In case you were wondering how evil the anti-vaccine cult can get

I know that you probably won’t be surprised to hear how evil the anti-vaccine zealots can get over the topic of vaccination. But, just in case you think that theirs is a religion of peace, let’s take a look at what is happening in California right now.

State Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician, has proposed legislation that does away with the personal belief exemption from vaccination requirements for school. That’s all the bill does. If an anti-vaccine parent wants their precious little snowflakes to go to school with the rest of society, then they need to due their civic duty and protect the most vulnerable from vaccine-preventable diseases. Hey, everyone does this for them, so it’s time that they do it for others.

In no place within the bill does it state that children would be forced to be vaccinated. There are no civil or criminal penalties for not vaccinating. Anti-vaccine cult members can continue to not vaccinate their children, but they can’t take advantage of herd immunity provided by the children of responsible parents. They also can’t erode herd immunity at a school level.

Sorry, creeps, but we took a vote, and we want you to be responsible if you’re going to be part of our society.

Of course, the anti-vaccine priests came out in full force and decided to brand Dr. Pan a traitor, a Nazi, and other choice adjectives, just like they do so much with Dr. Paul Offit. As a result of their anger, the California Capitol has had to be under a state of alert because…

“Emotions have flared as deliberations begin on SB 277 and anti-vaccine advocates lobby aggressively against the bill. At a raucous committee hearing last week, where several audience members were ejected, Democratic senators Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Bill Monning of Carmel chided opponents for calls to their offices that they said crossed the line.

The office of Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat who is a co-author of Pan’s bill, declined to comment on whether he was also receiving threats or additional security.

Pan blamed the “vitriol” of prominent anti-vaccine advocates, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who apologized this week for calling the rise in autism, which he believes is linked to vaccines, a “holocaust.””

See, when a high priest like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stands up in front of his congregation and proclaims that vaccines are bringing about a “holocaust,” many if not all of the congregation members are going to collectively lose their goddamned minds. There’s no science in what RFK Jr. says. There’s no good evidence of what he stands for (or against, really). But why listen to evidence when the lies make you feel more comfortable?

RFK Jr. is not the only one stoking the flames. There are plenty in the anti-vaccine cult who are thirsty for blood. So stay safe out there, as you continue to fight the good fight.

The future of science and technology in this country and the world

It’s been almost a moth since I last brought you the story of a woman who compared herself to victims of the Holocaust because she thinks she’s being persecuted for being irrational and acting like she’s insane when it comes to vaccines an anti-vaccine zealot. Since that time, I took a walk in the wild, so to speak, to get a feel for where I want to go with this whole struggle against anti-vaccine groups and anti-science misinformation permeating just about every form of media out there. You might not be surprised if I told you that all of this is exhausting.

It is exhausting because I keep reading the same lies and misinformation over and over and over and over and over again. Anyone who promotes the proper use of vaccines is in the pockets of Big Pharma. Anyone who opposes the idea that vaccines cause autism is disrespecting families of autistics. And anyone who sees autistic children and adults as not lost and not stolen somehow doesn’t understand autism. Those are just a few of the things that are floating out there.

There are, of course, other lies being perpetuated. The government is trying to kill us. Bill Gates is trying to depopulate the planet. (Good luck with that one. We keep multiplying and cramming ourselves into cities.) And, naturally, Monsanto is trying to feed us genetically modified organisms whether we like it or not.

Oh, and the Apple Watch will give us all cancer.

I’m really tired of it all. I could use my time for better things because, frankly, everything that needs to be said on the subject of vaccines has been said, or other people are saying it. But what about the next anti-scientific thing on the horizon? Quacks don’t sleep. (If they do, I hope they don’t sleep well.) They’re going to come up with some scheme to get rich quick and they don’t care much about who they hurt in the process.

There will always be suckers who will fall for whatever the quacks will sell to them. I don’t mean “suckers” in that it’s their fault that they fall for these things. Often times, these “suckers” are people who are desperate for a cure or relief for whatever ails them or their children. Often times, these “suckers” are people who cannot accept the established answers for whatever is going on and so they look for an answer that is more palatable.

Thinking about all this has me thinking about the future of science and technology in this country and the world. Can a child of an ardent anti-vaccine activist ever grow up to be involved in science and technology? Sure, there are physicians who are anti-vaccine, and there are plenty of scientists who believe in the vaccine-autism lie. But can a child really contribute to the body of knowledge that is science if their parents raise them in an anti-science household? We’ve all seen what “The Kid” has become, how hard he seems to work to destroy anything that is reasonable about the science and evidence of autism.

I’ve also been listening to some of the stupidity coming out of the Republican party pre-presidential candidates. They deny global climate change. They think that STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) are not subjects that should be taught in school. (They want religion to be taught instead, because the Earth is so 6,000 years old or something.) Sadly, more and more people are seeing things their way, electing more and more of them to positions of authority.

Lucky for me, I’m a hopeful kind of person. We’ve been in these types of scientific darkness kind of days before. Unfortunately, something has happened that shakes us all out of the apathy of not caring about science. I just hope it doesn’t take another world war or space race or cold war to do that. I hope it doesn’t take an outbreak of something more serious than measles to get us to vaccinate at adequate levels again. People shouldn’t die so we can continue our march forward as human beings.

So, for now, I’ll continue to wander in the wilderness and evaluate what my role in this whole thing is.

A blood test for prenatal autism? What could possibly go wrong?

(UPDATE 1-20-15: The reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune has contacted us to point out that, “contrary to the original article, the reporter has corrected the story to reflect that the test is not being promoted for use during pregnancy” as was previously attributed to the CEO of the company, Ms. D’Alvise. See his comment below or click here.)

Back in 2013, the UC Davis MIND institute put out some research into maternal antibodies and their association with autism:

“UC Davis MIND Institute researchers have identified the specific antibodies that target fetal brain proteins in the blood of a subset of women whose children are diagnosed with autism. The finding is the first to pinpoint a specific risk factor for a significant subset of autism cases, as well as a biomarker for drug development and early diagnosis. The researchers have named autism related to these antibodies “Maternal Autoantibody-Related,” or MAR autism.

The study found that the mothers of children with autism were more than 21 times as likely to have the specific MAR antibodies in their systems that reacted with fetal brain proteins, or antigens, than were the mothers of children who did not have autism. In fact, specific combinations of MAR antibodies were not found in the blood of mothers whose children were typically developing.”

From that research — or some variation of it — comes word of a new blood test that expectant mothers can take to find out if they’re at an increased risk of having an autistic child:

“A blood test for one of the most common forms of autism is due to be launched in the third quarter of 2015, San Diego’s Pediatric Bioscience said Wednesday.

The test identifies maternal antibodies that interfere with prenatal brain development, the company says. These antibodies are implicated in a form of autism spectrum disorder representing 23 percent of all cases. The test can help with early diagnosis or steer potential mothers toward alternatives such as surrogate pregnancy.

The antibody test delivers a false positive response just 1.3 percent of the time, making it highly predictive, said Jan D’Alvise, president and chief executive of privately held Pediatric Bioscience. D’Alvise spoke at the Biotech Showcase conference in San Francisco, an annual meeting of biotech investors and companies held concurrently with the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.”

If I were an unethical son of a bitch, I would invest heavily in this company because that test is going to sell like hotcakes at Pamela’s on a cold Pittsburgh morning.

I say unethical because the research looking into the maternal autoantibodies and autism didn’t come up with any causal association between the antibodies and the children’s autism. It’s an interesting theory that boils down to, “We found these antibodies in a lot of the women who had autistic children. Not all of them, but a lot of them. These antibodies seem to target the unborn fetus’ brain, so it stands to reason that they may cause some sort of damage that leads to autism.” It’s not their words, but it’s something that I’m hearing in my mind as I read their paper. It’s something I’m sure a reasonable person might interpret as a test that can predict autism. I feel it would be unethical for me to profit off of something so seemingly unnecessary.

This is troubling to me because autism is so often referred to as a “disease” or as “brain damage” by many people claiming to know more about autism than they do. It is also troubling because the research doesn’t seem to show any prediction for how “severe” or socially impairing the autism will be. The mother with the positive test has a higher-than-expected chance of having an autistic child, but the test will in no way predict the degree to which the child will be able to be part of society. There is the very real possibility that mothers (and fathers, but it’s the mother’s decision) will want to terminate the pregnancy out of fear of having a “brain damaged” child.

(I can feel my blood pressure rising at the thought of ignorant fools calling autistics “brain damaged.”)

The test only really tells a person that they have these antibodies. It doesn’t say whether or not the antibodies cause the autism. That’s why the researchers call them autism related antibodies, not autism causing antibodies. I don’t think from the research that they can make that claim. A similar argument could be made that autism is genetic, and that those genes are present in the mother and causing those autoantibodies to be produced by the mother. The genes are then passed on to the child and the child develops autism. In short, there is way too much that we don’t know about autism.

One thing we do know is that vaccines don’t cause autism, of course.

Here’s the weirdest part of it all: From Pediatric Bioscience, the makers of the test, we learn the recommended reasons for having the test done:

“The MAR antibody test should be ordered on three types of “at risk” women : 1) Women of child-bearing age who have already had a child with autism, 2) Mothers of young children in need of a diagnosis for their child’s perceived developmental delay, and 3) Women over the age of 30 who are at least 2 times more likely to give birth to an autistic child. Specifically, women in this group who are considering In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) to become pregnant may want to consider taking the test before they proceed with the procedure. The MAR test is not intended for pregnant women or women who think that they may be pregnant.”

Read that last sentence and marvel at the contradiction from what Jan D’Alvise, president of the company marketing the test, said to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“If a pregnant women gets a positive diagnosis, preparations can begin before birth to get the child into therapy if needed, D’Alvise said. Or a baby showing delays in development can be diagnosed faster if the mother tests positive.”

Which is it? Either the test is not to be done on pregnant women or it is. It is very possible that Ms. D’Alvise didn’t know that their website states that the test is not intended for pregnant women or that the website is outdated and their test is now to be used on pregnant women who think their unborn child may be autistic. Either way, the message is fuzzy on whether or not this test will be able to tell with 100% certainty that the unborn child (or any future children) will be autistic.

(UPDATE 1-20-15: The reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune has contacted us to point out that, “contrary to the original article, the reporter has corrected the story to reflect that the test is not being promoted for use during pregnancy” as was previously attributed to the CEO of the company, Ms. D’Alvise. See his comment below or click here.)

The test is said to cost $1,000. No word on whether or not health insurance will pay for it, or what additional steps should be taken for a positive test. There is also no word on what the FDA has to say about this test. We’ll be on the lookout for their opinion. In the meantime, there’s a little something we need to talk about next time.

The only controversy here is why this is “controversial”

In life, there are things that are true and there are things that are not true. In between those things are things that could be true and things that could not be true. To figure out where things gall on that spectrum, we have science.

Science is not an abstract concept that is hard to understand. When you look at how science works, it’s a pretty simple thing. You probably do quite a bit of science every day and don’t even know it. Science begins with a question, then a period of gathering of evidence, then the formulation of a theory on what the answer might be, a series of experiments to confirm that theory, and then a period of analysis to confirm those findings. Very rarely will we scientists accept something as true based on one study or one set of data.

Question: Do vaccines work? Answer: Yes. But that answer is not written blindly and with no thought behind it. I don’t write it with passion or because I have a personal stake in the answer. I write it because there is a wealth of evidence that shows that vaccines work, and they work wonderfully. It wasn’t until the introduction of the MMR vaccine in the 1960s that cases and deaths from measles truly started to come down. The introduction of other vaccines has done the same for some other very deadly diseases.

It’s human nature to cling on to something we believe in and refuse to let it go no matter what the evidence. Just look at all the abusive relationships where either party (or both) think that they can change themselves or change each other. Even with beatings and arrests, they cling to each other in the hopes that they’re wrong and that they truly will live happily ever after. Anti-vaccine activists do the same thing. They hope against all odds that they are correct, even when children die from vaccine-preventable diseases, even when mothers lose pregnancies to Rubella. They pray to God (or their version of a god) that they are correct and that all this science, all this research done by devoted and hard-working people, is wrong. They pray to be correct.

With something as serious as people’s lives, I like to go with the evidence. I throw away any and all personal beliefs and gut feelings and go with what works. It’s not only in my nature as a scientist, but it should be in my nature as a “thinking ape.” Our brains should be in the business of allowing us to think and allowing us to let go of gut instincts whenever we can.

How many inaccuracies about the vaccine court and autism can you fit in one blog post?

The last time we talked about a blog called “Thinking Mom’s Revolution”, it was in the context of a woman by the name of Cindy Killeen Waeltermann. This time, the blog is back with a post by a person named “Beaker”. Who is “Beaker”? Here’s her bio:

“Beaker started her professional career in the lab as a bewildered chemist who often felt she was a round peg in a square hole! After the birth of her children and the unexpected medical journey that her youngest would take their family on, she found out the EXACT reason she had that chemistry degree and put it to good use as she set out to restore her children’s health. Along the way she found her true calling: sharing their family’s experience with other mothers and helping them improve the quality of life of their children, by staying true to their guiding light . . . their God-given mother’s instinct.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone forgoes the guiding light of science and reason for the guiding light of “instinct”, I’d have a lot of cash on hand. As you read the blog post (go ahead and click on it, they get no increase in ranking), remember that you are dealing with someone who wants instinct to rule her decisions, not the evidence. Continue reading

The crazy rises again, and again, and again

Sorry I’ve been away for a bit. I’m finishing up the details on my likely new job. I’m weighing my options. A well-paying job up north, or a not-so-well-paying job down south, but in a great place down south? The options are endless when the world is your oyster. I’ll let you know once that decision is made, but I’ll be traveling a lot to both places in the meantime. Me and Pedro (not her real name) have to decide.

Speaking of jobs, there’s a reason why I will keep the new job’s location, nature, and name very much hermetically sealed. Remember my first legal threat? The same guy has been at it again. This time, he’s going after Dorit Reiss, a lawyer law professor and vaccine advocate from California. And he has done it in the most creepy way:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

What? He didn’t have pictures of her kids to really ramp up the creepiness factor to 11?

Of course, if you’re diligent enough, you can find these things out on your own. The creepiness comes from a rabid anti-vaccine activist who continues to claim that his very much alive child is dead due to vaccines (hence his former Facebook name of “Death by Vaccination”) and his call for people to harass a vaccine (and, thus, science) advocate. If they can’t win the scientific argument, they’ll do this. They’ve done it before. They’ll do it again. Just read what “the kid” tried to do to Orac a while back, or what a “douchebag” did to Ren a couple of years ago.

It’s how they roll. It’s how they’ll continue to roll because the science doesn’t back them up.

Politics and science again

I won’t give you the details, but lets suppose that there is a disease X that is caused by agent Y and that agent Y is found in Z. Further, Z is found everywhere in the world. So, if you catch X, odds are you were exposed to Y from Z here, there, and everywhere.

Epidemiologists will tell you that it’s useless to test for the presence of Y in Z based on one case of X because finding Y will not tell you that the person caught it from that location of Z. Of course, this is of little relief to the friends and relatives of a person with X because they want answers. We put a man on the Moon, so why can’t we do a simple test and determine how the person got sick, or where they were exposed before they got sick.

However, if a group of people come down with X and all were in location A where there is plenty of Z, then Z will get tested to see if our suspicions are confirmed. Location A will also get tested if one person spent all of their time, 24/7, in that location an nowhere else. Again, these tests are done to confirm the outbreak, not to diagnose a single case of X.

It seems simple, right? There are rules based on evidence and science on when and where to test for Y in Z. Unfortunately, these rules, like many others, are subject to the whims of the people in power.

The people in power tend to want to stay in power. In the United States, most of the political power is subject to the demands of the electorate in an election year. (I think they could care less the rest of the year.) So, if someone related to a case of X knows someone in power, that someone in power will demand that those of us in public health, who work at the whims of those in power (because they sign our paychecks), go against the scientific rules and epidemiological guidelines.

This is exactly the situation an epidemiologist friend of this blog is going through. He is being asked, bullied, and strong-armed into testing for Y in location A because of one case of X. Testing will achieve nothing. It will not confirm the diagnosis, which has been made using advanced lab methods on the patient’s specimens. It will not cure the patient. It won’t even keep other people from getting sick because, as I told you, Y is everywhere where there is Z. People are just unlucky enough to get the right dose at the right time. (And smoking, cancer, lung disease, and old age don’t help, either.)

I advised our friend to swallow hard and endure, take it. They’ll hate him for it, but that’s the point of being an Epi, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.

Or he can just do the goddamn test and get it over with before the weekend.