Friday, June 13, 2008

Quack Health Part 2 : Vaccinations and why famous people should be ignored

Jim Carrey - Ace Ventura, bizarre bodily contortionist style comedian, and an actor who has made several highly entertaining movies.

Charlie Sheen - Hot Shots star, Hot Shots 2 star and Wall Street star. All round prolific actor who has made more movies than I've had hot dinners.

Jenny McCarthy. Um....who? Oh that’s right – the playboy chick.

What do these three have in common? Are they aliens? Are they Anti-Vaccine proponents? Are they out of their freaking minds? Yes. Yes they are. Well, except the bit about the aliens.

I never understood why we put people such as this on a pedestal outside of their given field. Sure they have great acting talent, and they make us laugh, but how exactly does that translate into intelligence or knowledge? We idolise these people for evoking emotion on the silver screen, and I don’t have an issue with that. I admire and envy people for their acting talent just like I admire the All Blacks for their rugby skill. You watch them and think “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to do that?” But that’s where it ends and that’s where it should end. Just because someone is talented in one field, does not automatically infer talent in another.

More and more often now we see movie stars and musicians making bat shit crazy pronouncements (I'm looking at you Tom) and it seems to be expected of everyone to say "Well he was in that movie with the dolphin, so he must be right!" Media saturation of these so called A-list celebs has lead many people to jump on just about any bandwagon, regardless of the cause. “I mean, look at the winning smile - surely someone who smiles so well couldn't possibly be wrong?”
Fame is not a substitute for intelligence, or critical thinking. If there is no evidence to support a claim, made by anyone, then it can be relegated to the waste heap of bullshit, cast out by the trowel of fact finding, and buried under the mounds of wooly thinking.

I don't have a beef with people believing weird things - no no, really I don't. If you believe that theres a omnipotent beardy weirdy in the sky, wtching your every molve, judging you against some shifting code of morals, and listening to your thoughts – go for gold. I will add the rider that if people state these beliefs, and try and coerce others to sing along, I reserve the right to ridicule them if there's no evidence to back them up. And that's where the three aforementioned actors come in.

Charlie Sheen has recently told his ex-wife Denise Richards that he will sue the doctor if she asks him to vaccinate their children. Yes, he is more concerned with his kooky ideas that vaccines have a link to Autism, than the benefits of vaccination. Rather than investigating the information at hand, and having even a remote grasp of reality, he is forcing his beliefs on his children who now will have no protection against measles, mumps or rubella. Has he ever seen a child with mumps? Wouldn’t he want to do anything in his power to avoid having his children go through that? I for one hope Denise tells him to shove it, and gets it done anyway.

Jenny McCarthy had a baby boy in 2002, and she stated on Oprah in 2007 that he had been diagnosed with autism. This, in no uncertain terms, sucks. I have no idea who Jenny McCarthy is, what she's like as a person, or how she performs as a mother, but I don't wish Autism on my worst enemy. It’s hard on the parents, and must be hell for the poor kids. And when you are in that unenviable position, you must be desperate to find someone to blame, someone to take the rap, and something you can point the finger of blame squarely at and say "that's the root cause of all my problems". That's a pretty common response - whenever something goes wrong, everyone wants to find that one root cause that started it all and squash it. Bush invaded Iraq because of the WMD's. Petrol prices keep rising because the US invaded Iraq. Autism cases are on the rise because more children get vaccines now than ever before.

But life is never that simple. When was the last time something that was subject to so many variables ever had a single root cause? A good analogy I think is the Coke and Mentos experiments. When people started firing Mentos into Diet Coke causing fountains of froth, people began to wonder why so much bang for such a little sweet? It was assumed to begin with that the substance in the sweet (gum arabic) and the carbonation of the Diet Coke was the root cause of the violent chemical reaction. This sounds plausible, until you actually do a bit of science and test it. If you throw a Mentos into soda water, the reaction is not that great, which means it ain't just carbonation or gum arabic. So individual testing of each Diet Coke ingredient plus the Mentos sweet showed that not one, but ALL of the ingredients played a role in the fountain effect. But there was something else - when one of the flavoured versions of Mentos was used, virtually no reaction was seen at all. This meant there must have been a difference between the flavoured and mint Mentos. And there was - the physical properties of the Mentos was found to be pitted, as opposed to the flavoured one which was smooth. This meant that the sweet had millions of nucleation sites, causing a sudden and violent out gassing of the CO2 in the Diet Coke. The point that I make here is that although we automatically assume one or two root causes for things, its often never that simple. In fact, when some outcome has several possible variables acting on it, you can guarantee the answer will most likely not be just one of the aforementioned variables. Something that only repeated and reliable testing can prove.

Jenny McCarthy however, decided not to take a scientific approach to discovering the cause of her sons Autism. She has linked his autism with his MMRI (Measles, Mumps and Rubella Inoculation) vaccination at the age of 15 months. I cannot say where she got this idea from, but its fair to say there's plenty of kook's out there peddling their stupidity, waiting for anyone to buy into it. And when you feel aggrieved like Jenny probably did, its a safe bet to say it was an attractive idea to blame the vaccine.

She, and her partner Jim Carey, have organised a group to protest against vaccinations called "Green our Vaccines" who's mantra is "pro-safe vaccines", but is pretty obviously leaning towards the anti-vaccine crowd. They are not alone in this idea that vaccines cause autism. Plenty of kooks and weirdos have come out of the woodwork over the last few years stating that they "know" there is a link, and big Pharma or the Government are conspiring to cover it all up. So what the hell are they on about? Here's a quick run down of their arguments

Too Many Vaccines at once
A popular argument is that there are too many vaccines given to children under the age of two. This began when a study of 12 children was done in England by Andrew Wakefield, who suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Subsequent peer reviews failed to support the hypothesis, and the CDC, along with the UK NHS have both concluded there is no link between Autism and the MMR vaccine.
Another variant of this is that anti-vacciner's say that too many at once will deplete the immune system, allowing other diseases to take hold where they may not have. The biggest problem with this hypothesis is that there is no correlation between the admittances to hospital or doctor visits, and vaccinations.

An organomercury preservative used in vaccines since the 1930's, it is claimed there is a direct link between the mercury content of the vaccine and Autism. To date, there has been no reputable study that has concluded a link between Thiomersal and Autism.

Compounds containing Aluminium are used as immunologic adjuvants in vaccines, and there have been several recent studies into adverse effects of these compounds. All have come back with results showing no adverse effects.

We don't need no stinking vaccine
Some critics of the vaccines say that we don't really need to be vaccinated in the western world, and that all the major diseases always only break out in areas of high poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation. This, however, is utter crap. We have outbreaks of disease such as measles every year in every developed country, and if immunisation rates weren't as high as they were, we would be in a lot more shit than we are now. heres a excerpt from an open letter to the US Government from a heap of US health and science groups :

A decision not to vaccinate is not just an individual decision. Because these diseases are spread from person to person, the decision to leave a child unvaccinated not only leaves that child susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases, but permits the spread of those diseases to the surrounding community, including infants too young to be immunized and those suffering from immunodeficiency conditions. The ongoing measles outbreaks across the nation are a clear, current example. In each instance, the outbreak was started by an unimmunized individual who spread the infection to others, including children whose parents had opted not to have them immunized and infants less than one year of age who were too young to have received measles vaccine.

Its all bollocks. The fact (and I emphasise the word fact) is that there have been no scientific links between autism and inoculation programmes. None. Nada. Zip. There have been several studies done into a possible link and every single one has come up negative. There is no evidence. Not a single shred has ever been produced that can prove a link between Autism and vaccinations.

But that doesn't stop the anti-vaccine crowd, oh no. All these bastards do is drum up fears in already nervous parents, who then make ill-informed decisions about their children putting not only them at risk, but everyone else in the community as well. Parents are supposed to make decisions based on the best welfare for their children, and they cant do that if whack jobs like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are all over the TV saying crap like "don't immunise your child or they might become autistic!". Its annoying, its dishonest and its dumb. Like Orac said, I didn't know Dumb and Dumber was a documentary.

The only thing I can take heart from all of this, is that the number of people who believe there is an Autism-Vaccine link is still very small. A majority of people still understand the principles behind vaccination, and agree that the risk of complications during immunization are far lower than the risk of catching one of the diseases if you are not immunised, and that there is a large risk of even small percentages of the community not being immunised. As long as we take care not to listen to idiots like Jenny and Jim, and think a bit more skeptically about this sort of stuff, we'll all come through ok.

For more information check out these sites :

Science Blogs - Oracs Insolence
Autism News Beat
Science Based Medicine
AutismDiva - Autism : Its not like you think
Evidence Based Medicine


Mooghead said...

Spanker - apologies for being off topic but what do you make of this?

Spankermatic said...

I was saddened by the news that TP had Alzheimers. It sucks that someone who has written so prodigiously has succumbed to one of the more debilitating diseases of the brain.

This article really does nothing to change my appreciation of his writing. If he believes in a higher power, that's his bear to wrestle, not mine. I'm not going to stop reading his books just because he is having a "spiritual experience".

However, if he started a church and began trying to convince others of his spirituality, I'd probably have something to say.

Spankermatic said...

Interesting what he says when you get down to it

(from telegraph)
Did it make him rethink his lack of faith?

“Faith in what? If I get pushed in this corner, I believe in the same God that Einstein did. Einstein was a clever bloke . . . And it is just possible that once you have got past all the gods that we have created with big beards and many human traits, just beyond all that on the other side of physics, there just may be the ordered structure from which everything flows.

“That is both a kind of philosophy and totally useless - it doesn’t take you anywhere. But it fills a hole.”
(/from telegraph)

If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
-- Albert Einstein, 1954, from Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Princeton University Press

I don't think TP is about to rush down to the local Bible Bashers and join in a bit of book thumping.

Liz Ditz said...

Came over from the Skeptic's Circle. In addition to this post critical of the "Green Our Vaccine" movement, I'm keeping a list of responses critical of the "Green Our Vaccine" march -- I just added this post of yours.

Anonymous said...

Autism is not something not to wish on your worst enemy. Autism is not something which completely isolates people. Many Auties and Aspies feel unfairly represented by the common myths about it.

Spankermatic said...

I'm not really one to comment on what its like to be autistic or to care for someone who is, as I count myself lucky not to be in that position.

I only know second hand through several teachers here in NZ who have to care for them in a classroom every day, and the children they look after have many different levels of autism.

But like any disability, it must make life more difficult than it already is, and in that way I don't wish that kind of thing on anyone. Yes I realise there are many varying degree's of autism, but the worst cases must be terribly stressful of both parents and children.