Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Tech's Autism Post

A friend of mine just had a baby. She is currently feeling all the awe, wonder, fulfilment, happiness, nervousness, and fallibility that goes along with having your first child. I experienced the very same thing. Its an incredible wonderful set of emotions that you have with a new child.

We got to talking about many subjects including diapers, baby poop, breast milk, and of course vaccinations. If you have read my blog before you probably know I am pretty consumed with assertions that require evidence. Its why I think "ancient chinese medicine" is nonsense, and claims from companies about their products, or God. If you make a claim, you should be prepared to back it up.

Granted I fully understand two things about the human species. First, we crave answers to our questions. Why did my son die? Why did my mother get cancer? Why did that bad person do something horrible to my friend? Many poeple are inclined to beleive in god's needs or challenges, but if you are not you may be prone to pseudoscientific answers from clods who look to gain from selling nonsense either to you directly or to news outlets, or as legal fees.

Second big thing is that no one likes to be wrong. So what happens when no evidence can be found to back up a claim, or worse, conflicting evidence arises (we will see both shortly), well you move goal posts and claim victory. Or you pull out anecdotal evidence. Or you claim conspiracy theories. All of these tactics are employed by people selling nonsense from the antivaccinationists to water dowsers, to astrologists, homeopaths and so forth.

I am no expert in immunology (and neither are most of the mercury militua) but I am pretty good at reviewing information and seeing weak arguments when they are made. This is the only sort of expertise I can offer with regard to my opinions about vaccines. There is a whole field of debunkings possible and I wont do everything in one post. At the end I will provide some links to other folks who have done a great job of tearing apart the claims of the mercury militia.

So lets get started:
Claim: Mercury in Thimerisol causes autism
Evidence: We have been vaccinating more people and the rate of autism has been rising.
Debunking: Here is a study that tries to make this very claim. But that data in the study conflicts with its own conclusions. It shows the rise in autism rates, but sadly for him, and David Kirby the head of the mercury militia, thimerisol is no longer added to vaccines in the US as of late 2002. Its now 2008 and the rates continue to rise in california, and in the entire US, without even a blip in the rate when the thimerisol was removed.

This is not surprising, Canada performed the very same study in 1998 with 27,000 kids in it, same result.

If you take out the thing they claimed to be causing autism and the rates continue to rise, then it wasnt that thing.

Claim: Mercury is a toxic substance that should not be put into the body.
Evidence: Heavy metal poisoning is real.
Debunk: It sure is, but that is irrelevant. Look, sodium is an explosive metal, chlorine is a deadly gas, but that doesnt mean that salt will kill you. Thimerisol is a very good preservative. It forms ethylmercury, which does not bioaccumulate. It is easily confused with methylmercury, a different compound, that does bioaccumulate and is very poisonous.

Claim: chelating my kids makes them better.
Evidence: Kids seem to improve while getting chelation therapy.
Debunk:Chelation (kee-lay-shun), is a process of giving some chemicals to people to help remove heavy metals. This is pretty well debunked here. Basically we are at a place where the claim of the efficacy of the therapy has no evidence to support it, never mind deaths caused by it. But what about the fact that many parents think their kids got better from it? This is a form of confirmation bias. No parent of an autistic child chelates their kid and does nothing else. Most will do everything they think is possible in order to 'cure' their child. So they will use hyperbaric chambers, they will remove casein from their diet, they will try all sorts of stuff, including therapy of various forms. But if the kids get better, then they point to the 'alternative' method rather than point ot the fact the some kids just get better with therapy. Now we have good organizations, such as the CDC and NIH who are taking notes, they are grouping kids that have parents that are submitting their children to all these things, and they have groups of kids of parent who are just using therapy for the most part. Guess what....the improvement of symptoms is virtually the same in severity and in rates.

Whats worse, is that people think they have cured their kids due to administering all this nonsense and then can't understand why scientists aren't beating down their door to see what they did. Its becuase they are providing no good data!

Double blind tests are difficult to do and expensive, but anyone claiming to have a cure, must go through this process to verify this. Here is a good synopsis of what has truly been studies and what has not. It is a disconcerting to see how far away we are from a treatment. But just because there isn't a proven treatment, that doesnt mean that some unprovent treatment with no basis for working is the answer either.

Claim: the rate of autism is increasing it must be something we are doing to our population.
Evidence: The rate of autism is now 1 in 150, with some estimates even higher
Debunk: Yes its true, but that certainly doesnt mean that it is vaccines. It could be flash photography. More importantly one must understand the extent of the spectrum of disorders. On the most mild side, there are perfectly capable members of society who may be a little weird, who may not look you in the eye who are now considered to have autism that were not before. These folks are added to the statistics of people with autism.

further, there has been changes in diagnoses. There are many poeple who, 20 years ago, were diagnosed with mental retardation, or a developmental language disorder, who are now recognized as autistic. This is known as diagnostic substitution.

Claim: People who don't have vaccines don't get autism
Evidence: ?
Debunk: The amish vaccinate. The amish get autism, albeit at a lower rate. If they are getting vaccinated and have a lower rate of autism, can we now say that its not the vaccinations? Again, maybe its flash photography or fluorescent lights? Can I start a new theory?

Claim: Kids get autism when they receive their 18 month MMR shot
Evidence: Kids spike to a fever, then get autistic symptoms.
Debunk: In the past diagnosis was not possible before age 3 or 4, then diagnosis became possible at 18 months. Some claim to be able to detect it as early as 6 months now. So once again, while the shot may cause some immunological response, its more likely the autism was there first.

There are a ton of other causation questions that make no sense from the mercury militia. As the data comes in that its not mercury they move the goal posts and focus on something else, or they change their definition of autism. Im not going to go into every iota of it here. There just isnt space. These reasons were enough for me.

There are some good blogs about autism. Here are some:
Katharien Seidel at Neurodiversity
Science Based Medicine
Autism street

Each of them will provide good clearheaded articles on autism and links to many more sites. I hope this was helpful. I hope it has alleviated some fears for my friend. I shared all those fears also when I had my daughter, believe me! We all want answers to this puzzle. Its likely there is a genetic factors plus some environmental one. Do you have autism in your family? If not I wouldnt worry about this too much.


On 4/28/08, 9:55 PM , Maddy said...

Sadly, I am a bit of a Luddite. Unsurprisingly enough, I'm not much of a scientist either. Luckily I'm enough of a numbskull to know that for our family it's a 'simple' case of genetics.
Best wishes

On 5/7/08, 5:06 PM , S E E Quine said...

` Amusing that people believe these things? Yes. But not when their kids get sick.
` Indeed, autism is partly genetic, and sometimes symptoms of autism can be found in family members of autistic individuals without them having a full-blown case. I also remember reading about how a few parts of some autistic people's brains are actually missing.
` Of course, I'm sure there's a lot more to it than that.

` What's weird is that I know a couple who refused to vaccinate their kid and didn't even know what autism is - they just say that whatever is not natural is not for them.
` That includes treatment for serious illnesses. If they're going to die of something that there's no natural cure for, they'd rather die of it. Even alzheimer's disease which they've seen in action.
` In fact, they said that if their baby was autistic and there was a pharmaceutical that would cure it in one day, they would not do it because it's not 'natural'.
` What kind of mentality is that?
` Well, at least they're also against neonatal circumcision, which really IS something to be against - it is excruciatingly painful to the child, hurts the sex life later, and doesn't do anything helpful at all, which is why it's also illegal.
` Hey, maybe you could do some research and write a post about that? I've done two myself. But one thing I could never figure out is why, if the medical community is against it, if it is against the law, then why isn't more being done to stop it?

On 5/28/08, 4:59 AM , Buffy said...

This is an issue that I often wonder about. Not so much vaccinations in general but the MMR jab. If I had a child would I pay extra and have the three jabs done separately, is it a case of better safe than sorry? Has a study ever been done comparing percentages of autism and Crohn's disease in MMR vaccinated children compared to separately or non vaccinated?

BTW to the commentor above circumcision does carry some potential health benefits for the man and his partner. Of course, that's not to say it's necessarily OK to do it to a baby.

On 5/28/08, 6:48 PM , Techskeptic said...

Buffy, I don't know the answer to your question about studying the effect of separating the vaccinations.

However, I can tell you that we do not give our baby more than one shot per doctor's office visit. The reason for this has nothing to do with autism. It has to do with allergies and side effects.

Each and every vaccine has a rate of side effects.

for example here is what it said in one of the papers from the CDC

Mild Problems: Fussiness (up to 1 child in 3); tiredness or poor appetite (up to 1 child in 10); vomiting (up to 1
child in 50); swelling of the entire arm or leg for 1-7 days (up to 1 child in 30) – usually after the 4th or 5th dose.
Moderate Problems: Seizure (jerking or staring)(1 child in 14,000); non-stop crying for 3 hours or more (up to 1
child in 1,000); fever over 105°F (1 child in 16,000).
Serious Problems: Long-term seizures, coma, lowered consciousness, and permanent brain damage have been
reported very rarely after DTaP vaccine. They are so rare we can’t be sure they are caused by the vaccine.

Each vaccine has a chance of a mild, moderate or serious side effect. With a brand new baby you have no idea when they may be allergic too or react to. So if somethinbg happens, I want to know which shot did it so that in the future we can choose perhaps a different manufacturer or decide to forgoe that particular vaccination.

Happily, our daughter had no reactions to any vaccine. I dont care about triple shots (like MMR) the suspension it is in is what I am worried about, not the attenuated or dead disease itself.

As for circumcism....How the hell did we get there? If I had a boy, I would have him circumcized. We arent evolutionarily perfect. The appendix is a stupid organ, the design of a vagina is prone to infection, wisdom teeth are the height of ridiculousness. I doubt very much a foreskin is the best possibility for men. Too many of my friends with them have explained to me the disgusting problems associated with it. I, myself don't have a foreskin and have had no issues. If I had a boy, I would, with trepidation, don't get me wrong, have him circumcised.

However, as a caveat, I want to mention that I have not had to make this decision and have not researched it. Perhaps I am wrong on this.

On 6/23/08, 2:23 AM , S E E Quine said...

` I think I can help you there! Yeah... I know, how do I get onto these things?
` Well, it's one of those things that my mind gravitates to because it's like how doctors used to routinely remove tonsils and nowadays try to save them.
` Same with foreskins, though most Western Nations have not at all bothered starting to begin with - mainly just America and Canada.
` The reason why they started circumcision was way back when orgasms were thought to make people sick, thus they would chop stuff off in order to reduce sensation and thus function.
` It works, but usually only well enough to be frustrating to a guy who is used to having a foreskin. (Other guys would not have a chance to know any better.)
` After that, it became an American cultural fad and is only really starting to slow down as awareness of its true nature is trickling through to the public.

` In the past few years it has legitimately been used medically in certain parts of Africa where the government and the economy are collapsing due to deaths from AIDS and they are going to extreme measures to stop it.
` Of course, this is certainly not recommended in America because there are far more effective ways of curbing the spread of HIV.
` Seeing as how America is the most circumcised Western nation as well as the most AIDS-ridden, I highly doubt it's had much impact anyway.

` I don't know why anyone would want to have half the skin on their penis removed - that's 15 square inches of erogenous tissue - and it protects the mucus membranes from callousing over and sustaining damage and further desensitization.

` I have written about a guy's struggle with depression over being circumcised and posted a brief history about it, though have not bothered to complete posts about what all the medical organizations of the world have to say about it because I figured I'd come off as a fanatic. I'm saving all that stuff for later.

` Oh, and Doctors Opposing Circumcision is pretty cool, too.
` Oh, and there was even a Penn&Teller's Bullshit episode on it, too. The preview is really funny!