Saturday, February 7, 2015

Court Rulings Don't Confirm Autism-Vaccine Link (Conspiracy Theories)


There’s a post making the rounds courtesy of something called “Whiteout Press” with the headline “Courts confirm vaccines cause autism.” It’s spreading across sites, through chains of elementary school parent communities, and onto radars of other communities that overlap. In other words, it’s viral. If only there were a vaccine for it.

The post itself is a cobbled together retelling of stories everyone’s already known for years. Whiteout Press might have been surprised to learn about this “ongoing story,” but each element of it has been widely reported in the mainstream media over the last decade and a half, in exceptional detail.

The centerpiece of the “courts confirm” article is the 2012 finding of a local Italian court that a child was diagnosed with autism a year after receiving an MMR. The court, in linking the two things, relied very heavily on the retracted and fraudulent 1998 Wakefield MMR Lancet paper and the testimony of a single physician, hired by the plaintiff’s attorney (widely known for advising parents on how to avoid compulsory vaccinations). The physician, Massimo Montinari, it seems, has written a book on how vaccines cause autism and peddles an autism “cure” that he’s devised.

Italian courts, provincial or otherwise, are not known for basing their rulings in science. They are, after all, part of the system that led to a manslaughter conviction of six scientists for not predicting the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, disregarding completely the obvious fact that such predictions are not, in fact, scientifically possible. In a similar way, the Italian court that made the MMR-autism ruling–the centerpiece of this latest “courts confirm” tripe–ignored completely the science made available to it and focused almost solely on the retracted Wakefield paper and a physician with a COI in making its decision. A decision that is, by the way, under appeal.
The other “evidence” in the misleading viral “courts confirm” article regards the “vaccine court” in the U.S. This “court” is actually a long-standing mechanism for evaluating vaccine injury claims via a federal process and to distinguish claims that are legitimate and not so legitimate. This National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established in 1988, so it’s not exactly a state secret or breaking news. Its primary service is as protection for those involved in vaccine manufacture and administration because in the hyperlitigious society that is the USA, and given the millions and millions of vaccines administered annually, the litigation risks could be astronomical. Such a threat could limit willingness to manufacture life-saving vaccines. In the words of the Department of Health and Human Services:
The VICP was established to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines, stabilize vaccine costs, and establish and maintain an accessible and efficient forum for individuals found to be injured by certain vaccines. The VICP is a no-fault alternative to the traditional tort system for resolving vaccine injury claims that provides compensation to people found to be injured by certain vaccines. The U. S. Court of Federal Claims decides who will be paid. Three Federal government offices have a role in the VICP:
  • the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS);
  • the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); and
  • the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (the Court).
A trust fund, funded by a tax on each dose of vaccine administered, exists to pay the claims.
With regard to autism specifically, the VICP lawsuits related to autism and vaccines were lumped together into what became known as the autism omnibus trial. Three special masters were appointed to evaluate three test cases from this group. The court ultimately denied compensation for these cases and then denied compensation for a further three cases, and the court was not impressed with the science or expert witnesses marshalled for the plaintiffs. After the decisions, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson stated:
“Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism.”
In fact, the scientific, not just judicial, evidence to support that statement is overwhelming and the evidence against it scanty at best–and occasionally retracted. Indeed, it’s so sparse that those who insist that autism and vaccines are linked must resurrect old information, repackage it in their skewed agenda, and mispresent the relevance of court rulings to make it look like there’s a link. Even if for obscure reasons you want to rely only on court rulings, what we have here is a ruling against cause in three cases versus a ruling for cause in one case. That’s a 3:1 win for “vaccines don’t cause autism” looking only at the courts.

What baffles me–genuinely baffles me–is why they expend the energy on such an internally inconsistent, crazy-quilt job of an argument to level these false charges against vaccines. No medical intervention is without risks, and vaccines are no exception. But vaccines are among the safest, most-effective, and most widely life-saving interventions of all time. Mispresenting the facts about them does no one any good at all and has done considerable harm.

[My thanks to the SkepticalRaptor blog for concise background on the Italian court case; you can read much more detail on that there.]


Conspiracy theories allow people to address feelings of powerlessness and lack of control, avoid feelings of uncertainty and allow people to make sense of events. They also however, undermine confidence on important topics such as the workings of science.  This can have potentially detrimental consequences, where belief in conspiracy theories has been associated with lack of condom use and being less likely to seek treatment for HIV.  Exposure to conspiracy theories has also been found to reduce people’s intention to engage in the political system, take action against climate change and vaccinate a fictional child.
Conspiracy theories may allow people to meet important psychological needs, but their consequences may be detrimental to society.  With Ebola cases increasing by the day, it is important that conspiracy theories are not just thought of as simply harmless fun and therefore of little concern. Instead conspiracy theories may have an alarming impact on social systems that should not be taken lightly.

So What is causing the "Autism Epidemic"? Quote from a NatGeo article:
So what is causing an increase in autism? We don't know for sure, says Offit, but the best data are genetic, involving several genes required for brain development that may generate abnormalities even in the womb. Some researchers have found a connection between older fathers and an increased risk of autism in their children. Or the increase could be due to more awareness of autism and a broader definition of the disorder.
Extract from an experiment on Ambivalence:
 They led the participant to a desk in total disarray, strewn with pens, crumpled papers and magazines. Then the crucial step of the experiment: the experimenter asked some participants to help tidy the desk and put the mess in order before continuing with the experiment. Those people who got the chance to restore order by tidying the disorganised desk were less likely to see illusory patterns afterwards, while people who weren’t given the opportunity to restore order grasped at patterns just as in the earlier experiment.
And what might be causing the epidemic of Conspiracy Theory?
This might seem like a surprising and tenuous finding, but it fits neatly into a growing body of research which suggests that people are especially likely to buy into conspiracy theories when they feel powerless, anxious, or uncertain. Of course, ambivalence differs from powerlessness and uncertainty – you can be certain that ice cream is both delicious and bad for you. But regardless of these subtle distinctions, one appeal of conspiracy theories might be their power to offer compensatory order, control, and certainty by explaining ambiguous and complex events with a neat and orderly story.

And now an opinion from a mother of a child with autism from a facebook post:

Lola Bringas-Garcia In our personal experience, the genetics weigh more heavily than the vaccines. Of course, any number of allergies could exist that have yet to be isolated. I base my opinion on what we have seen, but I do not discount that in other cases, a sensitivity to the Thimerosal might have played a part. I can tell you that in my son's particular case, this was not it at all.
12 August 2013 at 05:24 

Lola Bringas-Garcia I can 100% guarantee that my son's autism started overnight, and that the likelihood that a connection in the brain failed catastrophically is more likely than a reaction to immunizations. He has a half-brother, on his father's side who is also autistic. My humble personal opinion is that this is genetical rather than due to a sensitivity to any components in vaccines, but I am not in a position to, with any authority, state that there is no connection to outside causes in other cases.

Lola Bringas-Garcia I am going to humbly and respectfully express my opinion regarding this matter, and I'm going to base it on personal experience over the course of fifteen years since my child's diagnosis. I apologize if anyone takes offense at what I'm going to say. I wouldn't, for all the tea in China, for all the jewels in any crown, for all the gold and unicorns and rainbows, skip my son's vaccines even if I knew this to be the cause of his autism. I would NEVER forgive myself for not having prevented my child from a childhood illness that could rob him of his life or cause some other damage to his being. I can, however, do my duty as a parent and take care of him and encourage him to grow, mature, develop and progress within his abilities as these are limited or enhanced by his Autism. I have an adult in my household, and I've had the privilege of parenting him over the course of his 18 years, and I cannot say that it hasn't been challenging, but I sincerely can state that I would never have recovered from losing him because I opted not to vaccinate him. At this particular point, I don't give a rat's ass where my child's Autism came from, but I do give a rat's ass about where it's taking him. I choose to not agonize over the why and work on making his life better. Arguing about this is pointless. The children, believe it or not, get lost in the shuffle, and parents who choose to not follow the immunization protocols are making a rather selfish decision regarding their child's health. Childhood diseases have NOT been eradicated; even polio is making a comeback in Africa. I'd rather have the kid, as he is, not as I wished he would be when he was in utero.

Lola Bringas-Garcia Jenny McCarthy is, for me, a very sore point. Her son was very likely PDD-NOS, not Autistic. And, again from personal experience, a parent of an autistic child would neither have the time nor energy to be involved in all the varied romances, photo shoots, parties, etc. that Ms. McCarthy is so avidly involved in. She has found a cash cow, and she's milking it for all it's worth. I apologize if anyone thinks I'm being unfair, but I have an autistic child at home and I can't remember the last time I had the opportunity or the energy to be as self-centered and self-promoting as Ms. McCarthy is.

Lola Bringas-Garcia I've heard such things as "cow colostrum helps alleviate the signs of Autism." I know what works: hard work, ABA, using PECS, understanding your child's needs and accepting that you have to adjust as much as he/she does. He didn't have to take any medication whatsoever until he was 15, and that was because he started presenting SIB and behavioral issues. He is on a ridiculously small amount of Risperidone, and that was the thing that allowed us to re-focus and help him overcome his issues. The dose is getting smaller, and smaller, and he'll be weaned off soon. The truth of the matter is that it's more than just saying "oh, I wish I knew how this happened." Once you have a diagnosis, instead of becoming an advocate for this or that "reason" you have to go balls deep (sorry) on being an advocate for your child... I've been berated for not saying it was the vaccines. Other mothers have told me I'm being, I'm NOT being obtuse, I'm working my ass off to get my son to where he needs to be, and I cannot possibly waste efforts in trying to raise the flag of one particular group when the kid should be the focus. Research is absolutely necessary, but it has to be done dispassionately, objectively. If you go looking for gollywoggles under the bed, you will find something that approximates a gollywoggle...just saying...

Lola Bringas-Garcia With ANY vaccination you can still get the illness that it's designed to work against. The issue is not that you won't get sick, but that you will not get the full brunt of the illness. It's a question of minimizing the effects.

Lola Bringas-Garcia There are a lot of cases of "autism" that are, in fact, PDD-NOS. Because the signs and symptoms are similar, and because early intervention is the main focus, these children are labeled autistic, and when -due to the concerted and focused attention they receive as a result of their diagnosis- they improve the parents declare that their "autism" has been cured, or they opt for the "high-functioning" label. Not every "autistic" individual out there is in fact properly diagnosed. The diagnosis doesn't just come from a pediatrician; it has to be confirmed by different specialists, including a neurologist, over the course of several months and through a variety of assessments. Not every child that exhibits a delay is autistic.

Lola Bringas-Garcia Again, as the parent of an individual living with Autism, I have to point one tiny thing out, and I apologize if anyone thinks I'm speaking out of turn, but I believe this is important. Research is important. Research, in fact, is ESSENTIAL. However, when the conversation turns purely to push-and-pull in two directions, and the protocol to handle childhood diseases is being challenged purely for the sake of finding a quick explanation to an issue as important as this one, it's basically a waste of time. Please notice that the focus has been turned to "causes" rather than to "strategies." Many individuals out there are taking focus away from the actual children facing this challenge day after day to argue over WHY they face the challenge. I'm not saying there's no use researching, but when all that is being done is pitting one school of thought against the other, no good comes out of it. That we shouldn't vaccinate our children is absurd; it's irresponsible. The assertion that vaccinations don't work is what has put us in this position. Please look back on how many families saw their children DIE from things like measles and smallpox before vaccination was implemented before you say that they don't work. What are we defending here? The integrity of WHAT? If a child dies from a childhood disease, what do the parents do? Replace it with another child? Hope that this one will make it??? What happens if a child IS autistic? Heavens to Betsy!!!! Whatever shall we do???? Let's fight over what causes it instead of focusing on what can be done to help him/her, that's what! Because there are people out there who would much rather blog about how immunizations screwed up their kid, causing more work for them, work that they don't do to the degree they should because they're wasting time "being an advocate" against vaccines. Give me a friggin' break! "I don't want it to happen to my other children...." Well, if all your kids get smallpox, chicken pox, measles at the same time they're going to be up shit's creek. Once your child has been diagnosed, you know what you're supposed to do for their siblings???? Prepare them for what's ahead...not plant the notion that their autistic sibling's situation is the result of proper medical care. Prepare them for the certain future of being a primary care giver for this particular sibling when you're no longer around. This is a WHOLE FAMILY thing; it's not just mommy going to anti-vac sit-ins to rail against big pharma. It's not about teaching your other kids that doctors cause harm... I am pulling out of this conversation because the argument has grown to the point where the people (the ACTUAL people) affected by it have become inconsequential. As far as I'm concerned, f*ck the cause...if my son pre-deceases me, his brain is going to research. How's that??? Who's had to make that decision here? Not organ donation, people, but actually saying "here...for the sake of my grandchildren and all the way down that line, dig into THIS." I'd rather have him as he IS...he's alive. He hasn't had any childhood diseases. He's a pain in the ass; he's a lot of work; he's a challenge; he is WONDERFUL. I'm out...
12 August 2013 at 19:19 

I like Lola. She has her priorities right. We may fight battles for higher principles or ideals, but ultimately, we fight for our families. She doesn't buy into conspiracy theories, because she is secure, is in control or feels in control, and wants to take control by doing what is necessary and right, rather than have fake control by fighting over imaginary conspiracies. 

The theory about "conspiracism" is that such "Conspiracy theorists" are likely to be anxious, uncertain, or feeling powerless.

I am sure Lola has anxiety, about how to best help her child. But she is not anxious over WHETHER she will help her child. That is NEVER in question. Similarly, she may be uncertain as to whether something will help, but she is not uncertain about whether she will be there for her child. 

And finally, from her last post, she choses to do what is best for her child, to take the power of choice for herself and her child. And she instinctively sees that choosing the conspiracy route is to choose to hand over power to others, to choose to be powerless, to choose to be a victim. 

She chooses instead to fight for her child, to take back power, to take back the future. 

And that is what is admirable about her. ]   

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