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Why the whole “mitochondrial disease plus vaccines = autism” argument is nonsense

Since vaccines seem to be back in the news again, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a fantastic post that I saw the other day over at A Photon in the Darkness.

Read it. Read it now.

I’ve done fairly long posts about how pseudoscientists and antivaccine advocates are capitalizing on the case of Hannah Poling, who had a mitochondrial disorder that, the government conceded, may have been exacerbated by vaccines. Meanwhile, antivaccine mouthpiece David Kirby is shouting to the world that new findings that mitochondrial disorders are more common than previously thought is somehow vindication of the “vaccines cause autism” myth. I’ve pointed out how this new focus on mitochondrial diseases is in essence the “rebranding” of autism and how it is evidence of the amazing shrinking vaccine causation claim. However, Prometheus has written a true tour de force about the science of mitochondrial mutations and why the recent paper claiming that such mutations are much more common than previously thought almost certainly has little to do with the “cause” of most autism and even less to do with the myth that vaccines cause autism.

Not that that keeps the quacks from capitalizing on this, of course. As I predicted back in February, already the autism quacks are coming up with mitochondrial disease “tests” of dubious reliability and similarly–shall we say?–rebranding their quackery to “treat mitochondrial diseases.” Indeed, so prevalent has the concept that mitochondrial diseases plus vaccines are somehow the cause of autism become that on discussion boards there’s a shorthand abbreviation for such diseases that everyone now understands, “mito” (as in–as Prometheus puts it–“My DAN! doctor wants to test my son for mito.”).

Sadly, because mitochondrial diseases are not well understood yet, they are fertile ground for pseudoscience and quackery, and such idiocy will likely persist for several years at least, as the science is worked out. Given that multiple studies have failed to validate the hypothesis that thimerosal in vaccines, or vaccination in general, causes autism and that Andrew Wakefield has been repeatedly shown to have been a paid shill for trial lawyers doing litigation-driven research, the antivaccine movement needed a new angle. Unfortunately, the Hannah Poling case provided it.

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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