Another “Frontiers In” journal steps in it

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a terrible article that was published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. FiPH is a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal, and they had just published a manuscript that was straight-up HIV denial, titled “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent.” At the time, it was listed as a regular review article; after much outrage, it was re-titled into an “opinion” statement, but not retracted.

Now another “Frontiers In” journal has stepped in it, publishing a paper that has the anti-vaccine groupies frothing at the mouth. Published in Frontiers in Neurology this time, the paper, “Biopersistence and brain translocation of aluminum
adjuvants of vaccines,” is another review article using cherry-picked data to suggest that aluminum in vaccines accumulates in the brain and nervous system, causing “toxic effects.”

The editor of this paper is Lucija Tomljenovic of the University of British Columbia. Tomljenovic is a biochemist who has made a career, with her advisor Chris Shaw, of publishing commentary suggesting that vaccines, and particularly the HPV vaccine and vaccine adjuvants, are unsafe. It probably will not shock readers that Shaw and Tomljenovic are funded in part by the The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which are big players in the anti-vaccine community (see this post at Harpocrates Speaks for more background info on those foundations). Both appeared at the 2011 Vaccine Safety Conference, with other notable vaccine foes including the NVIC’s Barbara Loe Fisher and Lawrence Palevsky, a doctor who appeared in the anti-vaccine movie “The Greater Good” and apparently spoke on the topic, “Rethinking the Germ Theory.” That should speak volumes about the scientific validity of the movement. Meanwhile, Shaw specifically notes in his bio, “He has two children. The youngest has not been vaccinated.”

Who else appeared at that meeting? The first author of the current paper, Romain K. Gherardi.

Others have already posted stinging critiques of Shaw and Tomljenovic’s previous papers (even the World Health Organization has criticized them), so I won’t go further into the science–suffice it to say, Shaw & Tomljenovic are cited widely within the review, and several other important citations are self-citations of the first author, Gherardi. It should be noted that Gherardi also receives funding from the Dwoskin Foundation. Further, Tomljenovic served not only as the paper’s editor, but also as a reviewer–and the Frontiers In journals as a whole have a crazy-high acceptance rate of 80-90% in the first place. Another reviewer, Mark Burns, is on FN’s editorial board.

So while the anti-vaccine brigade will count this publication as a victory, it’s really just another case of a poor paper being published in a shoddy journal, shepherded to publication by a like-minded editor–and you could certainly at least argue there was a conflict of interest here, with both Gherardi and Tomljenovic funded by the Dwoskins and running in the same small anti-vaccine circles. Not that it matters to those who will gleefully cite this publication, of course. The only time they really want to “follow the money” or pay attention to such matters is when the money is coming from “Big Pharma” or the government or other such boogeymen in order to allege some kind of conspiracy. Too bad they don’t hold all publications up to such lofty standards, or recognize conspiracy when it’s actually in their own backyard.

 

The Pap smear is no panacea, Katie Couric

Regular readers keeping up on infectious disease issues might have seen Seth Mnookin’s post yesterday, warning of an upcoming episode of the Katie Couric show  focusing on the HPV vaccine. Even though Mnookin previously spoke with a producer at length regarding this topic, the promo for the show certainly did not look promising:

“The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.”

And indeed, reviews thus far show that unfortunately, Couric pretty much  mangled the issue and allowed heart-wrenching anecdotes to trump science (reminiscent of Jenny McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah). I won’t cover it all (you can view it here), but basically Couric allows stories about illness and death in the weeks following administration of the vaccine to go unchallenged, and brings on Dr. Diane Harper as her HPV expert (featured prominently in the anti-vaccine documentary “The Greater Good“). Dr. Harper believes the HPV vaccine is over-hyped, and that Pap screening is “100% accurate” so no HPV vaccine is really needed. This, frankly, is hogwash. Even with emphasis on screening, here in the U.S. we have 12,000 cases and 4,000 deaths from cervical cancer alone each year. (And in Mnookin’s post and in Matthew Herper’s Forbes post, both note that head and neck cancers can also be caused by HPV as well–but have no good screening process).

Even when HPV cervical infections are caught via screening, the treatment ain’t pretty. I’ve written before mentioning one such remedy–the LEEP procedure.  I had this done several years ago, after a Pap smear came back with abnormal cells and positive for HPV DNA:

“Next, a woman with abnormal cells can expect to undergo a LEEP procedure, where portions of your cervix are removed with a burning electric wire under local anesthetic, and the foul smoking remains of your cells are sucked up into the smoke shark, “a sleek, powerful, smoke-eating machine.” [And one gets to look forward to “coffee ground-like discharge” for up to several days following the procedure, due to the materials they use to stem the bleeding cervix]. After LEEP, side effects may include infection, hemorrhage and possibly cervical incompetence.  These are rare, but if we’re talking vaccine side effects versus possible outcomes from HPV infection, these types of outcomes need to be considered as well–not just death from cervical cancer.”

Being currently pregnant following such a procedure, cervical incompetence was something I was carefully monitored for. Nevertheless, it’s still been a huge source of stress throughout this pregnancy, as this is a significant cause of second-trimester miscarriage and there aren’t great, foolproof ways to detect it, or remedy it if it does occur. Harper acts as if finding HPV via Pap smears is like rainbows and unicorns, but it too has a risk-benefit equation, and I’d so much rather have received a vaccination than to have gone through that. And, some women’s treatments for HPV infections and cervical abnormalities are even more extreme than mine was.

This is why I had my now-almost-14-year-old daughter vaccinated for HPV, and why my pre-teen son will soon be getting his as well. There are multiple ways to prevent HPV-induced cancers, but the vaccine (in combination with routine Pap smears) is by far the least invasive and safest route, as multiple studies have confirmed.

Finally, the show was doubly disappointing because Couric has been such an outspoken advocate of colon cancer prevention, which was the cause of her husband’s death in 1998. While realizing this is a fluff talk show and not the kind of harder journalism she’s apparently now abandoned, she still failed to ask even the most basic of questions to the supposed HPV vaccine “victims” she featured on her show, nor to note during their segments that other possibilities may exist for the girls’ illnesses and death besides the HPV vaccine. In the second segment, Rosemary Mathis even admits blatantly doctor-shopping until one would “listen to her” about her daughter–in other words, give her a new diagnosis (vaccine injury). Why isn’t this even questioned? What did her previous doctors tell her about her daughter’s condition? Couric allowed ratings and anecdotes to trump actual science, potentially causing real harm to the public health. How disappointing that this is now part of her legacy.

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Margulis does it again

We all know of once-respected scientists who ended up going off the deep end, adhering to an unproven idea despite massive evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling and his advocacy of megadoses of Vitamin C, or Peter Duesberg’s descent into HIV denial. It’s all the more disappointing when the one taking a dive is a woman, since there are, compared to men, relatively fewer female “big names” in the sciences. So when one goes from views that were, perhaps, outside of the mainstream (but later proven largely correct) to complete science denialism, it makes it all the more depressing. Even worse, mainstream popular science magazines like Scientific American (with this article by Peter Duesberg) and Discover (Duesberg again) give these ideas reputable press. And now Discover has done it again by giving “maverick” biologist Lynn Margulis a profile in their latest issue. More after the jump.
Continue reading “Margulis does it again”

Additional thoughts on Bible-flu and the retraction

PZ has some additional thoughts on the Bibleflugate retraction up at Pharyngula. Choice quote:

This is a serious concern, to my mind. Scientists are expected to be open and communicative about their work, explaining all the details about how we achieve our results. Yet then we hand that work over to a publisher (usually a for-profit organization), where it is subjected to an arcane process cloaked in mystery that they call peer review. And every once in a while, some strange fluke exposes the inherently arbitrary and chaotic nature of that process, everyone asks “how the hell did that get published?”, and some guy in a business suit steps out to unconvincingly tell us “oops” and reassure us that all is well in the machineries of their journal.

I don’t think it’s enough. If a publisher wants to manage this profitable business of publishing science journals, there ought to be an expectation of transparency — a fuller explanation of how submissions are handled, and when mistakes are made, a more thorough explanation of exactly how it happened. Without an open explanation of how such mistakes occur, I can’t have any confidence that efforts will be made to correct the process that led to them.

He also notes the lead author responded to a request for comments, basically saying he was surprised at the response and was only meant to be “thought-provoking.”

Biblical flu paper going bye-bye

Well, that was quick. Yesterday’s post highlighting a really terrible paper in BMC’s Virology Journal drew a lot of comments here and at Pharyngula, and attention at the journal (where it currently stands as the 5th most-accessed article in the last 30 days). The journal’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Robert F. Garry, this in the comments section to my post:

As Editor-in-Chief of Virology Journal I wish to apologize for the publication of the article entitled ”Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”, which clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and does not meet the high standards expected of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Virology Journal has always operated an exceptionally high standard of thorough peer review; this article has clearly not met these thresholds for balance and supporting data and as such, the article will be retracted. I should like to apologize for any confusion or concern that this article may have caused among our readership, or more widely.

Whilst only ever intended as an opinion piece and also a bit of relief from the ‘normal’ business of the journal, the speculations contained within this article clearly would be better expressed outside the confines of a peer-reviewed journal. Biomed Central does not support any views outlined in this article.

He also noted that the retraction will appear shortly. (This comment also appears in the comments section of the paper itself).

While saying it’s “only opinion” and removing the paper is a good first step, it’s still unclear to me how this passed peer review in the first place. I have a ton of opinions that have way more scientific support than that manuscript did, but I’m sensible enough to realize that they still won’t be able to pass any rigorous peer-review muster–that’s one reason I have a blog, after all, is to air these random musings. Articles that are a bit more amusing and a departure from the norm of the journal are all well and good (check out this article, for example), but for the “Biblical flu” one, either the reviewers/editor got conned or really let something slip through the cracks.

Either way, the retraction is a deserved result and a quick response by the journal and Dr. Garry, but something that really shouldn’t have been fodder for me to mock in the first place.

Biblical fever = influenza. You’re kidding me, right?

Via Bob O’H and Cath Ennis comes this truly bizarre article from the Virology Journal: “Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time”.

Now, regular readers will know that I normally love this type of thing; digging back through history to look at Lincoln’s smallpox; Cholera in Victorian London; potential causes of the Plague of Athens, the origin of syphilis, or whether Yersinia pestis really caused the Black Plague. I’ve even written a bit about the history of influenza. So analysis of a 2000-year old potential flu case? Bring it on.

But. For Christ’s sake (really), *bring the evidence with you.* From the article’s abstract:

The Bible describes the case of a woman with high fever cured by our Lord Jesus Christ. Based on the information provided by the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the diagnosis and the possible etiology of the febrile illness is discussed. Infectious diseases continue to be a threat to humanity, and influenza has been with us since the dawn of human history. If the postulation is indeed correct, the woman with fever in the Bible is among one of the very early description of human influenza disease.

Infectious diseases continue to be a threat to humanity, and influenza has been with us since the dawn of human history. We analysed a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time and discussed possible etiologies.

(more after the jump…)
Continue reading “Biblical fever = influenza. You’re kidding me, right?”

The development of a conspiracy theory

Interesting post today at juggle.com, showing the evolution of a conspiracy theory akin to a game of telephone. Interestingly, it starts with an article in Wired by author (and former Scienceblogger) Johah Lehrer. Lehrer wrote an article on the effects of chronic stress on health outcomes, and one researcher’s work to develop something akin to a vaccine to mitigate the stress effects. Sounds reasonable, no?

Next, the Daily Mail picked up the article, and focused on the “stress vaccine” angle.

Finally, the folks at Alex Jones’ Prison Planet–who’ve never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like–took the Daily Mail story and morphed it into a discussion of “brain eating vaccines,” and a government conspiracy to eliminate all emotions from an unknowing public (follow-up here, and they even have a third article bashing Lehrer. Impressive!

Now, I’m not necessarily blaming the Daily Mail as the intermediate in this. Yes, their story was certainly more sensational and less nuanced than the original Wired piece, but PrisonPlanet could also take the most innocuous story on any scientific breakthrough and make it out to be some kind of vast governmental-scientific-pharmaceutical plot. However, it does emphasize again the need to be aware of what’s going on out there in these corners of the internets–look how they encouraged their readers to manipulate Google so that “brain-eating vaccines” would trend on the site. This kind of thing is their bread-and-butter, and the fact is that “the facts” don’t always win converts to any scientific argument.

Addendum: several on Twitter pointed out this PhD comic, which succinctly summarizes the cycle.

Swine flu and snake oil

I was introduced to snake oil salesmen at a young age. My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was in kindergarten, and while she has mostly followed the advice of her neurologists, she’s also looked into “alternate” therapies, ranging from the relatively harmless (massages, oils, etc.) to more invasive methods (chelation, all sorts of expensive but worthless supplements). Some of these I’ve been able to talk her out of (and I personally think her current doctor–NOT a neurologist–is a total quack), but others she’s taken because, hey, “what’s the harm?” It’s frustrating to see money and hope wasted on bogus treatments.

Of course, it’s not only chronic conditions that appeal to these salesmen; they’re all over infectious disease as well, peddling unproven treatments to “boost the immune system” and discouraging the use of conventional treatments. It appears that swine flu is their newest target (h/t Orac), as chiropractic is said to have “miraculous” results and colon cleanses, likewise, “work miracles”. The authors both suggest that their fave treatment, therefore, should also be used to treat/prevent swine flu. After all, claims Kim Evans (author of Cleaning Up! and the creator of The Cleaning Up! Cleanse, a powerful body cleanse):

And it’s my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well.

Ah, someone has been studying up on their Whale.to 1918 flu pandemic revisionist epidemiology. Fantastic.

Seriously, HuffPost? This is what you want to promote? What’s next–lizard men?

Vaccines and autism–can we stick a fork in it now, please?

Last fall, I wrote about a new research paper which tried to replicate some of Andrew Wakefield’s original results, which not only claimed a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism, but also the presence of measles virus in intestinal tissue. Wakefield had suggested that an inappropriate response to the presence of measles virus in this tissue may trigger conditions such as bowel disease and autism. The more recent study was unable to replicate any of Wakefield’s findings–not surprising, since so many papers in the last decade have found no connection between vaccination and autism.

There are plenty of reasons why the study may not have been replicated. The design of the new study was a bit different from Wakefield’s (case-control versus a case series); it had larger numbers; investigators were blinded to the status of the patients and so less likely to bring in bias. However, a recent investigation by the Sunday Times (London) has another reason why the results of the two papers differ: Wakefield made up his data. More after the jump…
Continue reading “Vaccines and autism–can we stick a fork in it now, please?”

Jenny McCarthy strikes again

Just in time for the introduction of Autism’s False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit (the current choice for Scienceblogs’ book club), Jenny McCarthy comes out with yet another interview decrying vaccines, blaming autism on the greed of pharmaceutical companies, and how her son was “healed” from autism by his diet, vitamins, and “detoxing”.

I’ll have a review of Dr. Offit’s book up later this week. In the meantime, you can read what he says about it over at the Scienceblogs’ Book Club page.