TIME Research

Journal Retracts Paper that Questioned CDC Autism Study

A paper that claimed government scientists covered up data showing a connection between vaccines and autism has been pulled by its publisher

Earlier in August, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, an open access, peer-reviewed journal, published a re-analysis of a 2004 paper published in Pediatrics that looked at MMR vaccines and autism. The re-analysis of the data, by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker of Simpson University, claimed to find a higher rate of vaccination against MMR among a subset — African-American boys — of the original study population who developed autism than among those who did not, a finding that Hooker claims was suppressed by the authors of the original paper from the Centers of Disease Control. One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, William Thompson, released a statement admitting to omitting the data after a secretly recorded conversation he had with Hooker was released on YouTube. (Thompson was not available for comment.)

MORE: Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

Now, however, the editors of Translational Neurodegeneration have retracted Hooker’s paper, noting on its site that “This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

TIME vaccines

RFK Jr. Joins the Anti-Vaccine Fringe

RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas
RFK, Jr.: Big bullhorn, bad ideas Ethan Miller; 2014 Getty Images

A man who used to tell hard truths now peddles dangerous nonsense

There are lots of places to go if you want dangerous crazytalk. There are websites, blog threads, cable channels trafficking in all kinds of addled nonsense about birther conspiracies and one-world governments. And then there was Robert Kennedy, Jr., the tireless, honest climate hero long famous for fighting the very good fight.

But that was then. RFK, Jr. may still know a thing or two about global warming, but he has taken a disreputable plunge into the world of anti-science with his new and inexplicable crusade: warning people about the dangers of vaccines.

Let’s be clear: Kennedy will tell you he’s not against vaccines themselves, but rather, against thimerosal, a vaccine preservative purportedly responsible for the rise in autism in the U.S. He’s even publishing a new book—Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak—making this frightening point. The problem is: he’s wrong—utterly wrong, so wrong it’s hard even to know what the biggest piece of that wrongness is.

But let’s start with a single fact that ought to be, as the lawyers like to say, dispositive: the thimerosal ain’t there. With the exception of the flu vaccine, it was removed from or reduced to trace levels in all vaccines given to children under 6-years-old 13 years ago. You face a greater mercury risk eating seafood and fish—and even that danger is low enough that the EPA recently recommended that pregnant and nursing women increase their intake of certain kinds of fish because the nutritional benefits outweigh the theoretical dangers.

Kennedy is wrong on basic epidemiology too. Autism diagnoses have indeed risen steadily in the U.S. in recent years, but that has been happening in the same period in which thimerosal levels in vaccines plunged. When your cause goes away and your reputed effect increases, well, you really do need to review your class notes on what cause and effect mean in the first place.

Most fundamentally, Kennedy does not get chemistry. Thimerosal is an ethylmercury product. Mercury in general may be a neurotoxin, but it’s in its methylmercury form that it does its damage—and only in particular concentrations. The quantity of ethylmercury that was once in vaccines was so small that it was actually within acceptable limits for the more toxic, methyl form—but it wasn’t even in that methyl form to begin with.

Kennedy, more than most anti-vaxxers, really ought to know better. In his long career as a climate crusader he has had to answer the febrile claims from the denialists that the whole threat of global warming is a conspiracy cooked up by “grant-grubbing scientists” and liberal politicians looking to expand the role of government. Yet when it comes to vaccines, he clangs the same loony-tune bells.

As long ago as 2005, he published an anti-vax article in Rolling Stone claiming to reveal how “government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” And Keith Kloor, the author of a new Washington Post Magazine profile of Kennedy, reports that last year, in response to a story he wrote on the Discover magazine website labeling this kind of thinking as the nonsense that it is, Kennedy called him up and said bluntly, “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma.”

The worst—and the least explicable—thing about Kennedy and his new cause is the company he keeps. His book is being put out by Skyhorse Publishing—an outfit that also includes the disgraced Andrew Wakefield in its stable of authors. Wakefield is the U.K. investigator whose fraudulent 1998 paper purporting to link autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine set off the entire anti-vaccine wildfire. In 2010, The Lancet formally withdrew the 1998 paper and Wakefield has since been banned from practicing medicine in the U.K. And as for the company Wakefield himself keeps? The foreword to his book was written by Jenny McCarthy.

Kennedy may deeply believe the rubbish he’s peddling—but science doesn’t care about your sincerity; it cares about the facts. That doesn’t mean he’s not in a position to do real harm. Like McCarthy, he has a big soapbox and a loud bullhorn, and every parent he frightens into skipping vaccinations means one more child who is in danger.

In the Washington Post profile, Kennedy complains about the trouble he’s having getting his anti-vaccine message across. “I’m completely f***ing alone on this,” he gripes. Well, good. He deserves to be alone, and if fewer people than he hoped are listening to him, that’s a positive sign.

TIME Infectious Disease

Spacing Out Kids’ Vaccines Can Hurt Their Health, Experts Say

Girl getting immunization
Getty Images

All those shriek-inducing pokes may seem excessive but the rewards of following national vaccination guidelines far outweigh the risks, experts say

“Like any parent, I don’t like to see my child get a shot,” says Dr. Michael J. Smith, a pediatrician at the University of Louisville who has studied immunizations and developmental health outcomes among kids. “But these vaccine schedules are in place for a reason.” Smith compares skipping or postponing one of your child’s vaccinations to not buckling him or her in during a car ride. “You never know when you’re going to get hit. And if you delay or space out your child’s shots, not only are you putting your kids at risk, but you’re putting other people’s kids at risk too.”

The urgency of Smith’s warnings are borne out in the recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis, diseases that had been almost totally eradicated in the U.S. but have made a frightening comeback since the turn of the century—right around the time two now-discredited scientific papers suggested a possible link between vaccines and autism. Dozens of subsequent studies have demonstrated there are no links between vaccinations and autism. But while stats show most parents understand the importance of immunizing their kids, research from the University of Michigan indicates plenty of moms and dads—roughly 1 in 4—worry that current immunization guidelines may overburden their babies’ tiny immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend that all healthy babies be vaccinated against 12 different diseases or viruses during the first two years of life. That’s compared to eight back in the early 1990s. Recently added to the list are vaccinations against potentially deadly illnesses like hepatitis and chicken pox.

But while the number of vaccines (and needle pricks) has grown during the last two decades, the amount of antigen in those shots, which is the substance that triggers a response from your child’s immune system, has plummeted, Smith explains. “The actual burden on your child’s immune system is far lower that it was 10 or 20 years ago, even though kids now receive more shots,” he says. That’s credited to advances in protein science and a better understanding of the way diseases and children’s immune systems interact.

In an effort to provide some answers for concerned parents, Smith and his colleagues looked at kids’ scores on tests related to motor skill, verbal memory, attention span, and several other neuropsychological factor to see if vaccine timing had any impact—good or bad—on a child’s brain development. His research shows kids vaccinated on time score the same or better than children who receive their vaccinations late or not at all.

Related research from Canada looked specifically at the immunization decisions made by parents of children diagnosed with autism. “Our study found that roughly 60 percent of parents who had a child with autism delayed or declined vaccinations for a later-born child,” says Dr. Jessica Brian, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto. According to Brian’s research, those children who did not receive their shots on time or altogether were slightly more likely to develop autism. “I don’t want to suggest that vaccines offer some protection against autism,” she says. “But our data show that there’s no increased risk of autism among kids who are vaccinated on time.”

Brian, Smith and other vaccine researchers repeatedly point to the Internet as a source of misinformation and, in some cases, unsubstantiated fear mongering when it comes to vaccines. Not uncommon are conspiracy theories involving pharmaceutical companies and the CDC. But travel overseas, and the picture changes slightly.

In Europe, where some diseases were never eradicated as thoroughly as they were in the U.S., health officials say there isn’t as much “too much, too soon” concern among parents when it comes to immunizations. Still, European moms and dads do harbor fears about potential vaccine side effects, says Niklas Danielsson, deputy head of the vaccine-preventable diseases program for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Danielsson says the “unprecedented success” of vaccination programs has created a generation of young parents who aren’t familiar with the reality of something like a measles outbreak, so they’re focus is on a shot’s rare risks as opposed to its many proven benefits.

The lingering presence of diseases in other countries is one of the big reasons having your children vaccinated on time is so important, says Dr. Simon Hambidge, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Colorado. “We live in a world of international travel, and people are coming into our country all the time who may be carrying these diseases,” Hambidge says. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the new outbreaks we’re seeing involve unvaccinated children.”

Hambidge has looked closely at one possible vaccine side effect that has parents worried: seizures. The CDC recommends that all healthy infants receive their first measles vaccination between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and some research has linked the measles vaccine to higher rates of febrile seizures. Though frightening for parents, seizures of this type are relatively common and almost never cause lasting damage, Hambidge explains. “About one in 2,000 to 4,000 kids will experience one of these febrile seizures after receiving the measles vaccine,” he says. “But we found that that seizure rate rises to one in 1,000 or 2,000 if the measles vaccine is given late, or between 16 and 23 months of age.” Hambidge says this is just one example of how a slight deviation from the CDC’s vaccination schedule can put your child’s health at risk.

“The risk of measles is far, far more serious than the risk for febrile seizures,” Hambidge says. “Even if your child is unlucky enough to have a seizure after a vaccination, these seizures are short-lived and don’t lead to any long-term issues, while measles is a life-threatening disease.”

Despite the overwhelming amount of research and real-world evidence that points to the reliable safety of vaccines, experts acknowledge that parents will continue to worry about the chemicals and additives in immunization shots. To those who have doubts, Dr. Smith says, “Vaccines are one of the most rigorously tested and effective health products on the planet. Nothing involving them is done lightly.”

And when it comes to the CDC’s recommendations regarding vaccination schedules, he adds, “As a pediatrician and as a parent, if my family’s on vacation and we have to put off my daughter’s doctor visit, I get anxious each day that she goes unvaccinated. I think the timing is that important.”

TIME vaccines

Childhood Vaccines Are Safe, Says Pediatrics Group

The latest in-depth review of immunizations shows that they aren’t linked to higher risk of autism or cancer

It’s been three years since the Institute of Medicine (IOM) came out with its comprehensive look at vaccine safety. That’s enough time to generate dozens more studies investigating side effects and risk of conditions such as autism and cancer that keep some parents from vaccinating their children against potentially lethal diseases like mumps, measles and pertussis.

Since 2011, when the IOM issued its report, 67 new studies that included proper follow up periods and control groups have emerged. So the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality requested an updated review of the data on vaccine safety, this time including data on previously unstudied immunizations against pneumococcus, rotavirus, Hib and inactivated polio virus vaccines in addition to the well-studied ones.

MORE: How Safe Are Vaccines?

Overall, the researchers, led by Margaret Maglione at the RAND Corporation, report in the journal Pediatrics that most of the childhood immunizations are safe, with only a few associated with rare adverse effects. The group found that the MMR vaccine, which some parents believe raise the risk of autism, does not increase the risk of the developmental disorder. They did find moderate evidence that rotavirus vaccination can cause twisting of the bowels in a small number of children, but the condition can be treated.

“We need to keep doing this,” says Dr. Carol Baker, executive director of the center for vaccine awareness and research at Texas Children’s Hospital, of the study updates. “We can’t just sit still and rest on prior information.”

MORE: 4 Diseases Making a Comeback Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers

Increasingly, she says, pediatricians are spending more time discussing vaccines and vaccine safety with confused or hesitant parents. That’s a different scenario from the days of the polio epidemic, when parents were lining their children up to get them vaccinated against the paralyzing disease. “The major reason the safety of vaccines has become more of an issue recently is that many of the diseases they prevent have pretty much disappeared,” says Baker, who also served as chair of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which makes recommendations about which vaccines children should get, and when. “So this is a very needed report.”

It’s especially helpful as more parents are either skeptical about vaccines, and need reassurance that getting their children is the safe, and responsible thing to do, or are adamantly convinced that vaccines do more harm than good. Many pediatricians have alerted their patients that they won’t see children whose parents won’t get them vaccinated since they could pose a risk of passing on disease to their other patients, including infants under six months old who can’t get vaccinated because their immune systems are still too undeveloped to respond properly to the shots, and children whose immune systems are compromised because of cancer or other conditions. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t advise that its members refuse patients, but some pediatricians believe it’s the only way to protect the children they see. “Pediatricians have to have a conversation about risks and benefits of vaccines,” says Baker. “So we need to keep looking at the studies and the data. Vaccines are good, and disease is bad, and the risk-benefit ratio is favorable for all vaccines. This new study gives reassurance that that’s true.”

TIME

Nasal Flu Spray Better Than Shot For Young Kids, CDC Panel Says

Kids who use the nasal flu vaccine are half as likely to get sick as those who get the shot

Needle-phobic kids, rejoice!

U.S. health officials say the nasal spray flu vaccine is more effective than a traditional shot for children ages 2 to 8.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of experts that makes recommendations to the Centers for Disease Control for which vaccines children and adults should get, voted to recommend the spray over the shot late Wednesday. The panel said studies show children who had the spray are half as likely to get the flu as those who had the shot.

So far, there is only one nasal spray flu vaccine available — AstraZeneca’s FluMist, which was approved in 2003 for people ages 2 to 49.

The spray differs from the needle-based vaccine in another important way — it’s made from a live, weakened influenza virus, while the shot drums up an immune response using killed virus. Studies have shown the spray can lead to a stronger immune response in children who have not had the flu before, but the same may not hold true for adults.

Not everyone agrees with the panel’s recommendation, however. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s largest pediatric group, does not think any one vaccine should be given preference for kids, since both are effective. One concern they cite is the fact that FluMist is typically more expensive than the flu shot, according to the Associated Press. AstraZeneca’s product costs about $23 while shots range from $8 to $22.

Other experts say that the spray isn’t for everyone. “Some kids can’t take the mist, namely those with compromised immune systems and kids with asthma, who could have a respiratory response,” Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay. “So when in doubt, get the shot.”

The committee’s advice, which government pubic health officials usually follow, also comes too late for the upcoming flu season in the fall. Doctors have already ordered their vaccine doses, so if approved, most pediatricians won’t be able to follow the advice until next year.

Still, according to the AP, AstraZeneca may have anticipated the decision and made more of the spray for the coming flu season. The company will manufacture 18 million doses to distribute globally, up from 13 million made for the U.S. last year, Kathleen Coelingh, the company’s senior director of U.S. medical affairs told the news agency.

While not everyone agrees on the panel’s advice, public health experts do agree on the fact that every child should be immunized. If the nasal spray is not immediately available, children should get the flu shot so that they do not miss or delay an opportunity to get vaccinated.

 

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