As you can see above, this here blog caught the attention of the Irish Times yesterday, with founder skeptic Paul O’Donoghue using it as the hook for his latest column in the science section. [Greetings, Irish Times readers! By the way, here’s some stuff just for you. And here’s some more.] O’Donoghue was referring to my recent post on homoeopathy which looked at the claims made in the latest awareness campaign by the Irish Society of Homeopaths. For what it’s worth, you can read my entire archive of homeopathy-related posts by clicking here.
But the main point of yesterday’s Irish Times article was to draw attention to a particularly disturbing manifestation of homeopathy’s by now almost endearing dilutions-of-grandeur problem; namely, CEASE therapy, an approach that claims to use homeopathy to create “a very effective way to treat autism with amazing results“.
One corollary of the CEASE approach is the oft-cited and oft-refuted claim that MMR vaccinations cause autism. Now this issue is just so darned convoluted, it is difficult to deal with adequately in a short blog post. Further, it has been dealt with extensively just about everywhere else (summary: there is a vast amount of research evidence showing that MMR vaccination does not cause autism in any way, shape, or form).
But I think some points are worth recording because they are overlooked with surprising frequency whenever this debate comes up. Here are four in particular that I feel should be given more prominence:
- Firstly, the claims that originated from a study by Andrew Wakefield, published in the Lancet medical journal in 1998, have been thoroughly exposed as fraudulent. Yes, concentrate on that: the findings were not merely “vague” or “inaccurate” or “open to question”, but they were actually fraudulent. In short, when journalists eventually tracked down the actual parents of the children featured in the study, it turned out that the ‘data’ presented in the Lancet paper had been significantly altered (i.e., fiddled with) by Wakefield, or sometimes simply concocted out of thin air. Further information on this can be found in these articles by award-winning investigative journalist Brian Deer: ‘How the case against MMR vaccine was fixed‘ and ‘How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money‘ (page 2 onwards).
- Secondly, Wakefield wasn’t opposed to vaccinating children against mumps, measles, and rubella. Now, please TAKE THAT IN, homeopaths. He wasn’t against it. He was just against doing it all in the one injection (i.e., the so-called “three-in-one” MMR approach). With the benefit of hindsight, this isn’t altogether surprising. After all, prior to publishing his (fraudulent) anti-MMR Lancet paper, he had filed to patent his own vaccine, which if produced would have been a lucrative commercial competitor to the standard MMR product.
- Thirdly, many people believe that concerns about vaccination relate mostly to these conspiracies around MMR and autism. However that’s not the case. Claims that (a) vaccines make you sick, (b) they contain toxic ingredients, (c) the immunity they offer is either temporary or non-existent, (d) they are only promulgated because of the large profits to be made by capitalist drug companies, and (e) the government colludes in this profiteering in a way that reveals it to be totalitarian, are actually not new claims. In fact, precisely the same claims were being made by anti-vaccinationists back in the 19th century, almost as soon as vaccination programmes were first launched (and far before autism was ever heard of). In other words, this whole thing didn’t just kick off with Wakefield in the ’90s. The anti-vaccinationist movement is a permanent protest; it’s just its superficial details — such as which specific vaccine is targeted — that change over time.
- And finally, it is interesting to note how anti-vaccination movements differ across cultures. For example, as Ben Goldacre records in Bad Science, during the 1990s France was gripped by a scare that hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis, while in rural Nigeria protesters claim that anti-polio vaccines cause infertility. Note that in other societies, such adverse outcomes of hep-B or polio vaccines have never been noticed. And note also that, apart from a small number of mostly English-speaking countries, people have never picked up on a link between MMR and autism. Put simply, all this suggests that anti-vaccination scares originate from culture-bound discourses, rather than from actual patterns of illness or disability (which, presumably, don’t stop at the border).
As I said earlier, these are just a few specific debating points that I think are helpful when considering the wider issue in terms of its research evidence. After all, the wider issue has been covered in extensive detail elsewhere. Brian Deer, the investigative journalist I mentioned, has assembled an enormous online archive of relevant materials. And the Wikipedia entry, while there for the taking of course, is also worth a look.
As for the homeopaths, well of course their particular shtick is dilutions, so they always have lots to say about putting tiny amounts of something inside your body. Except, in the case of vaccinations produced by pharmaceutical companies and evidence-tracked by scientific medicine, they think it’s wrong. Totally wrong. Don’t you know it causes autism?
You can consult the full Irish Times article to read Paul O’Donoghue’s assessment of the CEASE therapy movement. Without wishing to sound unscientific, it all sounds completely bonkers to me.
But at this stage, nothing phases me. I’ve been inoculated.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.