David Kirby, PR Flack and PoMo Enthusiast
David Kirby and fellow conspiracy theorist, Mark Blaxill gave a briefing on vaccines and autism to Congress. True to form, Kirby’s briefing reflects an absolute commitment to projecting an image and as for the facts, well let’s not get too worried about those. Many bloggers and writers have noted Kirby’s departure from accepted standards of journalism, even though he apparently is keen on the status if not the responsibility. He remains a PR flack it seems, which is his background, judging by the contents of his presentation. I thought it would be worthwhile to see how many distortions, misrepresentations and fabrications of the facts about vaccines Kirby could deliver in under an hour, to support the earnest if not terrible sincere image of “I want to save the vaccine program, not destroy it. ” Et tu Brutus?
The following points are presented in chronological order noting that some points represent well known canards of the anti-vaccination movement. Where possible, I have linked to the necessary corrective.
■ This is a national emergency. We now have hundreds of thousands of children with autism in this country, and the majority of people in this country are under 18 years of age.
Canard # 1: The autism epidemic. There must be one so that autism can be a medical problem rather than a behavioral one. This has been debunked so many times. Orac does a pretty good corrective with the help of Dr Paul Shattuck. Not surprisingly, Dr Shattuck was promptly labelled a Pharm Shill - but they got the wrong Merck. Drat - they’re all over the place! http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/04/well_that_didnt_take_long_the.php#more
■ It is estimated that the cost of care, education and housing for a person with autism runs up to 2 to 3 million dollars per person, and we have at least 250,000 people with autism in this country, so we are already up to the 700 billion, 750 billion dollar mark, coming at us in the future.
This is not so much a canard as a distortion of the autism spectrum and the omission of reference to the actual costs of caring for any person over an average lifespan. Figures like this are based on a 100% institutionalisation rate, which is ridiculous, but it probably sells well in the middle of a financial crisis and do note the many references to the financial crisis in this briefing.
■ But the vaccine program is in deep trouble. There is tremendous distrust among parents today and they don’t feel like they are being leveled with.
There are some who’ve been bamboozled by the green our vaccines publicity misinformation campaign, but don’t you think it’s just a tad dishonest to accuse the vast majority of parents - like about 90 - 95% who give all the vaccines, of being as gullible as the tiny minority? The autistic community has had enough of this tactic as well. As for greening the vaccines, there’s a lovely line from science blogger Dr Mark Crislip:
“Green our vaccines? The only green you will see by getting rid of vaccines or decreasing their use is the grass growing on the graves of children needlessly killed by preventable infections.”
■ And I think where we are heading in terms of science and medicine, is identifying those children who have certain genetic susceptibilities so that they cannot necessarily handle the rather crowded vaccine schedule we have today. Probably 99% of the children can handle it just fine. But what about those 1% who have a certain genetic susceptibility to vaccine ingredients and other environmental toxins?
Canard # 2 There is a subgroup of children who are ‘susceptible’ to well, anything - the vaccines, the number of vaccines, the ‘toxins’ in the vaccines or the preservative. The fact that all of these are quite different aetiologies and there is no evidence for any of it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. And this is a ‘briefing’.
Canard #3 Epidemiological studies are not sensitive enough to pick up vulnerable subgroups. The implication above is that the subgroup is too small to be picked up by epidemiological studies but not too small to jeopardise the Autism Omnibus Proceedings. That is a nonsense. Epidemiological studies have picked up correlations as rare as 1:38000 and 1;100000. Given the huge sample sizes, the statistical power of the studies finding no link between vaccines and autism was plenty to find very small subgroups if they existed, a point described very well in Dr Paul Offit’s “Autism’s False Prophets”.
Canard #4 The vaccine schedule is too crowded. You know you aren’t dealing with rational people when they make this claim or talk about ‘toxin’ in vaccines, because the quantity of what they’re talking about in the vaccine is absolutely dwarfed by factors of tens to hundreds to millions of the substance already present in the infant to be vaccinated. Take the antigen load in vaccines. The entire infant schedule has been measured in the low hundreds. The infant is bombarded with millions of antigens all day every day, but somehow the vaccine schedule with its paltry load is too much? They talk about aluminium in vaccines, either not knowing or choosing to forget that the levels of aluminium are a hundred times that already in the infant and too small to be a noticeable addition. The reason for that is simple enough. Aluminium is one of the commonest elements on earth. Ditto for formaldehyde. The trace level left over from manufacture is overshadowed thousand fold by what the infant already has. Heck we make the stuff as a byproduct of some metabolic processes. Dr Mark Crislip, bless him, nails the 'too many too soon' here: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=289
■ We need to look for genetic susceptibilities. Are people born with certain vulnerabilities? Maybe immune problems, autoimmune problems, or mitochondrial dysfunction. What about metal metabolism? Some people are able to excrete and metabolize heavy metals much better than others. So, is there a certain small subset of the population that is particularly at risk for vaccine injury that might lead to autism and other problems?
It seems that anti-vaxxers have adopted a pattern of assuming that untested hypotheses are central to their case such as here with vaccines and ‘susceptible’ groups. This was also one of Healy’s motherhood statements. According to a very recent survey of the experts who manage such susceptible groups, the experts are practically unanimous in endorsing the vaccination schedule, as is for the most part, and see no reasons for delaying it. That much Healy at least should have been aware of. See Barshop and Summar: Attitudes regarding vaccination among practitioners of clinical biochemical genetics. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18816884 The conclusion to this paper is worth noting:
“In summary, it is clear that the general opinion held by practitioners in the field of Clinical Biochemical Genetics favors the full schedule of vaccination for their patients. The overwhelming majority also feel that the benefits of the current schedule outweigh the risks to individuals with undiagnosed metabolic disease. Most have never observed any significant adverse event which was attributed to a vaccine reaction. Some respondents have seen the association once or seldom in their careers, but none felt it to be frequent. The fact that there were few encountered events of long-term deterioration due to a disease for which vaccination is available probably simply reflects the low incidence of those diseases, due to the effectiveness of vaccination practices. A panoply of questions remain, however, and there is a great need for more data.”
■ Then there is the Maloney Bill, and I really hope you’ll take a look at it and consider cosponsoring it. That would fund a study of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations of children. Dr. Julie Gerberding has said that this study can and should be done, and I would just say that if this study was done and done properly, and there was absolutely no difference in outcomes between vaccinated children and unvaccinated children, it would shut me up.
Now there Kirby is indulging in one or two fibs. While the likes of Healy could say that such a study ‘can and should be done’, I can’t see Geberding saying any such thing or at least meaning what Kirby is disingenuously suggesting here given his and other anti-vaxxers legendary propensities to fabricate statements by Geberding. Kirby is quite outrageous in
misquoting Geberding particularly in relation to Geberding’s remarks about the limitations of the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) data. See Epiwonk’s careful deconstruction of Kirby’s shenanigans here: http://epiwonk.com/?p=79.
The legion of problems a comparative study between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations has been comprehensively discussed here, http://photoninthedarkness.com/?p=154, including the ethics. The author also flatly disagrees that such a study would be either necessary or effective. What, after all would such a study be looking at with respect to vaccines. Kirby is careful not to specify.
Secondarily, it is doubtful on past record that Kirby would be satisfied with the results of such a study. When the CDDS Calidornia showed that autism rates were not dropping he shifted the goal posts, though he had sais he would abandon the hypothesis that autism was caused by TCVs. Comparisons of autism in those who got thimerosal and those that didn’t, those that got MMR and those that didn’t and with those on different vaccine schedules haven’t satisfied him or any other ant-vaxxer. For Kirby it’s just another ploy to keep the money flowing and for the rest - it’s always been about how wrong vaccines are, how unnatural. No answer will satisfy them.
■ We’re seeing extremely high levels in autism among children of immigrants, children born in the United States. For example, the Somalis in Minnesota, and I’ll be looking at this more in the near future. Their rate of autism is going through the roof. And there is virtually no autism, or very little autism reported in Somalia.
Perhaps Kirby is the sole public relations flack that doesn’t know that Somalia has no government. Who, in that miserable land would be keeping track of autism rates? Maybe that explains his singular lack of success in journalism.
■ And yes, there is a big debate, still, about whether autism is truly a genetic disorder, or is there an environmental component? People who argue that autism is genetic say that it’s always been with us at this rate. Now, you cannot have a genetic epidemic, so the way to explain the increasing numbers, they say, is through better diagnosis and better reporting.
Canard #5 The environmental component must be some exotic chemical in the environment. Some have cynically suggested that introduced chemicals have the singular advantage that someone may be sued about their introduction. Nevertheless, Kirby does not seem to have considered that among identical twins where rates are discordant, the environmental chemical exposures would be very similar, identical even in utero. “Environment’ covers a lot of ground, including epigenetic factors.
There follows a laundry list of metabolic states the autism as disease model likes to trot out, namely neuroinflammation, low glutathione levels and oxidative stress. Kirby does not mention androgen pathways, which is infamous Geier castration therapy territory and therefore far too much the hot potato for a Congressional briefing. However, the theories of metabolic idiosyncracies supposedly associated with autism were laid before the Special Masters hearing the Autism Omnibus Proceedings and there were demolished soundly by some of the finest specialists around. The transcripts are available from: http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/omnibus-autism-proceeding.
■ He [Burbacher] gave half the monkeys injected ethylmercury, replicating the vaccine schedule; and he gave the other half ingested methylmercury in the form found in fish. And what he found was, even though the ethylmercury cleared from the blood more readily and did not cross to the brain quite as much, the ethylmercury that did get into the brain immediately started converting to inorganic mercury.
Rather surprisingly he admits to ethylmercury clearing the body much faster, though he does not state just how huge the different rates of clearance are, days for ethylmercury against months for methyl mercury. Nevertheless, there is no one in the antivax camp who will acknowledge that Burbacher did not attempt to differentiate the actual contributions of either added doses of ethyl or methyl mercury to brain inorganic mercury, he just ground the brains up and assumed that what they had been given was unadulterated organic mercury but he had no way of bring certain of that. See BC ‘s take on this: http://bartholomewcubbins.blogspot.com/2007/01/bc-on-autism-revisiting-burbacher-2005.html
■ “Hannah’s autism was caused by a vaccine-induced trigger of her underlying mitochondrial dysfunction.”
This line from Kirby is pure fabrication. The government conceded no such thing. Stephen Novella has the definitive rebuttal of this: http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php?p=203
Canard #6 Mitochondrial disorders are a significant factor in a significant number of cases of autism aetiology and the method is disruption of mitochondrial DNA through exposure to toxic chemicals. This position has been adopted so quickly in certain quarters that it is relatively common to hear that “I’m going to check my kid for ‘mito’”, regardless of the difficulty of doing so, legitimately that is, or the enormous differences in clinical presentation between autism and a mitochondrial disorder severe enough to lead to encephalopathy. Prometheus has a comprehensive overview of the subject at: http://photoninthedarkness.com/?p=149,
■ Kirby quoting Dr Bernadine Healy: “Officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as 'irrational,' without sufficient studies of causation, without studying the population that got sick.” “You can’t rely solely on epidemiology to solve a physiological mystery; we have to look at the kids. And then she said, and I think we should all take this to heart, “Never turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you are afraid of what it might show.”
Canard #7 The powers that be, that is, CDC, FDA, AAP, WHO and the IOM are afraid to look at vaccines and autism for fear of what they might find. This is a peculiar statement by Healy, not corroborated by a single supporting syllable, and is quite possibly the most foolhardy motherhood statement this lady has yet made in a long career of making similarly stupid statements about a variety of topics. Fortunately, upon enquiry, the IOM were quite willing to offer the salutary corrective to Healy’s nonsense. See: http://autism-myths.org/2008/11/the-iom-are-afraid-to-look-at-susceptibility-groups/
There are undoubtedly many more myths, distortions of facts, fabrications I’ve missed in Kirby’s one hour long presentation to the US Congress. He did not apparently come away unscathed. One senator’s aide managed to pull him up on at least one occasion. However, as one can see, it takes quite a bit to dispel the whole of it and Kirby no doubt relies on not many having sufficient information to be able to assess the magnitude of his mythology. Is this man a dastardly cur, with no respect for data and no moral compass? Perhaps, but I think it far more likely that he’s simply entirely self-serving and with a marked tendency to regard truth as entirely relative. In other words, he’s his own PR flack and a bona fide Po Mo enthusiast.