Sunday, September 21, 2014

Some Notes on Vaccines and Autism




By Professor Doom

     There seems to be a scandal brewing at the CDC about a study that may have shown a devastating link between a vaccine and autism, especially in African-American children. Depending on who you read, it’s either a huge deal, or it “may” have “altered” an “interpretation” of the data “in some instances” leading to an “implication” that “maybe” there’s a link “in some cases.”

     In short, either it’s bad, or it’s a minor statistical quirk that should be ignored. Naturally, “conspiracy” themed sites lean towards bad, while official government/mainstream news lean towards the “nothing to see here, move along” interpretation.

     Before discussing vaccines, I want to talk about tobacco.


--Freud knew smoking and cancer were related in 1923. That’s over 40 years before surgeon general’s warnings appeared on cigarette packages. You really think Freud was the only one to know?

     See, everyone knew smoking was bad for you, long, long, before the government managed to overcome the tobacco lobby long enough to admit, that, yeah, there’s a problem with tobacco products.

     Taking decades to figure out the obvious is really a problem with modern science, especially when it’s government-controlled. Pre-colonial American Indians also knew tobacco was bad, but they still smoked. American Indians, despite not having advanced scientists or a government to protect them, figured out that smoking can take decades to kill you; thus only the elders of the tribe were allowed to smoke, generally on special occasions—if you’re unlikely to live more than a few more years, the potential harm from smoking drops off sharply. For most of America’s history, if you wanted honest advice about smoking, you were better off asking American Indians (“in moderation, the old can do it, the young should not”) than government scientists (“smoke all you want, start young!”).

      In regard to vaccines, the government is saying “vaccinate as much as possible, start young!”   On the other hand, the natives are starting to whisper there’s a problem here.

      People would like honest advice about what to do. “Everyone knows” something’s wrong with our children’s health, and the finger is getting pointed at vaccines. Now, just because “everyone knows” it, doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s why we use statistical and scientific tests to get a better approximation of the truth than just what “everyone” says.

--there’s a huge conflict of interest between the people selling the vaccines and the government. It’s reasonable not to trust the government saying the vaccines are safe, just as it was reasonable not to trust the tobacco industry when it said smoking was safe.


      Unfortunately, statistical tests can prove nothing. All they can do is give a probability that one assumption or the other is true, and ultimately, it’s going to be a personal decision as to whether the test shows there’s a link, or shows nothing. With enough money on the line, a personal decision can be anything, which is why tobacco executives, for years, saw no problem with selling their wares…conflicts of interest can cloud judgment.

     And now back to vaccines. There are two camps, with lots of people in between:

     The pro-vaccine camp claims, vociferously: “all vaccines are always safe for all people under all circumstances.” These people get annoyed when anyone questions this claim. I exaggerate, but not as much as I could hope; lots of folks really hate the idea that vaccines aren’t perfectly safe for everyone.

” I've talked to a health care worker at a nursing home and they call flu shot day, "culling day."
--Just because nursing home workers see it with their own eyes, doesn’t make it true. I guess.


     So, the claim is vaccines are perfectly safe. This is an extraordinary claim, and thus requires extraordinary evidence. None has ever been given, although the simple fact that tens of millions of vaccines are given every year, and we “only” have tens of thousands of deaths/serious injuries that “might, maybe” be related to vaccinations, means that vaccines aren’t particularly deadly—vehicles kill far more people, after all.

      The pro-vaccine camp also points out that many diseases have disappeared after vaccination, most especially smallpox. This is quite true, although horsepox has also disappeared, and this related (but different!) disease never was targeted by a vaccination campaign; horsepox may even be extinct now...but there never even was a vaccine for it, much less an eradication campaign. Obviously, just because a disease isn’t as common as it once was, doesn’t mean there must have been a vaccination program that got rid of it. And, even if the smallpox vaccine is safe, that doesn’t automatically make all other vaccines safe.

     The anti-vaccine camp claims “there’s something wrong with the vaccines, at least sometimes,” and, for my next essay or two, I’ll append, “especially when it comes to autism” although vaccines have also been claimed to be linked to other ailments.

     This strikes me at not nearly so extraordinary a claim, but I’ll present arguments against it. Diseases come and go, which is what one could say about horsepox…but autism isn’t a viral disease (as far as we can tell), and parents really seem to notice that their children “turns” autistic shortly after vaccination—much like American Indians noticed it took years of smoking before someone died of a hacking cough. Of course, anecdotal evidence, even when it numbers in the thousands, still doesn’t count for much in a world of science. 

      It’s the modern world, a world of science, and that’s what we should use to make our scientific decisions about the scientific practice of vaccination.

      Autism rates have been shooting up dramatically, up over 1,000% percent in the last 40 years. Yes, 1,000% (A quick warning about the many links: often the autism rates are different in each link; autism rates are up 30% in the last 2 years, so “old” links from wayyyy back in 2012 are obsolete in this regard). A 10-fold increase in my lifetime.

     Vaccination rates have also been shooting up, a child today receives about 70 vaccine doses before he’s 18…compared to the half dozen or so doses I received as a child, this is also an over a 10-fold increase. 

     This still proves absolutely nothing. Let me just go over a few reasonable counter-arguments:

     We eat more microwaved food than 40 years ago, and are surrounded by far more electronics as well (I’m looking at you, cell phones!). We don’t exercise as much as we used to. We wear more synthetic clothing, our food is more heavily processed…the list of changes in how we live over the last 40 years is extensive. It’s very natural to blame a new, bad thing on something else that is new.

     In addition, autism was so rare decades ago that it probably was misdiagnosed as mentally disabled in some other way. And, it’s quite possibly being over-diagnosed today (much like the hideously over-diagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, which many of my students claim to have, but only one had any symptoms that I could discern…over the course of 25 years of dealing with ADD students). It’s possible, maybe, that autism has always been far more common than we thought…or that it’s not as common today as we’ve been told.

      All that said, mainstream media continues to say things that are flat out wrong, and to overlook real, scientific, evidence that very strongly suggests that, indeed, not all vaccines are always safe for all people at all times.

     A recent CNN article, with some seriously misleading reporting, prompted me to write about this. Above, I’ve presented the best case I reasonably can for the pro-vaccine crowd, by way of Devil’s advocacy: people tend to believe what they’ve read first.

     Obviously, you must follow your heart when it comes time to vaccinate you or your children. Next time, however, I’m going to look at that CNN article, make some corrections, and present some unarguable facts of the matter.