So Dr. Andrew Wakefield, poet laureate and
Ghandi Gandhi figure of the anti-vaccination movement, faked his data. I doubt that any of the researchers who tried and failed to reproduce his 1998 Lancet paper will register much surprise. For the rest of us though, the news, along with the anti-vax movement’s recent Dover case, makes a fitting coda for the mainstream credibility of anti-vaccination “science.” As far as I know the evidence was only considered ‘mixed’ because it included the overwhelming studies showing no connection and Dr. Wakefield’s paper.
With the latest news Wakefield’s 1998 paper is dead, defunct, no longer with us. It is an ex-paper. Dr. Wakefield is also an ex-researcher as of now, though that may be moot given the beating his credibility took over the last ten years. Wakefield’s colleagues will now deal with an ironically fitting analogy.
Measles is highly contagious. Infected people are usually contagious from about 4 days before their rash starts to 4 days afterwards. The measles virus resides in the mucus in the nose and throat of infected people. When they sneeze or cough, droplets spray into the air and the droplets remain active and contagious on infected surfaces for up to 2 hours.
Colleagues who published with Dr. Wakefield will have to explain themselves to skeptical superiors and reviewers of their own grants and papers. Students whom he might have trained will carry his name like an anchor on their CV. For comparison, the late 2005 flameout of a Korean cloning specialist is still impacting major labs in three countries.
On a practical level the collective freakout over vaccines never made any sense to me. Off the top of my head I can think of far better founded research listing more serious threats from processed fast food and carbonated sugar drinks. Almost 24 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, versus a million or so autistics, and we know what causes diabetes.
Or what the heck, let’s freak out about mercury. We know enough about mercury and brain development to have some real concerns, and anyone who really wants to get their freak on can revisit the Minimata story. Antivaxxers cite the mercury-based preservative thimerosal when they cite anything at all (‘not natural’ or ‘not organic’ and similarly vague statements account for much of the rest). Set aside that thimerosal is far less dangerous than the bio-active, methylated form of mercury and that most vaccines no longer use it.
For some perspective, vaccines delivered at most 50 micrograms of relatively inert ethylmercury per dose. By contrast, most of the mercury that accumulates in seafood is the far more dangerous methylmercury. Let’s see what overprotective parents feed junior every time they make a tuna fish sandwich.
So exactly how much mercury a 45 lb. child would ingest by eating one 6 ounce can of tuna per week, and how does that compare to the EPA’s reference dose? Take a look at the following calculations:
Step 1 – DETERMINE EPA’s RECOMMENDED LEVEL FOR A 45 LB CHILD
* Multiply child’s body weight by EPA’s reference dose.
* Convert 45 pounds to kilograms = 20.45 kilograms
* 20.45 kilograms x .1 micrograms per kilogram per day
EPA RECOMMENDED LEVEL = 2.05 micrograms per day = 14.35 micrograms per week.
Step 2 – HOW MUCH MERCURY IS IN 6 OUNCES OF CHUNK WHITE TUNA?
* Multiply amount of fish by average mercury level for chunk white albacore.
* Convert 6 ounces to grams = 170 grams 170 grams X .31 ppm (or micrograms per gram)**
MERCURY INGESTED = 52.7 micrograms per gram
Step 3 – COMPARE MERCURY INGESTED WITH EPA’S RECOMMENDED LEVEL
* Divide 52.7 micrograms by 14.35 micrograms = 3.7
BY EATING 6 OUNCES OF CHUNK WHITE TUNA A WEEK, THE CHILD IS INGESTING ALMOST FOUR TIMES EPA’S RECOMMENDED DOSE.
Bear in mind that the above used mercury levels in albacore tuna. The levels in yellowfin and other sushi tuna can be much worse.
No rational reason exists to worry about vaccines as opposed to, say, half of the crap that we feed our kids every day. So how has this antivaxx issue ballooned into some sort of populist revolt? From one weak and rapidly discredited paper grew a movement that involves relatively well-educated parents actively putting their kids, their kids’ friends and strangers in danger of terrible diseases. It is baffling. You and I know that the court loss won’t kill the anti-vaxx movement and neither will Dr. Wakefield’s disgrace. The anti-vaxxers are creationists now. The movement clearly appeals to a subconscious need that comes from somewhere deep enough that ordinary logic cannot reach.
I have no idea what that might be, but Ira Glass made a respectable stab at the question on NPR a few months back. The expansion of school choices, Whole Foods, all-natural body products and whatnot lets parents ‘choose’ a better/healthier option for practically everything they consume (or make others very rich by choosing the illusion of it). One glaring exception, the one thing that the state gives parents practically zero leeway with regards to how, where or when is vaccines. Some must find that very galling.