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Why is David Kirby grasping at straws?

Posted Jan 11 2009 3:47pm

Once more for the record, I like David. I tried very hard to get to see him in London last time he was over and we’d arranged to meet up for a drink but due to my family situation it wasn’t to be. However, I cannot let that stop me from recalling that we have very differing views on a wide range of things to do with autism and vaccines.

I have noticed of late a tendency for David’s HuffPo blog posts to be more than usually full of ‘if’ ‘maybe’ ‘might’ etc. However his skill as a writer buries these ambiguities and makes them appear certainties. I’m not even sure its a concious thing for David. His need to write well sometimes (I think) obscures a clinical need for precision in such delicate areas as he and I write in.

With that in mind, I recalled a post of his from November 2008 entitled ‘Tom Daschle: Friend to Many Autism Families’ in which he describes Mr Daschle thusly:

By nominating Tom Daschle to head up the Department, President Elect Obama has selected a man who has demonstrated an unflinching willingness to question vaccine safety, and to fight for the rights of those people who believe they have been, or may be, seriously injured by certain vaccinations.

I think David might’ve been trying to insinuate that Tom Daschle’s nomination was good for the autism/antivaccine community. Certainly however, as with the autism/antivaccine’s belief that RFK Jr would be appointed by Obama, this nomination might not be quite what that community is expecting. As blogged by Orac today, Daschle’s true feelings on vaccinations were spelt out by the man himself:

Immunization is probably as—as sound an investment as we can make in good health. I can’t imagine that we could do any better than ensure that every—every child is immunized, and that we understand the importance of—of broad-based immunization and the tremendous good health that can come from it.

Following that, David made a fairly innocuous presentation from a US Army scientist look much more sinister than it actually was. He claimed that the army listed autism as a possible ‘health effect’ of mercury/thiomersal. It turned out that that was not actually the case.

Dr. Centeno’s presentation, entititled ‘Mercury Poisoning: A Clinical and Toxicological Perspective,’ did mention Thimerosal. However, its inclusion was specifically intended to point out that although there has been some speculation about a potential association between Thimerosal and Autism, currently there is no data or science to support such a claim. Neither the AFIP nor Dr. Centeno have been involved in or conducted research on Autism.

After that was the recent debacle when David mixed up Change.org and Change.gov – the latter being a website of Obama. The former a privately owned enterprise for at least the last 2 years. David thought (and committed to a blog post) that Obama had hired pro-neurodiversity bloggers and he imagined a conversation Obama might have with an autism parent:

It is hard to imagine the President one day saying…“I do not think we should devote resources to finding out what happened to your [autistic child]. I do not believe there is anything we can do to help him, and it is not desirable to even try.

This post made me sad and angry. I thought better of David than that. To say that any of us who do not believe vaccines cause autism do not think it is desirable to help our autistic children is massively insulting. I hope someday David can maybe spend a bit of time with parents who don’t think vaccines caused their child’s autism and see for himself how we help our kids. And maybe an apology might be forthcoming also.

David’s latest faux pas is regarding the latest MIND institute study. In a post entitled ‘UC Davis Study: Autism is Environmental (Can We Move On Now?)’ David says:

Autism is predominantly an environmentally acquired disease, the study seems to conclude. Its meteoric rise, at least in California, cannot possibly be attributed to that shopworn mantra we still hear everyday, incredibly, from far too many public health officials: It’s due to better diagnosing and counting.

The autism epidemic is real, and it is not caused by genes alone: You cannot have a genetic epidemic. It really is time that we, as a society, accept that cold, hard truth.

Here’s the full conclusion:

Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing. Younger ages at diagnosis, differential migration, changes
in diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases do not fully explain the observed increases. Other artifacts have yet to be quantified, and as a result, the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

Lets look at that last again:

...the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

And yet David seems to to think its crystal clear. The paper itself also contains some direct and fairly easy-to-check errors. For example:

The inclusion of milder cases has been suggested as an explanation for the increase in autism. Neither Asperger’s
syndrome nor “pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified” qualify under the category of autism in the DDS system.

Here is what DDS passed on to me in Summer of 2007. I promised not to attribute the quote to an individual so I won’t, but you can email DDS yourselves and ask them.

The current CDER was written in 1978 and updated in 1986, which is why the language is so out of date ( e.g., Residual Autism). California has clinicians in the field who are, of course, using modern criteria in their assessments but then they have to go backwards and try to fit those kids into the 1986 CDER. So you are going to have Aspergers kids, PDD -NOS kids in both categories 1 and 2. Categories 1 and 2 are called ‘Autism.’ But because there are so many clinicians, using lots of different techniques for evaluation, there is a lot of inconsistency and enrollment figures should not be misused as epidemiological data.

Hertz-Picciotto might also be interested in a quote from Rita Eagle PhD of the California Dept. of Developmental Services (DDS) to Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 1, February 2004:

To many clinicians, it appears that more and more children who, in the past, would never have been referred to the regional centers for example, bright but anxious and slightly socially inept kids with average or better IQs and children who, in the past, had been or would have been diagnosed as ADHD, OCD, ODD, anxiety disorder, learning disabilities, psychotic, and so forth are now being diagnosed wit high-functioning autism and/or Asperger syndrome and referred to the regional centers for services.

Truth is that a lot of Hertz-Picciotto 2009 is simply wrong. For an extensive overview of why, please read Joseph’s technical takedown from which I’ll quote his conclusion:

H-P et al. is a surprisingly poor paper. It does not produce any new data in order to support its two main results. It makes an apples-to-oranges comparison between a Finnish epidemiological study and California DDS ascertainment over time. It tells us the obvious about “milder” cases. In the end, I don’t think this is an improvement over the 2002 MIND Institute report to the California Legislature. In fact, it could very well be worse.

The way H-P et al. have gone about trying to show there’s a real rise in autism incidence over time is not a very good way to go about doing things, in my view. There are other ways. For example, I’ve suggested trying to replicate Lotter (1967) in detail. This would not be as easily challenged.

David closes his latest error prone piece with:

But the sooner our best minds in science and medicine come to grips with the fact that these poor, hapless kids have been exposed to the wrong environmental toxins and/or infectious agents at the wrong time, the sooner we can find out how to best treat what really ails them.

This is a prime example of bad science leading the media. David has reported on a paper that has made fairly bad errors and taken them at their word. Sadly, this sort of thing will only continue as long as institutions like MIND (controlled by a man who is dedicated to proving vaccines cause autism) churn out error strewn papers.

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