The case is closed. There’s nothing curious about it. An abundance of research has shown no causal relationship between the two and health authorities have bent over backward accommodating the goal post shifting of the anti-vaccination lobby. It remains a threat to confidence in vaccines, thus public health due to articles like this. It is the lack of understanding around autism and the presence of conditions with autistic like symptoms that is a problem.

For many parents, childhood vaccinations are this century’s abortion debate – highly divisive and driving a wedge between friends and neighbours. In the red corner are those banging the ‘vaccinate at any cost’ drum, and in the blue corner a collection of concerned parents and carers who say they’re dealing with the damage done.

Immediately the choice to vaccinate is cast as a thoughtless ideology beholden to vaccines. “Vaccinate at any cost”? This predicates that understanding vaccination means accepting there is a large scale cost to be paid. In truth the only cost in town is that accompanying the decision to not vaccinate. The steadily rising death and permanent injury toll from vaccine preventable disease is forgotten. There are far more common accidents than vaccine injury.

Eg; In the USA 10 children die of gunshot wounds every day [Tanac R et al. “A Case of Gunshot Wound Presenting with Atypical Cardiorespiratory Findings”. Journal of Pediatric Sciences. 2011;3(2):e78]. Aussie kids drown, die on the roads, in accidents at home or become permanently disabled before vaccine injury comes close.

Those in the blue corner, “concerned parents and carers”, are cast as victims of Lefroy’s non-existent ideology. Worse, they are dealing “with the damage done” (from vaccination). This is a complete distortion of the reality.

Firstly, parents with a child who has a condition some blame on vaccination are by no means unanimous. Quite the opposite with parents of such children far more often in favour of vaccination and properly armed with the facts. Secondly most in this other corner adhere to a belief system void of reason, evidence and the vast weight of research. A belief that says far more about their own irrational and tribal rejection of conventional medicine. There’s no evidence the bulk are even parents, much less with a vested interest. They overlap with new age impossibilities and sheer crackpottery.

Claiming they’re “concerned parents and carers”, is a rubber stamp of Lefroy’s ignorance. Organised anti-vaccination lobbyists such as Meryl Dorey and Viera Scheibner in Australia double as scam artists and law breakers. In the main they have very little in reality to deal with – much less “the damage done”. So many are trying to profit from the myth that vaccines potentially cause such harm, that they actively promote it as a choice running scare tactic seminars of unconscionable content. They fall upon anti-vaccination nonsense perpetuated by the Marj Lefroy’s of this world, with glee.

For people in the pro-vaccination camp, the fact that there is even a debate to be had is vexing. “What’s wrong with these irresponsible parents?” they say. “So educated and yet so stupid! Don’t they know that MMR study was discredited? And how can you take a Playboy Bunny seriously?” But there are reasons why the case of the curious link between vaccinations and autism is not closed, and Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are not necessarily two of them.

There’s that term Scheibner loves to use: “pro-vaccination”. As if there’s an action that follows an ideological conviction. When in fact the decision to vaccinate is a no brainer. The scale of risk one is exposed to, and exposes others too is difficult to appreciate. As I’ve hinted, those with a vested interest in alternative therapy, new age diagnosis or the sickening “treatments” offered up to parents who believe vaccines caused their child’s injury benefit every time the term is used.

But Lefroy goes one better and even puts words into the mouths of this heartless pro-vaccine-at-any-cost group. Once again the reality is quite the contrary. Health professionals are trained in vaccine myths and part of this training demands not exhibiting ones own position. There is no vexing debate, but a very real psycho-social phenomenon that at times is heart breaking but at it’s roots has the very confidence in mythology Marj Lefroy is exhibiting.

As I also pointed out above Wakefield (whose work and detraction I hope Lefroy has seen) has spawned a belief system buoyed by an army of devout followers. He travels the world persisting in the same falsehood, proclaiming he’s the victim of “a hitman” for Big Pharma. Claims have metamorphosed into everything from complex muti-faceted disorders to simple one line scare tactics about aluminium or formaldehyde. Jenny McCarthy had and has the backing of some of the most powerful media personalities in the world. Far better to calmly point out the absurdity of her claims to have “cured” her son’s autism, and that she has in retrospect edited her web site once claiming “and, boom – the soul’s gone from his eyes”, following vaccination.

If the voices of those concerned parents and carers aren’t enough, consider this: recently, in a case before the US Court of Federal Claims, the US government conceded vaccines had aggravated a young girl’s mitochondrial disorder to the point where she developed autism. As a result, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program awarded her family an upfront payment of $1.5 million, and an additional ongoing payment of $500,000 per year to cover her care as well as the family’s lost earnings, pain and suffering.

It has since emerged that dozens of other families have reached similar settlements, and the Centers for Disease Control in the US has announced new research into vaccine safety.

Not true. Hannah Poling was compensated for encephalopathy brought on by mitochondrial enzyme deficiency. Whilst not unusual for children with her disorder to develop autistic like symptoms in the first two years of life, her parents were adamant vaccination was the cause. They fought and won the legal case. What this says clinically is perhaps nothing new. Regrettably her parents made much of the finding calling it a “landmark” in vaccine autism compensation. Jon Poling a neurologist and wife Terry Poling a nurse and lawyer, worked hard to ensure this erroneous message got out.

Yet, again pointing to the compensation myth I opened with above, it is well known that around one in one million children develop encephalopathy following MMR. Quite rightly these children are compensated. It is certainly worth noting at least one in 5,000 measles cases develop the same condition. Thus, we can now see why it has not “emerged that dozens other families have reached similar settlements”. Lefroy’s referring to the scam involving Pace Law students in May this year (I recommend reading this) headed by perpetual touble maker and unscrupulous vaccine fear author Mary Holland.

Not only did Pace Law School administrators come out and distance themselves from the entire disgrace, rather than lending weight to vaccines causing autism, it really shows how run of the mill the Poling’s case is. As media spokesperson for the charade Danielle Orsino said at the time responding to queries for conclusive evidence, “it strongly suggests” a link. Not only did they have nothing, leading telephone interviews made up 3/4 of the sample. And weren’t ethically approved. The CDC officially denies any causal link between autism and vaccination. Period.

Consider this, too: while we still don’t know exactly what causes autism, the latest research – including the study released by Dr Amaral of the University of California last week – is coalescing around the view that it’s a combination of genetic, immune system and environmental factors. Earlier this year, Dr Amaral said that, “there is a small subset of children who may be particularly vulnerable to vaccines if the child had a precondition like a mitochondrial defect … vaccinations, for those children, may be the environmental factor that tipped them over the edge.”

So why hasn’t this come up in vaccination studies to date? Dr Martha Herbert, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, says, “the problem with the population studies is they aren’t necessarily designed to have the statistical power to find subgroups like that if the subgroups are small.”

That means we’re not studying the right kids. We don’t even know where to find them, because most of the time we don’t know they have those vulnerabilities until they’re aggravated. Herein lies the great mystery.

The great mystery? To whom for goodness sake? For someone who has been labelling parties and speaking for them, Marj Lefroy seems suddenly remarkably ill informed. “Mitochondrial defect” was the crux of the Hannah Poling case 3 1/2 years ago. Genetic predisposition brought on by environmental exposure in autism (never mind being separate entities) is well established. Research into autism and autoimmune dynamics has been thriving over the last decade.

Many predisposed children will in most if not all cases develop severe disability. Vaccination may temporally get the gong. As might any other medication or indeed any illness. Thankfully, science doesn’t work by gathering seemingly related material, dismissing what one doesn’t want and gushing about what one does want.

So where do I stand on this? I’m not a parent. I haven’t yet had to make the agonising decision about whether or not to vaccinate my child. But I do know this: I’m definitely pro-vaccines and understand all too well the benefits they bring, and I also know they’re toxic for some kids. Because I saw what happened in the case of one of my nephews, for whom vaccination was one of several environmental factors and assaults to his immune system that, along with genetic predisposition and an underlying vulnerability, stressed his body and his mind so much that he slipped into autism. It’s not a conclusion that his mother, a sober individual pushing 40 with an honours degree in science and a background in public health, wanted to reach, but in the end it was undeniable.

His two brothers were vaccinated too, and they were fine. He was not. And it sends a chill down my spine when people talk dismissively about the “acceptable risk” of vaccines in the context of a broader public good. If it were their child, the risk would not be acceptable. Particularly if something could be done to mitigate it without compromising the benefits – and clearly, there is.

Make what you will of this personal, emotive venture. Marj has gone all “pro-vaccine”, despite writing about it like ritual sacrifice to the gods of herd immunity. The giveaway is “agonising decision” to vaccinate. With “toxic for some” vaccines. This in itself is an intellectual absurdity of towering immorality. It sets a tone of potential doom for what is a simple, perfectly safe routine process. And why? Well through a masterpiece of special pleading we get to hear about the autistic nephew. It must be true. “Undeniable” no less – despite zero evidence to support this notion – because his mother has “an honours degree in science and a background in public health”.

Blame. The need to apportion blame. I’ve seen a lot of it in other areas of controversial public health. It’s powerful, it’s blind, it’s destructive and meaningless.

So Marj tries on her new found knowledge about vaccines, genetics and environmental factors, actually coming to a conclusion ahead of David Amaral of The Autism Phenome Project! Marj believes her nephew “slipped into autism” and has used recent knowledge to shape a rationale. Fascinating.

And don’t you go talking of acceptable risk like one in one million trivalent vaccines, vs one in at most 5,000 cases of a single disease for encephalitis. Measles will kill between one in 2,500 – 5,000 depending on age. The MMR vaccine will kill zero. SSPE will afflict one in 8,000 measles cases, the vaccine will render zero cases. Or calculate that feasibly, a person may live to be 8,000 years old sustaining the infant/childhood vaccine schedule every year and still have no serious reaction.

That “chill down my spine” should be reserved for the return of measles, polio, pertussis, varicella, rotavirus, rubella, diphtheria, meningococcal disease, tetanus….. Recent surveys using todays ASD diagnostic criteria indicate autism levels haven’t changed in 30 years – despsite the increase in vaccines.

We can change the ingredients (like we did when we removed mercury). We can change the way they’re administered (using drops instead of injections, so the virus can be broken down by the immune system’s natural defence mechanisms before it gets into the bloodstream, instead of being propelled straight into it at full strength). We can get better at identifying children with vulnerabilities and treating them accordingly. And we can persevere with research until we find out why this keeps happening.

Vaccines “…being propelled straight into it [the bloodstream] at full strength”. Of course this never happens. It’s very telling terminology and hints at where Lefroy’s loyalties lie. Injected intramuscularly there is no sudden insult. In fact, with adjuvants their role in part is to keep the antigen at the injection site longer so the immune response will be controlled and optimal. Also, to lessen the amount of antigen needed. Research will always continue and safer compounds when available will be introduced.

These are things we can and must do. The trouble is, in today’s polarised public square, the middle ground seems to have disappeared from beneath our feet. Conversations about vaccines typically descend into petty point-scoring and vilification, particularly on the troll-fertilising Internet. It discourages honest, respectful discussion. And to those who think giving oxygen to the debate will cause parents to stop vaccinating their kids, I say this: it’s happening anyway. It’s precisely the lack of information, the factual vacuum, that fuels anxiety and stifles life-saving progress.

I can’t find much fault with much of that paragraph. Only to stress the lack of oxygen has been suggested as a suitable means to keep thoroughly disreputable sources where they belong: away from influencing the public. The Australian Vaccination Network is typical. Once given ample oxygen to represent “debate” and “informed choice” they did untold damage. Only now do we know the current president is a charlatan, thief and fraud. Her reach has been pruned splendidly.

I may add however, it’s articles like this very piece by Marj that push parents away from vaccination. There’s not so much a factual vacuum as a hurricane of misinformation. The real trick parents must learn is to trust expertise, not expect to understand what they never can or conclude on what they simply do not understand.

Like any issue with a degree of complexity, there are more than two sides to this one. We must have the courage and maturity to listen to everyone, including the mothers and the fathers dealing with the unacceptable, potentially avoidable consequences. They’re the canaries in the coalmine, and the real reason why this case is not closed. It’s just that science, like the law, sometimes takes a while to catch up.

Sadly, at the last Lefroy is reverting to the past. Desperate to sound rational we hear of courage and maturity. Maturity Lefroy has forgone with respect to an autistic nephew. The work has been done Marj. The risk remains infinitesimal. Irrationality and bizarre belief is spreading, massaged and milked by fringe disciplines, alternative practices and die hard lobbyists. The canaries have been heard, the coalmine has been mapped. The case is indeed closed.

Marj Lefroy signed off as an author with a “special interest” in autism. I’d call it a conflict of interest. Many people, always ill informed, think they can blame a non-existent lag in science for something they simply cannot accept.

It’s such a pity that in this case innocent children will suffer as a result.