Autism, vaccines, Australia, and some good news for a change

By Phil Plait | April 30, 2009 2:15 pm

Three news items about vaccines and the antivax movement that threatens so many lives:

1) The Australian antivax news story has had quite the impact. Channel 7 in Oz has decided to record a forum discussing the antivax tactics and the real science of vaccinations and autism; amazingly, as Dr. Rachie reports, they don’t want antivax mouthpieces like the horrid Meryl Dorrey on the show; they only want people with a science background! Imagine that.

2) Speaking of autism, it looks like researchers have, for the very first time, found a genetic link to autism! This is fantastic news. The causes behind autism are basically unknown (though we do know what doesn’t cause it: vaccines!), and this is a very good first step in unraveling this complex and terribly difficult problem.

3) The Skeptic Zone and Young Australian Skeptics have created a one-page flier decrying quacks who claim to have treatments for the swine flu or meningococcal meningitis… medicines which are homeopathic. Only one letter separates SCAM and SCUM, folks.

Here is a JPG of the flyer, and the link above goes to the PDF. Spread the word.

Comments (55)

  1. Point #2 is great news! I predict, however, that those on the anti-vax front will claim one or more of the following:

    * The mercury in thimerosal weakens those genes, thereby causing autism.
    * MMR weakens those genes, etc.
    * Aluminum etc.
    * The excessively packed schedule of vaccinations weakens etc.
    * Something in the vaccines weakens those genes, and so on.

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    some good news for a change

    Thanks, I will have for 2 ¢ please.

    But it is good news to home in on a difficult sickness. (And help on others by debunking the pro-disease insanity.)

    [Moreover and OT, if connectivity is an issue it can perhaps tell us a whole lot of how the mind works.]

  3. Todd,

    That is right on. That is exactly what will happen.

    You know what would crack me up?

    Since they suspect that it is a combination of a genetic issue along with some environmental factor? I’ll crack up if that factor is something along the lines of Patchouli oil, or any of the herbs and oils that “naturopaths” tell pregnant women to use.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Todd:

    OTOH, why should we listen on relatives that may share those same autism gene variants? (c_c)

  5. Lawrence

    Great Trifecta – wish we could import some of that common sense here to the States.

  6. JD

    Hrm. I love reading your blog, and you’re bringing up very important topics of course … but at this point I’m wondering if this is more of an astronomy blog or a skeptic’s blog? Perhaps a name change is in order, or maybe the need for two separate blogs on the two different, broad topics?

    Keep on writing, either way!

  7. Todd, you saw the addition on the “Aluminum” section about breastmilk, didn’t you? BTW, put your 2 cents into the domain name please. ;)

    I actually heard of a study that found a weak correlation to linolium floors! :O

  8. Dan I.

    That’s great news on all fronts. Although as Todd said the anti-vaxx wackos will connect it to vaccines somehow.

    Somehow they’ll see the fact that the gene only explains 15% of autism as proof positive that the other 85% is caused by vaccines. That’s the kind of crazy leap in logic you expect from these people.

    The flyer is definitely a good way to go. I do take issue with some of the virulent opposition to anything that isn’t a drug though. Let’s not forget that technically the healing properties of something like the “aloe” plant is technically a “homepathic” remedy if I’m not mistaken.

    But still yeah, homeopathic remedies for the swine flu is bogus.

  9. Timothy from Boulder

    How human nature works:

    Nothing will change in the autism/vaccine mindset of parents who have already committed to this stance. It will take a huge number of incontrovertible studies before opinions begin to sway because–

    –people always look to blame someone or something else (vaccines, Big Pharma, environment hurt my baby) rather than blame themselves (my genetics hurt my baby). “It’s never *my* fault, it’s someone else’s fault.”

  10. firemancarl

    Good news all around. May I now tell Jenny McCarthy to shove it up her….?

  11. Davidlpf

    My mommy instincts tell me after generations of modern medicine. The morden medicine weakens our genes and that is way we are seeing in increase of autism and that is why the Amish, the Chinese and the somalians don’t have autism. We all need to take homeopathic medic that does nothing to our genes and all have low gluten diets. That is what my mommy instict. is telling me.

    (It would work better if I was a women)

  12. Grump

    firemancarl Says:
    May I now tell Jenny McCarthy to shove it up her….?

    I believe it’s big enough to shove quite a lot in it.

    Wait, we were talking about the void between her ears, right?

  13. Davidlpf, I didn’t see who wrote that, and I must admit that I “got Poed” on that one! :D

  14. Wow, three studies with two in the same journal. I sense we might be on the cusp of something here. I’m trying not to get my hopes up. Scientific progress may or may not go “boink”, but sometimes it’s really slow.

  15. Phil, you should be clearer on point #2. This is not the first genetic link for autism. It is the first common genetic variant (i.e., present in more than 5-10% of the population) linked to autism. It has been known for quite a while that autism has a genetic component. It has genetic (narrow sense) heritability in the population/quantitative genetics terminology. There have also been a number of rare variants previously identified. Interestingly, both the common and rare variants seem to be in related biological pathways.

  16. Rand

    I kind of thought we already had a gene identified as a possibility for autism. I remember reading, maybe 10 years ago, that engineers had a far higher chance of having an autistic child.

  17. David

    Homeopathic medicine has one thing right for flue. drink plenty of fluids.

  18. Tyler Durden

    It may be worth noting that existing antiflu medicines have proven to be effective in treating Swine Flu, decreasing the severity of symptoms and increasing the likelihood of survival:
    ————————–
    From http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/swine-flu-q-amp-a-is-tamiflu-ndash-or-a-vaccine-ndash-the-answer-1676395.html

    “Q: Can it be treated?

    A: Yes – up to a point. Early indications are that patients in Mexico and the US have been successfully treated with the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza. These drugs cannot prevent flu but they can limit its severity, and thus save lives, if taken as soon as symptoms develop. However, the swine flu has proved resistant to older anti-virals such as amantadine. “

  19. Dan,
    No, aloe isn’t a homeopathic remedy.
    Homeopathy refers to the practice of diluting an active ingredient out of existence, and then using the dilutant as a remedy.
    The idea is that the dilutant somehow retains the “memory” of the active ingredient. It’s nonsense, of course.
    Aloe is naturopathic, but not homeopathic.
    Cheers.

  20. I posted this in the Jim Carrey related post:

    As a parent, I am one for getting my kids vaccinated, as I was when I was a child. And as my brothers and sisters were long time ago… and as also my wife and ll of her family.

    Vaccines are not meant to CURE diseases. They are meant to prepare our body to fight against diseases. They are meant to create allergic reactions in our own immunity system so it can create antibodies and a memory for the real active attackers. Then, depending of the particular immunity system of every particular human being (please remember: we are not photocopies or replicas coming out from an unique prototype… everyone has a distinct DNA signature… and with such… we all have our very own genetically weaknesses and strengths)… we would start fighting the diseases, hoping that our systems is ready for the battle.

    Vaccines are not Deflective Shields! Vaccines are not Ablative armor! But they help our system to prepare for an incoming raid of assaulting bacterias an viruses.

    Me, as a father of 3 (you can check this picture if you think I’m lying on this: http://picasaweb.google.com/jvannini/Varios#5283451433636221746 … and yes! Gee! I love Star Trek!), will not leave my kids alone in their right for a better living.

    As a father, it is my OBLIGATION to keep a close eye on my kids health. It’s my kids’ right!
    And that’s why I am obliged to read, and to do research and looking for solid information before applying something into their system. And I look for statistics and the opinion not from one but two Doctors always.

    I understand that vaccines are not 100% reliable… but that’s because vaccines are made to match the most they can all possible immunity systems. As I said before: we are not copies. So I must be careful in the proper sense, watching closely to my kids after they’ve received a shot. And if they would show something rare.. I would go to the proper Doctor and made the proper analysis for them.

    Are my kids going to suffer autism, measles, mumps, rubella or something like that? I really hope not. I trust the genetic pool from my family and my wife’s family has a good part on these… and will allow vaccines to prepare my kids for the fight.

    And that will happen if I stick to the proper scheduled for them. I would not expect a miracle cure if they got a disease and I run to apply a shot AFTER they got the disease! Vaccines are not antidotes! Vaccines are preemptive tools, not magic medicine!

    If I was not vaccinated during my life, and so my parents and fore parents I would have been risking my kids from long ago… cause my genetics would have not been ready… or worse… I should have been dead or never been born… thankfully, that’s not the story.

  21. Dan I.

    @ Matt;

    Thanks for the clarification and yes that is nonsense.

    I would imagine though that there are many people out there who have the same misconception I did and when they read blogs blasting “homeopathic” remedies it seems silly because we KNOW that naturopathic remedies work (sometimes).

    I can see how some people get confused and think that blog posts like this one are just saying “if it wasn’t made by a company it won’t work,” when obviously that isn’t what Phil is saying.

    You see what I mean? It might behoove us to include some kind of explanation at the start of some of these posts being like “I am not referring to well documented natural remedies that do in fact work (i.e. the aloe plant) or other plant based medicinal compounds.”

  22. @Dan,
    That’s a very good point.
    Yes, we should keep that in mind!

  23. The Channel 7 Sunday Night poll…
    Do you think immunisation should be compulsory?
    is currently running :
    73% No
    23% Yes

    Looks like it got crashed.

  24. hmm reckon you might be right – I feel eligible to vote. . .

  25. Actually, the homeopathic thing is even worse than the flyer suggests — since the intended manufacturing method is to use an active pathogen and dilute the crap out of it, if the people manufacturing it make a mistake then it might just end up *giving* you the very condition you were trying (foolishly) to protect yourself against!

  26. isn’t the swine flu a new strain of H1N1 (not N1H1 as the poster says)?

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Larian LaQuella said:

    I actually heard of a study that found a weak correlation to linolium floors! :O

    And there’s a correlation between the rise in autism in the USA and the logarithm of the GDP of Sweden! Curse those Scandinavians and their high standard of living, causing developmental disease on the other side of the ocean!

    Or not. ;-)

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Scibuff said:

    isn’t the swine flu a new strain of H1N1 (not N1H1 as the poster says)?

    Quite right. The haemaglutinin type is noted before the neuraminidase type.

    More info here:
    [hypertext transfer protocol]://en[dot]wikipedia[dot]org/wiki/Influenza_virus

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Curses. I tried to fool the BA’s filters, but my above comment is still awaiting moderation anyway.

  30. Nigel Depledge

    Dan I said:

    The flyer is definitely a good way to go. I do take issue with some of the virulent opposition to anything that isn’t a drug though. Let’s not forget that technically the healing properties of something like the “aloe” plant is technically a “homepathic” remedy if I’m not mistaken.

    Don’t confuse “herbal” remedies with homeopathic ones, Dan.

    Some herbal remedies do actually work – there is clinical data to show this, but there is similar clinical data of the risk of side effects too. For instance, St. John’s Wort appears to have some benefit in cases of depression, but it also prevents the contraceptive pill from being effective.

    Homeopathy is all about diluting (and “succussing”) a plant extract in alcohol until there is absolutely no chance of there being any molecules of the original extract present. Then dilute it more and it gets more effective. Then put some of that on a sugar pill and apply some mumbo-jumbo when you give it to the patient. However, homeopathy is very effective at activating the placebo effect, especially if the homeopath devotes much attention to the patient.

    A typical “low-strength” homeopathic dilution is 1 in 1060. A “high-strength” dilution (if I have understood the notation) would be in the region of 1 in 102000, which defies the imagination.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Grump said:

    firemancarl Says:

    May I now tell Jenny McCarthy to shove it up her….?

    I believe it’s big enough to shove quite a lot in it.

    Wait, we were talking about the void between her ears, right?

    ROFLMAO! :-)

  32. Mark Hansen

    @Nigel,
    I think you’re being too hard on homeopathy. It is very effective at reducing dangerous swellings in your wallet caused by an excess of money.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    @ Mark Hansen -

    Hmmm … I think I see what you mean.

    However, you use a term that I do not understand. Can you tell me please, what is this “excess of money” of which you speak?

  34. Naomi

    *sigh* Yes, I thought you’d read that second point as good news.

    It’s late and I don’t want to get in to a big debate, but I will say two things. One, a genetic link with a quick, easy test could detect autistic spectrum disorders in utero. How many abortions of autistics-to-be will that lead to? It already happens with other things. Even a cure is dodgy. How many brilliant lives will go unlived if any potential embryo that could be autistic would be aborted before birth, or ‘cured’? No Einsteins, no Cavendishes, no Diracs, no Jeffersons, no Michelangelos, no Orwells, no Turings, no Teslas, no Sagans…

    And two, a good proportion of autistics do not want a cure. As in, don’t want to be cured. As in, are quite happy being autistic. As in, DO NOT WANT A CURE.

  35. @Naomi

    And two, a good proportion of autistics do not want a cure. As in, don’t want to be cured. As in, are quite happy being autistic. As in, DO NOT WANT A CURE.

    And so, if a cure is developed, they don’t need to take it. Isn’t medical freedom of choice grand?

  36. Naomi, it is a good thing they may have found a genetic link but they think it is only for about 15% of cases. It is too soon to be talking about in utero tests and abortions. That is an entirely different issue.
    A good proportion of autistics may not want a cure but there are many more that are, for want of a better word, a burden on their carers. I’m not saying the parents don’t love their children or that they wouldn’t care for their children or that they wouldn’t have those children over again. We’re talking about intensive nurturing not just for the first 18 years of that child’s life but for the rest of their, and their parents, lives. Surely they, and their parents, deserve a shot a “normal” life?

    Slightly OT, if you want to see a awesomely brilliant Australian movie about a family with an autistic son check out The Black Balloon
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0865297/

  37. Charlie Foxtrot

    Oh oh… just saw an ad for that Channel 7 show on this Sunday:
    (Deep voice) “Can vaccinations really harm our children?”
    (Host) “Now, the cases that challenge the experts!…”

    I’m starting to think that sensationalism will overpower good sense again…
    dammit…

  38. Gary Ansorge

    Can vaccines be lethal?
    Can Soccer, football, track, weight lifting,,,???

    DuH!!!

    I note most parents allow their children to engage in potentially hazardous sports(in my kids cases, it was river rafting, skiing, scuba diving and rock climbing. Skiing and scuba are in the top ten as sport related causes of death.)

    We can’t live w/o incurring risk. The ultimate cause of death is conception.

    Of the tens of thousands of pathogens children are exposed to from conception onward, only a few are lethal enough to warrant vaccines but those few cause a lot of death and disability.

    Only fools refuse to avail themselves of available preventative measures. Seat belts, helmets, prophylactics and vaccines,,,what great, life saving innovations these are.

    ,,,perhaps the greatest of all is preventative dentistry,,,

    Gary 7

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Homeopathy is all about diluting (and “succussing”) a plant extract in alcohol until there is absolutely no chance of there being any molecules of the original extract present. [...] A “high-strength” dilution (if I have understood the notation) would be in the region of 1 in 102000, which defies the imagination.

    You can’t possibly make such dilutions, since a probability under 10^-150 is impossible by definition according to Dembski’s Universal Probability Bound: “A degree of improbability below which a specified event of that probability cannot reasonably be attributed to chance regardless of whatever probabilitistic resources from the known universe are factored in.”

    So you see, you can’t reasonably attribute any missing molecules in volumes taken from the dilute to chance, because you exhaust the universes “probabilistic resources”, ‘the number of specified events’. God must have designed your samples, not this random devilution process that you happen to believe in. All hail the Intelligent Dilutionist! [/creationist]

  40. Prolix

    Two <a href="“>studies showing oscillococcinum is is effective in the treatment of influenza.

  41. drewski

    I wouldn’t go hailing Channel 7 as the all-powerful defenders of rationality, but I think it’s a bit harsh to be jumping all over them before they’ve even screened the second show. Hopefully they’re just using the “other side” of the argument as a hook and then they’re going to smack people upside the head with, y’know, the facts.

    Hopefully.

  42. Alwimo

    Part of a episode of Sunday Night about UFOs was shown on another Channel 7 programme, Sunrise. They interviewed Richard Saunders. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8TCTHqla3k

    That one is disappointing.

  43. Jason

    @Davidlpf
    “The morden medicine weakens our genes and that is way we are seeing in increase of autism and that is why the Amish, the Chinese and the somalians don’t have autism.”

    That is odd, considering I teach several Chinese students who are quite a long way along on the Autism spectrum.

  44. Mark Brucker

    Report links autism and Hg emissions from power plants:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080424120953.htm

  45. Alwimo

    I watched the follow-up episode.

    The people who made the show clearly knew about the overwhelming evidence in support of vaccination but it was very disappointing that people who said stupid things were probably given credibility to laypeople watching it.

  46. Charlie Foxtrot

    I’m not surprised, and it was better that much of the ‘your story / my story – truth lies somewhere in the middle’ type journalism that pervades so much, but still it was not the smackdown that the pro-disease cause needs to suffer publicly so much.

  47. @Mark Brucker

    Too bad they didn’t clarify which mercury compound was investigated. I also noticed that in the article, it is not mentioned whether or not the researchers controlled for other pollutants, nor whether the population under investigation always lived within the zones examined or whether there were differences in diagnostic expertise closer in to the plants vs. further away. These questions, if not addressed in the study, cast some doubts on its validity, though I’d say it warrants further investigation with more proper controls in place.

  48. raymond

    Continue getting those shots in your blood stream.

    You have no idea how fast the CDC approves the vaccines lots and how those contracts are given out.

    When CDC is challenged with shortage they give anybody the license to market the autism causing vaccins. The FDA is pushed and hurryed to approve the manufacturing processes inorder to allow them to put their product on the market. But all this without sufficient clinical trials and secondary impact assessment.

    Then you have all these good (Ignorants and imbeciles) pediatricians and psychiatrists rushing to defend there is nothing wrong about vaccins.

  49. @raymond

    When CDC is challenged with shortage they give anybody the license to market the autism causing vaccins.

    You have, I assume, some science to back up your claim that vaccines cause autism? Just answer that, first. We’ll get into your other claims afterward.

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