John McCain supports pseudoscience

This should hardly be surprising news, as he panders to just about every other kook group that could get him elected, but McCain recently came out and supported the repeatedly disproved “vaccines cause autism” crowd (or at least that a mercuric compound in vaccines, thimerosal, allegedly causes autism).

The Bad Astronomer comments, and gives links to a few other folks’ comments too.

The biggest indicator that thimerosal is not guilty? In the USA, thimerosal was ordered to be removed from most vaccines in 1999, but there has been no drop in autism diagnoses, in fact the rate of diagnoses has increased substantially since the removal of thimerosal. Most scientists already believed it was not the culprit, but surely anyone with an ounce of logic should see that this reverse correlation pretty much eliminates thimerosal as a suspect?

I can totally understand people whose child/ren are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder wanting an explanation. When my son was diagnosed as High Functioning Autistic/borderline Aspergers at age 3, I desperately wanted an explanation and considered the vaccine hypothesis myself. I read a lot and came to agree with the bulk of medical opinion that there is no connection, merely a temporal coincidence: the symptoms of autism (a congenital neurological variation) become most obvious in young children at about the same age as routine vaccinations are scheduled.

A particular cognitive developmental milestone occurs around the age of 18 months to 2.5 years, which in neurotypical children manifests as marked progress in communication and socialisation skills as they find their cognitive array enhanced – their brain is processing external stimuli in a more efficient fashion and they are responding with increased engagement with those external stimuli. Neurologists are finding that with autistic children, this communication/socialisation progress does not occur, largely because the autistic brain is hypersensitive to external stimuli as well as processing these stimuli differently, leading to autistic children experiencing sensory overload to various degrees and coping with it by withdrawing from the overload in various ways.

Sometimes children who were very chatty in an infantile way regress to using fewer words, as well as becoming markedly less sociable and starting to push away from physical contact with their family as well. Obviously, to the concerned parent, this looks like some external factor has made their child change, when what is actually happening is that a brain that has been atypical from birth is responding differently to enhanced cognition than neurotypical children do.

So, children on the autistic spectrum start to display differences from their neurotypical peers between the age of 18 months to 3 years, which is when they go for assessment and become diagnosed for the first time as autistic, or Aspergers, or PDD-NOS, or Semantic Pragmatic Disorder, or HFA. The more severe the autistic disorder, the earlier the diagnosis. Children with HFA or Aspergers or SPD are often not diagnosed until much later in their schooling, and many adults now are finding that they have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder that nobody diagnosed when they were young.

The expert consensus is that children are born with atypical autistic brains, but the differences in cognition are higher level differences, so that in infancy and very early childhood the brain is too immature for the differences to be obvious. Autistic spectrum disorders seem to run in families in a complicated heredity pattern which most likely indicates that autism is carried on multiple genes which interact in a variety of ways depending on how many have been inherited. There may also be some environmental factor which is causing mutations to the genes which regulate autism, but if so it is a mutagen which affects the parents’ genetic material which they then pass on to their offspring, not a pathogen which affects children directly.

Vaccines are not to blame, and there’s a strong public health risk in people being too fearful to vaccinate their children against serious life-threatening diseases. For a potential President of the USA to be promoting this pseudoscience will mean that this belief will be seen as more acceptable, and will likely spread. For shame, McCain.

Categories: medicine, Politics, skepticism

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13 replies

  1. There was a site that promoted itself as “progressive” – was against bad baby names and poor parenting – but supported the anti-vaccination crowd – which as more than one doctor has pointed out is highly dangerous to children – “anti-vaccination liars” still rings in my ears.
    I eventually came to the conclusion that the site was “Clayton’s progressive” – the progressive you have when your not actually being progressive.

  2. Ughhhhhh- please someone spare us from the terror of a McCain presidency. I can already see that he would cut subsidies of vaccines to poor kids in the name of autism prevention.
    I miss science. I am tired of living in a place that is trying to throw us back into the dark ages.
    Red Queen’s last blog post..Ho Hum

  3. I can’t find the link now, but I read on one of the science blogs that the mercury-related isotope in Thimerosal wasn’t even the same as the mercury that gets into fish. Instead of having a long life, this stuff decays in days or something, so it doesn’t present the same risk. It just goes to show how dangerous partial information is. “Oooh, Mercury!” Yes, but not the same mercury.
    Helen’s last blog post..Yes Dear, I?ll help you overthrow the military-industrial complex just as soon as I get this passionfruit sponge out of the oven

  4. It just goes to show how dangerous partial information is. “Oooh, Mercury!” Yes, but not the same mercury.

    The whole idea that those irresponsible scientists would thoughtlessly use a harmful mercuric compound in injection solutions is part of the general anti-science crap that a certain segment of American conservatism keeps spewing.

  5. The mercury crap also got a good run at my birth centre antenatal class. I was horrified by the mis-information, the ill-thought-out fear-based discussion, and most of all, that the midwife leading the class was completely ill-equipped to clear up the crap.
    There was only one daughter of a naturopath and completely opposed to vaccines person in the class. The others were just concerned, and determined to make informed decisions. If their decisions were based on that class, then they weren’t getting all the info they needed. I didn’t have the info to clear things up, but it all sounded dodgy.
    Perhaps the anti-vaccine crowd need to ask one simple question: do the doctors and scientists who advocate vaccines use them on their own children? The answer is “yes indeedy, every vaccine they can get their hands on, even the ones that aren’t subsidised yet.”

  6. Thimerosal wasn’t used in Australian injections, I believe. Is it likely that compound x is responsible for the increasing incidence of a disorder in one country while in another country that same increase is caused by something else?

  7. Did you see on the news tonight that the government just settled a lawsuit saying that the vaccine “contributed” to and resulted in autistic symptoms in a young girl?
    Tracee Sioux’s last blog post..Favorite Female Blogger

  8. I’m always concerned that these studies focus on the USA – there are places where mercury has not been used in vaccines for even longer than in the USA and Autism rates continue to climb.
    My oldest son has autism – we too went through all the research that we could to answer the big ‘why’ questions.
    I firmly believe that the the ‘link’ is (as TigTog suggested) temporally coincidental. I now work in the disability sector, and everything I have seen, and anyone who konws anything about autism in a professional sense, reject the notion of a vaccine relationship to autism generally.
    That doesn’t mean to say that some children who have an allergy to other ingredients don’t have a reaction that causes brain damage, but these circumstances are extremely rare and represent a much lower risk than the risks posed from the diseases you vaccinate against.
    McCain just lost me totally. Rant over!
    Grendel’s last blog post..Dealers

  9. i’m not sure if it’s what tracee sioux was referring to, but the government did just settle a case in georgia admitting that vaccines might have had to do with the girl’s specific case of autism:

  10. Only in the last couple of years have scientists and doctors publishing research had to disclose conflicts of research – a quick search of recently published studies on vaccines disclose wide funding directly and indirectly by pharmaceutical companies. I do not know if there is any harm (rather than 100% benefit as is the line in public health policy)in immunisation, only I have a deep, inherent trust of pharmaceutical companies, only worsened by personal discussions with ex-employees of some big pharmas.
    Ethyl mercury is still in a number of vaccines in the USA and Australia including tetanus. Ethyl mercury does have a shorter half life than methyl mercury – but 3.5 days for a 6 month old infant to metabolise half the amount of mercury is still significant. Compare this to the half life of a few hours in caffeine.
    Adverse reactions to vaccines and medicines generally are poorly reported and post markeet survellience by companies is shoddy to say the least. The history of the oral contraceptive pill is a good example of this.
    If you ever want to start a brawl at a dinner party – discuss the pros and cons of childhood immunisation. I don’t have all the answers but have enough medical and scientific knowledge to analyse what is published. It is an absolute minefiend.
    Since all the commenters have been so well informed so far, I am surprised no one has questioned the federal legislation passed in the late ’90’s specifically protecting doctors from prosecution is they fail supply full information about vaccine risks, or was that because no one noticed? Likewise the direct financial incentives to keep their immunisation rates up. Is that informed consent?
    Another Outspoken Female’s last blog post..women and art

  11. Correction: inherent DIStrust 🙂

  12. “I do not know if there is any harm (rather than 100% benefit as is the line in public health policy)in immunisation”
    I’d just note that immunisation is usually not looked at in such black and white terms by people in public health but rather in terms of risk analysis.
    Why was the oral polio sabin removed from the schedule? Because it was no longer deemed that the live vaccine was preventing polio any better than a non-live version of the vaccine and had a higher level of side effects. Given this was the information explained to me by the nurse at the immunisation clinic regarding the change I feel it is actually not a case of the line in public health policy being of “100% benefit”.
    My gripe with the anti-immunisation movement is the parents I know who are influenced not by scare mongering or pseudoscience but told they have done the wrong thing when they send their kids to steiner (waldorf) schools and given a whole series of reasons not to vaccinate. The one thing they may not be told is the reason that Steiner himself gave. Rudolph Steiner (and his anthrphosophy movement) oppose vaccination why? For medical reasons? Because of the preservatives? No no! Childhood illnesses, according to steiner, are a kind of means of sorting our the karma from a child’s past life.
    A modern waldorf source claims “Serious complications in childhood illness which produce permanent damage or even death are probably deeply founded in the destiny of the person concerned.”. (quoted <a href="</a&gt; though the link is broken to the original source. this link also points out that some antivaccination websites are run by anthrophosophists citing medical reasons not to vaccinate)
    Fantastic, if my child dies sorting out his karmic past that’s just great.


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