Thursday, January 6, 2011

Autism, Childhood Vaccines, Bogus Research, and the Lemming

"Retracted autism study an 'elaborate fraud,' British journal finds"
CNN (January 5, 2011)

"A now-retracted British study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was an 'elaborate fraud' that has done long-lasting damage to public health, a leading medical publication reported Wednesday.

"An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study -- and that there was 'no doubt' Wakefield was responsible...."

Strong Words, No-Nonsense Response

Wrangling over the results of a scientific study is par for the course in medicine, or any other science. It's how researchers discover what's real and what isn't. It's also not unusual for the accuracy of data to be questioned: particularly when the results depend on very precise interpretations of very fuzzy facts.

What happened with the Wakefield study seems to be something quite different. It looks like Wakefield shot at the side of a barn, so to speak, painted a target around the hole, and claimed a bull's-eye.

Faking data - cooking medical records until they support some claim - is not how valid results are achieved. It's a serious charge, and if the folks who made it are serious: some sort of action would be expected.

Looks like they're serious. Wakefield isn't "Dr." Wakefield any more: not in Britain.

Back to the article.

Incompetence is One Thing: Fraud is Another

"...'It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors,' Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN. 'But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data.'

"Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May. 'Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession,' BMJ states in an editorial accompanying the work

"Speaking to CNN's 'Anderson Cooper 360,' Wakefield said his work has been 'grossly distorted' and that he was the target of 'a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns.'...."

Faking Medical Records: What's the Big Deal?

It's no surprise, in the Lemming's opinion, that Wakefield denies being a world-class liar. If nothing else, a medical license is a ticket to one of Western civilization's more lucrative careers. Then there are books and movie rights to sell: but perhaps the Lemming is being too cynical. Or, not.

Anyway, what harm could possibly come from scaring folks out of getting their kids immunized against childhood diseases like measles and polio?

"...The now-discredited paper panicked many parents and led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination rates dropped sharply in Britain after its publication, falling as low as 80% by 2004. Measles cases have gone up sharply in the ensuing years.

"In the United States, more cases of measles were reported in 2008 than in any other year since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 90% of those infected had not been vaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown, the CDC reported...."

The only way to tell whether or not those kids with measles would have gotten the bug if they'd been vaccinated would have been to separate the American population into two demographically-similar groups; vaccinate one, not vaccinate the other; and see what happened.

That wasn't done. Happily.

There's more in that CNN article, about:
  • How some folks who know Wakefield think he's a really nice guy
    • And couldn't have lied to the world
  • What's happened to others as a result of the apparently-bogus 'research'
Now, the Lemming is going to rant a little about what's called "medical ethics," and related topics.

Medical Ethics Shouldn't be an Oxymoron

It could happen, though. We got the Nürnberg Code after places like Dachau gave eugenics and related ideas a public relations problem.

That should have put an end to using people as unwitting guinea pigs.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment kept going, though. Until 1972. Given the mores of the time, it wasn't all that serious a breach of the Nürnberg Code. The subjects weren't important people at the time. Not the sort that got admitted to the 'right' sort of country clubs.

There's a reason the Lemming isn't all that nostalgic: and that's another topic. Several.

A German chancellor's efforts to clean up Europe's gene pool, as the Lemming said, was a setback for those who would like to see a fitter, stronger, purer human race. Still, the idea that folks who don't match some standard are fair game for research didn't die.

Starting in 1964, the Willowbrook State Hospital in New York injected hepatitis virus into severely retarded children. the injections were billed as 'a vaccine against hepatitis.' That was true, sort of. The survivors of the experiment had an immunity to hepatitis.

Although it didn't make the news, in 1951 a doctor in the upper Midwest decided to keep quiet about a baby's congenital defect. All in the interests of science, perhaps.

Eventually, a doctor with somewhat less flexible ethics told the infant's parents what the score was. Using that baby as a sort of lab rat is part of why the Lemming takes medical ethics seriously. And that's almost another topic:

Change Happens: Deal With It

For the last half-century or so, loyal acolytes of Bishop Ussher have been insisting that the world - the universe - is only a few thousand years old. And that human beings have always been just about exactly the way we look now.

Other folks have been convinced, at various times, that:
  • An ice age is coming
  • The spotted owl is facing extinction
  • Global warming is gonna kill us all
Then there are the poor souls with a foot in both camps.

It seems to the Lemming that one thing these occasionally-hostile views have in common is an at-best ambivalent attitude toward change.

That's understandable, in the Lemming's opinion. The 20th century, and the 19th, were very exciting times. Two centuries ago, we had a world of horse-drawn plows and candles. In rapid succession, we got Bessemer converters, typewriters, telephones, light bulbs, television, robot spaceships and Twitter. And that's just the technology.

We also found out that the universe makes a whole lot more sense if we assume that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000,000,000 years old and really, really, big.

The Lemming doesn't mind taking the world as it is and marveling at it, and learning new skills every few years to stay employable: but not everybody's like that.

Actually, the Lemming enjoys living in a world where the present isn't like the past, and it's nearly certain that more change is coming. Fast.

Living in an evolving world means that you won't find a recipe calling for fresh trilobite: but in the Lemming's opinion it's an exciting ride.

Posts more-or-less about change:Still more links:

Remember When Everything Caused Cancer?

Born during the Truman administration, the Lemming remembers when everything caused cancer. Or heart disease. Sometimes both.

That fad seems to be over, but it's been replaced with new-and-improved reasons to live scared. Times change - but in some ways, they don't. Yet another topic.

Trust: Carefully

The Lemming remembers when doctors were almost worshiped. The notion that 'doctor knows best' may still be around. But the Lemming hopes it's being tempered with caution and a bit of common sense.

Like deciding whether or not to get inoculated against some disease. There are risks, either way. The trick is to learn what they are and make a reasoned decision:
'The Government Oughta Do Something'
It's been a long, long time since the Lemming thought it was a good idea to rely on 'the government' to solve problems or 'make things right.' And that's yet again another topic again. Not necessarily for this blog:

"Trust Your Feelings, Luke?!"

The Lemming likes the six Star Wars movies: including the one with that famous "trust your feelings" quote. George Lucas is, in the Lemming's opinion, a top-notch movie maker.

The Lemming has nothing against emotions, but they don't play well with reason.

It's the Lemming's opinion that various goofy ideas that have gotten traction owe their success to folks thinking with their endocrine system.

Still, it'd be a slightly less colorful world if a few folks didn't become convinced that space aliens were against nuclear weapons, or that shape-shifting lizard people were the 'real' rulers of the world:

Vaccination May Make Sense: Or, Not

The Lemming isn't going to assert that vaccinations are always a good idea. Or that they always aren't.

As with so many other things, 'it depends.'

The trick, as the Lemming sees it, is to do your own research. And remember that an article using terms like "scientific study" and "computer models" don't mean that some notion is true - or that it isn't.

Related posts:
More, on another sort of silly science, in this blog:
Still more, elsewhere:

The non-Lemming resources listed above don't necessarily march in lockstep with America's dominant culture. No surprises there: 'the establishment' has changed in the last half-century. The lot that's running the country now hasn't - in the Lemming's opinion - been all that eager for Americans to start asking questions about the "science" we're fed. And that is yet again another topic.


Brigid said...

There's a problem with this sentence: "The survivors of had an immunity to hepatitis."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. Ew.

Brian H. Gill said...


Oops. Fixed.

And, yes. "Ew." pretty much covers it.

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