Rather depressingly, the anti-vaccinationists, those Never-say-die Energizer Bunny types of the Alt Reality fraternity, are back for another round.
As a lot of Bad Science-aware people will already know, American surgeon-blogger Orac, of Respectful Insolence blog fame – and bete noire of the vaccines-cause-autism lobby – has been writing about the imminent UK arrival (well, next week) or American writer and darling of the anti-MMR vaccine crew, David Kirby. It turns out that Kirby is not just doing some book–signings and the odd lecture; he is also down to give a briefing in the Houses of Parliament, no less. To quote Orac:
“My British readers, say it ain’t so! Hot on the heels of learning that, bankrolled by antivaccinationists, David Kirby is planning a trip to the U.K. in early June, I find out something even more disturbing.”
Orac then reproduces the following press release:
From: “Clifford G. Miller”
May 23, 2008 — CONTACT: David Kirby – firstname.lastname@example.org
BESTSELLING AMERICAN AUTHOR
DAVID KIRBY TO SPEAK AT HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
Briefing by Journalist Who Covers Vaccine-Autism Debate is Sponsored
By Lord Robin Granville Hodgson, Baron Hodgson of Shropshire
U.S. Journalist David Kirby, author of the award winning book “Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic – A Medical Controversy,” will give a special briefing on this debate at the Houses of Parliament in London, on Wednesday, 4 June.
Mr. Kirby will speak about recent legal, political and scientific developments in the United States in the ongoing vaccine-autism controversy. The briefing is open to Peers in the House of Lords, Members of Parliament, their Staff, members of the Media, and Invited Guests.
The briefing will take place on Wednesday, 4 June at 3:30PM at the Houses of Parliament, Palace of Westminster, Committee Room 4. It is being sponsored by His Lordship Robin Hodgson, Baron Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, Shropshire.
In addition to his Parliament briefing, Mr. Kirby will also give a free public lecture on Wednesday 4th June, 6:30-10PM at Regent Hall, 275 Oxford Street, London.
Hmm. A number of things spring to mind.
First, Kirby’s book may be “award-winning”, but it has very definitely not been winning science awards. Orac has written scathingly about David Kirby’s (mis) understanding and (mis) use of scientific evidence.
Second, Kirby is frequently billed in articles or press releases as a “former New York Times contributor”. This is strictly factually correct as written, but conceals the fact that Kirby was not a science or health correspondent for the venerable NYT. He was actually a travel writer.
A more specific question for us UK geeks would seem to be how Lord (Robin) Hodgson, the peer sponsoring the event and a real Tory grandee, is connected to David Kirby. Hodgson has no track record on health issues, as his key Shadow “portfolios” for the Conservative Party in the Lords have been Trade and Home Affairs.
Where is the noble Lord coming from?
I had written a long discussion on this, but as I was about to post it I saw that noted autism blogger Mike Stanton had beaten me to it over on his excellent Action for Autism blog. So rather than repeat what he has said, please pop over there and read his discussion of Lord Hodgson’s views on vaccines, as expressed in a House of Lords debate back in Feb 2003.
To cut to the chase, Hodgson has a son diagnosed with mild Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Like many parents with kids with ADHD or autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), he has felt dissatisfied with the mainstream treatments on offer and become interested in alternative therapies. However, he has also seemingly bought some of the anti-vaccine lobby line:
“It is unlikely that there is any one single cause [of ADHD]. Genetics and heredity will probably be found to play a significant part. But what other factors are in play? One matter looks increasingly likely to be a significant contributory cause: the requirement in this country that every baby receives three injections in the first 16 weeks of life as immunisation against diphtheria, tetanus and whole cell pertussis—whooping cough, to laymen—(DTwP). As I understand it, each standard dose of the vaccine used in the UK contains 50 micrograms of a substance called thimerosal. Each dose of thimerosal contains 25 micrograms of ethylmercury. Mercury is a highly toxic substance. That means that, by the 16th week of life, every baby in this country, with an inevitably fragile immune and nervous system, has been injected with 75 micrograms of ethylmercury…”
This would explain the Hodgson – Clifford G Miller – David Kirby connection: as even a cursory squint at Clifford G Miller’s website will show, he is a long-time anti-vaccine campaigner, and serial haunter of the BMJ electronic comments threads on the topic.
But… the vaccines don’t have mercury in any more
The problem for Kirby and other thimerosal aficionados – including British psychologist and author Lisa Blakemore Brown, who Hodgson also mentioned in his speech, and who seems to have played a part in Kirby’s upcoming UK tour – is that the thimerosal theory is on its last legs. This is mainly because even once thimerosal was removed from the vaccines – which happened in September 2004 in the UK – ASD diagnosis rates have not dropped. Hence, as Orac has again noted, the move to blaming ill-defined ”Toxins”.
[PS - the MMR vaccine, contrary to the urban legends, never contained thimerosal. If you want to read more about thimerosal there is an old (2003) NHS factsheet here (NB - pdf). And the lack of effect of removing thimerosal from infant vaccines on autism rates has been shown by large studies in Denmark, Canada and the USA, all of which stopped using thimerosal earlier than the UK did.]
Given these facts, it is hard to disagree with Orac’s view that it isn’t mercury, or toxins that really matter – for these people ”It’s All About the Vaccines”
And why now?
A further interesting question is: what has re-activated Lord Hodgson’s interest now?
Since UK politicians are infinitely more sensitive to what is going on in politics – including US politics – than to what is going on in science, one wonders if this isn’t in some way a knock-on effect of the rather ambiguous remarks some of the US Presidential candidates have been making about an autism “epidemic” (see Orac posts passim, for instance here). Indeed, the press release that accompanies David Kirby’s visit specifically makes this connection in a later section.
Orac has detailed how all the US presidential candidates, plus ex-President Bill Clinton, have been making depressingly ambiguous – not to mention scientifically inaccurate, and even disturbingly stupid – statements about autism and its possible causes. Many bloggers think the candidates should sack their science advisers, although perhaps we should sit tight and just put it down to electioneering politicians’ desire not to put off a single potential voter, no matter what way-out things the voter might believe.
However, let’s hope whichever of the US candidates does gets elected in November can find proper science advisers once in office, rather than being swayed by celebrity nitwits like Jenny “I read it on Google” McCarthy. There should be a few folk round the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) that can direct them to suitable people.
And closer to home, let’s hope Lords and MPs give David Kirby’s blusterings the wide berth they deserve. Or perhaps even better, let’s hope some of the science and medicine-literate Lords and MPs can be persuaded to go along and nail Kirby with some hard questions about the facts, as opposed to his conspiracy theories and scaremongering. If you would like to give your MP a prod, you can contact them via writetothem.com, or look up the email address of any Lords you can think of with medical or scientific know-how here.
I have little doubt that anti-vaccine types are writing to their MPs as you read this, urging them to give an ear to Kirby’s anti-vaccine PR. So feel free to give your elected and non-elected representatives a more scientific steer.
Stop press: Mike Stanton has just added a second post about Lord Hodgson’s comments on thimerosal and vaccination. Mike’s take is that Hodgson should be careful who he takes scientific advice from, as someone has been pointing him to some dire “anti-vaccine fringe science”, including a couple of notoriously awful papers – read the post for more. The dangers of self-styled experts and cargo-cult science are, of course, topics familiar to readers here.
Follow-up: To hear an eye-witness account of what a damp squib it turned out to be (i.e. no-one at the lecture but the usual mercury /vaccines conspiracy crazies, and barely anyone at all at the House of Lords), click here and follow the links.