What The News Isn’t Saying About Vaccine-Autism Studies
When a new study finds no link between vaccines and autism, it instantly makes headlines on TV news and popular media everywhere. It is billed as the final word, “once again” disproving the notion that vaccines could have anything to do with autism. What you don’t learn on the news is the self-interest and financial ties behind the studies. In one recent case, the consulting firm behind the study listed a major vaccine maker among its clients: The Lewin Group.
That potential conflict of interest was not disclosed in the paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine; the study authors simply declare “The Lewin Group operates with editorial independence.” (As an aside, according to OpenSecrets.org, The Lewin Group’s parent company, UnitedHealth Group, is a key government partner in Obamacare. Its subsidiary QSSI was given the contract to build the federal government’s HealthCare.gov website. One of its top executives and his family are top Obama donors.)
Conflicts of interest alone do not invalidate a study. But they serve as important context in the relentless effort by pharmaceutical interests and their government partners to discredit the many scientists and studies that have found possible vaccine-autism links.
Many Studies Suggest Links
When the popular press, bloggers and medical pundits uncritically promote a study like The Lewin Group’s, it must confound researchers like Lucija Tomljenovic, Catherine DeSoto, Robert Hitlan, Christopher Shaw, Helen Ratajczak, Boyd Haley, Carolyn Gallagher, Melody Goodman, M.I. Kawashti, O.R. Amin, N.G. Rowehy, T. Minami, Laura Hewitson, Brian Lopresti, Carol Stott, Scott Mason, Jaime Tomko, Bernard Rimland, Woody McGinnis, K. Shandley and D.W. Austin.
They are just a few of the many scientists whose peerreviewed, published works have found possible links between vaccines and autism. But unlike The Lewin Group’s study, their research has not been endorsed and promoted by the government and, therefore, has not been widely reported in the media. In fact, news reports, blogs and “medical experts” routinely claim no such studies exist.
To be clear: No study to date conclusively proves or disproves a causal link between vaccines and autism and—despite the misreporting—none has claimed to do so. Each typically finds either (a) no association, or (b) a possible association on a narrow vaccine-autism question. Taken as a whole, the research on both sides serves as a body of evidence.
The Astroturf Propaganda Campaign
It’s theoretically possible that all of the studies supporting a possible link between vaccines and autism are wrong. And, if the propagandists are to be believed, each of the researchers is an incompetent crank, quack, nut or fraud (and, of course, “anti-vaccine” for daring to dabble in research that attempts to solve the autism puzzle and leads to vaccine safety issues). The scientists and their research are “controversial,” simply because the propagandists declare them to be.
The disparaged scientists include well-published neurologists, pharmacists, epidemiologists, immunologists, Ph.D.s, chemists and microbiologists from places like Boston Children’s Hospital, Horizon Molecular Medicine at Georgia State University, University of British Columbia, City College of New York, Columbia University, Stony Brook University Medical Center, University of Northern Iowa, University of Michigan, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Al Azhar University of Cairo, Kinki University in Japan, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Poland, Department of Child Health Care, Children’s Hospital of Fudan University in China, Utah State University and many more.
Their work is, at best, ignored by the media; at worst, it’s viciously attacked by the predictable flock of selfappointed expert “science” bloggers who often title their blogs with the word “science” or “skeptics” to confer an air of legitimacy.
This astroturf movement, in my opinion, includes but is not limited to: Left Brain Right Brain, Science Blogs, Neuro Skeptic, Science Based Medicine, Liz Ditz, Crooks and Liars, Respectful Insolence, Health News Review, Skeptical Raptor, Skeptic blog, Skeptics.com, Wired, Brian Deer, Seth Mnookin, Orac, Every Child by Two, the vaccine industry–supported American Academy of Pediatrics, and the government/corporate–funded American Council on Science and Health.
This circle operates with the moral support of the vaccine industry and its government partners, citing one another’s flawed critiques as supposed proof that each study has been “debunked,” although the studies continue to appear in peer-reviewed, published journals and in the government’s own National Institutes of Health library.
“Weak,” “too small,” “haphazard,” “not replicated,” “junk science,” “flawed,” “unrelated,” declare the propagandists, without exception. Just as attackers spent years challenging any study that linked tobacco to lung cancer.
They know that reporters who don’t do their homework will conduct an Internet search, run across the blogs with science-y sounding names, and uncritically accept their word as if it’s fact and prevailing thought.
A Small Sampling
Many of the studies have common themes regarding a subset of susceptible children with immunity issues who, when faced with various vaccine challenges, end up with brain damage described as autism.
“Permanent brain damage” is an acknowledged, rare side effect of vaccines; there’s no dispute in that arena. The question is whether the specific form of autism brain injury after vaccination is in any way related to vaccination.
So what are a few of these published studies supporting a possible link between vaccines and autism?
As far back as 1998, a serology study by the College of Pharmacy at University of Michigan supported the hypothesis that an autoimmune response from the live measles virus in MMR vaccine “may play a causal role in autism.” (Nothing to see here, say the critics, that study is old.)
In 2002, a Utah State University study found that “an inappropriate antibody response to MMR [vaccine], specifically the measles component thereof, might be related to pathogenesis of autism.” (“Flawed and nonreplicable,” insist the propagandists.)
Also in 2002, the Autism Research Institute in San Diego looked at a combination of vaccine factors. Scientists found the mercury preservative thimerosal used in some vaccines (such as flu shots) could depress a baby’s immunity. That could make him susceptible to chronic measles infection of the gut when he gets MMR vaccine, which contains live measles virus. (The bloggers say it’s an old study, and that other studies contradict it.)
In 2006, a team of microbiologists in Cairo, Egypt concluded, “deficient immune response to measles, mumps and rubella vaccine antigens might be associated with autism, as a leading cause or a resulting event.”
A 2007 study found statistically significant evidence suggesting that boys who got the triple series Hepatitis B vaccine when it contained thimerosal were “more susceptible to developmental disability” than unvaccinated boys.
Similarly, a 5-year study of 79,000 children by the same institution found boys given Hepatitis B vaccine at birth had a three times increased risk for autism than boys vaccinated later or not at all. Nonwhite boys were at greatest risk. (“Weak study,” say the critics.)
A 2009 study in the Journal of Child Neurology found a major flaw in a widely-cited study that claimed no link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism. Their analysis found that “the original p value was in error and that a significant relation does exist between the blood levels of mercury and diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.”
The researchers noted, “Like the link between aspirin and heart attack, even a small effect can have major health implications. If there is any link between autism and mercury, it is absolutely crucial that the first reports of the question are not falsely stating that no link occurs.” (Critics: the study is not to be believed.)
A 2010 rat study by the Polish Academy of Sciences suggested “likely involvement” of thimerosal in vaccines (such as flu shots) “in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.” (The critics dismiss rat studies.)
In 2010, a pilot study in Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis found that infant monkeys given the 1990s’ recommended pediatric vaccine regimen showed important brain changes warranting “additional research into the potential impact of an interaction between the MMR and thimerosal-containing vaccines on brain structure and function.”
A study from Japan’s Kinki University in 2010 supported “the possible biological plausibility for how lowdose exposure to mercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines may be associated with autism.”
A 2011 study from Australia’s Swinburne University supported the hypothesis that sensitivity to mercury, such as thimerosal in flu shots, may be a genetic risk factor for autism. (Critics call the study “strange” with “logical hurdles.”)
A Journal of Immunotoxicology review in 2011 by a former pharmaceutical company senior scientist concluded autism could result from more than one cause including encephalitis (brain damage) following vaccination. (Critics say she reviewed “debunked and fringe” science.)
In 2011, City University of New York correlated autism
prevalence with increased childhood vaccine uptake.”Although mercury has been removed from many vaccines, other culprits may link vaccines to autism,” said the study’s lead author. (To critics, it’s “junk science.”)
A University of British Columbia study in 2011 that found “the correlation between aluminum [an adjuvant] in vaccines and [autism] may be causal.” (More “junk science,” say the propagandists.)
A 2011 rat study out of Warsaw, Poland, found thimerosal in vaccines given at a young age could contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. (Proves nothing, say critics.)
By Sharyl Attkisson