Today is Valentine’s Day, 2016. For many of you, it’s all about roses and chocolates. But for a bunch of us, it’s all about The Walking Dead and zombies. And in honor of the return of The Walking Dead, let’s talk about zombie anti-vaccine tropes that never die – the infamous CDC whistleblower oh my.
If you haven’t noticed, any time I can tie something I’m writing to zombies or The Walking Dead, I’m happy. So bear with me.
The antivaccination cult, lacking any real evidence for their unscientific beliefs, tend to grab on tightly to the flimsiest of stories. They love to scream “GOTCHA” to anything that shows up on the internet that puts vaccines in a bad light. A few years ago, they were jumping for joy regarding some comments from Dr. Diane Harper, who was promoted by the antivaccination crowd as the “lead researcher” for Gardasil. Except, the story was a lot different than they claimed.
Or promoting an “Italian court” that decided that MMR caused autism, relying upon the discredited and retracted study by one of the greatest scientific criminal frauds of the past 100 years, Mr. Andy Wakefield, who alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Or trying to push the story of a French businessman, who claimed to have intimate knowledge of Merck’s data about Gardasil–all of it negative. Except he never worked in Merck’s R&D department and was made redundant when his company was acquired by Merck.
So what now? What zombie trope has come alive again?
The CDC Whistleblower
Over the past couple of years, the anti-vaccine crusade has pushed a story that a CDC researcher, Dr. William Thompson, has “admitted” that the CDC itself has covered up or hidden damning evidence that MMR vaccine actually causes autism.
The claims were presented in a heavily promoted video, narrated by the aforementioned fraud, Wakefield. If you really want to watch the video, you can find it here, but you’ll have to check your skepticism at the door, or bring an emesis basin to collect the vomit from watching it. In other words, it’s a 1-star documentary, and I’m using the word “documentary” with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
My favorite parts are all the Godwins comparing the CDC (and I suppose the researchers) to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others that I might have missed. Let’s stop and remind the world that the CDC (and all of their researchers) are the first responders who research and examine ways to prevent diseases across the world. They do it for little fame, little money, but a lot of personal pride.
But let’s continue.
The producers of the video, the Autism Media Channel, have a long history of producing videos that allow Wakefield to shill his particularly vile brand of misinformation. One of the worst videos they ever did was about Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic child that was murdered by his mother and another caretaker because they could not handle his autism.
Essentially, Wakefield and his sycophants excused the murder because the poor mother and caretaker couldn’t deal with the “vaccine injuries”, and “they had no choice.” It gets worse. Wakefield, in his full narcissistic glory, takes the opportunity to ask for money from the viewers.
The anti-vaccine video claims that Dr. Thompson, who has published numerous articles with the CDC, all analyzing vaccine safety, is a CDC whistleblower. One of his studies, cco-authoredwith prolific CDC researcher, Frank DeStefano, is the target of the these claims. Their study concluded that there was no difference in the rate of autism in Atlanta-area African-American children between those who were vaccinated and those who weren’t. It’s one of dozens upon dozens of studies that have shown NO link between vaccines and autism.
Introducing Brian Hooker
The center of this manufactroversy (it’s a word, one of my favorite portmanteaus) is an article by Brian Hooker, published in Translational Neurodegeneration, a journal with such a low impact factor, it doesn’t actually have one. In other words, it’s probably one of the bottom feeder journals in the world of medical journals, the place where you send your article when no one else will publish it. Hooker essentially reexamines the data from DeStefano et al., coming to a completely opposite conclusion about the data:
The present study provides new epidemiologic evidence showing that African American males receiving the MMR vaccine prior to 24 months of age or 36 months of age are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis.
So who is this Brian Hooker? Dr. Hooker is an engineer with no background at all in any of the key areas of study regarding vaccines: immunology, virology, microbiology, epidemiology, public health, or anything.
He’s on the faculty of Simpson University, an uncompetitive, low-ranked California based Christian university, which teaches creationism in the biology department. The fact that Hooker is on the faculty of that school is a serious indictment of the quality of scientific research performed there.
There is nothing in Dr. Hooker’s background that indicates he knows anything about vaccines, save for being a shill for an anti-vaccination group, Focus Autism. Liz Ditz does an excellent job reviewing the backstory of this brouhaha.
Rejiggering the data from the original DeStefano article is transparently nothing more than trying to “prove” that the research is bad. But let’s ignore the bad quality journal in which this article was published. Let’s ignore the nonexistent credentials of Hooker. Let’s ignore his presumed motives. Let’s just critique his reevaluation of the original data.
According to a thorough analysis of Hooker’s article by David Gorski, MD,
Hooker did a cohort study. He analyzed data collected for a case-control study as a cohort study. Basically, he looked at the risk of an autism diagnosis in the groups first exposed to MMR at different age ranges. Remember, case control = comparing risk factor frequency in people with a condition compared to controls; cohort = examining risk of condition in people with different exposures.
But first, for those who might be entering this saga right now, let me recap a moment. I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, which has been flogged to death by the antivaccine movement for nearly two weeks now, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on an incompetent “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls.
So, Hooker took data collected in one manner, and chose to analyze it as if it was collected in a way that would work with his analytical methods, just to fit Hooker’s own pre-established conclusions – that vaccines cause autism (and somehow the CDC criminally withheld this data). Hooker’s methodology reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain (probably the most quotable American author ever): “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”
But it gets worse.
Additionally, Hooker’s article cites studies from Mark, and his son David, Geier, infamous “researchers” who push the “vaccines cause autism” myth, and who used to push the horrific Lupron Therapy. Essentially, the Geiers believed that mercury causes autism (no, it doesn’t), that chelation removes mercury (which is incredibly dangerous), but testosterone in children binds to the mercury (no it doesn’t) so injections of Lupron, a potent drug that has specific uses in treating some types of cancer, are used to remove the testosterone. Horrifying.
In fact, their Lupron therapy was so dangerous to children that several medical boards stripped them of their licenses. Neither of the Geiers, including David who has no known advanced degrees in anything and may have been practicing medicine without a license, have any experience in pediatrics, immunology, epidemiology, virology, vaccines, or anything related to vaccines. They are, at best, delusional, and at worst, a clear and present danger to the children that were under their care.
They are charlatans. They violated all aspects of the physician oath of “do no harm.” It is irresponsible that any journal, even a low ranked, barely credible, barely cited journal like BioMed Research International would publish any article that had the Geiers as co-authors.
But the critiques of Hooker’s article get worse, much worse. According to the Poxes Blog (subscribe to it, it’s great), the statistics that Hooker used was borderline (hell, it was over the line) ludicrous:
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.
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…
Good old strawman arguments
The video then attempted to declare that the suppression of this data (remember, there was no suppression of data) is as horrifying to the African-American community as was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a travesty in which the US Public Health Service observed young/poor black men with syphilis to study its effects, without telling them they were infected. The study lasted from 1932-1972, and has been widely condemned by modern researchers.
The “Tuskegee” strawman argument is offensive on so many levels. First, no experiments were done on the black children in the original DeStefano study–the complete opposite of the Tuskegee experiments. The DeStefano article presented an epidemiological case-control study, that just accumulated data from medical records and birth certificates. No one was harmed in this study.
Second, if the strawman is that the CDC are hiding evidence that the MMR vaccine is harming black children, we don’t have that evidence. In fact, the better evidence, published by DeStefano, says that MMR vaccines have absolutely nothing to do with autism.
Third, and most importantly, there is NO plausible biological reason that black children would be more at risk of autism than white, Asian, or other children. Only if Hooker, Wakefield, and anyone else promoting this nonsense is a complete racist (and I have no clue if they are or not), they should know that white, black, Native American, Asian, Arabic, or any other children are genetically nearly exactly the same.
There simply isn’t anything biologically different between these ethnic groups. Well, unless you’re an advocate of the racial laws of Nazi Germany. Sorry, couldn’t resist the Godwin.
Debunking this nonsense
Ignoring Hooker, the Geiers, Wakefield, the Autism Media Channel and anyone else promoting this story, ignoring their lame pseudoscience, completely ignoring their junk-filled video, there are some facts that need to be reviewed:
- Where is William Thompson, Ph.D.? Has he shown any evidence since these original claims were made that DeStefano did anything wrong. There have been no retractions of DeStefan’s research, and we’ve shown that there was no intentional or unintentional hiding of any data. But we’re waiting, Dr. Thompson. Except, it appears that Dr. Thompson has gone all-in with the anti-vaccination gang – all for fame and glory, I suppose.
- Hooker hasn’t shown anything to anyone that the original DeStefano article somehow got it all wrong. African-American children are at no more of risk from autism caused by vaccines as any other ethnic group-that is no risk.
- Let’s not forget one important scientific fact–after 15 years of looking, and looking hard in huge studies, no legitimate research has shown any link between vaccines, specifically the MMR vaccine, and autism. None. None. None. There are literally hundreds of articles, published in actually high impact factor journals, that refute, debunk, and discredit Andy Wakefield’s fraudulent claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
- Let me repeat myself. Vaccines do not cause autism.
- See above.
Then my irony meter broke. Again.
On 3 October, 2014, the journal, Translational Neurodegeneration formally retracted the article by Brian Hooker with this statement:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.[/infobox]
Geez, I’m not a statistical genius, but it was clear that the statistics failed to meet even the minimum standard of good science. So what have we learned here? I guess Brian Hooker takes his scientific analysis of vaccines and autism from the same page as Andy Wakefield. And gets the same type of retraction from a paper’s editors.
To have a paper retracted by one of the lowest ranked science journals in the world – that’s just got to be the lowest of insults.
The TL;DR version
It’s clear what had happened. Thompson, through sheer ignorance or total incompetence, may have had a conversation with Hooker. Given the fact that the antivaccination gang lacks any serious scientific evidence supporting their dogma that vaccines cause autism, they jump on anything, however tenuous, that makes it appear that all of the evidence that refutes their dogma should be thrown in the garbage.
The CDC has published a comment about this kerfuffle (thanks to loyal reader, Lawrence McNamara, for posting the CDC’s reply):
The data CDC collected for this study continue to be available for analysis by others. CDC welcomes analysis by others that can be submitted for peer-review and publication.
Additional studies and a more recent rigorous review by the Institute of Medicine have found that MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.
In other words, the mountain of evidence discrediting the link between the MMR vaccine and autism stands.
My newsfeed for vaccines got a hit on a few stories, like this one, attempting to retread the story as if it’s real news. And I guess William Thompson is making the rounds as the angel who shows everyone the evils of the CDC.
Originally, I just thought that no one is going to pay attention to this crap. It’s a story that contains a whistleblower who hasn’t said anything, a lame reanalysis of a published study that has to manipulate statistics to fit the preconceived beliefs of the antivaccination cult (and let’s not forget, retracted), and Andrew Wakefield.
And none of this includes one tiny little bit of scientific evidence that refutes the fact that vaccines don’t cause autism. No one should have listened.
But I forgot that in lieu of science, the usual suspects involved in the antivaccination myths use their massive public relations machinery to manufacture a controversy out of thin air. And all the skeptics and all of the scientists now have to respond, probably for another decade.
Time too watch “real” zombies on the Walking Dead. Who’ll join me?
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2014. It was updated in February 2016, and again in December 2018 to fix dead links (anti-vax websites go out of business all the time), improve formatting, copy edit some grammatical and spelling errors, and to make sure that this article is always around to deal with the zombie anti-vaccine tropes and memes.
- Retraction–Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. 2010 Feb 6;375(9713):445. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60175-4. PubMed PMID: 20137807.
- DeStefano F, Bhasin TK, Thompson WW, Yeargin-Allsopp M, Boyle C. Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta. Pediatrics. 2004 Feb;113(2):259-66. PubMed PMID: 14754936.
- DeStefano F. Vaccines and autism: evidence does not support a causal association. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2007 Dec;82(6):756-9. Epub 2007 Oct 10. Review. PubMed PMID: 17928818.
- Hooker BS. Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. Transl Neurodegener. 2014 Aug 8;3:16. doi: 10.1186/2047-9158-3-16. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 25114790; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4128611.
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