Andrew Jeremy Wakefield plays video director while African-American Babies die, or something

Let’s say that I have a secret. Well, not that I have the secret but more like I discovered a secret. Let’s say that it is a secret so heinous that telling it to the world may change the world or, at the very least, save a lot of lives. And let’s say that I’ve vetted the information contained in that secret and I have found it to be true. Do I…

  1. Go to the media with the secret and the evidence and make the news?
  2. Bury the secret in a bunch of convoluted science-speak in a paper that I want to publish in a bottom-feeding journal that no one with any real credentials has heard about while I make a video, edit the video, narrate the video, edit some more and post the video online only to take it down, edit some more, and then post it again?

Me? I’d go to the media immediately. I’d take all the money I’ve been given by fearful parents and call a press conference ASAP. What Andrew Jeremy Wakefield decided to do is, well, you’ll see.

If you remember correctly, there’s a PhD biochemist by the name of Brian Hooker. Dr. Hooker has actively sought legal relief for his son’s autism. In his mind — as that of others — it was the vaccines his child received that caused the autism. So Dr. Hooker has time and again tried to play epidemiologist and biostatistician and try to debunk studies that have debunked the autism-vaccine myth.

Hooker’s latest “research” dealt with a study by CDC epidemiologists where children with autism and children without autism were compared to see when they got the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. That study (DeStefano et al) found no difference in the odds of receiving the MMR shot between groups of autistic and neurotypical children of the same age all living in the Atlanta, Georgia, metropolitan area. Hooker has come along and claims that data left out from the DeStefano paper shows that there is an increased risk of autism in African-American children receiving the vaccine at 36 months.

I read Hooker’s paper, and it is rife with problems. First, he uses as his references papers written by the Geier father-and-son team. The Geiers were involved in some shady treatment of autistic children by using chemicals typically used to chemically castrate people. They contended that, because mercury binds with testosterone in a petri dish at high temperatures, then the same must be true in a human being. In their mind, mercury in thimerosal binds with testosterone and triggers autism. Their solution? Chemically castrate male children by giving them chemicals that reduce their testosterone. For that, the father lost his medical license in just about every state he had one. The son faced charges for practicing medicine without a license.

Next, Hooker cites Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s paper, a paper that has been retracted for being an “elaborate fraud.” So, right off the bat, the Hooker paper is not looking too good. Next come the statistics. Hooker uses Pearson’s chi squared test to see if there is a significant association between MMR and autism in children at different ages. DeStefano et al used conditional logistic regression. For the non-biostatisticians out there, the technique that DeStefano et al used accounts for confounders and effect modifiers, different traits in their population that could skew the results. Hooker’s technique doesn’t really do that, unless you stratify results and use very, very large datasets. Hooker’s approach is more “conservative,” meaning that it will detect small effects and amplify them, and those effects can come from anything.

Even with that approach, Hooker found that the risk of autism associated with getting the MMR vaccine was not there or it was negligible, except in one population: African-American male babies. He found that African-American male babies at 36 months had a higher than 3-fold risk of autism if they had received the MMR vaccine. Pretty damning, right?

Well, as is the case with most anti-vaccine activities, there is more than meets the eye. I’ll explain that in a second. First, I want to show you what Andrew Jeremy Wakefield and Hooker did with this information:

Yes, instead of calling a press conference or otherwise going to the media with this information, thereby maybe halting all MMR vaccination of African American babies at 36 months, Andrew Jeremy Wakefield decided to create a video, edit it, narrate it, edit it some more, and then post it online. This is not the first version of the video, mind you. There is another version where the “whistleblower” is not named by name. If you want to believe another anti-vaccine activist (The Kid), Hooker never wanted to reveal the identity of the whistleblower. I guess Andrew Jeremy Wakefield just did it because the internet, or something.

So, just so we’re clear before I go into why Hooker is wrong in his assertions, we have Wakefield admitting he was wrong (as we all knew) and we have Hooker on the phone with a researcher of a well-known paper, on video, but the whistleblower’s identity was supposed to be kept secret. Right.

Hooker is wrong in his assertions because the DeStefano paper did not leave out African-American children on purpose. Children were excluded from the analysis because of very legitimate and scientific reasons. They either were not the right age, did not have autism but some other neurodevelopment disorder, or were born outside of Georgia. Even if they were tossed into the analysis, DeStefano et al used a statistical analysis that took into account things like birth weight and mother’s age when analysing the data. They wanted to make sure that what they were seeing was most likely because of the MMR vaccine and not because of some other factor associated with autism.

The nail in the coffin for the Hooker paper is that autism is usually diagnosed by the time a child is three years old. There was no increased risk at 18 months, higher but not by a whole lot at 24, and then the three-fold increase at 36 months. Gee, was it the MMR vaccine, mister? No, the effect is being modified by age. It’s as if I asked you if your shoe size was bigger at 36 months because you drank milk vs because you were 36 months. It’s age. It’s the way that autism is diagnosed. You’re going to have more children diagnosed as autistic at 36 months than you will at 18 months or at 24 months. Using the chi square test doesn’t tease this out, Dr. Hooker! That’s more than likely why DeStefano et al used conditional logistic regression, to take age into account in the analysis.

So why did we not see this in the other ethnic groups or in girls? The answer here is simple, again. Hooker had a limited dataset to work with when he boiled it down to African-American baby boys. In this table, for example, he tells us that he had to modify the analysis to 31 months instead of 36 because he had less than 5 children in that group. It’s the same goddamned mistake that Andrew Jeremy Wakefield wanted to pass off as legitimate science. You cannot, and must not use small numbers to make big assertions… Big, racially-charged assertions:

“Dr. Hooker stated “The CDC knew about the relationship between the age of first MMR vaccine and autism incidence in African-American boys as early as 2003, but chose to cover it up.” The whistleblower confirmed this.

When asked if there could be any scientific basis for excluding children born outside of Georgia, Hooker responded, “I know of none, and none has been provided by the authors of the DeStefano study.” He added, “The exclusion is reminiscent of tactics historically used to deprive African-Americans of the vote by requiring valid birth certificates.””

That is pure race-baiting right there. With the situation in Ferguson, MO, as it is, I am wondering if Hooker and Wakefield didn’t try to capitalize on that and bring even more racial tension into the mix. I mean, Tuskegee and autism, really?

Autism is not syphilis. It cannot be cured with a shot. It cannot be cured, period. It is also not like the Holocaust or genocide, like Wakefield claims toward the end of his little video montage. Autism is not a death sentence. It’s time that parents of autistic children and autistic adults put an end to Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s lies and his propaganda machine by speaking out against him and by convincing his devout followers not to fund him anymore. After all, if the paper by Hooker and the assertions of the video are true, Wakefield and his “Autism Media Channel” chose to sit on the information in order to make a good video (and maybe even a good buck) while thousands upon thousands of African-American babies continued to receive the MMR vaccine the world over.

Then we’ll just have to fight, won’t we?

There’s a scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” where Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, tells Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, that “there’s a storm coming.” The scene starts off innocently enough with the aged Bruce Wayne showing up at a high-society party. There, he ends up seeing Ms. Kyle and asking her to dance. He deduces that she is there to swindle some rich guy out of money, but she is part of a bigger plot, a more sinister plot.

I was stupid enough to email an anti-vaxxer a snarky message asking her when they were going to give up, when evidence would be enough that vaccines are perfectly safe and effective, especially when compared to what the natural diseases that they prevent can cause. She told me that I didn’t even know what was coming and that a storm would take us scientists all out to sea, signing her email with X’s and O’s, internet speak for “hugs and kisses.” It seemed odd. Realizing my stupidity and that most everything I write or say to them can be used against me, I left it alone.

Last night, a friend emailed me a link to a video where Andrew Jeremy Wakefield compares the alleged MMR-autism link to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where African-American men were purposefully held back from receiving penicillin in order to study the natural history of syphilis. To Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, autism is like syphilis, I gather; a disease that is curable and whose cure is being held back by the government.

I’m not going to share the video with you because it’s ten minutes of your life you’ll never get back. I don’t want to do that to you. Suffice it to say that the accusations him and others make in that video would mean the downfall of a lot of epidemiologists if it were true. I have the sneaking suspicion, based on Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s “elaborate fraud” from 1998 that not everything in his video is true.

However, I do know this… A storm is coming, and we better batten down the hatches.

When that happens, we’ll just have to fight, won’t we? Like we always do. Like we’re have to do.

Ideas are like a virus

Ideas are like a virus. They seem to come out of nowhere and spread like wildfire before something bring them under control, especially the bad ones. Take, for example, the idea that vaccines cause autism. We had heard before that vaccines could cause this or that, but it wasn’t until something sent the idea over the critical threshold and into the minds of anyone willing to accept the idea. Was it Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s sham paper-not-a-study in 98? Was it Jenny McCarthy’s entrance into the vaccines-cause-autism debate? Who knows for sure, but I do know that the idea that vaccines caused autism acted very much like a virus and only a deep understanding of biology and virology/immunology (or just blind trust in the medical establishment) were necessary to counteract the effects.

Still, enough people have been infected with that idea to really cause us some problems. The Wakefields and McCarthys of the world are mere vectors for this contagion, as are others. Some are willing vectors who have been taken over by the idea to such a degree that they are willing to say or do anything to spread the pathogen to the four corners of this round planet. Others are ignorant and perhaps even unwilling participants in this plot to take over the world by the idea that vaccines are evil.

From my epidemiological analysis (on the back of a piece of paper while sitting under a shade and drinking a daiquiri), I’ve come to conclude that the idea that vaccines are evil seems to strike a certain group within the general population and that some people seem to be naturally immune to it. Then there are others who only get infected a little bit, and their disease seems to be sub-clinical. These are the people who are okay with some vaccines but not others, or who will vaccinate under protest, many times praying to their god(s) that nothing bad happens.

Yet all ideas are like viruses, and there are good ideas out there. It wasn’t until the idea that washing your hands hit its critical point that gastrointestinal diseases associated with handling food came under control. The spread of the idea that germs could be killed by heat correlates very, very well with the increase in overall survival of many populations around the world. And the idea that board-certified, licensed healthcare providers know just a little bit more than celebrities has probably prevented quite the number of deaths.

I’m hopeful about the idea that vaccines are safe becoming permanently predominant over the idea that vaccines are not safe. Certainly, premature babies and old folks would benefit greatly from the former and by the eradication of the latter. But I’m sure that there will always be some natural host for anti-vaccine ideas, someone out there in the wild that will come into contact with our collective consciousness from time to time and trigger epidemics of ideas that will, in turn, trigger epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases.

So we must keep ourselves healthy and ready to repel such bad ideas with a strict diet of science and healthy skepticism. We must eat and drink plenty of knowledge and practice daily critical confirmation of the things we are taught by looking at all the evidence, especially the evidence coming from people and institutions that know what they’re doing, that have been accredited by reputable organisations to do what they do.

Lastly, when someone spills the bad virus all over you, wash it off with some facts and bathe it in reason. And wash your hands as well.

On the death of Robin Williams and its consequences

I would be lying if I told you that the death of Robin Williams didn’t affect me. It did, and it did so very profoundly. Although I never knew Mr. Williams, I enjoyed his comedy very much. His quick wit and personality were something that I tried to emulate in my own life. I tried to be the funniest guy in the room, many times failing, but many times succeeding and making other people happy. A friend of mine told me that Mr. Williams likely committed suicide when he realised that his sadness inside could infect others, contrary to what he had set himself out to do in life. I agree.

Mr. Williams’ suicide is going to have a lot of consequences. Friends of mine in the mental health field have told me that a lot of people are reaching out to suicide prevention groups to do everything from talking to asking for help. His death has also brought mental health in general, and suicide in particular, to the forefront of our discussions as a nation. (If only we weren’t so preoccupied with things like Ebola in West Africa and wars all over the goddamned place.) If you look at the numbers, there are twice as many suicides as homicides in this country, which should be all the evidence we need to demand a revolution in how we treat people with mental health.

There are many evidence-based treatment for mental health problems, including a variety of medications and therapies. While the fields of psychiatry and psychology are sorely underfunded, plenty of information comes out year after year on what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, the great majority of the population doesn’t read journal articles. Instead, most people rely on what they hear or see on social media and experience in popular culture. As with the “vaccine wars,” it is sometimes dangerous what a celebrity (even a minor one) has to say about suicide and depression.

Staying with Mr. Williams’ case, a friend of his, comedian/actor Rob Schneider, took to Twitter to announce to the world that it was the medication that Mr. Williams was taking for his newly diagnosed Parkinson’s disease that triggered the successful suicide attempt. I don’t know if Mr. Schneider had confidential knowledge of the medications prescribed to Mr. Williams, but I do know that Mr. Schneider likes to dive into pseudo-science and make some “controversial” claims. For example, he has stated that vaccines cause all sorts of ailments:

“The doctors are not gonna tell you both sides of the issue… they’re told by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, that it’s completely safe.”

“The efficacy of these shots have not been proven,” he later continued. “And the toxicity of these things — we’re having more and more side effects. We’re having more and more autism.”

Excuse me for being a little skeptical of Mr. Schneider’s assertion on what made Mr. Williams commit suicide. I can’t help myself, based on what he has said in the past. If he is making this assertion based only on the listed side effects of any medication used for Parkinson’s, then he is not helping anyone. He would not be helping people with moderate to severe depression or people with Parkinson’s.

The worst thing is that he would not be the only one whose statements can be “dangerous.” Plenty of other people of questionable mental health credentials came out shooting-off their mouths about what made Mr. Williams commit suicide, most if not all of it based on assumptions, most if not all of them wrong.

The Humpty Dumpty of blackmail

I’m still on vacation in an undisclosed part of the world that is south of Florida and west of Havana. If you can’t figure it out, it’s too bad. All the clues are there, and you shouldn’t really care where I am. Likewise, you shouldn’t really care who I am. Rational people need only be worried about the accuracy of my writing, the science behind my observations, and the veracity of the accounts that I put forth. All others should get a hobby rather than trying to figure out my real identity.

Yes, they’re at it again. I received an email via Facebook from a person who will be anonymous for the time being. She said she knew I’d publish her email, but I think she did it more out of wanting attention and getting some sort of credit for her efforts. I write that she is a “she” because the name she used on Facebook is 99.9% of the time used by women.

I’m not going to post her message to me. That is exactly what she wants. Instead, I’ll tell you the gist of it. She claims to have figured out who I am in reality and is threatening to go to anti-vaccine people at different anti-vaccine blogs with that information. She gave me until midnight tonight to reveal my identity or “face the consequences.” She said I was an “existential threat” to her non-vaccinating self and her children. So I guess I’m worse than whooping cough. She closed her email by claiming that she would not rest until I was “brought to justice” for my “crimes” against vaccine refusers.


If this scenario seems familiar to you, it’s probably because The Joker did the same thing to Batman in “The Dark Knight”. In that movie, The Joker threatens to kill a person each hour until Batman turns himself in. Not knowing what to do, Bruce Wayne goes to turn himself in at a press conference held by DA Harvey Dent. He does this against the advice of Alfred, his butler. Alfred explains to Bruce that Batman can endure the anger of the people if he doesn’t reveal his true identity and focuses on catching The Joker instead of playing the game. At the press conference, Harvey Dent lies and says that he is Batman and is led away in handcuffs. Long story short, they don’t play The Joker’s game.

I’m not playing this woman’s game. I’m not playing it especially because the details she offered were not close at all to reality. In her unhinged version of reality, I’m a pharmaceutical researcher at Merck in New Jersey, pulling in three million dollars a year and leading a team in developing a new vaccine. I wrote back to her and “pleaded” not to reveal the information and that I would “turn myself in” on this blog before her deadline.

Well, guess what? You weren’t even close, lady. Go ahead and give that information to whomever you feel would do the most damage. (She hinted that it would be The Kid who would listen to her the best.) Had you not provided me more details when I asked for them, I might have believed you. But you showed your hand, and now you’re left with nothing. Never show your hand when you’re trying to blackmail someone and when that someone has a superior intellect to yours.

It didn’t work for Charles Augustus Magnussen, and it won’t work for you.

Now, if I may be so allowed, I’m off to get more tanned. Alfred is making daiquiris.

Snake oil and Ebola

You know how I can identify a con artist in a crowd? They’re the ones that jump at an opportunity to sell you something you don’t need. They’re the ones selling rain ponchos in Amarillo, Texas, in December. They’re also the ones selling “essential oils” under the guise of said oils being some sort of a protection against Ebola.

By the way, if you want to read up on Ebola from a scientific and medical point of view, here’s a run-down of bloggers with good reputations taking on the myths and misinformation of what is happening in Western Africa. Now, back to the woo…

Essential oils for Ebola. How about that? All those people in Western Africa are apparently dying because they can’t afford the stuff being peddled by con artists as “cures” for Ebola. These people have no shame at all.

Anyway, I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, and have been on one for the last week, so that’s why you haven’t heard from me and will probably not hear much from me until I return. But please read this blog post by Dr. Steven Novella on the con artists (sons-of-bitches, if you ask me) who are trying to swindle people out of money by taking advantage of the fears over Ebola. He always does a great job taking the bastards to task.

Look to your left, Mr. Bateson

It has always been very funny to me that anti-vaccine types who believe, desperately, that thimerosal causes autism (because mercury) are quick to blame the MMR vaccine for autism as well. MMR never had thimerosal in it, so it must be that it causes autism some other way. Anti-vaccine activists bend over backwards to find evidence that fits their theory, not the other way around. One such piece of work is Tony Bateson, he’s been looking for autistic children who are unvaccinated:

“WIth Britain’s annual birth rate of 600,000 upwards this meant that 60,000 a year for forty years, 2.4 millions may not have had paediatric vaccines! Astonishing then that I could not find even a handful of unvaccinated people who were autistic out of that vast pool.”

He reiterates this demand for unvaccinated autistic children in comments on science blogs:

“Of coourse it is extremely difficult to find an environmental cause for autism when an enormous barrage of dollars is directed towards frustrating that search. For my small part I have relentlessly searched for autistic people who are not vaccinated without ever finding one who is unequivocally so. I do not mean just amongst my neighboours and acquaintances I mean amongst hundreds of autistic families I know (I was Vice Chairman of the UK National Autistic Society and knew hundreds) and as a prolific writer, broadcaster and website owner, I made contact with thousands. Just where are the unvaccinated?”

And here:

“Autism is decidely not congenital. Autism is not present in unvaccinated peoples nor in the unvaccinated population of the UK.”

Such conviction to his beliefs. He must truly believe it.

And on Left Brain / Right Brain:

“For heavens sake where do they all come from? Look it is simple – there are no autistic people in populations where there has been no vaccination! Over three million kids have not been vaccinated in the UK where vaccination is optional and parents have chosen not to vaccinate. More than ten years of aggressive searching in this group has failed to find autistic people! Like the Amish, like Homefirst there are no autistic people in this group.

Let the vaccine lobby explain what the prevalence of autism is in unvaccinated groups. That is the only evidence worth having. Wake up America.”

The only person who needs to wake up is Mr. Bateson. He writes for Age of Autism, right? Kim Stagliano, who writes and is an editor at AoA has a child who is not vaccinated and is autistic. So, there you go, Mr. Bateson, that’s one. Shall we continue?

One of the reasons why we scientists and reasonable people can say without a doubt that autism is not caused by vaccines is because we’ve compared rates of autism in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. To do so, we required to find unvaccinated with autism, otherwise we wouldn’t have a rate of autism in that population. (Zero divided by any number throws out an error in any statistical package… And in math, you cannot divide zero.) Mr. Bateson could go to any of those researchers, email them, and just ask for the numbers of unvaccinated autistics. In a perfect world, the fool would just pick up those papers and look at the tables.

But that would be a reality-shattering proposition for him, I suppose. Like any other anti-vaccine activist, he comes off at the kind of person who would crumble into a heap of goo at the sight of evidence conflicting with his reality.