Great CDC Coverup–suppressing evidence that MMR vaccines cause autism?

syringe-vaccine-autism

This article has been updated and the comments have been closed here. Please comment at the revised article.

Oh no, here we go again. The antivaccination cult, lacking any real evidence, grabs onto the flimsiest of stories, disregarding the foul and corrupt individuals promoting the story–using it all to scream “GOTCHA” to anyone involved with vaccines. Last year, it was laughably jumping on some comments of Dr. Diane Harper, who was promoted by the antivaccination crowd as the “lead researcher” for Gardasil, that appeared to say that Gardasil was useless.

Or promoting an “Italian court” that decided that MMR caused autism, relying upon the discredited and retracted study by one of the greatest scientific criminals of the past 100 yearsMrAndy Wakefield, who fraudulently alleged a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Or furthering 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.

The Church of Antivaccines, whose god, Mr. Andy Wakefield, should be held criminally responsible for deaths of children who never got the MMR vaccine, are so bereft of any real evidence to support their beliefs, they will either invent, misrepresent, or manipulate any story that even tenuously supports their dogma that vaccines are dangerous.

So, what is the Antivaccine movement saying? They’re pushing 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. It was presented in a heavily promoted video, narrated by the aforementioned conman, 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 0.00000001-star movie. Don’t ignore the Godwins comparing the CDC (and I suppose the researchers) to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others that I might have missed.

CDC-building-Atlanta

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 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.

So the video announces that Dr. Thompson, who has published numerous articles with the CDC, all analyzing vaccine safety, is a CDC whistleblower. One of his studies, coauthored with prolific CDC researcher, Frank DeStefano, is the target of the antivaccination cult. 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.

The center of this manufactroversy (it’s a word, one of my favorite portmanteaus) is an article by Brian Hooker, published in Translational Neurodegenerationa 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. It teaches creationism in the biology department, so being on the faculty there is a serious indictment of the quality of scientific research performed at the school. There is nothing in Dr. Hooker’s background that indicates he knows anything about vaccines, save for being a shill for the 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.

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 his pre-conceived 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.”

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…

Some of these “big assertions” are so huge that it’s used in the Wakefield/Autism Media Channel video to declare that the suppression of this 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 we 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 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.

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.? If he’s a whistleblower, where is he? Has he spoken to the FBI or a Federal prosecutor in an investigation of the CDC? Or is Thompson some poor sap who stated things to Hooker (and maybe Wakefield) in some naive belief that they would understand what he was saying? Since all we have is hearsay from Hooker, we actually don’t know what Thompson actually said. Who knows what was taken out of context. Who knows what Thompson really believes.
  • 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.

It’s clear what’s happening here. 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.

To be honest, I was going to ignore this story (hence I’m kind of behind all of the other bloggers in writing about it), because I thought it was incredibly stupid. Naively, I just thought that “no one is going to pay attention to this crap.” 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. Wakefield getting involved. And not one thing that refutes the scientific 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.

Updated: On 3 October, 2014, the journal, Translational Neurodegeneration formally retracted the article by Brian Hooker with this statement:

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.

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. My irony meter has just gone off-scale again.

 

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!