Anti-science quacks find success in Maine in their fight against health and vaccines

Vaccine rates for young people entering school has been declining in recent years:

The rate of unvaccinated kindergartners in Maine continues to climb and is now the fifth highest in the nation, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The percentage of Maine parents voluntarily opting out of vaccines for their children is alarming state public health officials who have been working to bolster immunization.

Nearly 800 public school kindergartners in Maine started the 2013-14 school year without receiving the required vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough and measles because their parents opted not to immunize. That represents 5.2 percent of all kindergartners in the state, up from 3.9 percent the previous year.

This is in large part due to the anti-vax movement that has been steadily gaining ground since the 90’s. Indeed, although disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield had his 1998 study linking vaccines and autism debunked – no one ever reproduced his results, and it was no wonder since he outright made them up – he remains a hero of the anti-vax crowd.

One of the more favored canards of anti-vax quacks is to call herd immunity a myth. Do a quick search and one is liable to find any given quack claiming that herd immunity makes no difference to the health of a state. I recall reading some random anti-vax nobody argue that because vaccines are between 60-80% effective, even with 100% compliance, we could still see an epidemic. Of course, while he spoke of vaccines at-large in an intentionally general sense, he actually linked to CDC statistics on the flu vaccine. I guess it was a coincidence that he found it inconvenient to tell his readers that he was talking about one specific vaccine, huh? So is the high bar set by quacks.

At any rate, for herd immunity to be effective, there needs to be about a 95% vaccination rate. Of course, 100% would be the ideal because we’re talking about saving human lives, but with all the anti-government and anti-science kooks out there, 95% is actually a very achievable number that allows for some bumper space. Unfortunately, sometimes we see areas that fall well below that bumper space. For instance, when vaccine rates for whooping cough fell to 91% in California, communities there saw an outbreak in the disease. Thousands got sick and at least 10 infants died. What makes this all the more heart-breaking is that these infants were too young to be vaccinated, meaning they relied upon the herd immunity around them to remain safe. Anti-vax parents and the quacks they trust are at fault for these deaths. Frighteningly, Maine is on a similar path.

Get vaccinated

It never ceases to amaze me just how many anti-vax people there are out there. Every time I bring up the topic it isn’t the pro-vaccine people who come out in support. No, instead it’s almost exclusively the anti-vax quacks. I suppose the same thing happens with circumcision, 9/11, and a history of Obama’s life: the anti-circumcision crowd, truthers, and birthers are going to immediately overwhelm the discussion. But even with this massive selection bias, the sheer number of nuts out there is incredible. I suspect to see as much regarding this post, should it garner a response at all. However, as a decent human being with a little bit of knowledge, I feel duty-bound to present a few vaccine facts.

Vaccines are incredibly safe. This is true of all vaccines, but especially of the flu vaccine. The most likely side effects anyone is going to suffer are mild soreness or a low grade fever. A study from about 10 years ago did find that one version of the swine flu vaccine from the mid-70’s was associated with a tiny increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, but correlation is not causation. No one knows why there was such an association, but for this reason those with a history of the syndrome are cautioned and should speak with their doctor to assess their exact situation. Also, those with severe egg allergies are cautioned, plus those who are currently sick with one thing or another should wait.

Vaccines change each year because of evolution. From time to time I’ll hear an objection to the fact that the flu vaccine is different each year. Why, the argument seems to go, scientists are just guessing. That’s not true. While they are making an educated guess, it’s more than just throwing up a prayer and hoping they get it right. Each year’s vaccine is based upon the most recent research and information available. This is necessary because of the speed of a virus’ evolution.

Everyone over 6 months old should get vaccinated. This, of course, takes into account the caveats I’ve already presented, but for the vast majority of people, vaccination is recommended. Vaccines save lives, and if that’s not important enough to you for some crazy reason, they also save money by cutting down on sick days.

The flu vaccine is effective. Exactly how effective the flu vaccine is will vary from year to year, as well as from age group to age group. A person’s overall health is also a factor. In general, though, the vaccine’s effectiveness ranges from 50-80%. The most common (and most annoying) ‘counter’ to this is to look at absolute risk reduction. A person who does this is usually either a quack or has gathered information from a quack. It isn’t that absolute risk reduction is invalid. It’s a perfectly good way to understand how wide-spread a disease or sickness is and how our health policies are dealing with it. For the flu vaccine, the actual reduction in risk is about 1.5%. That sounds miniscule, but we can make a lot of things sound miniscule. What’s happening here is we’re looking at the total population and calculating the number who would get the flu without any vaccine. That’s a very small percentage. Then we’re looking at how likely it is that of the percentage that actually gets vaccinated is going to not get the flu as a result. Again, this is useful. However, when presented in the context of this discussion, it isn’t useful. It would be as if someone argued that since the absolute risk of contracting HIV in Tanzania is very low over, say, intercourse with 5 different partners, the 97-99% effectiveness of condoms is moot. Why, who needs condoms? You probably won’t contract it anyway! Pshaw.

Vaccines, not sanitation, have eradicated or nearly eradicated disease. While it’s obviously true that increased bathing, hand washing, and better filtered water have made us healthier and less likely to contract various diseases, these alone cannot get rid of disease. Smallpox has been eradicated for over 30 years now because of vaccines, not because more people than ever are buying bars of Irish Spring soap. Polio is nearly eradicated because of vaccines; India was recently declared polio free – that isn’t a country exactly known for its impeccable sanitation practices. Yellow fever persists because so many people go unvaccinated (even though the vaccine is 99% effective), and no amount of sanitation is going to change how many people die from it each year since its primary vector is the mosquito.

There are far more thorough sources out there that have vaccine facts covered in much better detail than I have here, so this is far enough for me. I simply wanted to address some of the issues that bother me the most about the vaccine misinformation floating about. For nearly every single person, vaccination is the smart option. The caveats are small and specific, the side effects minor and manageable. Get vaccinated.

New warning labels for junk alt-med vaccines

The alt-med crowd is notoriously anti-vaccine despite the high level of safety of vaccines – even despite how many lives vaccines save every year. Real medicine being so effective against what were once devastating, wide-spread diseases just doesn’t fit the alt-med narrative. Yet does that stop them from peddling their own ‘vaccines’? Of course not. And would you believe it? Their vaccines aren’t even effective:

Health Canada is cracking down on the sale of so-called homeopathic vaccines that are falsely promoted by some naturopaths and homeopaths as safer and more effective than traditional vaccines.

The department has altered the document that outlines how homeopathic vaccines should be used, saying they must now contain the following warning: “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination.” The document, called a product monograph, was updated June 24, one month after The Globe and Mail published a story outlining the concerns with homeopathic vaccines.

“We’re very glad … they’ve taken this step,” said Jamie Williams, executive director of Bad Science Watch, a Canadian advocacy organization that led a campaign against homeopathic vaccines. “We feel that it will be a help to consumers who might not have been getting the full information to make a more informed health choice before this.”

But what’s in these so-called vaccines, you ask? Well, ultimately nothing. But they made sure to take a gross path to that nothing:

Homeopathic vaccines, also known as nosodes, are made from infected saliva, feces or other material. The substance is mixed with alcohol and diluted until it is harmless, according to the homeopathic and naturopathic practitioners who sell the products. They say nosodes produce an immune response and that research shows it protects as well, if not better, than traditional vaccines.

In other words, they disinfect some feces or spit before essentially filtering it back to water. Anyone looking to imbibe this malarkey would be better off spitting into their Brita water filter and drinking the purified water that comes out. At least then they would have a water filter in addition to having wasted their time. And as for what research shows? It’s a lie. People who promote this sort of quackery cite poorly done studies with a tiny number of participants; the studies are never replicated and they never appear in any journal with any dignity. It’s all agenda-driven drivel that, in the end, makes the homeopath a butt-load of undue money. Take this advice from Jamie Williams, executive director of Bad Science Watch:

“Do not listen to somebody in a health store who’s trying to sell you $30 worth of sugar pills,” he said.

Anti-SLAPP suit against Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield is a disgraced doctor who made up data that questioned the safety of vaccines. As a result, many parents refused to vaccinate their kids, especially in the U.K. Arguably, children died as a result. Andrew Wakefield is clearly a dangerous man and I’m glad that the scientific community has firmly rejected his nonsense. In fact, certain scientific journals and people even outside the scientific community have been quite critical. These include the British Medical Journal and journalistic Brian Deer. In response, Wakefield sued them for defamation. Now they are countering with an anti-SLAPP motion:

The anti-SLAPP statute protects journalists and publishers from baseless libel claims like Dr. Wakefield’s by providing for a special “motion to dismiss” to be filed at the outset of the case. To avoid dismissal, the plaintiff must submit “clear and specific evidence” to support each essential element of his claims. Where, as here, the plaintiff cannot satisfy that burden, the Court must dismiss the case and award the defendants their reasonable fees and costs, along with any additional sanctions appropriate to deter the plaintiff from filing similar actions.

This is what would have happened to Christopher Maloney had he been foolish enough to continue. Now the onus is on Wakefield to prove that he has actually been defamed. And, of course, he is unlikely to succeed. I hope this costs him a lot of money – and, more so, supporters.

via Popehat.

Bad news on the vaccine front

It looks like vaccine rates are trending downwards in the US:

More parents are opting out of school shots for their kids. In eight states now, more than 1 in 20 public school kindergartners aren’t getting all the vaccines required for attendance, an Associated Press analysis found.

That growing trend among parents seeking vaccine exemptions has health officials worried about outbreaks of diseases that once were all but stamped out.

If this trend continues and gets bad enough, people will begin to die. We’ve already seen that in England as well as throughout pockets in the US. It happens. Really, you anti-vax nuts. It god damn happens.

Some states are worse than others, Alaska being the biggest offender at a 9% exemption rate. Here is my prediction: We will see increased deaths over time in parts of Alaska, and likely even more deaths in more densely populated areas with high rates, such as Colorado (7%). Places like Mississippi, where the exemption rate is basically 0%, will continue to be healthy in regard to these preventable diseases of the past.

And why are people making these bad decisions? Well:

Exemption seekers are often middle-class, college-educated white people, but there are often a mix of views and philosophies. Exemption hot spots like Sedona, Ariz., and rural northeast Washington have concentrations of both alternative medicine-preferring as well as government-fearing libertarians.

If these people were science-preferring and woo-fearing instead, we wouldn’t be heading toward this guaranteed problem.

How shady can these anti-vax groups get?

It should be no surprise that an anti-vaccine group is willing to play games and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Individuals in the movement are doing it all the time. Usually the tactic is to take some minor result and extrapolate wildly from it. A study has 29 test subjects? Black elderberry must be a viable alternative to getting H1N1 vaccines! But there are other methods.

Enter SANE Vax. Its name is a dead giveaway that it’s anti-vax, but here is the group’s description of itself:

The Sane Vax Mission is to promote Safe, Affordable, Necessary & Effective vaccines and vaccination practices through education and information. We believe in science-based medicine. Our primary goal is to provide the information necessary for you to make informed decisions regarding your health and well-being. We also provide referrals to helpful resources for those unfortunate enough to have experienced vaccine-related injuries.

No, no, no. They believe vaccines are the devil and they want to promote as much fear and uncertainty as they possibly can. Right now they have a series of articles about recombinant DNA in HPV vaccines where they are attempting to drum up boatloads of hysteria. Here’s an excerpt from just one:

Dr. Sin Hang Lee, a pathologist at the Milford Hospital pathology laboratory well-known for using cutting-edge DNA sequencing for molecular diagnoses,[i] was initially contracted to examine a single sample of Gardasil for possible contamination. This sample tested positive for recombinant viral HPV-11 and viral HPV-18 residues, both of which were firmly attached to the aluminum adjuvant.

And what’s the big deal about that?

‘Recombinant DNA’ is a DNA that has been artificially attached to DNA from another species or a man-made DNA construct, in other words, genetically modified. ‘Recombinant DNA,’ also known as genetically modified DNA, is considered a biohazard. This is what states, drug companies, doctors and other medical professionals what (sic) you to inject into your children.

Recombinant DNA is not considered a biohazard. For something to be biohazardous, it must be known to be dangerous to humans. Strict guidelines prevent this from happening, at least as a result of human tinkering (something already hazardous to human health which has been modified for whatever very particular reasons in a lab is not being counted here). It is true that there is some deal of mystery about what could happen if a genetically modified organism spreads into the environment, but little evidence exists to suggest that human laboratory work can have a big impact in the face of nearly 4 billion years worth of evolution.

But let’s get back to SANE Vax’s issue here. The claim is that HPV recombinant DNA is being found in blood. (Go here for more specific links to everything.)

According to Dr. Lee, “‘Natural HPV DNA does not remain in the bloodstream for very long. However, the HPV DNA in Gardasil™ is not ‘natural’ DNA. It is a recombinant HPV DNA (rDNA) – genetically engineered – to be inserted into yeast cells for VLP (virus-like-particle) protein production. rDNA is known to behave differently from natural DNA. It may enter a human cell, especially in an inflammatory lesion caused by the effects of the aluminum adjuvant, via poorly understood mechanisms.

“Once a segment of recombinant DNA is inserted into a human cell, the consequences are hard to predict. It may be in the cell temporarily or stay there forever, with or without causing a mutation. Now the host cell contains human DNA as well as genetically engineered viral DNA.”

This is what one might call full-blown bullshit. The likelihood of this DNA becoming expressed in humans is virtually nil. It is a minute amount, it is not simple to insert new DNA so it can be expressed, and the vaccine is not infectious in the first place.

This is all fear-mongering, of course, but there’s something I find so much more interesting. SANE Vax sent this to the FDA:

The SANE Vax Inc. data, including the electropherograms of short target sequencing used to validate the HPV DNA detected in the thirteen (13) Gardasil samples, each with a different lot number, are available for your review, provided appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the proprietary processes and information utilized by our laboratory to test the samples.

One only need the right undergraduate studies to know this is nonsense. Dr. Lee used PCR techniques to come up with his results. It’s basic stuff. The only point where he has done anything specific to his lab is when he came up with the correct primers. Any biologist willing to devote half a day to a project could come up with the right products. There is nothing proprietary here which is not also insignificant. Neither SANE Vax nor Dr. Lee stand to gain from keeping this stuff secret.

And then there’s this:

The HPV DNA testing was performed by Dr. Sin Hang Lee, a pathologist at the Milford Hospital pathology laboratory known in using cutting-edge DNA sequencing for molecular diagnoses. This methodology was first reported to the FDA in 2006 and has been published in various peer-reviewed scientific journals, stated Erickson.

In other words, his general methodology has been published, but he is refusing to freely publish this specific methodology out of concern that…well, I don’t know. If he has already shown his work to the FDA, then there is definitely no reason to withhold these specific results. Not that there was any justification in the first place anyway.

What we have here is a known anti-vaccine group which has purported unlikely results which cannot be duplicated because it refuses to publish its findings, even though those findings come with zero financial incentive for either it or Dr. Lee. Oh, and the methodology has already been published anyway. It’s utterly transparent what’s going on here: SANE Vax is attempting to establish Dr. Lee as a legitimate source by virtue of his previous work, but then they are turning around and claiming that that same work is proprietary and cannot be seen by just anyone, thereby ensuring that no external source can take a look at the actual data.

The anti-vax movement would be a joke if it didn’t kill so many people every year.

The other anti-vax crowd

By now we should all be familiar with the traditional anti-vax crowd. After all, they’ve been responsible for a number of deaths. But there is a secondary anti-vax crowd. These are the people who don’t object to vaccines based upon their unscientific views but instead because of their religion and conservatism:

Bypassing the Legislature altogether, Republican Gov. Rick Perry issued an order Friday making Texas the first state to require that schoolgirls get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

By employing an executive order, Perry sidestepped opposition in the Legislature from conservatives and parents’ rights groups who fear such a requirement would condone premarital sex and interfere with the way Texans raise their children.

Emphasis mine.

Of course the usual suspects are out in force opposing Perry’s (rare) good decision, but the religious right is just as present. The concern is an illegitimate one: they believe their kids will start boning up a storm now that they don’t have those pesky cancer concerns, to put it gracefully. But as we know from failed abstinence-only programs and other pro-ignorant policies, keeping kids away from education and various safety methods only causes harm. Besides, does anyone think cervical cancer is really a big concern for kids who want to have sex? And even if it is, do we want to put them at risk? Think about it. These conservatives want to keep their kids from getting this vaccine because they think the threat of cancer is better than the idea that their kids might lose their virginity. Put in that light, these people are monstrous.

I’ve long been of the position that the general public absolutely does not appreciate the danger of cancer. I don’t know if it’s the “It won’t happen to me” mentality or if it’s general ignorance or if it’s something else, but there really is no appreciation. While Gov. Perry probably made his decision based upon lobbying efforts and campaign donations, we do ultimately have a decision that can be appreciated and lauded by the scientific community. This is good for Texas and its young girls, and I’m glad to see it happen.