As I emerged from my Portugal-induced hiatus from all things disease and vaccine this week, I was suddenly hit with messages: Had I seen the news? The CDC has been covering up evidence of a link between autism and MMR vaccine (yes, that again) in African-American children. A CDC “whistleblower” just exposed the CDC’s evil machinations, proving all those in the anti-vaccine movement right. What did I think?
Let me try to explain the situation at hand.
CNN has this user-based “news” site called “iReport.” Anyone can post any “news” they want on this site. Recently, someone posted a “news” article stating that a top researcher at the CDC, William Thompson, admitted “he played a key role in helping uncover data manipulation by the CDC. This fraud obscured a higher incidence of autism in African-American boys due to the MMR vaccine.” This iReport went on to state, “documents from the CDC show that in 2003 a 340% risk of autism in African American boys related to the MMR vaccine was discovered and then hidden due to pressure from senior officials.” Well, naturally, this caught a lot of peoples’ attention and is spreading like mad on the web.
What is going on? The facts are not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that the entire story stems from the work of a well-known anti-vaccinationist named Brian Hooker. Hooker, we should note, is not a physician or epidemiologist. He is a biochemical engineer who now claims to be an expert in vaccines and autism. And what raises more red flags about the validity of this alleged coverup is the fact that Andrew Wakefield is involved. You remember Dr. Wakefield? He’s the physician (who has now lost his license to practice medicine in the U.K.) who started the whole MMR vaccine-autism theory when he published a fraudulent and now widely-debunked study in The Lancet in 1998. (The journal has since retracted it).
The gist of the story, as I understand it, is this. In 2004, Dr. Thompson (the alleged whistleblower) was a co-author on a study that found no statistically significant relationship between MMR, or age of administration of MMR, and autism. This study looked at immunization data for children diagnosed with autism against those who did not have autism and concluded that the small increase in autism among vaccinated kids in one group — those under age 36 months — was likely due to the vaccine requirements of autism-focused early intervention programs. That is, the autism was already present and the kids were vaccinated in order to attend special intervention programs. Just so we are clear, this study was conducted by a number of medical epidemiologists — the very people trained (extensively) in understanding causes of disease.
Back to Brian Hooker. This guy (again, with no apparent background to qualify him to undertake an epidemiology study), reviewed the same data used in Thompson’s 2004 study. Apparently, he received some guidance or advice from Dr. Thompson, but just what was exchanged exactly is not clear. Anyway, after doing his own “study,” Hooker concluded something very different —“that African American males receiving the MMR vaccine prior to 24 months of age or 36 months of age are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis.” Hooker’s article has since been removed from the public domain due to “serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions.”
Ok. So we have a study by several epidemiologists in 2004 that concludes MMR does not cause autism. Then we have a 2014 study (under investigation by the journal that published it) by a biochemical engineer that reviews the same data and finds a connection for African-American boys. And this reanalysis is undertaken by a guy who has an agenda. I’m no epidemiologist, but I know that researcher bias is a big fat red flag when looking at the reliability and validity of a study. And moreover, his study had a different design than the original one which can, naturally, lead to different results. So based on this, we have to question his findings. But what is important to note, is that even Hooker can’t find a relationship between vaccines and autism in most children. Just black boys. And even for them: there’s no relationship between getting the vaccine and autism. Just between the ages of 24 and 36 months.
Does it make sense that children who get MMR between 24-36 months will be more likely to have autism than those under 24 months or over 36 months? Hooker gives no explanation.
Which leads back to that iReport. All this business with Hooker reanalyzing the data comes to the mainstream public through release of a video by, none other than Andrew Wakefield. Apparently, Hooker had been in some sort of contact with Dr. Thompson. He decided to record a phone conversation (without Thompson’s knowledge or agreement). In the video, the phone conversation (which apparently really is with Dr. Thompson) is not provided in its entirety. Rather, there are bits of audio clips where Dr. Thompson uses the word “regret” and “shame” and also refers to a study of which he was a part. Please note, the audio clips are never in context of a surrounding conversation. They are just placed — conveniently — within the framework of a narrative created by Wakefield and Hooker.
And I do mean narrative. This video is ludicrous. It’s over the top and makes Dateline’s old Catch A Predator series look like the Lehrer News Hour. Hooker might have just said, “Thompson at the CDC said X,Y &Z” to me. But he can’t stop there. He and Wakefield have to stretch whatever conversation happened with Thompson into overt propaganda. Some of this is just silly, like when Hooker refers to himself as Thompson’s “priest” in Thompson’s alleged confession. Good grief. But other parts are exploitative and use other people’s history to propel their own agenda. Specifically, they usurp the infamous (and awful) Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment for their own means. Yes. There was a horrible time when black men were purposefully and deliberately not treated for syphilis just so some researchers could learn what effects syphilis had on their bodies. But the use of it in this video feels like exploitation. It just feels slimy that Wakefield and Hooker would parlay this terrible history into their anti-vaccine agenda.
Because, in the end, that’s what this is about. Again. And that’s why the video had to be so theatrical. The facts (as we know them) aren’t enough to convince most rational people that the authors of the 2004 study did anything wrong. The CDC has addressed the issue: they did not have access to birth certificate (and therefore race information) for all children in the study and therefore could not present data on race for the whole study sample. Thompson’s recorded statements, outside of a video filled with images of poor black people and disabled children, don’t mean much. ( In fact, Thompson has responded and stated that he “would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race.”) Wakefield and Hooker are desperate for evidence to support their anti-vaccine beliefs. And they are desperate to convince everyone else that they are right.
Please don’t buy into their story. Vaccines do not cause autism. There are so many studies, done by legitimate unbiased researchers, that have proven over and over that there is no causal link between vaccination and autism. Trust these studies. Not the study of a guy with a major agenda. A guy who had to secretly record a CDC scientist and then cut and paste parts of that conversation into an unprofessional, highly inflammatory video — a video produced and directed by a discredited, fraudulent physician.
And trust me.
If this story changes, I’ll be the first to let you know.