Yesterday, the Daily Express ran another scaremongering story on the manufactroversy that won’t quit – MMR and autism.
The basis of this story appears to be the upcoming publication of a new edition of Richard Halvorsen’s 2007 book, “The Truth About Vaccines”. Halvorsen, a London-based GP, uses this new edition to reject unscientific claims about the purported link between vaccines and autism. He takes the time to explain to worried parents that claims of a link are unfounded and that the scientific evidence does not support the vaccine-autism hypothesis.
Nah, I’m only fooling. He probably just wheels out the same old canards.
Before I come to the Express story, I want to talk briefly about Dr. Halvorsen. According to his MobileMe page, Richard Halvorsen is a family doctor who also promotes various forms of quackery, including offering the thoroughly-debunked acupuncture for back pain (and other ailments) and that trusty stalwart, the Avogadro-bustingly absurd homeopathy for goodness-knows-what.
Although I haven’t read the book, Halvorsen’s background in pseudomedicine doesn’t fill me with confidence about his critical thinking skills or his ability to wield the scientific method. The Express, however, doesn’t seem to mind this background in quackery, cheerfully quoting Halvorsen’s thoughts on vaccination without any appeal to the actual science.
In a new edition of his book, The Truth About Vaccines, Dr Richard Halvorsen, collates the latest studies that suggest children with [mitochondrial dysfunction] have developed autism after jabs.
This seems to be part of the latest attempt by the antivax lobby to “re-brand” their vaccine denial. First it was Andrew Wakefield and the “measles in the gut” claim; a claim Halvorsen repeats on his own website. Then they decided it was “heavy metal poisoning” caused by the thimerosal preservatives. Now, they’re saying it’s related to mitochondrial dysfunction.
David Gorski took a look at claims of a link between mitochondrial dysfunction, vaccines and autism in an article for Science Based Medicine last year, following the Hannah Poling case. This is what the Express has to say about Hannah Poling.
Last year, the US government agreed compensation for 10-year-old Hannah Poling, having conceded out of court that her autism was linked to a series of jabs in July 2000 at 19 months. Her father, a leading neurologist, later discovered that she had mitochondrial dysfunction.
My layman’s understanding of Gorski’s article is that Hannah Poling does not suffer from an Autism Spectrum Disorder, but suffered regression as a result of brain damage caused by encephalitis. She suffers from a rare mitochondrial mutation, which can cause encephalitis in response to fever. Any fever would have done it, but in this case it was a fever brought on by her vaccinations.
Hannah’s case is part of a 5,000-case multi-party action before the US Vaccines Court, a body funded by a 75cent levy on vaccines in the US.
Well, no, actually, it isn’t. The Hannah Poling case was removed from the 5,000-case class action, for reasons unknown, and settled independently. My guess would be that the case was removed because her mitochondrial dysfunction made her case atypical, but that is only a guess.
Back to the Express:
Mitochondrial dysfunction describes the failure of parts of the victim’s cells which produce energy. A recent Newcastle University study found at least one in 200 people harbours a mitochondrial mutation.
The important line here is “at least one in 200 people harbours a mitochondrial mutation”. What this does not say is that one in 200 people harbours the same mitochondrial mutation, nor that the mutation is the one which resulted in Hannah Poling’s encephalopathy. Of course, the Express doesn’t point that out, they just leave it for the reader to put 2 + 2 together and make 27.
This is just one of many such examples of irresponsible reporting in the article. The next one they wheel out is:
British toddler Harriet Moore suffered fits, became clingy and eventually died in the arms of her parents Sarah and Pat Moore, six weeks after receiving an MMR jab in 1998. They discovered she had mitochondrial dysfunction.
Notice that this doesn’t claim that Harriet Moore was autistic, only that she had fits and died six weeks after receiving her MMR jab. I’m sure she did a lot of other things in those six weeks too. Wore a new romper suit. Ate a Farley’s Rusk. Slept during the daytime. No-one seems to be suggesting that these events caused her tragic death. Why single out the MMR jab? It’s a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
The same is true for the mention of mitochondrial dysfunction. Was this related to her death? Indeed, how did she die? This anecdote is completely irrelevant. It says nothing at all about the topic in hand, but leaves the casual reader with the impression of relevance because it mentions MMR and mitochondria.
Jodie Marchant from Southampton was given the MMR jab with the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccines at 14 months. She became ill, stopped eating and lost all speech. Jodie, now 17, has severe learning difficulties and life-threatening convulsions. This year it was found she has mitochondrial dysfunction.
Another case of ignoratio elenchi. This seems to be a random jumble of information: Jodie had MMR; Jodie got sick; Jodie has learning difficulties; Jodie has mitochondrial dysfunction. All true, I’m sure, but where is the science here? Where is the data? There is no relationship established between these events, they’re just ominously cited, one after the other. Again, no mention is made of whether Jodie is autistic, but casual readers will likely assume she is.
Joshua Edwards, 16, from Gosport, Hants, developed autism and bowel disease after the MMR jab. Earlier this year he too was found to have the mitochondrial disorder.
Like its predecessors, this anecdote says nothing at all – although at least in this case we’re actually talking about an ASD sufferer. However, no causation is established, just vague correlations. There is nothing new to say here that I haven’t said already. Has anyone told the Express that the plural of anecdote is not data?
So what does the data say? For one thing, it says there is no link between vaccination and autism.
It says there were 56 cases of measles in England and Wales in 1998, the year Andrew Wakefield first published his paper in The Lancet linking MMR to autism. In the press furore that followed, vaccination rates fell. 2006 saw the first death from acute measles infection since 1992 and statistics for 2008 show that there were 1,370 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales – a rise of almost 2,500% in just ten years.
Make no mistake, this was as a direct result of uncritical science reporting in the media, like that seen in yesterday’s Express article. People are starting to die because journalists aren’t thinking critically. It has to stop.