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.
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.”