I went to listen to Dr. Offit speak about his latest book the other night. Unfortunately, the whole thing devolved into a discussion about vaccines and their safety. Or, rather, there were 30+ people there who were there to question the safety of vaccines, and to hold Dr. Offit accountable for the perceived dangers of vaccines. Why him? Because he’s a vaccine researcher, and he’s been very critical of the lies and misinformation being spread by anti-vaccine celebrities and organizations.
Now, I’ve written before how the common antivaxxer should be understood and listened to. The “common” antivaxxer is someone who doesn’t know better, who is trying to protect their child from a boogieman created by anti-vaccine people, and who is willing to listen and learn more. Those antivaxxers I can deal with.
The antivaxxers that really get to me — and even scare me — are the ones who continue to lie and misinform even in the face of clear evidence. Even when Dr. Offit explains to these people that the patent for the vaccine he had a hand in creating doesn’t belong to him but to the institution where he worked on the vaccine, these people continue to call him an “industrialist” and to demand that he release his financial records. (To that last one, last night, Dr. Offit replied that it was none of the business of the person demanding that disclosure. Very true.)
One woman came to talk to me after the event and claimed that her unvaccinated child was the healthiest child her doctor had ever seen. (Her doctor, she claimed, is a naturopath. So take that with a grain of salt.) She then told me about a study where a scientist took the brains of autistic children who had died and examined them for the presence of aluminum.
“The connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease is less a myth than a longstanding scientific controversy. It began in 1965, when researchers discovered that injecting rabbits’ brains with aluminum caused them to develop neurofibrillary tangles, the twisted proteins found in brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that destroys memory and cognition.
The finding spurred a rush of research. Just eight years later, a Canadian group studying brain tissue from deceased Alzheimer’s patients found that certain parts of their brains had two to three times more aluminum than a normal brain. By 1980, Daniel Perl and Arnold Brody had managed to actually peer inside human tangle-bearing brain cells — and found aluminum there, too.”
That sounds convincing, no? Well, the article continues:
“Despite the rise in interest, no one could figure out what this meant for human health. Part of the problem was that scientific techniques were — and still are — too imperfect to provide an answer. Whether they were studying brain cells or conducting population-wide epidemiological studies that tracked aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s risk, researchers lacked the tools to get very precise or conclusive results.
“Aluminum is so common, so prevalent in the environment, that studying it is a hard task,” says John Savory, a professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Virginia who helped discover that aluminum exposure can cause neurological and dementia-like symptoms in dialysis patients. “Just a speck of dust can contaminate your sample, because it’s everywhere.””
“For example, a 1997 study of nearly 1,000 men from England and Wales found little association between their Alzheimer’s disease incidence and their estimated exposure to aluminum through drinking water, but a 15-year study that followed 1,925 French men and women concluded that high aluminum consumption from drinking water might be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2003 World Health Organization survey of six high-quality epidemiological studies of aluminum in drinking water as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, three found a positive association, while three did not.
These differing results are due to the difficulties inherent in epidemiological studies, which require researchers to rely on potentially inaccurate records and to follow people over long periods, says Amy Borenstein, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
Borenstein studied Alzheimer’s disease risk and aluminum exposure through antiperspirants and cookware more than 20 years ago, also with unclear results. “We do the best we can,” she says. “Studying humans is hard.”
Another problem is that the topic simply fell out of favor. As Alzheimer’s disease researchers pursued more easily testable avenues for understanding the disease, such as its genetic risk factors and its formation of brain plaques (instead of the tangles), aluminum fell by the wayside, Savory says.”
Aluminum may have fallen by the wayside when it comes to Alzheimer’s, but anti-vaccine people have started to circulate the conspiracy theory on the internet that adjuvants containing aluminum cause autism, which they falsely equate to Alzheimer’s. (Adjuvants are chemicals used to induce a stronger immune response from vaccines.) So they are pushing the idea that vaccines introduce too much aluminum, which builds up in the brain and causes damage, and said damage presents itself as autism.
The thing is, autism is not brain damage. The brains of an autistic person and a neurotypical person may be different, but it’s not because of damage. The evidence points towards a genetic component that builds autistic brains differently in the womb and, as different parts of the brain are activated as the child develops, different signs and symptoms of autism appear. Think about it this way: A newborn baby doesn’t have an active speech part of the brain. That part activates around 12 months, or longer. (Baby Ren is taking her sweet time, as is the case with so many bilingual children.) Similarly, it appears that activation sequences for the brain are different in autistic children compared to neurotypical children… And this is why some people may perceive a “perfectly normal” child that “regresses” into autism.
Back to the study, though.
The study in question took five brains, just five, and analyzed them for the presence and concentration of aluminum. Right off the bat, you should be concerned with the number of subjects. Furthermore, these brains were not picked at random. This is from the methods section of the study:
“Ethical approval was obtained along with tissues from the Oxford Brain Bank (15/SC/0639). Samples of cortex of approximately 1 g frozen weight from temporal, frontal, parietal and occipital lobes and hippocampus (0.3 g only) were obtained from 5 individuals with ADI-R-confirmed (Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised) ASD, 4 males and 1 female, aged 15–50 years old (Table 1).”
Table one then goes on to show the aluminum values in each of the brain samples. Here’s the one for the first subject:
Oh, I’m sorry… Did I say these were children? No, this was an adult female, aged 44. So now we have the second bit of concern. This study is trying to understand autism in children, and it even cites a lot of studies on autism in children as a scientific background on which this study is based. The other four subjects were 50, 22, 15, and 33. They were hardly children.
The next worrying thing? The lack of controls. I mean, they didn’t even take the time to go grab some tissue samples from neurotypical people and compare those to the autistic brains. That is the basis of epidemiology, to compare the cases involved in whatever we theorized happened to the counterfactual, to non-cases to whom something did not happen. Otherwise, this is not a study. This is just a case series, an anecdotal report of stuff.
So what’s next? Next are the values for the concentrations of aluminum. Look at them carefully and notice how, in some measurements, the standard deviations are huge compared to the mean. This is not only because of the small number of measurements but also because of the big differences in the measurements. Those big differences tell me that something is off in the technique used to make these measurements. Contamination, perhaps? After all, aluminum is incredibly abundant in the environment. Test almost anything around you, and it will have aluminum in it.
Heck, you get more aluminum from breastmilk and tap water than you ever will from vaccines.
And now, the final worrying thing about this study… Something from the fine print:
“The research is supported by a grant from the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), a not-for-profit research foundation based in Washington DC, USA.”
Remember how anti-vaccine people accuse research of being biased, or funded by biased organizations? And remember where Dr. Offit spoke and where the anti-vaccine woman suggested I look at this study?
The Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI) is, well… Here, read this:
“While they claim that they are not an anti-vaccine organization, it should be noted that Claire Dwoskin once said that “Vaccines are a holocaust of poison on our children’s brains and immune systems.”
And while most folks talk about the many benefits of vaccines, in fact calling vaccines one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th Century, Claire Dwoskin thinks that CMSRI funded research proves the “costs for harm caused” by vaccines and that her organization needs to raise “public awareness about the true cost of vaccines” to change “attitudes about vaccine safety.””
CMSRI is funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation. Who is the Dwoskin family? Well, let’s just say they don’t like vaccines. From that same article directly above:
“The Dwoskin Family also helps support its scientists and their work by sponsoring a number of “vaccine safety conferences,” including the:
2011 Vaccine Safety Conference in Jamaica that featured Andrew Wakefield
2012 2nd International Symposium on Vaccines
2013 3nd International Symposium on Vaccines
2016 4nd International Symposium on Vaccines
And they provided the funding for the Greater Good movie, which has been described as “Pure, unadulterated anti-vaccine propaganda masquerading as a “balanced” documentary”.”
Anyway, about goalposts. The thing I’ve noticed in my many years arguing with antivaxxers is that they move the goalposts pretty quickly once you point out a flaw in their arguments. For example, that same night that Dr. Offit spoke, the apparent leader of the group that showed up claimed that no studies have been done on vaccine safety. (They have.) When I mentioned to them that they have, they then claim that no double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have been done. Then I tell them that it would be unethical to randomize a group of children into a group that doesn’t get immunized because that would leave them exposed to dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases.
Well, then the story changes to something like, “We don’t want to randomize. Just use unvaccinated children and compare them to vaccinated children.” (We have.) When I point out to them that we have done both experimental and observational studies, they say that the studies are biased because they’re funded by “Big Pharma.” Then, when I mention that health departments and even competing pharmaceutical companies have done studies and found nothing, the conspiracy expands and goes all the way to the top… That’s when we get to Twilight Zone territory.
In the Twilight Zone, there is a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies, all of them, to hide the dangers of vaccines. This is because, in the zone, vaccines are a major source of tons and tons of cash for the companies. (They’re not.) So these companies are all in cahoots with each other — with no competition between them whatsoever — in order to bring in all that sweet and nonexistent cash.
Wait, it gets weirder. In the zone, the companies all pay medical schools to not teach physicians about vaccines. According to antivaxxers, physicians don’t know what’s in vaccines, don’t know what vaccines can do to people… They just don’t know anything. And it’s not just medical schools. Nursing schools are in on it. Physician Assistant schools are in on it. Medical Technology programs are in on it. Everyone and anyone who has ever advocated for the use of vaccines has been paid by Big Pharma.
Imagine that… All those millions of people involved in this conspiracy, and none of them have gone to The New York Times or The Washington Post to tell their story and blow the lid off a conspiracy that, according to the antivaxxers I’ve met, is designed to hurt children and make them sick so Big Pharma makes more money for their treatment. This hasn’t happened because, of course, the lamestream media are in on it as well.
And so, it doesn’t really matter what kind of argument one brings to the table, the anti-vaccine crowd with move the goalposts to the next thing, and then to the next thing after that. In the end, how can one possible prove that there isn’t a big conspiracy where a handful of pharmaceutical companies control everything? You can go crazy just trying.
In order not to go crazy, you have to decide which antivaxxers you’re going to argue with and which ones you’re going to ignore. Last night, I tried arguing with the leader of the bunch. Being the showman that he is, he started off by boasting that he’s won lawsuits in the past and will win lawsuits in the future. (Whatever that means.) He told me that the only recourse families of children who are injured by vaccines have is the vaccine court. (It’s not.) I should have stopped and walked away right then and there.
When I told him that petitioners to the vaccine court can go the traditional civil court route if they don’t like what they hear from the vaccine court (and thus lining the pockets of lawyers instead of getting a fair settlement for their injuries), the showman accused me of being a loser, of wanting only to hear “bumper stickers” (which I honestly thought you see and not hear), and of probably/maybe/I don’t know being in the pockets of big pharma.
I walked away. Some people are too far gone.
And that is probably my best advice. Some people are just too far gone to have any kind of rational discussion with them. Instead, look for the people asking honest answers, the people not calling you names. Stay away from the showmen. More likely than not, the showmen want fame, money, things that do not uphold truth and justice and all that stuff.
They’re going to move the goalposts, so you might as well not play their game. Sometimes in life, like sometimes in chess, the best move is not to make a move at all.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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