New site–“History of Vaccines”

This is great. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has launched a site on The History of Vaccines. I’ve been poking around, and there’s an incredible amount of stuff to check out. They have a nice FAQ, Top 20 questions about vaccination, as well as some great activities (herd immunity! learn about Koch’s postulates! understand the relative risk of vaccination versus other events!) and a metric fuckton of articles and images. Looks to be a fantastic resource for students, and for anyone interested in understanding vaccination.

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.

Fear & vaccines

I realize that, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding about vaccine safety. Two recent articles discuss this “epidemic of fear” and why it affects us all, the first here at Wired magazine, and the second here at the Gotham Skeptic. I especially like the second, which has some excellent points:

My pediatric practice is situated at the nexus of three Manhattan neighborhoods (the West Village, Chelsea, and the Meat Packing District) that seem to comprise just the right balance of wealth, edginess, and socio-cultural awareness that lends itself to this new mistrust of vaccines. But these neighborhoods are not unique. According to sources at the NYC DOH, the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn are also hot-spots of parental vaccine resistance. What stands out about these neighborhoods, and others like them, is that they contain a high percentage of middle to upper middle class families that tend to be young, well educated, and liberal in their political and social views. Because I live in one of these areas, work in another, and fit this description pretty squarely, I can identify with the underlying tendencies at work behind the concerns of these parents. A healthy questioning of authority (doctors), an underlying mistrust in the competence of the government (the CDC), overt mistrust and a general level of cynicism of big business (the pharmaceutical industry), and a sense of empowerment that comes with one’s social status, all contribute to this tendency to mistrust vaccines and those who recommend them. The difference between these concerned parents and myself (also a parent), is an understanding of the scientific method and the role it plays in this issue. One term that I have purposefully left out as a key element in this new epidemic is “skepticism.” While many of these parents believe they are being skeptical of vaccines, their manufacturers and the agencies that recommend them, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What they are being is misled and taken advantage of. They would actually be better characterized as anti-skeptics. To quote Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com:

“The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.”

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…
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