SafeMinds: When Science Doesn’t Behave

As a scientist who spends a lot of her time engaging with public policy and the media, the anti-vaccination (anti-vax for short) is one of the few things that manages to exasperate me on a semi-daily basis. The main reason I have not covered much of its proceedings on this blog is simply because I am currently working as a cancer scientist and I believe that people who are currently researchers in immunology, virology, epidemiology and public health are most likely the best advocates for safe vaccinations in children all over the world. However, something truly exceptional happened last week that needed to be covered – for a matter of public record if not as a teachable moment of why non-scientists who engage in scientific policy need to do their homework before showing up to the dance.

This truly wondrous event started in a seemingly mundane and very non-extraordinary way: a group of scientists from the University of Washington published yet another study indicating that there is no correlation between vaccination and developmental deficits. There are countless primary research articles and meta-studies already pointing in this direction, which would make this particular study unremarkable in the least.

What makes it noteworthy is, however, that it was entirely funded by SafeMinds, a group that spends a lot of time and money lobbying against vaccination (I am not including their link to this article in the remote eventuality that any of my readers clicking on it makes them any money). The key refrain from any anti-vax group is that all of the countless studies that show vaccine safety in every possible model and demographic are, in fact, lies peddled by corrupt scientists who are secretly on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies. Of course, that’s ridiculous. In the immortal words of John Stewart, if scientists could be bought, Pharma companies would have already made it rain in nerd-town. Nonetheless, there are thousands of people in this country who genuinely believe that scientists and doctors in hospitals and universities are making a fortune falsifying data that shows that vaccines are safe.

It therefore made some sort of sense that SafeMinds funded a pilot study to look into vaccine safety. If the study was funded by SafeMinds, they imagined, it was by definition not funded by Big Pharma and therefore could be trusted. What’s more, they picked a lead researchers who had in the past already speculated that there might be a link between vaccines and autism. This was to address a second criticism frequently brought to vaccine-safety studies, which is concerned with the fact that researchers who have spent their whole lives trying to show that vaccines work might be too embarrassed to admit they were wrong. The pilot study showed what was a potential correlation between behavioral problems and vaccinations. The scientists, however, warned that it was meaningless because of the very small size of the study (which was not their fault, since they could only run a pilot study after all). Nonetheless, SafeMinds did not listen. like anyone who doesn’t understand science, they failed to understand the difference between a potential trend and a statistically significant correlation. They therefore chose to raise the further funds necessary to carry out the ful study, with a much larger sample size.

If you are not a scientist and are also confused about why sample size matters, here’s a quick way to get your head around it. Let’s say that you want to find out how tall the average American man is. If you get five random people off of the street and two of them just happen to be Shaq O-Neille and LeBron James, your average is going to be much much higher than what it should be because those two people skew your idea of the average man. However, if you call five thousands more people into the room and take them into consideration, your average is bound to go down and become a better representation of what the average male actually looks like. That’s because the more people there are in the room, the less each individual person matters. Same goes for studies of this type – if one primate has behavioral problems in a group of five, that is a big deal. If one primate has the same problems in a group of a hundred, they make less of an impact.

Long story short – the full study showed no correlation between behavioral problems and autism. And here’s the real kicker – SafeMinds will not accept this result. A result obtained by people they paid and selected. Of course they don’t have to – they are not scientists. They don’t have to care or understand empirical data. One would hope, however, that all hose well-meaning people who gave their hard-earned money to SafeMinds to show them an unbiased study on vaccination safety would finally come to their sense and see them for who they are: not scientists. Who ought to not be discussing science if they are not going to be playing by the rules.

2 thoughts on “SafeMinds: When Science Doesn’t Behave

  1. As far back as 1998, a serology study by the College of Pharmacy at University of Michigan supported the hypothesis that an autoimmune response from the live measles virus in MMR vaccine “may play a causal role in autism.” (Nothing to see here, say the critics, that study is old.)

    In 2002, a Utah State University study found that “an inappropriate antibody response to MMR [vaccine], specifically the measles component thereof, might be related to pathogenesis of autism.” (“Flawed and non-replicable,” insist the propagandists.)

    Also in 2002, the Autism Research Institute in San Diego looked at a combination of vaccine factors. Scientists found the mercury preservative thimerosal used in some vaccines (such as flu shots) could depress a baby’s immunity. That could make him susceptible to chronic measles infection of the gut when he gets MMR vaccine, which contains live measles virus. (The bloggers say it’s an old study, and that other studies contradict it.)

    In 2006, a team of microbiologists in Cairo, Egypt concluded, “deficient immune response to measles, mumps and rubella vaccine antigens might be associated with autism, as a leading cause or a resulting event.”

    A 2007 study found statistically significant evidence suggesting that boys who got the triple series Hepatitis B vaccine when it contained thimerosal were “more susceptible to developmental disability” than unvaccinated boys.

    Similarly, a 5-year study of 79,000 children by the same institution found boys given Hepatitis B vaccine at birth had a three times increased risk for autism than boys vaccinated later or not at all. Nonwhite boys were at greatest risk. (“Weak study,” say the critics.)

    A 2009 study in The Journal of Child Neurology found a major flaw in a widely-cited study that claimed no link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism. Their analysis found that “the original p value was in error and that a significant relation does exist between the blood levels of mercury and diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.”

    The researchers noted, “Like the link between aspirin and heart attack, even a small effect can have major health implications. If there is any link between autism and mercury, it is absolutely crucial that the first reports of the question are not falsely stating that no link occurs.”

    (Critics: the study is not to be believed.)
    FDA list of thimerosal-containing vaccines

    A 2010 rat study by the Polish Academy of Sciences suggested “likely involvement” of thimerosal in vaccines (such as flu shots) “in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.” (The critics dismiss rat studies.)

    In 2010, a pilot study in Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis found that infant monkeys given the 1990’s recommended pediatric vaccine regimen showed important brain changes warranting “additional research into the potential impact of an interaction between the MMR and thimerosal-containing vaccines on brain structure and function.”

    A study from Japan’s Kinki University in 2010 supported “the possible biological plausibility for how low-dose exposure to mercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines may be associated with autism.”

    A 2011 study from Australia’s Swinburne University supported the hypothesis that sensitivity to mercury, such as thimerosal in flu shots, may be a genetic risk factor for autism. (Critics call the study “strange” with “logical hurdles.”)

    A Journal of Immunotoxicology review in 2011 by a former pharmaceutical company senior scientist concluded autism could result from more than one cause including encephalitis (brain damage) following vaccination. (Critics say she reviewed “debunked and fringe” science.)

    In 2011, City University of New York correlated autism prevalence with increased childhood vaccine uptake. “Although mercury has been removed from many vaccines, other culprits may link vaccines to autism,” said the study’s lead author. (To critics, it’s “junk science.”)

    A University of British Columbia study in 2011 that found “the correlation between Aluminum [an adjuvant] in vaccines and [autism] may be causal.” (More “junk science,” say the propagandists.)

    A 2011 rat study out of Warsaw, Poland found thimerosal in vaccines given at a young age could contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. (Proves nothing, say critics.)

    A Chinese study in 2012 suggested that febrile seizures (an acknowledged side effect of some vaccines) and family history of neuropsychiatric disorders correlate with autistic regression.

    A 2012 study from the Neurochemistry Research Marie Curie Chairs Program in Poland found that newborn exposure to vaccines with thimerosal (such as flu shots) might cause glutamate-related brain injuries.

    In 2013, neurosurgeons at the Methodist Neurological Institute found that children with mild mitochondrial defect may be highly susceptible to toxins like the vaccine preservative thimerosal found in vaccines such as flu shots. (“Too small” of a study, say the critics.)

    In 2016, Frontiers published a survey of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated children. The vaccinated had a higher rate of allergies and NDD (neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism) than the unvaccinated. Vaccination, but not preterm birth, remained significantly associated with NDD after controlling for other factors. However, preterm birth combined with vaccination was associated with an apparent synergistic increase in the odds of NDD.

    Then, there’s a 2004 Columbia University study presented at the Institute of Medicine. It found that mice predisposed for genetic autoimmune disorder developed autistic-like behavior after receiving mercury-containing vaccines. (Critics say that’s not proof, and the work was not replicable.)

    Happy Reading.

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