The old Skeptical Raptor took a bit of a break to recharge their batteries to tackle all of the pseudoscience that will be coming out in 2020. In lieu of new content, I will be republishing the top 10 most read articles on this blog during 2019. Here’s number 1 – the queen of the false authority of the anti-vaxxers – Tetyana Obukhanych.
One of their favorite pseudoscientists of the anti-vaccine religion is Tetyana Obukhanych, someone who appears to have great credentials. Unfortunately, once you dig below the surface of her claims, there is no credible evidence in support.
One of the most irritating problems I have with the anti-vaccine movement is their over-reliance on false authorities – they overrate publications (often in worthless predatory journals) or commentary from someone who appears to have all of the credentials to be a part of the discussion on vaccines, but really isn’t close to being a real vaccine scientist.
Nevertheless, credentials don’t matter – an “authority” on vaccines must follow the evidence that vaccines are safe and effective unless those “authorities” can provide robust, peer-reviewed, published evidence that vaccines aren’t. Someone like Tetyana Obukhanych almost never does.
For example, Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, two researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia, have, for all intents and purposes, sterling credentials in medicine and science. However, they publish nonsense research (usually filled with the weakest of epidemiology trying to show a population-level correlation between vaccines and adverse events) in low ranked scientific journals.
Following in the footsteps of Shaw, Tomljenovic, James Lyons-Weiler, and Christopher Exley, let’s take a look at the background and education of the anti-vaccine hero, Tetyana Obukhanych.
Who is Tetyana Obukhanych?
Typically, those who use the appeal to false authority logical fallacy show an over-reliance on the credentials of the false authority. Many people who reject the scientific consensus about anything in science, rely upon false authorities because they lack any evidence supporting their claims. We see this in evolution, climate change, and dozens of other fields of settled science. And trust me, they all use the same tactics, trying to create a debate where none exists.
So let’s see what Tetyana’s background is. And we need to critically examine those credentials, especially if the anti-vaccine zealots are going to use her as an authority figure.
- Obukhanych received a Ph.D. in immunology from Rockefeller University in New York City in 2006. Her thesis was entitled Immunologic Memory to Polysaccharide Antigens. Ironically, her research showed how vaccines work. Yes, she provided us with strong evidence on the effectiveness of vaccines.
- I want something to be perfectly clear – despite having a doctorate in “immunology,” that does not make her an immunologist, which is a clinical specialty. Only an MD, with five or more years of residency and post-residency training, is considered an “immunologist.” Obukhanych is not competent or trained to clinically diagnose any immune disease.
- Although a lot of pro-vaccine websites state that she was a postdoctoral researcher (post-doc) at Harvard, and Obukhanych states she was a post-doc there on her website, I can find little corroboration of it. If she were a post-doc at Harvard, she failed to publish even one study while there. Post-docs often, but not always, are the first step to getting a permanent academic position – obviously, she did not, since she left Harvard (if she was even there). On the other hand, Harvard Medical School is decidedly pro-vaccine.
- Obukhanych was once a post-doc in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the Stanford University School of Medicine. However, she is no longer a researcher, post-doctoral fellow, or faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine. Many times, when anti-vaxxers invoke her name, they claim she is a Stanford researcher (which, of course, is the Harvard of the West, or Harvard is the Stanford of the East, depending on your point of view).
- I cannot determine what her current position is, other than making fairly unscientific and uneducated opinions about vaccines. As far as I can tell, she is unemployed, at least in the field of immunology. On her website, she claims that “During my post-doctoral years, I realized that the so-called ‘academic freedom’ of the mainstream research establishment has been subjugated to a pharmaceutically-driven mainstream paradigm. Built on fear and misunderstanding of our relationship with Mother Nature, the mainstream paradigm capitalizes on manmade chronic disease created as collateral damage in our never-ending war on viruses and ‘germs.’ At the end of my post-doctoral training, I made the decision to leave the mainstream establishment, whose value system, priorities, and directions I could no longer embrace.” Pure, unfiltered pseudoscience – she couldn’t get any other position, because she never published real research in anything even slightly related to her field of study.
- Her research consists of precisely eight published articles. Two of them (here and here), very small clinical trials, examined amino acid relationships to autism spectrum disorder. Neither of these two articles even mention vaccines, so don’t invent some trope where Obukhanych published an article linking vaccines to autism – we know that there is no link. None.
- Other than one article, Obukhanych was never the first or last author. In most papers, the first author is generally the individual who did the bulk of the research work. In that one paper, she concluded that “As the generation and regulation of immunologic memory are central to vaccination, our findings help explain the mode of action of the few existing polysaccharide vaccines and provide a rationale for a wider application of polysaccharide-based strategies in vaccination.” Yes, that was a pro-vaccine paper.
- Ironically, of the eight articles that have her name as a co-author, some of them actually supported the use of vaccines (see one, two, three).
- Sure, she possibly assisted in some interesting research in the immune response, but as far as I can tell, it wasn’t much more than doing assays, something a basic research technologist could do.
- There is nothing in her background that indicates she has compiled robust and scientifically important evidence about vaccines. Pro-science (and pro-vaccination,) people like myself, are unimpressed with credentials because the ONLY thing that matters is the quality and quantity of published, peer-reviewed evidence. Paul Offit knows more in his left pinky finger than I do about vaccines, but it’s the mountain of evidence that he’s published in high quality, peer-reviewed, biomedical journals over twenty or more years that do matter.
- She was interviewed for an antivaccine article in the lunatic website, whale.to, an anti-semitic, hate-filled, conspiracy-laden website run by a pig farmer. It’s really hard to get beyond this point.
- She thinks homeopathy works. Yeah, once someone buys into that pseudoscience, it’s hard to take them seriously on any topic.
I cannot find anything in her background, writing, or peer-reviewed publications that would indicate that her credentials supported her being thrust upon the world as a vaccine expert. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but only evidence matters, not Tetyana’s credentials.
Tetyana Obukhanych’s book
Obukhanych also wrote a book, Vaccine Illusion: How Vaccination Compromises Our Natural Immunity and What We Can Do To Regain Our Health, which is a self-published (on Kindle) screed about vaccines. In other words, it’s a book that’s so unworthy of respect, that she couldn’t find a real science book publisher to take it on. But I digress.
As Harriet Hall, MD (if you’re into credentials) wrote a few months ago, “I am not an immunologist, but it doesn’t take any particular expertise to spot the defects in Obukhanych’s arguments.” Hall also points to a comment in the Amazon review of Obukhanych’s that is justifiably a “withering critique:”
I am also a fellow immunologist (ed. a real clinical immunologist) that studied vaccines, and a mother of two, and I was eager to read this book because I was hoping that a scientist will provide an honest balanced narration of the history, efficacy and future challenges of vaccine programs, and raise some real questions that is worthy of thoughts. However this book can make Fox News and MSNBC News seem fair and balanced.
Obukhanych’s book starts with such a ridiculous and laughable definition of immunology, that I’m no longer doubting her current credentials, but the quality of her education. She writes that immunology is:
…a science that studies an artificial process of immunization – i.e., the immune system’s response to injected foreign matter. Immunology does not attempt to study and therefore cannot provide understanding of natural diseases and immunity that follows them.
Is she serious? The immune system’s response to foreign substances (let’s call them what they are, antigens) is the whole point of immunology. It is the whole reason this field of science exists. According to Harvard University Medical School, Department of Immunology, because the anti-vaxxers love to claim that she is “Harvard trained”:
The science of Immunology encompasses the study of the development, anatomy functions and malfunctions of the immune system, all of which are of fundamental importance to the understanding of human disease.
The immune system is made up of many types of molecules and cells that are distributed in every tissue of the body, as well as specialized lymphoid organs, which act in a coordinated manner to prevent or eliminate microbial infections, to suppress the growth of tumors, and to initiate repair of damaged tissues. The immune system normally recognizes and responds to foreign molecules or damaged self, but not healthy host cells and tissues.
In other words, Obukhanych claims to be an immunologist, but cannot even get the basic definition of her field, immunology, correct. The anti-vaccine religion’s promotion of Obukhanych’s credentials is laughable at best, and probably disingenuous at worst.
What did Obukhanych say about mandatory vaccinations?
Now it gets real. Obukhanych had decided, of course, to oppose California’s SB277, the proposed legislation that eliminates vaccine personal belief exemptions for children entering schools. But she tried to do it from the perspective that she’s an “immunologist” – though she was trained in immunology, she denies a lot of the science in immunology, so I propose that she is not an immunologist anymore.
On an anti-science (and of course, anti-vaccine) website, that has one of the lowest Web of Trust ratings I’ve ever seen, published a lengthy and rambling open letter from Obukhanych to California legislators, including Senator Richard Pan, MD, who has pushed SB277 through the California Senate.
Basically, the letter attempts to obfuscate and confuse the reader through a long, at times incoherent, discourse about vaccines, using her “credentials” as an “immunologist.” No offense to any California legislators, but I’m guessing that most legislators would lose interest after the first couple of paragraphs.
The letter is filled with cherry-picked research, sometimes quote-mining right out of the cherry-picked publication. It’s like a double logical fallacy.
For example, Obukhanych refers to a study that discusses a major measles outbreak in Quebec, Canada. Although her point is unclear, what she misses is the key data. That is, the highest risk for contracting measles in Quebec were unvaccinated children.
Although there is some data that shows that some children who have had two doses of the measles vaccine caught the disease, that’s how science works. Maybe we need three doses. Maybe someone needs to work on an improved measles vaccine. But this study, which showed being unvaccinated was much more dangerous for the children than being vaccinated, did not provide us with evidence that vaccines are worthless. Far from it.
What else does Tetyana Obukhanych say?
Honestly, it would take 10,000 words of writing to criticize everything Obukhanych wrote in that “open letter.” It’s so filled with disinformation, ignorance and outright lies, you’d get bored with my analysis and I’d be sad.
But she makes six broad claims that need to be refuted, and refuted hard, because that may be the only thing anyone reads. So here are Obukhanych’s six assertions about vaccines (her exact comments are in italics, I’ve edited out her longer screeds because she continues to repeat the first claim) :
- IPV (inactivated poliovirus vaccine) cannot prevent the transmission of poliovirus. Wrong. Sweden eliminated wild-type polio with IPV. Wild poliovirus has been non-existent in the USA for at least two decades. Yes, because of vaccinations. The only reason we continue to vaccinate is that it’s not been eliminated everywhere, so a traveler might inadvertently carry it back to the USA.
- Tetanus is not a contagious disease but rather acquired from deep-puncture wounds contaminated with C. tetani spores. Vaccinating for tetanus (via the DTaP combination vaccine) cannot alter the safety of public spaces; it is intended to render personal protection only. Although she is technically correct, it is an irrelevant point. Tetanus is a deadly infection, and it is true that the tetanus vaccine is not really to prevent infection from the bacteria, but against the toxin the bacteria produces. Recently, a child in Canada, who was not vaccinated, has contracted the deadly disease. The tetanus vaccine won’t prevent a tetanus epidemic, because any amateur immunologist knows the vaccine has another purposed – prevent harm and death to children and adults by making the immune system destroy the tetanus toxin. Does Obukhanych not understand this basic principle of public health, let alone immunology?
- While intended to prevent the disease-causing effects of the diphtheria toxin, the diphtheria toxoid vaccine (also contained in the DTaP vaccine) is not designed to prevent colonization and transmission of C. diphtheriae. Vaccinating for diphtheria cannot alter the safety of public spaces; it is likewise intended for personal protection only. Using the same logic Obukhanych makes about tetanus, except for one important point – the diphtheria toxoid creates a colonization advantage for the bacterium, so the vaccine actually prevents the infection (unlike the tetanus vaccine) by C. diphtheriae.
- Acellular pertussis (aP) vaccine (the final element of the DTaP combined vaccine), now in use in the USA, replaced the whole-cell pertussis vaccine in the late 1990s, which was followed by an unprecedented resurgence of whooping cough. An experiment with deliberate pertussis infection in primates revealed that the aP vaccine is not capable of preventing colonization and transmission of B. pertussis. Once again, Obukhanych goes full cherry-picking but does it badly. This article has been discussed often across the internet, and it is clear that we have to improve the pertussis component of the vaccine. But the authors themselves concluded that the current version does not cause pertussis and that the length and severity of the infection are substantially lower in children who are vaccinated.
- The FDA has issued a warning regarding this crucial finding. Yes, but it wasn’t a warning to stop using the vaccine, but it just stated that everyone should be aware that the immunization schedule or the vaccine itself needs to be revised. Really, Obukhanych should win the award for best cherry picking ever.
- Among numerous types of H. influenzae, the Hib vaccine covers only type b. Despite its sole intention to reduce symptomatic and asymptomatic (disease-less) Hib carriage, the introduction of the Hib vaccine has inadvertently shifted strain dominance towards other types of H. influenzae (types a through f). These types have been causing invasive disease of high severity and increasing incidence in adults in the era of Hib vaccination of children. This is one of the most egregious examples of the Nirvana Fallacy I’ve read in a while – Tetyana Obukhanych thinks that if the Hib vaccine isn’t perfect, it must be junk. But the fact remains that Hib was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis among children under 5 years old in the United States until the introduction of the vaccine. Before the introduction of the Hib vaccine, about 20,000 children in the United States under 5 years old contracted Hib disease each year, and about 3%–6% of them died. Since the use of the Hib vaccine began, the number of cases of invasive Hib disease has decreased by more than 99%. I am appalled that a so-called immunologist would say something so ignorant and so irresponsible by claiming that because the vaccine does not prevent other subtypes of H. influenzae, it shouldn’t be an important reason to vaccinate. Obukhanych should be embarrassed to have made such a junk science statement.
- Hepatitis B is a blood-borne virus. It does not spread in a community setting, especially among children who are unlikely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as needle sharing or sex. Vaccinating children for hepatitis B cannot significantly alter the safety of public spaces. Further, school admission is not prohibited for children who are chronic hepatitis B carriers. To prohibit school admission for those who are simply unvaccinated – and do not even carry hepatitis B – would constitute unreasonable and illogical discrimination. This is further misinformation from Obukhanych. Yes, hepatitis B is a blood-borne viral infection, and it mostly is transmitted by sexual activity or drug addicts sharing needles, but it is not the only way. The infection can pass from an infected mother. The infection can pass from an infected person through casual blood transfer (say a cut). But the reason we vaccinate newborn infants is that 90% of babies who contract the virus end up with a chronic, lifetime disease. For adults, only 2-6% of adults end up with a chronic disease after infection. In fact, because of the hepatitis vaccination of newborns, the hepatitis B infection rate has dropped by 82% since the early 1990s. In what world is that not an important and critical step to improving the health of babies? And the hepatitis B vaccine prevents cancer.
Tetyana Obukhanych’s motivation (update)
I have spent most of this article explaining what Obukhanych has said, and why she is scientifically and logically wrong. But many of us have wondered what has motivated a demonstrably well-educated immunologist to go so far off the rails. Well, I am not a psychologist, so I cannot begin to tell you why she would deny her scientific education.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), Tetyana Obukhanych has been a part of the Tour de Vaxxed, a bus tour across parts of America, so it’s clear that since she couldn’t make a powerful career in immunology, she had to pay the bills by jumping on the anti-vaccine gravy train.
In an article in the wonderful VaccinesWorkBlog, the author examined an interview where Obukhanych is questioned by one of the Vaxxed co-conspirators, Polly Tommy during the bus tour. The article goes into substantial detail about Obukhanych’s motivation to be a vaccine denier:
She claims that, at one point, she started seeing “things” that did not quite fit into theory. For example, she noticed mice could be immune activated but they would not develop immunity to a pathogen, which told her that immune response does not necessarily equal immunity. At that point, she started paying attention to vaccine research, comparing immune response to efficacy. She believes some vaccines are only studied for immunogenicity and not efficacy.
When she went to get her green card, she looked closely at her own medical records. She recalls having measles as a child. She found out she had a MMR at age 1 and another one at age 5 but still got measles at age 12. This didn’t make sense to her. How could a person get measles after vaccination, she thought?
She then realized she had been “indoctrinated” into believing vaccines work but they clearly do not. She started also looking into safety and efficacy studies for flu vaccine and research showing that flu vaccines do not work. She says she occasionally tried to bring this up with the senior research scientists but would routinely be told vaccines work and be quiet.
She also told a strange story about a department at Stanford where psychologists are charged with talking to parents of children with autism about vaccines. Tetyana found this odd because psychologist don’t know much about vaccines, except Marcella Piper-Terry. (Tetyana claims Marcella is a psychologist). Tetyana then decided she should be the one to talk to parents about vaccines, as an immunologist. So, she started meeting with parenting groups and it grew into her writing her self-published book.
I don’t know why any of this would cause her to deny all of her scientific training, and then cherry-pick whatever study helped her support her pre-conceived beliefs. And I’m rather suspicious she contracted the measles after vaccination since the disease is still quite rare (though coming back thanks to the anti-vaccine religion).
However, as a scientist, she should know that vaccines (or any medical procedure for that matter) are not 100% perfect. It is very possible that she may have contracted measles after the vaccination because the MMR vaccine does not confer perfect immunity to 100% of children vaccinated. A real scientist would grasp this concept in a second.
Nevertheless, the article on VaccinesWorkBlog goes into a lot more detail about Tetyana Obukhanych’s motivation to be what she is.
More criticism of Tetyana Obukhanych
Health Feedback, a website staffed by real clinicians and scientists who sort “fact from fiction” in health and medical claims, took Tetyana Obukhanych to task for this ridiculous claim:
Unvaccinated children pose no threat to anyone.
The reviewers said:
Incorrect: It is incorrect to say that unvaccinated children pose no threat to anybody. Having unvaccinated people within a community leads to diminished herd immunity, which increases the likelihood of disease transmission to others.
Cherry-picking: The claim relies on a personal anecdote and an open letter from a former scientist, while ignoring the vast amount of scientific literature that contradicts it.
That was perfect. And calling her a “former scientist” is both accurate and snarky.
Finally, the made the following statement:
Vaccination is an effective way to protect oneself and others from many diseases. Deciding not to vaccinate makes it more likely for a person to contract a potentially serious and preventable disease, and makes it easier for a person to spread diseases to others, especially immunodeficient persons.
They took a lot fewer words than I to criticize her than I have.
Recently, real scientific research from real scientists showed that contracting measles can cause a condition called immune amnesia. This means that the measles virus causes the adaptive immune system to “forget” the pathogens it has encountered in the past, so the child is then susceptible to all of the diseases they have encountered in the past.
Of course, Tetyana published a blog post that essentially denied everything published in a real journal by real scientists rather than by an unemployed anti-vaxxer. Her criticism of the measles-induced immune amnesia was replete with errors, cherry-picking, and pseudoscience.
The loquacious Orac’s critique of her claims ended with this conclusion about her denial of the measles and immune amnesia:
My speculation could be entirely off-base, but what isn’t off-base is my conclusion that Obukhanych is now spreading dangerous antivaccine misinformation and using her PhD to project an air of scientific authority while doing it. Unfortunately, in her case, it’s false authority.
Conclusion, the TL;DR version
- The anti-vaccination crowd loves the appeal to authority logical fallacy, jumping to advertise anyone with credentials that support their viewpoint without consideration of evidence–the only thing that matters in science
- Tetyana Obukhanych is one of those so-called authority figures.
- Tetyana Obukhanych has few, if any, serious credentials in the field of immunology, which is supposedly her background.
- Tetyana Obukhanych has actually published three articles in peer-reviewed journals about the benefits of vaccination and the immune system.
- Tetyana Obukhanych uses cherry-picking, strawman arguments, and outright lies and misinformation to obfuscate the discussion about vaccines.
If you’re using Tetyana Obukhanych as your “source” for anything to support your anti-vaccine views – don’t. She presents no scientific evidence. And that’s the only thing that matters.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2015. It has been revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability, to copyedit, and to add current research. Also, I also included a significant overhaul of her academic and research background to include more of her actual scientific research into vaccines.
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