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Scientist criticizes congressional panel for perpetuating myths about vaccines

Steven Salzberg's article was harshly critical of anti-vaccine questioning by members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, especially chair Rep. Dan Burton, left.

In his “Fighting Pseudoscience” blog at Forbes this week, Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University, takes several members of the anti-science wing of the U.S. House of Representatives to task for using a recent hearing to “rehash a series of some of the most thoroughly discredited anti-vaccine positions of the past decade.”

Salzberg, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, said he was “stunned” by how arrogantly members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — particularly its chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) — perpetuated the myth that vaccines cause autism.

Writes Salzberg:

In a classic political move, the committee called on scientists Alan Guttmacher from the [the National Institutes of Health] and Colleen Boyle from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to testify, but in fact the committee just wanted to bully the scientists. Committee members lectured the scientists, throwing out bad science claims, often disguised as questions, thick and fast.  Alas, Guttmacher and Boyle weren’t prepared for this kind of rapid-fire assault by pseudoscience.

Burton himself was the worst offender, offering anecdotes and bad science with an air of authority. He stated bluntly:

“I’m convinced that the mercury in vaccinations is a contributing factor to neurological diseases such as autism.”

No, it isn’t. Dozens of studies, involving hundreds of thousands of children, have found the same thing: there is no link whatsoever between thimerosal and autism, or between vaccines and autism.  And Burton went off the deep end with this:

“It wasn’t so bad when a child gets one or two or three vaccines. … Mercury accumulates in the brain until it has to be chelated.”

Bang bang, two false claims in 10 seconds. First he claims that mercury from vaccines “accumulates in the brain,” a statement with no scientific support at all. Then he claims that chelation therapy is the solution — a radical, potentially very harmful treatment that no sensible parent would ever force on their child.  Unfortunately, some quack doctors have experimented with chelation therapy on autistic children, despite that fact that it can cause deadly liver and kidney damage, and one of them caused the death of a 5-year-old boy in 2005.

Burton also claimed that single-shot vials would “eliminate the possibility of neurological damage from vaccines” — a claim that was invented out of thin air by the discredited anti-vax doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent 1998 study was the spark that started the current wave of anti-vax hysteria.

Another committee member, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), demanded to know why the CDC has not conducted a study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children — “a standard talking point of the anti-vax movement,” notes Salzberg.

The CDC’s Boyle began answering the question by pointing out that many studies have investigated the relation between vaccines and autism, but she was soon interrupted by Posey.

“So clearly, definitely, unequivocally, you have studied vaccinated versus unvaccinated,” he asked her.

“We have not studied vaccinated versus unvaccinated,” answered Boyle.

“Never mind,” Posey said. “Stop there. That was the meaning of my question. You wasted two minutes of my time.”

“Dr. Boyle simply wasn’t prepared for a Congressman who was parroting anti-vax activists,” writes Salzberg. This, he adds, is what she could have said:

Congressman Posey, only an extremely unethical scientist would consider conducting such a study. To compare vaccinated versus unvaccinated children in the manner you suggest, one would have to withhold vaccines from young children. We know from decades of evidence, involving tens of millions of children, that vaccines save lives. Few if any medical interventions are more effective than vaccines.

But Congressman, the scientific community has done observational studies of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children, comparing autism rates in children whose parents chose not to vaccinate. Those studies show that autism rates were slightly higher in unvaccinated children. That’s right, vaccinated children had autism at a lower rate.

So no, Congressman Posey, the CDC hasn’t done a study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. Only a corrupt dictatorship could impose a study like that on its people. Is that what you want?

“Congress has every right to conduct oversight into medical research at the NIH and the CDC,” Salzberg writes. “But when Dan Burton, Bob Posey, and others decide in advance what the science says, and abuse their power to demand ‘answers’ that validate their badly mistaken beliefs, people can be harmed. Over the past decade, the anti-vaccine movement has successfully convinced millions of parents to leave their kids unvaccinated, and the result has been serious outbreaks of whooping cough, haemophilus, measles, chicken pox, and mumps around the U.S. and Europe.”

“Some anti-vax parents claim that these childhood illnesses aren’t so bad,” he adds. “I wish they would talk to the parents of young children who have died in recent whooping cough outbreaks. These illnesses can be deadly.”

You can read Salzberg’s article about the hearing on the Forbes website. You can also find it at Salzberg’s personal blog, “Genomics, Medicine, and Pseudoscience.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 12/05/2012 - 01:04 pm.

    That’s democracy

    Unfortunately, there is no intelligence test or educational level threshold for election to public office. Any fool can get himself elected, and they frequently do.

  2. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 12/05/2012 - 03:14 pm.

    Picking the Panels

    If they can put uneducated, anti-science twits on “science” panels, can I please run the panel on religion? I have proof that religion causes autism, Global Freezing and lumpuckerrhea. Well, not proof maybe, but who needs that?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/05/2012 - 04:32 pm.

    It might be relevant

    …to find out if Mr. Posey and Mr. Burton have children, and then ask: “Were your children vaccinated?” If the answer is “No,” then let the Congressmen put their scientific ignorance on a pedestal and display it to the nation at large by asking them “Why not?” If the answer is “Yes,” while the impulse to respond “Then shut up, hypocrite!” would be pretty powerful, a more effective response might be what’s often referred to as a “pregnant pause” before repeating Salzburg’s faux-response.

  4. Submitted by Brian Hooker on 12/05/2012 - 07:19 pm.

    Salzberg’s wrong-headed comments

    Dear Ms. Perry

    My good friend, Rep. Posey was asking specifically regarding the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), a repository of information that includes unvaccinated individuals. It was unfortunate that Mr. Salzerg resorted to hyperbole and ad hominem attacks of Rep. Posey as among scientists, it has backfired, making him look extremely foolish. No one, including Rep. Posey is suggesting that infants or children forgo vaccines. Many scientists (including me as the parent of a wonderful, vaccine-injured child) just want to have an independent review of the VSD, a repository that has ample information for a vax/unvax study today. Taxpayers have paid the CDC over $250 million for the VSD over the past ten years. However, the CDC essentially refuses to provide the data (with identifiers redacted of course) to any party independent of the Federal government.

    Please fact check the next time you reference another article. These types of meaningless attacks do nothing to ensure the health and safety of our children.

    Brian S. Hooker, Ph.D.

  5. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 12/05/2012 - 09:47 pm.

    Another scientist’s comment on vaccine safety concerns

    “There are unanswered questions about vaccine safety. We need studies on vaccinated populations based on various schedules and doses as well as individual patient susceptibilities that we are continuing to learn about. No one should be threatened by the pursuit of this knowledge. Vaccine policy should be the subject of frank and open debate, with no tolerance for bullying. There are no sides — only people concerned for the well-being of our children.”

    — the late Bernadine Healy, M.D., former director, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and former health editor, U.S. News & World Report

  6. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 12/05/2012 - 09:57 pm.

    RFK Jr. says CDC Thimerosal/autism epi studies are fraudulent

    “I called the editor of The Washington Post when they said, you know, ‘Well, this is the newest mythology, they’ve removed the Thimerosal from the vaccines and autism rates have not gone down.’ How many times have you read that repeated by these people from the press? That is an industry talking point that the industry knows is a lie — everybody knows that’s a lie. The amount of Thimerisal today in the flu vaccines is about sixty percent of what they claim to have removed from all the other pediatric vaccines. So, I looked at these, I read these studies, and I saw studies that weren’t even good — that wasn’t even high-quality fraud.”

    — Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Professor of Environmental Law at Pace Law School, Waterkeeper Alliance chair, and author.

    • Submitted by Ken Reibel on 12/06/2012 - 09:42 am.

      RFK, Jr. not being honest

      Thimerosal has been absent from scheduled childhood vaccines since 2002, and there is no sign of a decline in autism diagnoses among children born after that date. For Kennedy’s claim to be true (that flu vaccines are causing autism diagnoses to rise), two things have to be true. First, is that nearly all children born since 2002 have received thimerosal containing flu vaccines, and that thimerosal poisoning is independent of dose. The second point runs smack into Kennedy’s previously held position that children were harmed by the accumulation of thimerosal over the course of the vaccine pediatric vaccines schedule. Now he infers that accumulation is irrelevant – even one TCV can cause autism. The first point is disputed by data that show less than optimal flu vaccine uptake by children, and the fact that thimerosal free vaccines are available for children.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Lewis on 12/06/2012 - 09:27 am.

    I don’t know how well they prevent infection, but vaccinations are 100% effective at making money for Johnson and Johnson. And we know they are not above bribery.

    I think a degree of skepticism is well warranted. Is it really that hard to believe that the CDC could be bought?

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