Junkfood Science: When you feel scared and worried...

May 03, 2007

When you feel scared and worried...

What are worried parents to do? Having an autistic child is hard enough without having endless scares thrown at them at every turn. Worse, they want the medical community to find a cure, not waste time and resources chasing in pointless directions. And new parents are even more vulnerable to scares directed at their innocent babies.

Understandably, all it takes is one news story to bring fear into the hearts of parents.

Today, NBC viewers in Raleigh, North Carolina heard frightening news about mercury in their children’s vaccinations causing autism. The claims even came from a doctor who said: “The symptoms experienced by children exposed to mercury are real and can be directly linked to the vaccines they were given as infants.”

The doctor was the founder of the Carolina Center for Integrative Medicine which sells EDTA chelation therapy for metal toxicity and heart disease; natural hormones and anti-aging therapies; treatments for environmental illnesses; homeopathic allergy desensitization, liver and gall bladder flushes and “detoxification, and support for patients injured through exposure to mold, pesticides, mercury, and sick building syndrome.” The NBC News reporter focused his story on the efforts of the group, Moms Against Mercury, to ban mercury from vaccines.

While skeptics instantly picked up a dozen familiar quackery buzz words, consumers not sure if this news was believable could rely on the single most important word in this and every other news story like it: “linked.

Autism can be, and has been, linked to just about every aspect of childhood from watching cartoons to playing in a playground. And as we know, we can pull out endless, meaningless correlations between the characteristics or activities of a group of people and a health problem, but NO correlation means it’s a cause. The instant you hear a health claim based on a link, correlation, association, relationship, or any other similar euphemism, just change the channel. It’s probably the healthiest response for consumers in today’s fear-ridden climate. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself becoming a nervous wreck from every sensationalized “scare of the day” that comes along.

Another consumer tip is that whenever you hear something that makes you feel worried or scared, that’s your baloney alert that you’re being manipulated. Fear is a marketing tactic. Credible, careful science, in contrast, is objective and reported without an emotional or political spin or trying to sell you something.

In contrast to the NBC story, an unusually well-investigated news story appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencier, reporting on the sixth International Meeting for Autism Research. Most of the scientists attending the conference are focused on research such as genetics and finding effective medical treatments and better means of diagnosis. As Tom Paulson wrote:

The public dialogue on autism, however, tends to focus largely on speculation about its cause. Vaccines, wheat gluten, artificial sweeteners, any number of environmental pollutants and even overexposure to television all have been proposed as potential causes of autism. Though often based on studies of dubious scientific merit, the lack of a firm answer on causation has created a firestorm around those studying the disorder. The most popular such theory has been that a mercuric preservative, thimerosal, used in some vaccines is the cause of autism. Many powerful people such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. have led the charge against thimerosal use in vaccines.

In 2003, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report concluding that numerous major studies in the United States and Europe could find no link between vaccines and autism, some CDC officials left the public health service after receiving death threats.

The preservative eventually was removed from all routine childhood vaccines, despite the lack of evidence of harm.... Studies done in Europe have found no decline in autism rates since thimerosal was removed from vaccines. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, the dearth of answers about autism prompts many to fill in the blanks with their own ideas.

For readers unfamiliar with the CDC’s extensive investigations into the link between vaccinations and mercury and autism, seven years ago, the CDC and National Institutes of Health commissioned the Institutes of Medicine to establish an independent expert committee to examine the clinical evidence and its reports can be found here.

Their key conclusions were:

· neither thimerosal-containing vaccines or MMR vaccine are associated with autism

· the hypotheses regarding a link between autism and MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines lack supporting evidence and are only theoretical

· future research to find the cause of autism should be directed toward other promising lines of inquiry that are supported by current knowledge and evidence and offer more promise for providing an answer

In other words, as part of the scientific process, legitimate science doesn’t waste endless time pursuing disproven hypothesis and implausible lines of research.

You can read the IOM’s complete 2001 report, Immunization Safety Review: Thimerosal - Containing Vaccines and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, here. Since 2001, several more studies have been published which have consistently provided evidence of no association.

Another helpful tip for consumers is to listen for negative findings. In the scientific process, a single well-conducted study can disprove a hypothesis — turn it into baloney. Ideally, when scientists encounter a hypothesis that’s been disproven, they move on to another idea. Junk scientists don’t and will never give up on a belief no matter how good the scientific evidence against it. It just keeps going and going, like that little pink battery-operated bunny. So when you hear of a study disproving a popularly believed claim or correlation — those negative studies are usually the valuable ones.

“Oh, never mind. There’s nothing to worry about here.” Or. “Nope, this remedy didn’t prove to work.” There’s usually no one trying to make money or take advantage of you based on a nonfinding, because there’s nothing to sell you, no lawsuits to create for profit, and no legislation or regulations to impose upon you.

In the case of mercury and autism, doctors have measured mercury levels in autistic children and their mothers and found that levels are no different from non-autistic children. Nor have they found any correlations between mercury levels and the severity of autistic children’s symptoms. Nor are autistic children’s mercury levels any different than the normal range among the general population.

Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and co-founder and President of the New England Skeptical Society, and Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, wrote an indepth, cautious article on fears, politics, conspiracies and science surrounding vaccinations and autism for the New Haven Advocate in June, 2005. (He has continued to write extensively on vaccine science at Neurologicablog. His thought-provoking and fascinating piece provides information that may come as a surprise even to some healthcare professionals. It’s almost sad, though, given what we know about mercury fears,** that this information even still needs to be heard.

As Dr. Novella wrote:

We can't afford to be wrong on this issue. We cannot simply err on the side of caution, because caution resides equally on both sides. We need to know if our vaccines are safe and we need to have confidence in the institutions that monitor and regulate the vaccine program. Fortunately, we have a tool that can reliably answer such important questions: It is called science.

...The disorder is devastating to parents; having an autistic child has a profound effect on the entire family. Although the exact cause or causes of autism are not clearly known, there is solid consensus among researchers that the evidence for a genetic cause is very strong and growing....

Some believe that we are in the midst of an autism epidemic. An “epidemic" suggests an environmental cause for autism, rather than a purely genetic cause; in other words, if we're in the midst of an epidemic, than something we eat or inhale or come in contact with, whether a food or a germ or a toxin in the environment, is to blame....many vaccines happen to be given around the same time that the symptoms of autism first become apparent.

Believe it or not, that correlation, along with a lot of scary-sounding “what if” speculations were what set off the entire vaccination scare that continues today.

Dr. Novella also looked at concerns surrounding an autism epidemic, a topic also examined in a previous Junkfood Science post. As he explained: “Autism is not a specific disease; you can't do a blood test or a CAT scan to see if it exists. It is, rather, a disorder: It is defined solely by the constellation of signs and symptoms that it displays. This means that the number of autistics can be greatly expanded or contracted by changing the criteria for diagnosis.”

Mercury fears, both surrounding thimerosal in vaccines and methylmercury in fish, are two examples where the FDA capitulated to activists creating fear and uncertainty in the minds of the public, rather than stick to strong, clear statements and actions based on the best science. By doing so, fears have only grown. But the science remains reassuring and consistently strong. As Dr. Novella wrote:

At the time of the IOM review in 2004, there were five published epidemiological studies on thimerosal and autism that showed no link. Together, they provide strong evidence that thimerosal does not cause autism. Subsequent to the IOM report, there has been one additional published study, for a total of six, from Great Britain, the United States, Sweden and Denmark, all showing a lack of correlation. These studies were meticulously reviewed by Sarah Parker and others, who published their conclusions in the prestigious journal Pediatrics in September 2004....

To date there is not one well designed, peer-reviewed study that shows there is a link.

Vaccine controversies, real or imagined, can do real harm to the public. There was a time in this country, before we had the vaccines we have now, when people regularly suffered, even died, from influenza, smallpox, measles and polio....So while it's always important to question our medical and scientific establishments, asking the hard questions, it's also important not to throw out the great progress we have made.

The public may not be fully aware of one reason why there is so much bad science and quackery in the news and why they often hear so little from the scientific community debunking it. It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to speak out. That Seattle Post Intelligencier article gave just a hint in its mention of death threats so significant that even public health officials at the CDC resigned. Activists are also quick to apply ad hominem attacks and attempt to destroy entire careers. The current issue of the journal, Nature Neuroscience has an editorial discussing the extreme tactics applied against doctors and scientists who speak out and advocate for science surrounding environmental mercury issues. The heavy-handed tactics have been successful in intimidating the scientific community into veritable silence and in influencing public opinion and legislation, it said.

For readers interested in a few of the buzz words that skeptics recognized immediately in that NBC news story — besides the ‘mercury and autism’ scare, environmental illnesses, homeopathic allergy desensitization, detoxification (here and here), and anti-aging medicine — they may find information on chelation helpful, as this unsound remedy has misled countless people for more than forty years.

Dr. Saul Green, Ph.D., a biochemist and cancer researcher from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, wrote a comprehensive review of chelation therapy, addressing each of the claims being made about it. As he wrote:

[P]atients have been led to believe that it is a valid alternative to established medical interventions such as coronary bypass surgery. However, there is no scientific evidence that this is so. It is also used to treat nonexistent “lead poisoning," “mercury poisoning," and other alleged toxic states that practitioners diagnose with tests on blood, urine, and/or hair....

Proponents claim that chelation therapy is effective against atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and peripheral vascular disease. Its supposed benefits include increased collateral blood circulation; decreased blood viscosity; improved cell membrane function; improved intracellular organelle function; decreased arterial vasospasm; decreased free radical formation; inhibition of the aging process; reversal of atherosclerosis; decrease in angina; reversal of gangrene; improvement of skin color, healing of diabetic ulcers. Proponents also claim that chelation is effective against arthritis; multiple sclerosis; Parkinson's disease; psoriasis; Alzheimer's disease; and problems with vision, hearing, smell, muscle coordination, and sexual potency. None of these claimed benefits has been demonstrated by well-designed clinical trials...

He concludes by saying:

The few well-designed studies that have addressed the efficacy of chelation for atherosclerotic diseases have been carried out by “establishment " medical scientists. Without exception, these found no evidence that chelation worked.

Based on numerous reviews of the world's medical literature, these same conclusions have been reached by the FDA, the FTC, National Institutes of Health, National Research Council, California Medical Society, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Society for Clinical Pharmacology Therapeutics, American College of Cardiology, and American Osteopathic Association.

And the position paper from the National Council Against Health Fraud is even stronger:

· No well-designed research has shown that chelation can help any of these conditions.

· Several well-designed studies have yielded negative results.

· Further use has no scientifically plausible rationale.

· Using chelation instead of proven treatments can have fatal consequences.

Many chelation therapists use hair analysis or other bogus laboratory tests to diagnose nonexistent "poisoning" with lead, mercury, or other heavy metals. Although chelation therapy can be used to treat actual heavy metal poisoning, genuine chelation therapy uses calcium EDTA and a much shorter timetable.

Many chelation therapists submit insurance reports claiming to have treated lead poisoning or another alleged toxic state. However, most insurance companies detect the fraud, so that the client is responsible for the costs....

In 1998, the Federal Trade Commission secured a consent agreement barring the leading chelationist organization from falsely advertising that chelation therapy is effective against atherosclerosis or any other circulatory problem...

The National Council Against Health Fraud believes that chelation therapy is unethical and should be banned and that chelation therapy of autistic children should be considered child abuse.

I hope this information is of help the next time you hear something sensational or scary on the news and aren’t sure whether to believe it or not. The short answer: usually not.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

** Previous mercury-related posts here, here, here, here, here and here.

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