TIME medicine

Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

The claim, however, may just be more unsubstantiated fuel from the anti-vaccination movement

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on between those who believe in the health benefits of vaccines – that they can prevent deadly infectious diseases such as measles and polio – and those that believe that the immunizations do more harm than good. Now one of the authors of a 2004 government study that found similar vaccination rates among children with and without autism says the study omitted some important data.

The vaccine war is being fought on social media, in social circles and increasingly in doctor’s offices, as physicians are faced with doubts and questions from parents who find themselves being recruited onto the side of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy, and the sign of curious minds, but not when it flies in the face of evidence. Especially gold standard, rigorous scientific evidence that has been accumulating for decades and shows that vaccines are not linked with an increased risk of the developmental disorder.

William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and one of the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Pediatrics, spoke with Brain Hooker, who serves on the board of Focus Autism (which was founded to “put an end to the needless harm of children by vaccination and other environmental factors”), about the data that was not included in the final report. The study looked at both healthy children and those with autism, to see if there were any differences in their rates of being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), and found none. That suggested that childhood immunizations likely were not contributing to an increased risk of autism. Hooker and Thompson, however, discussed a subset of the 624 children with autism and 1824 without the condition who were studied and Thompson admitted that among African-American boys, the incidence of autism was higher among those who were vaccinated than among those who weren’t. But that information was not part of the paper. Thompson claims he was not aware that the discussion was being recorded, and his statements appeared in a video released on YouTube on August 22 entitled “CDC Whistleblower Revealed.”

Did the CDC cover up the data, as Hooker claims? A couple of things to keep in mind, both about the people behind the video and about how epidemiological studies like the one published in Pediatrics work (and explained in more detail in this article from Science-Based Medicine). For starters, the video was narrated by Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher responsible for seeding the questions about vaccines and autism in the first place. In 2010, the General Medical Council in the UK revoked his license to practice medicine and a year later, the journal that published his paper concluded that his findings were fraudulent.

Next, any time scientists take the original population of participants in a study, however large, and drill down to analyze trends in a subgroup – in this case the African-American boys – the power of the associations they find dwindles. That’s because the numbers get smaller, and in order to be statistically relevant – something known as statistical significance to statisticians – certain threshold numbers and confidence intervals for the connection have to be reached. In the 2004 study, the scientists looked at a smaller set of 355 children with autism and 1020 without for whom they had Georgia state birth certificates, which included additional information that might be relevant for any associations, such as birth weight, gestational age, and mother’s age, race and education. “This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence the CDC study did not present data by race on black, white or other race children form the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates,” the CDC notes in a statement responding to the video. Thompson claims that the findings were statistically significant, but results from smaller numbers of subjects still don’t hold as much weight as correlations found in the larger group.

In addition, it’s important to note that the study simply correlated age at vaccination and reports of autism, which says nothing about the direction of the connection. For example, the authors of the 2004 study note that “Case children, especially those 3 to 5 years of age, were more likely than control children to have been vaccinated before 36 months of age.” The association between vaccination and symptoms, however, was more likely due to the fact that the children had to be immunized in order to register in preschool, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that the shots contributed to the autism.

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Thompson says “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.” He calls for transparency in the data collecting and reporting process, but says that the way that the 2004 study was presented does not negate the importance of vaccination. “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”

TIME motherhood

What the Recent Drop in Single Motherhood Really Means

Thanasis Zovoilis—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Another way to look at the recent figures

According to a new report just released by the National Health Center for Health Statistics, there has been a sharp decline in the number of kids born to single moms.

About 1.6 million women who weren’t married had kids in 2012, down from 1.75 million in 2007 and 2008. And more of those kids were born to co-habiting couples than before. Since not having two parents around is linked with an increased likelihood of having a lousy childhood and a more difficult life, that should be a cause for rejoicing.

This is the first significant decrease in several decades in what’s known as “nonmarital births.” (Probably “out-of-wedlock” sounded too Jacobean). But on closer inspection it’s not unalloyed good news.

Even after the recent sharp decrease, the number of kids born to single moms is still twice as high as it was in the 80s. And while the nonmarital birthrate has dropped 7% since the late 2000s, the overall birthrate—the number of births to all women—has dropped twice as much. What that means is that the percentage of kids born to single moms hasn’t changed much: 40% of all the people born in America have parents who aren’t married.

Similarly, while single black and Hispanic women are less likely to have a kid than they were in 2008 (the rate has dropped particularly sharply for Hispanic women), 72% of black kids and 54% of Hispanic kids are brought into the world via single moms. That number hasn’t budged much since 2011.

There are nuggets of good news in the report: the teen birth rate continues to fall. And the number of births to cohabiting couples (versus mothers who do not live with a partner) represents a much bigger slice of the unmarried birth pie than it did 10 years ago. In 2002, 60% of single women who gave birth were not living with the father. Now it’s down to 42%. But again, this number doesn’t look quite as good under close inspection.

Take this chart for example:

One indicator of a likelihood of a stable childhood is whether or not the child was planned. In the chart above, unintended pregnancies among women who are not living with a guy—the archetypal single mom—are down from 36% of the nonmarital births in 2002 to 28% by 2010. But unintended pregnancies among cohabiting couples went up. So the proportion of kids born to single moms who weren’t trying to have a kid did not change between 2002 and 2010: 57%. (And the raw number of nonmarital births is about 300,000 higher, so that’s a lot more unplanned kids).

How much difference does it make if the father and mother are living together when the kid is born? The jury is out on that. A lot depends on the circumstances under which people shack up. Studies have shown that if a couple is living together and intends to get married in a year or so, there’s very little difference in the stability of their union compared to married couples.

But couples who are living together out of economic necessity, or because they can’t quite decide if they can make the relationship work are less likely to stay together for a longer term. A child can really complicate that. It doesn’t seem yet that the U.S. is at that European-style place where kids born to couples who live together are in the same boat, stability-wise, as those with married parents.

Recent studies suggest cohabitation can make a slight difference, but so does a father’s age, education and race. (Absent black fathers are much more involved in their kids’ lives, than absent Hispanic fathers, and by some measures, than absent white fathers, according to this study.) “The extent to which cohabitation is a marker for social and financial support and for father involvement deserves further exploration,” write the authors of this new study.

One of the clearest findings of the Fragile Families Study done by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute in 2010, was that even if a baby was conceived by accident, many single fathers originally intended to stick around when the infant was born. But they didn’t. The combined pressures of poverty and parenthood proved to be too much for the relationship. The fact that the nonmarital birth rate has dropped is not at all the same as a drop in the number of kids born into very difficult family circumstances.

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