“Fire Science” graduate tries science, hilarity ensues

Maybe I’ve written about him, maybe I haven’t. But “Sid Offit” (as he likes to be called on the blogs he trolls) is quite the interesting fellow. He tries to come off as an expert on vaccine science, though, by his own admission, all the science he ever got was in the way of a degree in “Fire Science”. He even managed to get interviewed by BBC about vaccines:

“Campaigner Robert Schecter, who runs the Facebook group Proud Parents of Unvaccinated Children, claims the pharmaceutical industry is a key driving force behind the growth in childhood immunisation in the US.

“By no means is it a conspiracy, but there are vested interests working together,” he says.

A self-styled libertarian, who ensured his own daughter did not receive any vaccinations, he dismisses public health officials as “paternalistic do-gooders” who “get satisfaction out of what they believe to be helping people” when in fact they are doing no such thing.”

By no means a conspiracy? That’s funny. “Sid Offit” runs a blog called “The Vaccine Machine”, and conspiracy is pretty much the order of the day, but only if you manage to decipher Sid’s writings. (He misspells “McCarthy”, as in Jenny McCarthy, rambles on without making a point, has very poor grammar and punctuation, and seems to have a weird obsession with Amanda Peet.)

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Sid is the medical advice given out on his Facebook page. Mind you, he makes it very clear that he is not the one giving medical advice. Oh, no, he does not. He only posts questions from people about different medical topics and lets his followers give the medical advice. He’s just a communicator, an intermediary, if you will, between the non-physicians giving medical advice and the fools who consult them.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit Number One

Click to enlarge

I really mean it when I state that people are fools going to a Facebook page and asking what to do with regards to vaccination while there is a whooping cough outbreak going on around them.

Exhibit B:

Exhibit B

If you read the comments after this “innocent” question about polio, you get nothing but an echo chamber about how polio is not a big deal anymore. No one mentions that it’s not a big deal anymore because of vaccines. In fact, any pro-vaccine comments are quickly deleted by Sid, the author of such posts banned, and the full information not given to the person asking the question.

Exhibit C:

Exhibit C

Yeah, I would suggest that you thank your physician if they did vaccinate her against a deadly disease. Also, quit being so paranoid.

And Exhibit D:

Exhibit D

Too bad Dr. Bob Sears and Dr. Jay Gordon are in California, huh?

I could spend the rest of the post giving you more examples of the “innocent questions” being asked and posted on “The Vaccine Machine” Facebook page. But you get the gist of it, and you can go over and read the rest of them.

In the field of ethics, there’s this thing called “respect for persons” in which people in science and healthcare are ethically mandated to fully inform the people they deal with of all the risks and benefits of their decisions. Robert Schecter, aka “Sid Offit”, aka “The Vaccine Machine”, does not allow any pro-vaccine posts on his page in response to the question being posted by parents and others seeking information about vaccines. Par for the course for anti-vaccine activists to be unethical and misinform their public.

Then again, a degree in fire science probably didn’t include ethics in it curriculum.

Geier was just in the room, but why?

The plot thickens. A couple of posts ago, I told you how the kid had disgraced child chemical castrator Mark Geier as a “site preceptor.” Then the George Washington University Office of Communications decided to spam place the same comment over and over on any blog covering this on Friday evening. (Reporter’s tip: Always respond on Friday evenings, hoping the story will die over the weekend.) But our good friend over at Autism News Beat doesn’t rest. He’s gotten in touch with a person at GWU and asked some follow-up questions. The answers, like the comments on Friday, leave even more questions:

“According to the spokesperson, “This particular student’s project was not a practicum. It was part of what is called a culminating experience, which is different from a practicum. Contrary to what was posted on your blog, there was no preceptor and never is a preceptor for a culminating experience. Students completing a culminating experience are supervised by one of our faculty members, as was this student…”

According to the spokesperson, the notorious anti-vaccine activist was helping the student access data.”

So now it turns out that Geier was just in the room. But why was he in the room if not to advise or instruct the kid on how to access the database? And why was Geier identified as the site preceptor by a faculty member at GW? Here:

“An SPHHS spokesperson said the faculty member who made that claim via an email to AutismNewsBeat was in error.”

Are they really throwing the faculty member under the bus just like that? This story has legs because, again, you have a major US university being associated with a physician who’s had his license revoked in multiple states all stemming from his “treatment” of autism with Lupron, a form of chemical castration. Because it’s not just about Geier “helping the student access data.” It’s also about a member of the faculty at GW writing several papers with the Geiers and even doing some biostatistical fancy footwork to “massage” the data. There is a tangled web here, and it’s only getting more tangled.

To think that all this would have been avoided had the kid just showed the world his culminating experience project. Then again, it would have shown his work with Mark Geier, and all of this would have happened then instead of now. So I guess this all is unavoidable, especially because the Geiers tried to use that database to find out who the people in the database were, a violation of confidentiality. Did Mark Geier try to use the kid’s research to gain access to the database again? And, if so, should someone check to make sure Geier didn’t try to break the confidentiality of the database, like he tried to do back in 2004?

I told you it was convoluted.

I’m done with the kid, for now

It should be no secret to anyone reading this that I have a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from an accredited univeristy. What is an MPH? It’s a professional degree in public health that accredits the person who earns it as someone who has done the readings, written the papers, and taken the exams to prove that he or she is trained to look after the public’s health.Some of us, the very idealistic among us, have taken a Public Health Oath:

“I will work to ensure that people have the chance to live full and productive lives, free from avoidable disease and disability and supported in their pursuit of physical, mental, and social well-being.

I will hold myself to the highest ethics, standards, values, and responsibilities as I move forward the science and practice of public health.

I will respect the rights, values, beliefs, and cultures of those individuals and communities with whom I work.

I will rely on evidence to support my decisions and actions, and translate that evidence into policies and programs that improve health for all.

I will add to the body of research and knowledge and share my discoveries freely.

I will continuously seek new information and be open to ideas that can better protect and promote the health of populations.

I will advance health literacy for all and seek equity and justice for vulnerable populations.

With this oath, I commit to the ideals and mission of public health.”

Unfortunately, not everyone who earns — or is looking to earn — an MPH degree agrees with this oath, let alone follows it. Continue reading

Vax vs. Unvax studies… FIGHT!

This doctor is asking that we do a vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study to determine if vaccines cause more or less “outcomes” (read: autism) than what is attributed to them. I never went to medical school, but I did go to epidemiology school with a lot of medical students. Maybe this doctor was too busy with other things when he was introduced to epidemiology, because it is very clear that he has no clue what he is asking for. (Or maybe he is just selectively remembering what is good for him and what isn’t?) See, in the world of epidemiology, there is a hierarchy of epidemiological studies. In ascending order of ability to show causality, the studies are these:

  • Case Study (describing one person with the condition, a case)
  • Case Series (series of cases)
  • Ecological Study (analysis of group statistics..for example, comparing rates of disease between two countries)
  • Cross-Sectional Study (assessing individuals at one time, such as a survey)
  • Case-Control Study (studying those with the condition vs. those without)
  • Cohort Study (following subjects over time to study the initiation and progression of a condition)

We did the case studies. We looked at children with autism and determined that there was no biologically plausible way for vaccines to cause autism. Furthermore, instances of unvaccinated children with autism kept coming up. There were even case studies of autism before many vaccines were around. So we moved one step up.

We did the case series. We looked at groups of children with autism and determined that some were vaccinated while others weren’t. Even within those who were vaccinated, we noticed that their symptoms preceded vaccination. In those who were unvaccinated, we noticed that their symptoms were similar to children with autism. And, like with the case studies, we found that vaccines have no biologically plausible way of causing autism. So we moved one step up.

We did an ecological study. We looked at autism rates in other countries and in this country. After adjusting for differences between factors in the different countries, we found that there is no difference between countries in the rates of autism. Furthermore, there are differences between those countries when it comes to vaccine availability. That is, it didn’t matter if the countries vaccinated more or less, we found no difference in autism rates. So we moved one step up.

We did surveys. (Heck, even the anti-vaxers wanted to do surveys.) And, after adjusting for all sorts of biases that surveys present, we found no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. (The anti-vaxers found a similar result, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting another round at it.) So we moved one step up.

We did case-control studies. We took children who had autism and children who had no autism, then we looked at their immunization records. It turned out that both groups had equal odds of being vaccinated. There was no difference between the two groups.

In short, everything we’ve done to date has failed to find a link between immunizations and autism. So you would think that the vaccine-autism link would be dead. Well, it isn’t. That doctor I told you about in the opening sentence wants a cohort study (aka Randomized Clinical Trial or Randomized Controlled Trial). Never mind the millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours lost doing such a study when all the previous evidence has shown no link. Never mind that we could do much better things with those resources. No. The anti-vaccine groups want to slay their dragon. They want to prove that vaccines did to them what they think vaccines did to them.

So what would it take to do such a study? Well, it would go like this:

Recruit participants at birth. Parents would be approached and told that their child would be participating in this study. Without their knowledge, their child would be assigned to one of two groups. One group is vaccinated while the other is given placebos. If you really want to give this study strength, you keep the group assignments secret from even the researchers.

Follow participants until a certain endpoint. This endpoint can be anything you want it to be: the diagnosis of autism, the age of ten — after which a diagnosis of autism is very rare, death, anything. Once all your participants reached the endpoint, then the study is done.

Analyze the data. You would then “unmask” the participants’ assignments and compare the vaccinated to the unvaccinated groups to see which of them reached those endpoints faster or in greater proportion. Which group has the most autistics?

However, can you see why this study is unethical and very likely to fail? First off, one half of the children — those assigned to the unvaccinated group — would be deliberately unprotected against some very nasty diseases. You tell me if you want your child to be unprotected against measles. If you’re an anti-vax parent, you probably don’t care. You probably think that your child will survive anything and come out stronger, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But what if you’re a pro-vaccine parent? Would you like your child to maybe not be vaccinated? And, if you’re anti-vaccine, would you like for your child to maybe be vaccinated?

Then there is the issue of bias. If you’re an anti-vaccine parent, and you think your child was vaccinated, you might make a bigger deal out of every little developmental delay. If your child doesn’t walk at 12 months, taking a few more weeks to get going, you might be more inclined to blame the vaccines. Or you might give your child an unproven therapy to try and “detox” them, and it might be that therapy that makes them ill.

On the other hand, if you’re a pro-vaccine parent, you might take your child to get a second round of vaccines if you think that your child ended up in the unvaccinated group. You want to make sure your child is protected, and, frankly, I can’t blame you for that. Also, being the responsible parent that you are, you might take your child to regular check-ups and discover autism (or any other “outcome”) much earlier than people who don’t take their children for check-ups.

And that’s just a few of the biases that could creep into this study.

The biggest problem with the study will be the deliberate lack of vaccination of half of the participants. No Institutional Review Board will allow you to do this because the liability is too great. If one kid in the control (unvaccinated) group get sick and dies from a vaccine-preventable disease, you will no longer be allowed to conduct research on human subjects, ever.

Of course, anti-vaccine activists will say that there are plenty of unvaccinated children, so finding children whose parents will deliberately leave them vulnerable to deadly pathogens wouldn’t be a problem. In that case, you’re not asking for a randomized clinical trial because you’re removing the “random” from it and you’re inserting a huge bias. If you see vaccines as an evil big enough to keep your children from being vaccinated, how likely are you to report that your child has autism, thus disproving your theory? In these cases, you’re asking for a case-control study, which has been done over and over again.

How much time, money, and God knows what other resources do you want us to keep on wasting in order to slay your dragon, to chase down your windmills, to find the bogeyman under your bed?

Then again, it’s not like ethics have kept the anti-vaccine forces from doing their thing.