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Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton join John McCain in pandering to antivaccinationists


Well, so much for Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s reputations for supposedly being well-informed about scientific issues. True, they didn’t sink as far into the stupid as John McCain did about vaccines and autism, but what they said was bad enough. Let’s put it this way: If David Kirby thinks what they said about vaccines and autism is just great, they seriously need to fire all their medical advisors and get new ones who know how to evaluate evidence:

No matter who wins in Pennsylvania today, the next President of the United States will support research into the growing evidence of some link between vaccines and autism.

Senator John McCain has already expressed his belief that vaccines and the mercury containing preservative thimerosal could be implicated in what he has rightly termed an “autism epidemic.”

Senator Hillary Clinton, in response to a questionaire from the autism activist group A-CHAMP, wrote that she was “Committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.” And when asked if she would support a study of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated children, she said: “Yes. We don’t know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism – but we should find out.”

And now, yesterday, at a rally in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama had this rather surprising thing to say:

“We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

True, this is not quite as bad as John McCain’s incredible ignorance, but it’s pretty bad.

Obama’s statement, even if the interpretation that his saying “this person included” was referring to someone in the crowd and not referring to himself, is nonetheless particularly ignorant and egregious. The science is quite conclusive thus far that vaccines do not cause autism and becomes more convincing every year. Obama is just plain wrong about implying that vaccines have something to do with an “autism epidemic,” and he was wrong when his campaign supplied this reply to a questionnaire sent to the candidates by A-CHAMP. I’m not going to go through all of the candidates’ responses to the questions, mainly because most of them consisted of only the most vacuous and vapid of soothing political pander-language that looks like it’s saying something but really isn’t. For example, this is Obama’s answer to one question:

Are you satisfied that the federal vaccine approval process is free of conflicts of interests, transparent and rigorous?

As President, I will conduct a thorough examination of all federal programs to ensure that they are effective and operating in the best interests of the American people. And I will ensure that sound and unbiased science, not ideology, guides decisions made in my administration.

That’s about as vacuous and controversy-free as a politician can make it, as is Hillary Clinton’s reply to the very same question:

I believe that we need independent, thorough, and comprehensive testing of all drugs, including vaccines, to make sure that they are safe and effective. I will ensure that the process of approving vaccines is based on science and research – not ideology or other motives. I will do everything I can to protect the health and well-being of American families.

Such boilerplate language doesn’t need a dose of Respectful Insolence™ because it says nothing of substance that is worth beating on for anything other than the fact that it says nothing of substance. However, this response by Barack Obama to the questionnaire does deserve a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence™:

Do you believe there is an autism epidemic in the United States?

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United Sates and, perhaps the world.. One in 150 children is diagnosed with ASD. These numbers can not be explained solely by increased awareness or changes to the diagnostic criteria. It is a health crisis and I will act accordingly. There are many Americans with special needs. They will have a partner in the federal government under my administration.

Wrong, Senator Obama! Just plain wrong.

The evidence strongly suggests that it is indeed a combination of increased awareness, changes in the diagnostic criteria in the early 1990s, and diagnostic substitution that is responsible for the appearance of an autism “epidemic.” Steve Novella summarized the evidence nicely and put it well:

It should also be noted that all of this research, while supporting the hypothesis that the rise in autism diagnoses is not due to a true increase in the incidence but rather is due to a broadening of the definition and increased surveillance, does not rule out a small genuine increase in the true incidence. A small real increase can be hiding in the data. There is no evidence upon which we can conclude, however, that true autism rates are increasing.

Of course the implications of this are profound. If there is no autism epidemic, if there is a “stable incidence” of autism over recent decades, then this alone is powerful evidence against the vaccine hypothesis – and in fact removes the primary piece of evidence for a vaccine-autism connection. Just as a true increase in incidence would have called out for an environmental factor causing autism, the lack of any increase argues strongly against any environment factor – especially when this is combined with the copious evidence for multiple genetic factors as the ultimate cause(s) of ASD.

In other words, it’s possible that autism rates may have increased slightly, but multiple studies refute Barack Obama’s contention that the autism “epidemic” cannot be explained well by the broadening of the diagnostic criteria that occurred 15 years ago. There’s no way around it; Obama’s just plain wrong about this, pure and simple. Hillary Clinton’s reply is only marginally better. Although she doesn’t ignorantly dismiss the likelihood that broadened diagnostic criteria and diagnostic substitution are primarily at work here, she too believes there is an autism epidemic:

Do you believe there is an autism epidemic in the United States?

Yes. Today, one in 150 children rare diagnosed with autism, for a total of about 25,000 each year. In sum, about 1.5 million Americans and their families are affected by autism today. This national health crisis is costing the United States at least $35 billion each year. I have long been a strong advocate for individuals and families impacted by autism. I have cosponsored the Combating Autism Act and introduced the Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act, in order to ensure that Americans living with autism could have access as quickly as possible to evidence-based treatments, interventions, and services. When I am President, I will dramatically boost research funding for autism and support services for families caring for an autistic loved one.

And what about the positions of the candidates on whether there is a link between vaccines and autism? First, Barack Obama:

Do you think vaccines should be investigated as a possible cause of autism?

I believe that the next president must restore confidence and open communication with the American people. This includes environmental policies and government funded research. An Obama administration will go where the science and the facts lead us, whether it is about climate change or toxic heavy metals in our environment.

Would you support a large-scale federal study of the differences in health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups

Experience has taught that effective medical research must be “large-scale” and well funded. I believe Americans should know must know the health effects that caused by the presence of mercury in vaccines. I will also support an examination of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation program, a program designed to compensate those injured by vaccinations.

The first reply was nothing more than vapid, content-free, vague politician-speak, but for the second answer the stupid, it truly burns. (Yes, Obama deserves that richly in this instance.) Clearly, the Obama campaign seems not to believe the multiple large, well-designed epidemiological studies that have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism or between mercury in vaccines and autism. He also seems not to realize the methodological and ethical difficulties involved in doing research comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated and oblivious to the fact that vaccine outcomes are intensively studied.

Hillary Clinton, although slightly better, doesn’t exactly reveal that she has advisors who understand the issue either:

Do you think vaccines should be investigated as a possible cause of autism

I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines. I have long been a supporter of increased research to determine the links between environmental factors and diseases, and I believe we should increase the NIH’s ability to engage in this type of research. My administration will be committed to improving research to support fact-based solutions, and I will ensure that the NIH has the staff and funding to fully explore all possible causes of autism.

Would you support a large-scale federal study ofthe differences in health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups?

Yes. We don’t know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism – but we should find out. The lack of research on treatments, interventions, and services for children and adults with autism is a major impediment to the development of delivery of quality care. We need evidence-based research on what works and what doesn’t in order to provide the most effective services for people with autism. In addition to a large-scale federal study, I will create a task force that would include significant representation from the autism community and would be charged with identifying gaps in evidence-based biomedical research, behavioral treatments, and services for children and adults with autism. The task force would present these findings to Congress and the Executive Branch and would make recommendations on how to make evidence-based treatments, interventions, and services available at the state and local levels. Once the task force has completed its work, I will provide funding to establish state-based demonstration grants to provide these evidence-based autism treatments, interventions, and services.

I know what apologists for Clinton and Obama will say there: What’s wrong with calling for more research? Of course, “calling for more research” is the cop-out that all politicians use whenever there’s an issue that is contentious, but that’s not why the Democratic candidates are in for a dose of Orac’s loving attention. Rather it is because in answering these questions the way they did, they both fell for the very frame (I hate that word these days, but it’s the correct one here) that antivaccinationists wanted them to fall for with respect to vaccines and autism. In essence, both candidates accepted some of the major pillars of the mercury militia’s fantasies as being true. These include claims that:

  • there is an autism “epidemic.” (Arguably, there is very likely not.)
  • there is a scientific controversy over whether vaccines cause autism. (There really isn’t; it’s a so-called manufactured controversy. There is no good evidence that vaccines cause autism, David Kirby’s bloviations and pontifications otherwise notwithstanding. Multiple large epidemiological studies have failed to find even a hint of a convincing link, and the publicizing of the Hannah Poling case as some sort of “smoking gun” by antivaccinationists is nothing more than a rebranding of autism and more evidence of the incredibly shrinking vaccine claim.)
  • that vaccines are somehow unsafe or that children are “overvaccinated” and eceive too many vaccines. (Again, there is no good evidence that either of these is the case.)

Unfortunately, thanks to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s poorly thought out statements, David Kirby is actually correct when he says:

So there you have it, our next President will share the views of such radical fringe crazies as, well, me, Democrat Robert Kennedy, Jr., Republican Joe Scarborough, former NIH and Red Cross chief Bernadine Healy, and several researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Universities of California and Washington and elsewhere.

Well, not quite. I ‘m not sure who those researchers at all those prestigious institutions are who think vaccines cause autism the way that David Kirby and the mercury militia do. As for Bernadine Healy, I remember seeing her disappointingly credulous article and was just too burned out on dealing with the stupidity being laid down in such copious quantities about vaccines and autism lately to comment on it. David Kirby is right, though, that he and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. are radical fringe crazies, even though (I think) he meant it ironically. He may also be correct that the candidates “share their views,” albeit only in a superficial sense. Kirby and RFK Jr., for instance, are very committed to their view that vaccines cause autism. I doubt the candidates gave it half a thought; they probably just signed off on a statement by their scientific advisors, which, if true, is strong evidence that they really need to fire their scientific advisors immediately.

I realize that Clinton and Obama are politicians. I realize that they didn’t want to tick off the group that sent them the questionnaire. I further realize that politicians will pander, as they are no doubt pandering to the mercury militia here. The problem is that pandering to this group can have very real and very serious consequences in terms of protecting the health of the people of the United States. Let’s just put it this way. If the nattering nabobs of antivaccinationism over at the Age of Autism and credulous cheerleaders for antivaccinationists like Ginger like–or worse, are beside themselves with glee at–what all three candidates have to say with regards to the issue of vaccines and autism, no matter which candidate is elected, on this issue at least, those of us who support scientific medicine and accept what it has to say about the value and safety of vaccines are likely to be well and truly screwed. Worse, if antivaccinationists get their way in a new administration, it could be the nation that is well and truly screwed.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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