Anti-vaccine pseudoscience – Shaw and Tomljenovic debunked tropes

I’m beginning to feel some deja vu, since I am criticizing another anti-vaccine pseudoscience paper foisted onto the world by Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic. These two University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology (you know, the study of eyes) have no background or training in any area vaccine research, including immunology, epidemiology, microbiology, virology or anything else remotely related. Yet they keep publishing anti-vaccine pseudoscientific junk medicine.

Yet, every time these anti-vaccine shills publish anti-vaccine pseudoscience articles in low ranked journals, the reactionaries jump all over it and try to use those articles as “science” to dismiss the scientific fact of vaccine safety and effectiveness. Except for one small matter – Shaw and Tomljenovic have a long record of retracted articles (here and here), publishing their “research” in low impact factor, predatory “pay-to-play” journals, and pushing anti-vaccine pseudoscience that has been hammered by respected scientific organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO).

Yes, many of us are wondering why UBC hasn’t tossed both of them out of the university for research malfeasance, but that’s not the point here. We’re just going to rip apart the anti-vaccine pseudoscience presented in another article from Shaw and Tomljenovic. 

Anti-vaccine pseudoscience – the new paper

Shaw and Tomljenovic published a new article in Open Access Library Journal, “HCG Found in WHO Tetanus Vaccine in Kenya Raises Concern in the Developing World.” Yes, I realize the first author is John W Oller, who believes in the anti-vaccine pseudoscience that vaccines cause autism. Real science has overwhelmingly debunked that nonsense about links between vaccines and autism.

Oller’s credentials fall far below Shaw and Tomljenovic, which is an impressive feat in itself – Oller is not an immunologist, epidemiologist, virologist, microbiologist, or anything else that has to do with real vaccine science. Obviously, this is a standard in anti-vaccine pseudoscience, all false authorities.

So what are Oller’s credential? In fact, his background is in linguistics. We all know that linguistics is critical to understanding vaccines. The etymology of the word vaccine is from the Latin word for cow, vacca. There you go, that’s how linguistics matter to vaccines.

Where do the anti-vaccine radicals find these people?

Furthermore, Oller’s website is filled with pseudoscience, not just with vaccines. He loves a book by Suzanne Humphries, a well-known anti-vaccine lunatic. He pushes just about every anti-vaccine trope known to man, up to and including germ theory denial.

I’m just going to call this another paper by Shaw and Tomljenovic. Because it really is, despite first authorship by another vaccine denier, Oller. Because anyone who is pro-science (read, pro-vaccine) knows all about Shaw and Tomljenovic – Oller is an afterthought.

However, we ought to watch Oller – he may become surrounded by vaccine denying sycophants who will be pushing his “research” memes in various Facebook vaccine denial groups.

So, what did this anti-vaccine pseudoscience pushing group of “researchers” claim. Here’s essentially what the paper states:

In 1993, WHO announced a “birth-control vaccine” for “family planning”. Published research shows that by 1976 WHO researchers had conjugated tetanus toxoid (TT) with human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) producing a “birth-control” vaccine. Conjugating TT with hCG causes pregnancy hormones to be attacked by the immune system. Expected results are abortions in females already pregnant and/or infertility in recipients not yet impregnated. Repeated inoculations prolong infertility. Currently WHO researchers are working on more potent anti-fertility vaccines using recombinant DNA.

WHO publications show a long-range purpose to reduce population growth in unstable “less developed countries”. By November 1993 Catholic publications appeared saying an abortifacient vaccine was being used as a tetanus prophylactic. In November 2014, the Catholic Church asserted that such a program was underway in Kenya. Three independent Nairobi accredited biochemistry laboratories tested samples from vials of the WHO tetanus vaccine being used in March 2014 and found hCG where none should be present. In October 2014, 6 additional vials were obtained by Catholic doctors and were tested in 6 accredited laboratories. Again, hCG was found in half the samples.

Subsequently, Nairobi’s AgriQ Quest laboratory, in two sets of analyses, again found hCG in the same vaccine vials that tested positive earlier but found no hCG in 52 samples alleged by the WHO to be vials of the vaccine used in the Kenya campaign 40 with the same identifying batch numbers as the vials that tested positive for hCG. Given that hCG was found in at least half the WHO vaccine samples known by the doctors involved in administering the vaccines to have been used in Kenya, our opinion is that the Kenya “anti-tetanus” campaign was reasonably called into question by the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association as a front for population growth reduction.

Sounds scary. Except those of us who follow anti-vaccine pseudoscience tropes have heard this before. We will get to that, I promise.

I like to take a look at articles like this at two levels. First, examine the meta level – the quality of journal, the background of the authors, and other such information. Then, second, examine the science (which in this case is not going to be much).

The anti-vaccine pseudoscience fear mongering meta

We need to examine some things about this article point by point. We should learn a lot here.

  • We have discussed the key authors above. Let me repeat, Oller, Shaw and Tomljenovic lack expertise and knowledge in epidemiology, immunology, virology, microbiology, public health, or anything related to vaccines. They have never presented robust evidence to support any of their claims, especially with regards to vaccines being linked to autism.
  • The article presents NO primary scientific research to support any of their claims. There is no data supporting their claims. There are no statistics supporting their claims. This article is an opinion piece at best.
  • The article is published in Open Access Library Journal, which has an extraordinarily low impact factor of 0.20. That means over a period of two years, articles from this journal are cited by other articles about 0.2 times. In other words, one article, published by Open Access Library Journal, is cited every 10 years. Being cited is an important rating for a journal – it means it is publishing important scientific research. Just for comparison, one of the highest ranked journals by impact factor is Nature – its impact factor is 40.137. If you’re really going to make an important claim about vaccines, then publish it in real journals. But then again, the peer reviewers at Nature would laugh hysterically at any anti-vaccine pseudoscience article submitted.
  • There’s even more about Open Access Library Journal– it is a predatory journal. What does that mean? Well, it is an exploitative open-access publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals. Real peer-reviewed journals, usually those with reasonably high impact factors, never charge the author – of course, they charge the reader, which is a whole other issue that annoys yours truly.

There’s probably more that I’m missing about this article’s meta issues. It only matters a little bit, because it’s the anti-vaccine pseudoscience that we need to address.

Examining the science of the anti-vaccine pseudoscience

We need to start with human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone produced by the placenta after the embryo has implanted in the uterus. The hormone has an important role in fertility by inducing ovulation (in the complex endocrinology of pregnancy). Basically, some anti-fertility vaccines (which destroy hCG) were designed to produce a stronger immune response by attaching the a subunit of the hCG protein to the tetanus toxoid.

The issue is that this anti-fertility vaccine has been conflated with the tetanus vaccine, which is used to boost the immune system to attack the tetanus toxoid produced by Clostridium tetani bacteria which can infect people worldwide by entering through open wounds. The anti-vaccine radicals are claiming that the tetanus vaccine is really a method for mass sterilization in Africa as result of hCG laced vaccine.

Let me make this clear. There is no reason why hCG would be used in the production of a real tetanus vaccine. There is no evidence that Big Pharma produces Africa-specific vaccines that include hCG. Even though there is no evidence for this conspiracy theory, we still need to debunk it.

There are many reasons why this is utter nonsense starting with the fact that independent testing of the tetanus vaccine by Kenya Ministry of Health authorities has found no traces of hCG. None. So, Shaw and Tomljenovic (plus Oller) are starting their pseudoscientific article with an outright lie.

And the World Health Organization and UNICEF, who are sponsoring the tetanus vaccine push, have stated, vigorously without qualification, that vaccines are not laced with anything. Except for tetanus toxoid.

A catholic bishop in charge of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association (KCDA), Stephen Karanja, has been blamed for raising this false alarm. Nicholas Muraguri, the Director of Medical Services in the Ministry of Health has firmly stated that, “we ordered two lab tests and the results came in yesterday showing no traces of hCG in the tetanus vaccines.” Muraguri also recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Bishop Karanja for these false statements.

This nonsense has been going on for a very long time. In fact, David Gorski, MD, debunked this whole story way back in 2014. Seriously, these zombie anti-vaccine pseudoscience tropes keep coming back from the dead – even Shaw and Tomljenovic (plus Oller) are publishing about it. I know, it’s a British Columbia thing.

Gorski points out, scientifically, that real anti-fertility vaccines require booster doses to maintain immunity against hCG. Moreover, free hCG in the tetanus vaccine would probably not induce an immune response against hCG.

Finally, in response to the claims, repeated by Shaw and Tomljenovic (plus Oller) in their paper, that the KCDA found hCG in the tetanus vaccine – Dr. Gorski responds by stating “as UNICEF also points out, there is no laboratory in Kenya capable of accurately making these sorts of measurements on non-human samples.” Zing!

This is another example of how vaccine deniers simply miss the basics of vaccine science. The immune response to the actual anti-fertility vaccine is temporary and reversible. In other words, women would require regular booster shots of the hCG vaccine to remain infertile. A tetanus vaccine is given once every decade or so. And because the hCG is not conjugated to the tetanus toxoid in this scenario, it probably won’t work.

And they invent the existence of non-existent hCG in vaccines from data from non-existent Kenyan laboratories.

Why is it that anti-vaccine pseudoscience says that real vaccines don’t work, but invent this new super vaccine in their imagination that works perfectly?


Dr. Gorski sums up the evidence about this trope perfectly:

In other words, there’s no evidence to support the claims of the KCDA, and they aren’t even plausible, given what is known about the history of vaccines using hCG coupled to tetanus toxoid. Quite simply, such vaccine linking hCG to tetanus toxin are basically history, long abandoned. They didn’t even work very well as long term contraceptive, with their effect fading after three months, much less as permanent inducers of sterility. The Catholic Church and the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association are thus engaging in fear mongering. They might believe they are doing good, but they are engaging in activity that could very well lead to the preventable deaths of Kenyan babies, as young women are frightened away from receiving the tetanus vaccine by their rhetoric and highly dubious laboratory results.

This anti-fertility trope pushed by Shaw and Tomljenovic (plus Oller), like ones said about Bill Gates, imply strongly that there is some kind of racism against Africans through these vaccines. However, that’s not how I see it.

I see that the anti-vaccine pseudoscience, supported generally by entitled whites throughout the developed world, creates fear against the vaccine in Africa. Without the tetanus vaccine (in fact, all vaccines), African children will die of horrible diseases. THAT is racism – denying vaccines to kill Africans.

The overwhelming scientific evidence says that these vaccine deniers are completely wrong – vaccines are safe and effective. And they save lives.


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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!