Express yourself: MMR, autism and mitochondrial dysfunction


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.

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  1. #1 by Colonel Molerat on July 9, 2009 - 12:11

    Something very simple and worth pointing out is that the age when autism becomes apparent is around/shortly after the time when the MMR jab is given.
    Therefore, anybody who has autism is very likely to have developed it just after they received the MMR (if they did) – looking, to many, like causation rather than correlation.

    I heard that not a single child who drank gin exclusively went on to develop autism, but all autistic children have drank water at some point.
    From now on, to keep autism at bay, I vow to drink nothing that’s less than 40% proof.

  2. #2 by Alex Skeptic on January 19, 2010 - 14:42

    The Merseyside Skeptics would seem to believe that critical thinking is key to understanding science, and yet it persists in propagating the myth that vaccines have health benefits. Open your eyes: where is the scientific evidence that they work? The only ‘ethical’ testing that is performed using vaccines is to measure their efficacy; that is, do they produce antibodies in subjects? This test pre-supposes that the presence of antibodies is an indication of immunity in the subject; however, even the head of the World Health Organisation admits that we don’t understand the link between antibodies in immunity. Research has proven that some subjects with antibodies get sick, while others without antibodies present are immune to disease! Come on skeptics: instead of trying to debunk anecdotal evidence of vaccine damage, why not use all those critical-thinking synapses try to find out what’s really going on with vaccines?
    Regards,
    A. Skeptic.

  3. #3 by Mike on January 19, 2010 - 16:09

    There is good evidence to support the effectiveness of vaccination in preventing disease.

    For example, as mentioned in the article, the number of measles cases skyrocketed when vaccination rates fell. Conversely, the number of measles cases plummeted when vaccination was introduced. There is sufficient correlation between these variables that we can be confident vaccination has a significant impact in preventing infectious disease.

    Smallpox was totally eradicated by vaccination, polio is headed the same way. As was measles, actually, until the MMR hoax brought it back with a vengeance.

  4. #4 by Kelvin on March 16, 2011 - 21:43

    Vaccines have impressive health benefits, on the whole. There are always dangers associated with vaccines, but these are always far smaller than the dangers represented by the disease they vaccinate against – as evidenced by the well documented hooping cough controversy. We tend to forget that these diseases kill, because we have seen so little of them in recent decades, but they do.
    The entire MMR ‘controversy’ was begun at a press-conference held by Dr Wakefield in the eve of a publication of an article of his in the lancet, one that has been since withdrawn. At the time of the publication of this article, there were already case studies that showed that actually undermined Dr Wakefield’s rather small study.
    Two facts need to be born in mind: First, Dr Wakefield was at the time of this publication already in receipt of money for agreeing to act as an expert witness in claims against the existing MMR vaccine. Second, that he had before starting his research into MMR associations applied for a patent for his own MMR vaccine.
    Dr Wakefield disclosed neither of these vested interests in either his research or at his press conference, perhaps because if it was known that he stood to make a very large amount of money out of discrediting the existing vaccine, people might have looked a bit more closely at the content of his work before it got published.

  5. #5 by Ross Coe on May 19, 2011 - 01:58

    Read about heavy metal exposure at these sites:
    http://www.healing-arts.org/children/metal-metabalism.htm
    http://www.autism.com/fam_aar_2010_6_mito.asp
    And you won’t have to read the same old “Wakefield” explanation for everything.

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