Why I Can’t Make Mom Friends

September 24, 2010

For some reason, some videos embed and others simply don’t.

So you might be tempted to ignore this link to this short and funny video, because there’s no easy peesy video embedded here, just a boring ol’ link, and that’s not as compelling to click. I mean, jeez, you have to go all the way over to a different web page, and that’s a lot of effort. I know. But please, it’s worth it.

Brian Dunning on “Dangerous” Vaccine Ingredients

September 14, 2010

The Latest Study Showing No Link Between ASD and Vaccines…and How We Present Information to Friends Without Unfriending

September 14, 2010

First, let’s just get to the links. A recent study, published in Pediatrics, shows no association between thimerosal and autism:

CONCLUSIONS In our study of MCO members, prenatal and early-life exposure to ethylmercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines and immunoglobulin preparations was not related to increased risk of ASDs.

This was apparently a long awaited study. Here are some links with comments about the study by doctors whose blogs I like to read. Their posts might help to understand the study. The first post by Steven Novella explains the background of the study as well. Actually, if you read any of these links, that’s probably the one to focus on. (It’s the shortest and easiest to read.)

And here’s Orac’s take on it.

And here are a whole bunch of other links you can read, if interested. This list is courtesy of Orac. Well, not exactly courtesy. I’ve simply swiped the link to Liz Ditz’s blog from his blog.

While I found Steven Novella’s post very helpful, I was slightly depressed to read his conclusion:

No one study, especially an observational study, is ever very compelling. I don’t think this one new study changes the scientific picture of vaccines or thimerosal and autism. But it is one more study that fails to show any correlation between thimerosal exposure and risk of developing autism or ASD. This comes on top of multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing away from the notion that vaccines or thimerosal are a significant cause of autism.

The scientific community is likely to see this as further confirmation of a lack of association between vaccines and autism – just one more piece of the big picture. The anti-vaccine community is likely to dismiss it as either hopelessly flawed or as part of the conspiracy. In other words – this study is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on this issue.

Sure, maybe not. I haven’t been trying to be a spokesperson for vaccines for very long, so maybe I’m not jaded yet. I’m still sorting out how to talk to people about this issue without offending them or freaking out myself, which is what I’d like to discuss in this post.

Colin gave me some props lately for speaking up on Facebook about vaccines. And well, thanks, but honestly, I’ve screwed up as a skeptical spokesperson a few times, too. It has been really hard to find my voice, and I’ve unfriended two people over this issue. But I think I’ve finally achieved some kind of competence after some trial and error. Here are my basic rules for presenting information without devolving into bad feelings.

1. Give information–links, studies, or what have you–in writing. Email is good. Facebook works. Posting comments is fine. Debating verbally is absolutely pointless for me. I just say, “I can email you some information if you’d like to read it.” I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I’m just a geek who reads a lot about vaccines, so I’d rather let the information do the talking. I am on two mommy support boards, and of course there are tons of woo types on both. Anti-vaccine loons, people advertising amber teething necklaces–oy. It’s tough. Rather than go head to head, I just try to present the facts in writing–other people’s writing.

2. This advice is actually from the moderator of one of those blogs, and I think it’s good, although I balk somewhat at the compromise-like quality of this language. Use “It is my understanding that” or “From what I have read” when presenting information. This kind of toning down of facts does tend to take the emotional charge out of your statements. I think it kind of waters them down, but it pisses people off less, which might make them actually look at what you’re presenting. And in all honestly, it’s just the truth. This is what I have read and understand to be true. To claim any more than that is a little arrogant really. Speaking or writing this way also implies that you’re open to additional information and willing to read and understand more. The moderator was actually posting this information to cut off a thread about homeopathy in which I apparently offended some people by saying that homeopathy doesn’t work. On the sly, many people from the support board emailed me to say thank you for having the “courage” to speak out against the “homeopathic vaccinations” that were being touted by one poster. But these people were too scared to speak up themselves and face the vitriol they might incur. I got more supportive responses than mad responses, but let me tellya’, the mad responses are pretty daunting. People can be super mean, and I don’t enjoy conflict like that. I spoke up because I didn’t want anyone to get a homeopathic vaccination and then have their kid get measles. I felt a responsibility to say something, so I did.

3. This point is my own, and it’s really hard for me, but I’m getting better. Be prepared to walk away from a debate without winning. When you’re posting on blogs or mommy boards, you’re in front of an audience, and I think it’s important to make your point and get the heck out without getting upset. The two boards I post on are for emotional support, so bringing up topics that are polarizing just wrecks everyone’s mood. So I try to make it clear that I’m posting for everyone’s information and that I understand everyone can read and make their own decisions. I do believe that people (like the people who emailed me about my homeopathy posts) are grateful for the information, and I might sway someone who is mostly quiet on the boards. But the regular posters who are all about the woo and the conspiracy theories–meh, it’s best to just respond politely but briefly with links and factual information and leave it at that. Debate isn’t helpful, and people are watching. I try to handle myself politely and respectfully (even if I feel not at all polite or respectful). I suppose it’s a good rule of thumb for many situations anyway, but my point here is that in the end it is probably more persuasive to those who are sitting on the sidelines and reading. At least I hope so.

4. Try to remember when you didn’t have the information either. This one is tough for me, too. I’ve done so much reading at this point that it is almost impossible for me to believe that other people haven’t done the same reading, but they haven’t. A friend with a new baby asked me if I spaced out my shots, and why was there so much autism when there were more vaccinations, and it was all I could do not to scream in frustration. This is a guy from a great school, so why doesn’t he know what’s up? But I took a breath and remembered having a newborn myself and facing all those fear mongering rumors, the terrifying videos of autistic kids on YouTube, the first Google searches that turned up the wackaloon, misguided information–look, that stuff is scary. When I think about it now, it’s actually amazing that I didn’t freak out and do the “alternate schedule.” I live in the epicenter of that kind of thinking. But I have a lot of skeptical friends, so I found the good information and followed the vaccine schedule without fear. (Well, almost. I admit I was somewhat nervous when we went to get the MMR–and I’m embarrassed to admit that now, but that’s where my friends are probably at, too, so it’s good to remember my own twinges of fear.) When I think about how scared I was, it helps me to be reassuring when I say I feel totally comfortable with the vaccine schedule. And it’s better to be helpful and reassuring than to be mind meltingly frustrated that this topic still even comes up. At least, that’s what works better for me.

Any other advice from those of us who are on the front lines of rationalism? I am really hoping that in some small way, I can contribute to my son’s elementary school actually not being at risk for a measles outbreak, which according to an LA Times Article from last year, it is. Vaccination rates have dropped so low that herd immunity is now at risk. Oh California, I love you but you frustrate me.

What do you keep in mind while trying to be a skeptical spokesperson?

Penn & Teller on Vaccines

August 24, 2010

Here’s the entire Bullshit episode on vaccines…which for some reason will not embed here. So here is a link to it. Enjoy!

The Pertussis Epidemic Examined

August 18, 2010

Recently I went to get my pertussis booster. I got the combined DTaP shot, which includes vaccinations against diptheria and tetanus. While I am actually pretty sure I had a tetanus shot before traveling just a few years ago, I didn’t think there would be any harm in repeating this vaccination. The injection site was swollen and hard for almost a week, but aside from that, I experienced no side effects, except for the smug satisfaction that comes along with actually getting an annoying task like that completed. It’s a hassle to make an appointment at the doctor when you’re working and taking care of kids–and when nothing is really wrong with you.

In addition to the annoyance of scheduling a vaccination and going to the doctor, it looks like insurance might not be covering these booster shots, in spite of the epidemic levels of pertussis here in California. When I called to make the appointment, the receptionist informed me that insurance wouldn’t cover the shot, but I decided to get it anyway. The doctor knew a little about the epidemic, but she was somewhat surprised that I was there in her office for a booster. She agreed that I should get the shot. I am a teacher, so any epidemic will reach me at work, and I spend a lot of time around families with kids, including newborn babies, who are the most vulnerable to pertussis. But still, the doctor had not had anyone else in her office demanding a booster, and she was surprised to see me there. So no one gave me a lollipop and a pat on the back for being a good citizen and getting the shot. There was no prize except a few hours out of my day and a quarter sized lump on my shoulder. Oh, and the smugness. And well, also there’s just knowing that I can’t infect a baby with whooping cough. You know, that’s a relief, for sure.

When it was over, I was expecting a demand for payment since I’d been told the injection wasn’t covered, but no one remembered to talk to me about that. So I did what any self respecting person might do: I walked out of the office. They can bill me if they need to. As my Great Uncle Sid used to say: “I owe you money? Why should two people worry?”
Read the rest of this entry »

Sing a Song For Pertussis?

August 6, 2010

This might be a mission for our friend, Monty Harper.

March of Dimes is trying to raise awareness about the threat of pertussis, and they’re approaching it from a different angle. They’re creating a competition to see who can write the best song about pertussis. Personally, I don’t think that whooping cough is  much to sing about, so contest entrants have an uphill battle.

The winner of the competition gets to sing the song at a NASCAR event where Jeff Gordon will appear. Hmmm… that might not be much of a prize for some people. But you know what is a great prize? Raising awareness about a highly-contagious vaccine-preventable disease.

Go to Sound Off About Pertussis to participate!

Episode 10 FAQ: Vaccine Delivery

May 4, 2010

If you didn’t catch our two-part vaccine episodes for Podcast Beyond Belief, be sure to check them out and share them with friends and family. They feature Dr. Paul Offit, vaccine expert and author of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure and Dr. David Gorski, contributing writer for Science Based Medicine.

Episode 10 features a question from Jim Valentine in Louisville, KY, which we forwarded to our previous guest, Dr. Paul Offit…

What do you think will be the future of vaccine delivery?

I think that actually the richest source of TMB cells, the kind of cells that cause adaptive immunity, are actually in the gut. So, the problem with the gut is that you have to get past the stomach, which produces a lot of protease enzymes that break down proteins, and it produces a lot of acids. It’s actually hard to get the vaccines through the stomach, but I think that’s certainly part of the future.

Another way of giving vaccines – there’s a patch actually that has thousands of very tiny needles, so tiny that you don’t really feel them, that would just be laid onto the skin. Each very small needle has a tiny dose of the vaccine at the end of it so that with the thousands of them you get the entire dose. I think that’s the future.


April 23, 2010

Usually I ignore the topic of vaccination, because we’ve got other parents here who focus on that. I’m more of the voice of parenting angst. But I’m actually somewhat bothered by an article that skeparent linked to about vaccination. I’m not going to link to the article I’m referencing, because increasing links in boosts the google search position of an article, and the last thing we need in the world is more prominent fear mongering when it comes to vaccines. I linked to the article in the comments, if you’re interested.

But I do want to highlight some sloppy thinking in this mystery article, which I guess you could probably find from Skeparent, over there in the sidebar. This is fairly typical of the anti-vaccine movement in general, so it doesn’t really matter who I’m referencing. I could pick any random anti-vax article and probably just write boilerplate about it and be about as accurate.

For example, the article mentions that Japan stopped using MMR. They don’t mention that Measles in on the rise in Japan. They don’t mention that even without MMR in Japan, Autism continues to rise, even though they claim that autism is linked to MMR vaccination. They claim that vaccines aren’t 100% effective, but they don’t actually point out that the rates of measles in unvaccinated and vaccinated populations are very different, instead giving the impression that unvaccinated children are just about as likely to contract measles as vaccinated children.

This is a technique called “Cherry Picking”, where an advocate for some position selectively cites data from a study while completely ignoring other data from the exact same study. So, for example, if the CDC reports that in a particular measles outbreak, 45% of the affected children were vaccinated, they mention that. They ignore the fact that of that 45%, the majority had not received a recommended booster shot. And they don’t mention that the unvaccinated population is much, much smaller than the vaccinated population, but still makes up the majority of measles cases.

It’s a special kind of dishonesty, this data filtering. I don’t think that it’s conscious… if it were, they wouldn’t put the links in the blog article. The blog author simply grabs what looks like corroborating evidence from a source, and then adds it to the impressive looking list of references at the end of the article. The fact that the majority of the sources recommend earlier vaccination and increased booster shots, or that some sources contradict claims from other sources, is just ignored completely.

On the other hand, the author moderates all comments on her blog, so that the only comments that appear are “Wow, you’re so smart and I love you so much and thank you for standing up to the evil forces of evil”, so maybe it is intentional. I mean, she has to have read the comments from myself and others by now (the comments she hasn’t posted) and so she should be aware that she’s selecting data and ignoring data.

But maybe, since she doesn’t let negative feedback go public, she can sort of put it out of her mind. Not really read it, just sort of skim it and then delete it when it’s not complimentary. That would make sense.

I think I’ll bring this around to parenting angst now (you knew I would). Highlander talks back to me. A lot. More than I like, actually, and more than is really helpful or appropriate. He says things like “I’m not your friend”, or “I’m mad at you”, and other deep expressions of 3-year-old anger or frustration. Which is bad, in some ways. But it’s good in other ways… and one way it’s good is the rare occasion when he says something incredibly nice, like “You’re a good Daddy.” Because I know he means it. He isn’t punished for saying mean things (except that I’m less happy) and he isn’t rewarded for saying nice things (except that I’m more happy), so there’s no real pressure on him to be a certain kind of commenter.

The real pressure is on me, to keep parenting despite some negative feedback, to ignore the temptation to give in in order to get positive feedback. That makes the rare parenting kudo better, I get the dual satisfaction of both doing what I think is the right thing to do and being thanked for it.

Too much restriction of your feedback loops leads to a bovine complacency, a self-satisfaction born of self-delusion. It’s easy to believe you’re the best parent in the world if you never allow negative feedback, it’s easy to believe you’re the smartest blogger on the block if you delete all the negative comments, and it’s easy to believe that we don’t need the MMR vaccine when the measles is basically dead.

Autism Still Not Linked To Aborted Fetal Tissue

April 22, 2010

What do you get when you cross pro-life advocates with vaccine deniers? The implausible idea that vaccines originally derived from aborted fetal tissue are responsible for the rise in autism. A mother of a child with autism sent me an e-mail today asking if I had any information about the recent chirping in the pro-life community about a new study they say proves a correlation between autism and their ingredients derived from aborted fetal tissue. She writes…

Just when I thought all that nonsense was dying a slow death, someone comes on one of the autism support group sites and posts something about a new EPA study linking autism to abortion cell use in vaccines.

It seems like autism is a magnet for woo woo because it’s origins can’t be fully explained. The idea that a study was being interpreted by pro-life activists as showing a correlation between autism and aborted fetal tissue really raised my skeptical alarm bells, obviously. My first thought was that this was a simple case of correlation being confused with causation. My second thought was that I better check out the study and see what it says. My third thought was that the best person to answer this question would be the study’s author, Mike McDonald. I bet the pro-life anti-vaccine activists never thought to ask the person who did the research.

Fortunately, Mike McDonald replied to me about whether his study can be interpreted to show a link between autism and aborted fetal ingredients in vaccines. (Honestly, I think this is just a trick to get people like me to acknowledge that some cells in vaccines were derived from aborted fetal tissue). Here’s what he had to say…

The statements made onthe website incorrectly represent, and far over  reach, our study findings. Our study draws no causal linkages with anything and the recent increase in autistic disorder, and certainly not to the use of fetal tissues in vaccines.  Our research serves as a screening tool to direct future research to a potentially more productive time frame for additional study.  Without additional screening approaches there are potentially a huge number of possible exogenous factors and explanations that could be associated with autism.  The data we used suggest that the timing would be similar in Denmark and in California (the Japanese data may be earlier in occurrence,but we were not able to determine a change point from the study we used), suggesting that something similar may have been occurring in at least developed countries at this time. Autistic disorder increased in California and Denmark beyond the time frame of our study, but at different rates.  If we assume a dose response relationship, then exposure to whatever exogenous factor or
factors, that might be associated with AD, would have had to increase in parallel to the AD levels in different places.  But, the levels of exposure may have been different. However, in no case is a correlation with any of these things, including with the timing of the change point, with some other occurrence any indication of causation.

I hope this helps.

Mike McDonald

Yes, it helps. Thank you so much!

One In Four = One Depressed Skeptic

March 2, 2010

One in four surveyed parents wrongfully believe that vaccines cause autism. One in four have been convinced, despite any supporting scientific evidence, that their child could suddenly collapse into a heap of neurological disfunction when being treated with the best preventative medical treatments the world has ever known.

This startling statistic comes despite the fact that Andrew Wakefield, the bloke whose research sparked the debate about whether the MMR vaccine could cause autism, has been scolded by the General Medical Council for being dishonest and irresponsible.

This startling statistic comes despite the fact that even the best cases for a link between MMR and autism were rejected by the vaccine court in the autism omnibus proceedings.

This startling statistic lands limply on my desktop despite the fact that numerous studies have disproved a link, despite the fact that thimerosal has been removed from childhood vaccines without a subsequent decline in autism, despite the fact that “mother’s intuition”, conspiracy theories, and imagined toxins are the best that vaccine opponents can provide.

And yet, despite the 25% survey respondents who were suckered by the rhetoric of antivaccine activists, 9/10 still believe in vaccines enough to say that they are a good way to prevent diseases for their children.  So, at the least, I can go to bed knowing that, for now, a semblance of common sense prevails, despite the hysteria and anti-medical propaganda being promoted by my ideological opponents. It’s little comfort, but I’ll take what I can get.


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