I confess it - I listen to a Progressive Radio station. Primarily for Stephanie Miller and her "Sexy Liberal Crew", but some of the other broadcasters are informative and I find myself aligning with their political and intellectual stands more and more.
So I was extremely disappointed one Saturday when I tuned in an heard a load of tripe served by a program called "Ring of Fire". In this show, they 'assessed' the vaccines link to autism "controversy" (it really isn't controversial - they don't cause autism).
I wrote to the program and, as I have had no response several months later, I would like to share my letter.
Dear Ring of Fire broadcasters,
As a scientist concerned with child-care, I am outraged that so much one-sided, unbalanced and opinion-based air-time was given to the scientifically unsupported idea that vaccines might cause autism. The host, Mr. Kennedy, referred to many ‘studies’ that have already been conclusively refuted by the science, including one undertaken on Amish children by ‘reporters’. Such anecdotal reports (e.g., Dan Olmstead, 2005) have been demonstrated to be scientifically unsupportable, but of course this has little impact on those who perform all of their 'research' via the Internet. In fact, according to a 2010 study from Joycelyn Lee Robinson at the Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, University of Miami, autism among the Amish is quite common (1 in 127) and those studies are ongoing, contrary to your suggestion on the program and your rhetorical “Why don’t they study a population that isn’t vaccinated - like the Amish?”
As a matter of fact, The Amish vaccinate their children with rates that are comparable to the rate found in the general population. Thus, vaccinations (or lack thereof) among the Amish have not told us anything about the origins or causes of autism, although some interesting and unique genetic characteristics that lead to a syndrome that includes autism are being investigated and may eventually contribute to a better understanding of the etiology of this complex neurological condition. Your failure to mention these studies demonstrates that you are either unfamiliar with the current scientific knowledge or that you are disingenuous and choose to ignore them because they do not support your hypothesis. Peer-reviewed studies demonstrating even a tenuous link between vaccines and autism are most usually worded ambiguously and tend to stress the inability of the scientific method in general to eliminate a negative. An example would be that, so far, nobody has ruled out the possibility that leprechauns cause Global Warming. The null-hypothesis is not necessarily that they do! Most such studies involving vaccines, including an extremely famous one (Andrew Wakefield), have been proven flawed, if not out-and-out fraudulent. While vaccines certainly carry some risk, and although many studies have undoubtedly demonstrated the toxicity of mercury compounds (including thimerosal) in animal models, the idea that any vaccine may cause autism in humans is at best controversial (and at worst just a nonsensical conspiracy theory) and should be handled as such – with a balanced viewpoint. It is obviously of the utmost importance that people know the risks involved with any medical procedure or preventative measure, but your program, which contorted the facts, did not assist in this endeavor and would likely have the opposite effect - that of 'muddying the waters'.
Earlier in your show, Mr. Papantonio talked about the current political situation in Wisconsin, where the Governor is trying to crush the Unions so that he can push through an agenda that, I assure you, will not stop at Unions and workers' rights, but will undoubtedly continue into matters of Public Health. If you provide to those pushing this type of agenda the slightest excuse, they will only too happily take away the expensive, but effective Public Health measures that have been in place for many years to protect the public from disease. First on the list is water treatment for some municipalities, second is healthcare for the poor (likely affecting women and children disproportionately). Next - vaccines?
Science is currently under attack from many angles – Evolution, Global Warming, Water Fluoridation and Vaccines all being a part of that attack. For your program, you were able to find a ‘maverick’ scientist – a professor ‘Emeritus’, Dr. Boyd Haley - who supports this unscientific position, and there are several of them out there. I could find you some mavericks who would refute the composition of the Sun or tell you that the Earth is only 6000 years old, but they are not right simply because they have a PhD and an impressive title. Most usually, such mavericks have either a conflicting vested interest or an ideological axe to grind (or perhaps, as in this case, some untested industrial chelation therapy to sell). How do I deduce that this man is a maverick? Because, without comment, he allowed you to perpetuate the lie about the Amish not having autism. He is clearly not interested in the science.
May I remind you that childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps and rubella are dangerous and occasionally lethal, and that in areas where concern about vaccine safety has led to a reduction in such preventative strategies, even after thimerosal was removed, children have, in fact, died. This is a double tragedy because such illnesses are preventable. I would also remind you that a 1985 study estimated that 52 million cases of childhood illnesses were prevented in the USA alone in the first 20 years of the MMR vaccine becoming available, meaning that 17,400 cases of mental retardation and 5,200 deaths were also prevented (Bloch et al. Pediatrics 76 (4): 524–32). Extrapolate that another 25 years (and across the Globe) and you must admit that the benefits of such strategies are most impressive. This has also provided an astounding quantity of data to study in follow-up that has led to the World-wide consensus that vaccines DO NOT cause the conditions you would have us believe. My suggestion to you is that in matters of Science, either you believe that there is an international conspiracy by scientists against the public good and that institutions like the Center for Disease Control, The American Academy of Pediatrics, The Institute of Medicine, The National Institutes of Health, The United Kingdom National Health Service, The Cochrane Library and many other institutions Worldwide are run by incompetents, or you have to agree with the consensus, derived from THOUSANDS of peer-reviewed studies conducted over a century or more around the world. The alternative is that if you succeed in having these public measures terminated, or if you succeed in scaring gullible parents into opting-out of the vaccine program, you may be in-part responsible for the sickness, and possibly the death, of children who are no longer protected. Is this your goal?
I have no desire to enter the wasps’ nest surrounding the anti-vaccine battle against medical science. However, I implore you to treat such matters with more balance and allow somebody more knowledgeable about the most recent scientific developments in this area at least as much air-time as was given to the ‘maverick’ side of the debate.
Yours most sincerely,