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The UK Department of Health is gearing up to spend £400,000 to fund a media campaign to convince parents of young children to give their children the MMR, according to a story in PR Week.

I can’t help but wonder why they don’t take the money, and hold a large televised debate on the merits, completely open to the public.  Since the claim is that the MMR is emphatically not associated with autism, backed up by solid scientific study, why not publicly address parents’ concerns instead of trying to sell them with an advertising campaign?

Aren’t adverts for trying to convince someone to want something that they don’t really want?  Give the parents the discussion and an open forum where difficult questions are addressed with truthful and robust answers.  I suspect that people would really like to really assess the government claim that the risks of side effects of the vaccine-preventable diseases are much higher than the risks of side effects of the vaccines – instead of being “sold” on it by some PR experts.

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David Kirby, the famous journalist who had leaked the details of the Hannah Poling case in the media in the US, spoke in the United Kingdom last night, at Regent Hall, Oxford Street, London.

I turned up a bit early: 6:10 for a 6:30 pm start, thinking that I wanted to make sure that I got a seat, expecting the room would be quite full, but I was wrong.

The talk began slightly late at about 6:45 pm, and by that time there were about fifty people there, at most.  I was amazed that in a country where there are higher rates of autism than in most of the US that so few people bothered to turn up to hear what this man had to say.

Kirby gave an excellent talk.

I wasn’t sure what to expect since I had seen his work ridiculed on the some of the pro-vaccinationist websites, although I had never read his book or his work at The Huffington Post.  I suppose to be completely fair, I should point out that they don’t call themselves pro-vaccinationists, they tend to call themselves skeptics, or “science-based” or “evidence-based”, implying of course that people who are skeptical about vaccines and who look at evidence don’t exist, or that it is some sort of oxymoron.  It reminds me a bit of being at university where a scholar would refer to her theory as the ‘rich, complex model’ and the theory of someone who disagreed with her as the ‘impoverished, superficial model’.

When Kirby began his talk, he made it clear that he’s not anti-vaccine, nor is he a crusader and that above all, he is a journalist who leaves the science to the scientists.  He pointed out that when he goes home at night, he forgets all about autism; he has no stake in this game and no children.  Along with this topic, he is also working on a project concerning factory-farming of animals, and is writing a book, and none of it has anything to do with autism.

He further pointed out that he doesn’t care whether it is the vaccines that are causing autism or not.  He says that he began researching this area to figure out what was happening that was causing these huge rises in autism cases, and whether it is vaccines or something else doesn’t matter to him, because he is simply working to try and uncover the cause, hoping once discovered the autism epidemic will be able to be stopped.

Kirby began by considering facts and studies that supported the idea that vaccines and autism were not related, and then he turned to those that did suggest a relationship.  He discussed the major studies that are generally considered to be evidence that vaccines are safe, and pointed out all the areas in which these epidemiological studies had methodological problems that directly called the results of the study into question – in many cases by the authors of the studies themselves.  I had already read all the studies he discussed, so I didn’t hear a lot that I didn’t already know, but it was very interesting to have all the information from these studies presented back-to-back so that one could see that as a body of evidence it wasn’t terribly convincing.

But the most amazing part of this talk was that there was no one from the press there.

Well, there was one woman, who said she was a journalist, and that she tried to get someone to commission her to attend the event and write about it, but no one was willing, so she came out of her own interest.  She  pointed out that a notification about the talk had been disseminated among the usual channels in the journalistic community, and that she was certain that the lack of press had nothing to do with people not being aware of the talk.

Meanwhile Hannah Poling is big news in the states and people are now realising that many more children seem to have the markers of mitochondrial dysfunction than the US government originally claimed.   In spite of initial comments by the government health offices that Hannah had an extremely rare inherited condition (in fact Kirby said that the test case intended to replace the Hannah Poling case turned out to have all the same markers and condition as Hannah did, although I haven’t yet confirmed this myself) that the settlement did not mean that the government believed that vaccines cause autism.

But in the midst of this big news that lots of parents are following very closely online, things in the press here are strangely, almost bizarrely silent on this matter.  David Kirby even mentioned that he had a BBC interview scheduled which was canceled, and The Daily Mail commissioned him to write a piece on this subject, which he did, which they then decided not to print.

The Daily Mail did however choose to publish this poorly researched article by Barney Calman about biomedical interventions for autism.  Calman is a journalist who seems to have unfortunately joined forces with Michael Fitzpatrick, a GP who repeatedly and zealously denies that vaccines do any harm or that they have any link to autism.  Fitzpatrick has a son with autism (a teenager who is institutionalised), which he takes special care to mention whenever he speaks or writes, as if this somehow makes his claims weightier.  In fact, Fitzpatrick was at the Kirby talk yesterday, and after Kirby presented his material and then asked for questions, Fitzpatrick hurried not to make any substantive rebuttal of anything Kirby presented, but instead to ask how it could be the case that vaccines contributed to autism when there weren’t any GPs, paediatricians or pediatric gastroenterologists who believed it.

So it would seem that the press in the UK is only willing to publish pieces that are pro-vaccine, and against biomedical treatment for autism.  It doesn’t seem to matter if those articles are even remotely factually correct, or if the primary proponents make sophomoric claims from authority that something must be true because a bunch of doctors think it’s true.

Surely if work like that is worthy of any journalistic effort, then Hannah Poling deserves her own newspaper – and yet she gets nothing in this country.  For myself, I find the silence of the press completely deafening, and I am happy to see people around the country taking notice.

I come across stories about what the press likes to call “vaccine-preventable diseases” rather frequently. There are often warnings about the clusters of illness caused by people who choose not to vaccinate. They point to mini-epidemics of whooping cough, measles and mumps, and lament how all this wreaks havoc even for those who have been vaccinated (since vaccines are not 100% effective). There’s always an outbreak here or there, and if you search the archives of any major newspaper you will get quite a few hits.

But I can’t remember the last time I saw the press covering a severe vaccine reaction, or death. I suspect it has something to do with my observation that when there is a temporal relationship between a vaccine and an illness or death, we are reminded that temporal relationships are not the same thing as causality, and that it is a coincidence that a problem occurred shortly after vaccination. But in the amazingly rare instances that a child dies of a vaccine-preventable illness, like measles, the temporal relationship takes priority, and we are told that the child died of measles, even if the child was taking azathioprine or other immune-suppressive drugs to shut down their immune system due to other ailments or organ transplant.

Whatever the reason, today I can stop complaining about the lack of coverage for vaccine reactions, because I came across a story this morning about a healthy three month old infant who received an MMR vaccine, developed a fever, and seemed generally unsettled, who then died the following day. Of natural causes.

Consultant forensic pathologist, Dr Charles Wilson, told the hearing that he believed the baby had died of pneumonia.

He said: “Kenzie had the early stages of a lung infection, the kind you tend to see with bacteria. It was the earliest stage of pneumonia. It was an entirely natural, tragic and unforeseeable cause of death.”

I’m glad the pathologist mentioned that the pneumonia was the type you tend to see with bacteria. That would (phew!) completely rule out any involvement of the vaccine then, since it is comprised of three live-attenuated viruses. I’m a little surprised though, that he thought the pneumonia was the type that one tends to see with bacteria. Didn’t he check the infected lung tissue? I’m surprised he doesn’t know what pathogen was in the lungs.

I’m going to confess now that I find this a bit odd. Do children who seem fine and healthy often die in the very beginning stages of pneumonia, before anyone knows they are ill? Maybe this is truly so common that there is no need to raise an eyebrow, or to send some lung tissue to histopath.

In order to take this article, and the pathologist, at face value we have to believe: 1) the child was absolutely fine at the healthcare visit where he had received the MMR, and that there was no sign of pneumonia that a clinician should have noticed, even if the child was going to die of it about 30 hours later, 2) the administration of the MMR was strictly coincident in time with the unrelated fatal illness, 3) healthy children die rapidly in the early stages of infections, even when it is sufficiently early that there are no symptoms of any concern, and 4) that #3 happens often enough that no one bothers to send infected tissue for histopathological assessment. Apparently the coroner agrees this is reasonable:

Coroner Jennifer Leeming recorded a verdict of death by natural causes.

For myself, I remain slightly skeptical.

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