Saturday, August 27, 2011

Vaccines Cleared Again as "Culprit": or, Whose Mind Do You Trust?

For any parents out there seeking fresh reassurance that immunizations do not cause autism, perhaps this week's announcement of research results from the Institute of Medicine will provide some.

Using seventeen years of data, the institute found absolutely no link between immunizations and autism; more, it found that immunizations are overwhelmingly safe, and that bad reactions are exceptionally rare, especially considering how many vaccines are given across the globe.

But, tragically, those with a great deal at stake (mostly money) in perpetuating the falsehood that vaccines not only cause autism, but are responsible for a host of health problems, continue to deny the science and find ways to scare parents into skipping vaccines. As parents ourselves, we understand all too well how that visceral fear of harm coming to our children can be stimulated--and taken advantage of.

The National Academy of Sciences has nothing to gain by lying about the research. It is an independent body of researchers and scientists. The question of undue influence aside, the anti-vaxxers then ask if the science has been interpreted correctly. We would ask you to judge for yourself the qualifications of those minds from the Institute of Medicine (and all the minds responsible for producing the more than 1,000 vaccine studies the Institute analyzed) versus the qualifications of non-scientists, public relations professionals, and autism activists from anti-vax organizations like National Vaccine Information Center.

In order to continue believing the vaccine-autism non-link, you would have to believe in a decades-long conspiracy among the United States government, the greatest scientific minds in the country, university researchers, epidemiologists, including those from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, pediatricians across the country, and drug-makers. That only a single man, over the course of this entire debate, has come forward to make "scientific" claims that immunizations and autism are related, is telling. One would actually think that more folks would take advantage of an opportunity to become famous--to be the one guy or gal who could definitely prove a link between vaccines and autism. More telling, though, is that that single man who did claim to find a link--Andrew Wakefield--faked his results, manipulated his subjects, kept that manipulated sample size to under fifteen, and was stripped of his license to practice medicine as a result of his fraud. The Lancet, which published this study, retracted it entirely. In contrast, the New York Times describes the Institute of Medicine this way:

The Institute of Medicine is the nation’s most esteemed and authoritative adviser on issues of health and medicine, and its reports can transform medical thinking around the world. 

We then turn to concerns  that have some real science behind them. For example, this study found that while exceptionally rare, immunizations can cause negative effects in some immuno-compromised individuals (much like any medicine might). It is in this area of the study that you will likely see many anti-vaxxers flock to in order to proclaim that the study "proves" vaccines are harmful. What you won't get from them is context.

Let's take the finding that one of the risks of receiving the chickenpox vaccine is that, years after the vaccination, some people (immuno-compromised individuals, such as those undergoing chemotherapy) can develop pneumonia, meningitis, or hepatitis if the virus used in the vaccine in a weakened form "reawakens" because of that cancer. This, you'll hear anti-vaxxers say--and many already have--proves that the safety of vaccines is still in question.

Not quite. Here's your context. The exact same risks of developing meningitis, pneumonia, and hepatitis are present in individuals who got chickenpox naturally. No, that's not quite right--the risks for developing these health problems are far *greater* in those who had chickenpox naturally. Read: the risk is greater in those who were not vaccinated and who contracted chickenpox the old-fashioned way. Or the new-fashioned way, I suppose: at "chickenpox parties," where unvaccinated children are exposed to an infected child so they can gain "natural immunity" in the form of the chickenpox virus.

We do find it heartening that as more and more of these conclusions from wide-ranging, objective scientific research firmly establish that there is no link between immunizations and autism, the retorts from anti-vaxxers begin to sound as error-ridden as they, in truth, are. In fact, I have noticed a note of desperation creeping into some of the quotes I've been reading in the press. Take the quote in the New York Times article from Sallie Bernard of SafeMinds, which contends there is a link between vaccines and autism. She says,  "I think this report says that the science is inadequate, and yet we are giving more and more vaccines to our kids, and we really don't know what their safety profile is."

It is interesting that a survey of more than 1,000 peer-reviewed research articles on vaccine safety, which finds no link to autism and very few adverse effects in the population to any vaccine, is considered "inadequate" to Ms. Bernard.

If you're still not sure whose scientific judgment to trust, you can compare credentials. Ellen Wright Clayton, the chair of the IOM's panel, is the Craig-Weaver Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt, the Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. She is considered one of the country's leading experts in Inborn Genetic Diseases, and as been a member of the IOM since 2006.

Sallie Bernard is the founder and former president of a full-service market research and marketing consulting firm and is the parent of an autistic chid.

Here is the New York Times article on the new findings by the Institute of Medicine. Vaccine Cleared Again as Autism Culprit.

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