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…
- Go to the media with the secret and the evidence and make the news?
- 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.