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Autism in Dogs: People Embrace Conspiracy Theories, So Why Not Junk Science?
Originally posted 9/24/2018
The headline in a recent NY Times article was both spellbinding and disturbing:
“No, Your Dog Can’t Get Autism From a Vaccine.”
Autism in dogs? Not a big concern of mine (or even a little one). The fact that someone chose to write about it tells us that some people have actually been worried about this. Is Google being inundated with queries about what autism spectrum disorders might look like in dogs? Maybe these folks developed concerns when their dogs started peeing or slobbering days or weeks after getting their rabies or Bordetella shots. Wait, isn’t that normal behavior for most dogs? Of course it is. What would the symptoms of autism look like in dogs, and how would you diagnose it? Loss of their stick-fetching and squirrel-chasing urges? No longer wanting to be petted? Ignoring that freshly cooked strip of bacon you lovingly placed in front of their noses?
I have no idea, the dogs aren’t talking, and I’m not going to waste another second thinking about it. Has it really come to this? British veterinarians put out a press release telling dog owners that canine vaccines are safe and cannot cause autism. The fact that veterinarians even felt the need to comment on this subject indicates that they’ve heard this question more than a few times. As a scientist, this all feels a bit discouraging and, at times, yes, maddening. We have plenty of real problems to worry about, such as curing Alzheimer’s. This isn’t one of them.
What started as discredited science in a bogus paper by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, has spawned an anti-vaccine movement that has grown and metastasized widely, a societal cancer run amok. A distrust of the MMR vaccine has been taken to the next level by a growing number of websites where disciples endlessly argue that allvaccines are harmful and should be avoided at all costs. Their efforts have led to a resurgence in communicable disease cases that should have been eliminated via a series of childhood vaccinations. A recent outbreak of measlesin the US has affected more than 100 individuals in 21 states and the District of Columbia. This follows on the heels of outbreaks in 2017, 2016, 2015, etc., including a record number of 667 cases in 2014. How bad is this anti-vaccine mania? Wealthy neighborhoods in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills now have vaccination rates that are similar to those seen in Chad and South Sudan. At some schools more than 60 percent of the kids have filed “personal belief exemptions” that allow them to avoid vaccination. The blame here lies squarely on the parents.
Social media posts fan the flames of science illiteracy and conspiracy theories, although it’s unclear how many people actually believe this nonsense. Many of the comments posted about vaccines on the Internet, both pro and con, are actually the work of bots created by Russian trolls. Their goal is simply to create discord in our society, which in turn may help influence our elections. Unfortunately for us, it’s a job that they appear to be pretty darn good at.
Let’s put the trolls aside and get back to the true believers. They’d prefer to live in a world where the smallpox, polio, rabies, diphtheria, measles, HPV, and other vaccines didn’t exist. They’re trying to Make Infectious Diseases Great Again (MIDGA) by taking us back to an era when the average lifespan was less than 50 and people (especially children and the elderly) were at great risk of dying from a wide variety of communicable illnesses.
I’m not a fan of going back to a period of time before the first vaccines. Back then many families had 8, 10, or even a dozen kids because they knew many of them would never live to see adulthood because of infectious diseases. Paul Revere is famous for his midnight ride on April 18th, 1775, warning others that British troops were on the move during the Revolutionary War. Less well known is that he fathered 16 children, eight with his first wife, and an equal number with his second. Not surprisingly, seven of them died in childhood. Anti-vaccine folks might point out that none of his kids were reported to have autism, but given that the term wouldn’t be coined until the early 1900’s, that’s a point not worth arguing.
Doing science is hard enough without having to take the time to continuously defend cases where the science is proven. That’s not to say that all vaccines are 100 percent guaranteed to be completely safe. A recent opinion piece in the NY Times suggested that some scientists have gone overboard in defending vaccines against the anti-vaxxer crowd, hesitating to acknowledge that some vaccines do indeed cause rare problems for some people who get them. Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit responded by pointing out that these infrequent vaccine injuries have not been hidden. They’ve been published, often and widely, though the quality of these reports varies greatly. Good scientists know that bad science does get published, but as it tends not to be replicable, most of it eventually falls by the wayside.
Beyond vaccines I struggle to understand why so many people are fixated on ignoring medical advice from actual doctors when making healthcare decisions. Instead, they turn to places such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website than peddles all sorts of dubious health ideas and products. This is a dangerous practice. Unsupported claims caught up with Goop recently when the company settled a lawsuit over some of its most questionable “health” products. As Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen put it, “We will vigilantly protect consumers against companies that promise health benefits without the support of good science…or any science.” It seems every day we get a little closer to being part of a society where facts and expertise either no longer matter or aren’t valued. Dr. Offit, to his credit, has taken a stab at explaining this phenomenon in his latest book Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information (2018). Sadly, many of those who would benefit most from reading it will likely never open the book.
This latest resurgence of bogus science, coupled with a gullible public willing to believe most anything, has guaranteed the return of “snake oil” salesmen. They’re not selling barn-crafted nostrums out of a wagon anymore. Now they’re peddling stem cell treatments, a high tech hustle pitched to a naïve and increasingly desperate populace. Frequent full-page newspaper ads touting their treatments attest to the fact that they’re doing quite well with these scams. I recently attended two different stem cell seminars at local hotels to see just what kind of piffle these “doctors” were peddling. Though their websites warned that reservations were “filling up fast”, I was fortunate enough to score invitations to both presentations.
One seminar, which attracted a total of two people, focused solely on pitching miraculous “stem cells” as an alternative to knee replacement surgery and other joint damage. Neither myself nor the other attendee bit on the expensive treatment offered by the speaker, who shared with us that he was a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine and was licensed to practice acupuncture. His knowledge of stem cell biology was laughable. Clinical data were completely absent. In its place were a series of poorly shot video testimonials and the occasional radiograph revealing what we were told was “great healing”.
The huckster at the second seminar, a chiropractor, did not limit himself to such narrow clinical uses. His “stem cell” treatments would help with just about every physical ailment imaginable. COPD, arthritis, Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and yes, even cancer. Exactly how the same “stem cell” preparation was magically capable of healing this disparate assemblage of diseases was not a topic that needed covering. All we needed to know was that this was “regenerative” medicine, full stop.
The room was filled with middle-aged and elderly folks, many of whom entered limping, on crutches, or in a wheelchair. Desperate faces turned to the principal speaker with hope and high expectations. He was smooth and polished, deftly weaving a narrative that promised everything short of the second coming. The audience was encouraged to sign up after the seminar for discounted evaluation sessions to see if they could be helped. Throughout the presentation I was hoping an FDA agent would burst into the room and shut the whole thing down, but my prayers went unanswered.
The FDA is, after all, supposed to be cracking down on these stem cell scammers, but I’ve seen no evidence of this in Seattle. The crackdown has had an effect in some places, such as Texas, where its driven providers of belly-fat derived stem cells over the border into Mexico. Unfortunately, a new law in the Lone Star state could soon allow clinics to administer certain non-FDA-approved stem cell treatments, even though state law is subordinate to federal FDA regulations. If you want to get a fuller look at what type of junk science gets peddled in these settings, check out this article (from Dr. David Gorski’s always enlightening Respectful Insolence blog) about other stem cell scientists attending one of these heavily advertised seminars.
An increased focus on science education would help the public maintain some degree of skepticism whenever dubious data are presented. Hard questions could be asked, and responses carefully weighed to see if they made sense. As it stands now, the burden of making sure that people are not taken in by these slick hucksters rests in the hands of two groups: scientists and regulators. The March for Science movement has already put many scientists on notice that we need to do a much better job of communicating the fundamentals of our work to lay audiences. The government too needs to do a better job of policing those who would fleece the most vulnerable members of our society. They need and deserve protection from a proliferating number of medical scammers.
If what I’ve written above hasn’t convinced you that this really is a serious problem, please bring your autistic dogs to my home. I have a stem cell treatment that will cure them, and at a price you’re going to really like. Financing is available.
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