"AoA panics over Chicago Tribune investigation" by Ken Reibel

Picture taken from http://www.generationrescue.org/pdf/080212.pdf (image cut off to fit)
Should be noted that in this pdf, GenRes also promotes the idea that there is antifreeze and ether in vaccines (oh, and formaldehyde, aluminum, and mercury!). --KW (oooh, maybe someday I will be managing editor?)

AoA panics over Chicago Tribune investigation

by Ken Reibel


Nothing panics the anti-vaccine movement like critical news coverage in a major media outlet. We saw it last month with Amy Wallace's excellent piece on the dangers of vaccine rejectionism in Wired Magazine. The latest example is a well-researched and damning investigation of the autism cure industry that ran in today's Chicago Tribune. Kent Heckenlively, whose day job is, incredibly, teaching science to American school children, attempts to deconstruct the Trib's coverage, with predictable results.

Heckenlively writes that he has three major criticisms of the story. First, he objects to the characterization of an "autism epidemic" as unproven. But instead of offering data to show a true increase in prevalence, he quotes a press release from the UC MIND Institute which came to a vastly different conclusion than the study itself.

"A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted — and the trend shows no sign of abating.

Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, results from the study also suggest that research should shift from genetics to the host of chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment that are likely at the root of changes in the neurodevelopment of California’s children.

It’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California,” said UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of environmental and occupational health and epidemiology and an internationally respected autism researcher."

FIrst of all, the California DDS databases are not reliable for determining incidence. As DDS explains on its website and in its quarterly reports:

"Increases in the number of persons reported from one quarter to the next do not necessarily represent persons who are new to the DDS system."

Yet the MIND researchers used both client records and quarterly reports to do just that.

What's more, the actual study does not reach a conclusion that "it’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California." That's the press release talking, and I am quite sure that Mr. Heckenlively knows the difference.

For a more detailed critique of this surprisingly poor study, see this post by Joseph at Natural Variation.

Heckenlively concludes part one of his critique with the question "What scientific research does (the Tribune) have to support a position that the autism increase may not be real?" That's a funny question coming from an organization that habitually mispresents prevalence data. In January, 2008, Generation Rescue ran a full page ad in USA Today that claimed the autism rate has mushroomed from 1:10,000 in 1983 to 1:150 today. But in 1983 researchers were looking for DSM III autistic disorder, also called Kanner's autism. The best estimate at the time was 4:10,000. There was no "autism spectrum" in 1983, no PDD-NOS, no Asperger's. So any comparison between then and now could only address autistic disorder, and the current estimate for that PDD is roughly 20:10,000 - a five-fold ncrease which can be explained by less restrictive diagnostic criteria, greater awareness, diagnostic substitution, and other factors.

To be clear, there is no evidence either way for an autism epidemic. We cannot say, with the data at hand, that true prevalence has risen, nor can we say it hasn't. What we can say is that Generation Rescue's 1:10,000 to 1:150 claim is intentionally misleading. Surely, Mr. Heckenlively knows as much.

Heckenlively then moves on to the paper's finding that “Chelation’s popularity as a treatment is driven by the unproven idea that the disorder is tied to the accumulation of heavy metals in the body.” He cites the flawed Palmer study from the University of Texas which ties an increase in autism to environmental mercury. He also cites the discredited Burbacher paper, which Kim explains nicely here, and you can also read about here. Heckenlively cluelessly cites Mady Hornig's 2004 Rain Mouse study, which concludes nothing that can be applied to autism. This, it needs to be noted, is a common ploy by Age of Autism and other vaccine rejectionists - to misrepresent a study to make it fit their own agenda. In this study, Hornig dosed specially bred mice with thimerosal to coincide with certain developmental milestones. But human infants are given shots several months apart, which is enough time to excrete the miniscule amount of thimerosal once found in scheduled pediatric vaccines. Hornig's mice received four shots over nine days. She used three strains of mice, and found no statistically different behaviors in any of them. In fact, the mice that were bred to be more susceptible to mercury, and that were dosed with thimerosal, were less likely to show measured stereotyped behavior. Hornig only dissected three mouse brains, but found nothing remotely similar to what one finds in the human autistic brain.

"I am at a loss to explain (the Tribune's) failure to even mention this research," opines the terminally clueless Heckenlively. Let me help you out - the reporters ran the studies by credible researchers, who pointed out the shortcomings. But it's so much easier to challenge reporters to another pick-up game of abstract toss than to find some credible researchers of their own.

Of course no anti-vax screed is complete without complaining about vaccine court, and Heckenlively delivers a tale of "recovery" from autism that was heartlessly dismissed by the special masters. But there is much that Heckenlively leaves out.

From the Tribune article: "Colten Snyder, another child who was evaluated in vaccine court, underwent chelation after tests on his blood and hair over six years came back normal for mercury, court records state. Given that the boy was immunized with vaccines containing thimerosal, ‘his hair mercury was exceptionally low, said his physician, Dr. Jeff Bradstreet of Florida. ‘That’s pathological.’ Bradstreet also disputes that all of his test results were normal.”

Counters Heckenlively, "Colten Snyder has essentially recovered from his autism and this fact was in the published decision rendered by the Special Master." By "recovered", Heckenlively apparently means "improved."

Here's the rest of the story.

According to court records, "Bradstreet’s treatment of Colten involved 160 office visits over an eight-year period, numerous laboratory tests (’many of which were non-standard tests not approved by the FDA’), several lumbar punctures and both gastroscopy and colonoscopy." And while the court noted the boy's improvement, it occurred despite Bradstreet's questionable treatment protocol, not because of it. "It is even less clear that the treatments were designed to remove a dangerous virus from the body and the evidence that any of the treatments were capable of doing so is non-existent," noted one special master.

And so it goes.

The two-part Chicago Tribune investigation is yet another encouraging sign that the mainstream news and entertainment media's narrative is changing from "vaccines might cause autism" to "vaccine rejectionism is bad news". Mr. Heckenlively's impassioned, albeit fact-free defense of the indefensible, is another sign of how desperate these days must be for America's anti-vaccine movement.

Part two of the Tribune's investigation is scheduled for tomorrow. Grab some popcorn.


davidbrown said...

Regarding the MIND study, I have commented that the press release about the study appears to contradict the study's abstract. (See "Offensive and Defense".)

Liz Ditz said...

The second installment of the series is up

Autism treatment: Science hijacked to support alternative therapies, Researchers' fears about misuse of their work come true



Pardo's study is just one example. In May, the Tribune reported on another questionable use of research. A geneticist and his son who promoted treating children who have autism with a testosterone inhibitor had based their protocol, in part, on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychopathologist at England's University of Cambridge who has explored the role of the hormone in autism.

Yet Baron-Cohen told the Tribune that the idea of using the drug this way "fills me with horror."

Pardo said that since his paper came out he has received many questions about unproven autism treatments. He is particularly haunted by inquiries regarding powerful immunosuppressant drugs usually used on organ transplant patients, calling the idea "completely wrong."

Said the researcher: "People are abusing science for the treatment of autism."

As I often do for stories of this type, I'm keeping a running list or index of pro- and con- blog posts. This one's on the list.

The list is here


davidbrown said...

Here is a comment I posted at AoA:
Mr. Heckenlively,
You previously complained that the media had not covered your movement, and conjectured that it was because of fear of being sued by "Big Pharma". Now you condemn a newspaper because they publish an article critical of your movement. I suggest that it is this kind of behavior from your side that drives the media to ignore you.

Incidentally, before you repeat the conjecture that journalists might be afraid of a suit by Big Pharma, you should provide an actual example of such a lawsuit. As far as I know, there are none.

Joseph said...

But instead of offering data to show a true increase in prevalence, he quotes a press release from the UC MIND Institute which came to a vastly different conclusion than the study itself.

This just comes to show that these guys are not informed about the nuances of the debate. JB Handley repeated the same mistake at Larry King Live.

I mean, if your blog is called "Age of Autism," I would expect you to know every single thing about autism "epidemic" arguments.

davidbrown said...

Joseph: Where's the quote from?

Something I decided today: The list in the GR graphic looks like the basis for the "36 vaccines" figure bandied about by Handley et al. Only, what it actually shows is nine vaccines in 36 doses.