Last week, I wrote about how antivaxxers were falsely claiming that there is now an epidemic of “sudden adult death syndrome,” or SADS (which is really a misnomer for sudden arrhythmic death syndrome,” or, also SADS)—particularly in young adults who die suddenly, unexpectedly, and without an obvious anatomic or chemical cause of death—because of COVID-19 vaccines. Two important points to emphasize are that (1) SADS is an old diagnosis, known since at least the 1970s and dating back long before that under different names and (2) SADS incidence has not been increasing since 2021, the latter of which would rather be a necessary prerequisite even to consider COVID-19 vaccines as a cause given that they didn’t start rolling out to the general population until December 2020. Of course, in antivax land, everything old is new again, and blaming SADS on vaccine followed a playbook antivaxxers have long used to try to blame sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) on vaccines, such as when right wing blogger Vox Day used hilariously bad arguments to try to make that link it a decade ago or when antivax “citizen scientists” Gary S. Goldman and Neil Z. Miller tag-teamed a dumpster dive into the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database to try to links SIDS to vaccines.
I supposed that I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Tweets like this popping up the other day:
First of all, I was easily able to find a reference to SIDS in PubMed dating back to 1950, although it was in French. In fairness, the first large study of SIDS that I could find was indeed published in 1969. It was a retrospective study of 1,134 sudden, unexpected infant deaths which occurred in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio from 1956 through 1965 that laid out some classic findings, such as the vat majority of deaths occurring before six months of age, seasonal fluctuation (more common in winter), and a negative correlation with increasing socioeconomic status. (Clearly the syndrome was known before 1969, even if one cites that paper.) Using Google Scholar, I found other articles in the medical literature using related terms (such as the sudden death syndrome of infancy) dating earlier. However, the specific term SIDS was indeed first formalized in 1969 as “sudden death of an infant or young child, which is unexpected by history, and in which a thorough post mortem examination fails to demonstrate an adequate cause of death,” and it wasn’t until 1971 that SIDS was accepted as a diagnosis on death certificates.
Of course, SIDS is nothing new. As many people pointed out after the brain dead Tweet that I cited above, the unexpected and often unexplained deaths of infants have been described for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, under various names, such as crib death or cot death. Indeed, as this review article notes, arguably SIDS was described in the Bible in the First Book of the Kings (specifically 1 Kings 3:19), where it was written “…and this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it.” This brings up the issue that in the past SIDS was blamed on “overlaying“:
Sudden death in a seemingly healthy infant during sleep is not a phenomenon of modern times, with cases being recorded throughout history for thousands of years. Indeed, one of the first cases is mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 3:19). However, these deaths have generally been attributed to overlaying, as it was common practice to sleep in the same bed as a child. Indeed, the death of an infant by “overlay” was considered such an issue that by the seventh century the event was a punishable offence (6), with the introduction of a “protective” wooden arcuccio for infants to sleep in during the 18th century in Europe with severe penalties if the infant died in a co-sleeping arrangement and the frame was not used (7). By the 19th century the belief that the death of infants during sleep was due to overlaying was so entrenched that death was still attributed to this despite evidence suggesting otherwise (8), with calls for co-sleeping of parents and children to be illegal, especially if the parents were in an intoxicated state (9). This belief was maintained for the next 100 years (1). While fewer deaths are attributed to overlaying in modern times, it is often impossible to exclude this possibility when death has occurred in a bed-sharing situation, which often leads to a diagnosis of “undetermined”.
As evidence built in the late 19th century that infants deaths were occurring without being associated with bed sharing (and thus overlaying), new theories of the factors mediating infant deaths began to arise. In 1830, Kopp’s “thymic asthma” proposed that enlargement of the thymus in some infants resulted in a build-up of pressure leading to tracheal obstruction (10). Others suggested intrinsic asphyxial mechanisms (8), suffocation catarrh (11), superstition or the actions of witches and gods (12, 13) as the cause of sudden death.
I’ll go into the causes and epidemiology of SIDS more in a moment. First, however, I wondered just where this particular talking point had come from, and I found one potential source, that wretched hive of scum and antivax quackery, Age of Autism, in the form of a post by retired naturopathic quack William Gaunt entitled Many Infant Deaths Classified as SIDS Are Actually Caused by Vaccines. Right from the introduction to the post, you see exactly the same narrative as Five Times August presented:
Crib death. Cot death. SIDS has been a formal cause of death since 1969. It’s hard to imagine a deeper pain. Today, we have SADS – and you can guess what the A stands for – adult. Healthy young people, not infants, dying of “natural” causes. As always, thank you to Dr. Gaunt for speaking out on behalf of pediatric health and wellness.
In antivaxland, everything old is new again—and again and again and again and again. Since I’ve already dealt with the SADS narrative in depth; so I’ll focus primarily on the claim that vaccines cause SIDS. So let’s dig in. I’ll start with a claim that I must admit that even I had never seen before. (I blame the pandemic.) Here’s what I mean:
There are 130 official ways for an infant to die. These are listed in the International Classification of Diseases and are sanctioned by WHO and CDC. Before 1979, one of the possible causes of infant death was vaccines. After 1979, all cause-of-death classifications associated with vaccination were eliminated. (Thanks to Neil Z. Miller for this and other information used in this article. He published “Vaccines and sudden infant death: An analysis of the VAERS database 1990-2019 and review of the medical literature” in PubMed Central Toxicology Reports on June 24th, 2021). Before 1979, a coroner could choose vaccines as the cause of an infant death if the evidence fit that conclusion. After 1979, vaccines were no longer one of the accepted causes of infant death and the coroner would be forced to choose another cause of death. SIDS would be a likely alternative choice. It is not a stretch to assume that the vaccine companies had a hand in eliminating vaccines as one of the accepted possible causes of infant deaths.
Somehow, I had missed this “study” (which, oddly enough, Gaunt doesn’t link to) but look at the name! Miller is truly the Energizer Bunny of bad VAERS studies and dumpster diving for complications. I’m also truly amused at how Not-A-Doctor Gaunt refers to the journal as “PubMed Central Toxicology Reports, because PubMed Central is just a repository for publications made available to it, either because the authors want to or are required to because their study was funded by the federal government.The journal is just Toxicology Reports, an open-access journal that has, unfortunately, become rather well-known for publishing low quality studies supporting the antivaccine viewpoint.
The interesting thing about this claim is that it’s checkable. Since the ICD-9 was released in 1979, clearly he must be referring to diagnoses in ICD-8 (from 1965) and earlier. It’s also true that ICD-8 has two diagnoses (with subdiagnoses for specific vaccines):
- E933: Complications and misadventures in prophylaxis with bacterial vaccines
- E934 Complications and misadventures in prophylaxis with other vaccines
However, if you look at ICD-9, you’ll find the following codes with additional numbers to add for individual vaccines:
- 978: Poisoning by bacterial vaccines
- 979: Poisoning by other vaccines and biological substances
In ICD=10, similar codes still exist, as well as codes for vaccine-associated poliomyelitis and allergies to vaccines. Miller is either mistaken or lying when he claims that after 1979 coroners could not list a vaccine as a cause of death because of changes in the ICD-9. Different versions of the ICD codes do list causes of death by diagnosis, but I note that even ICD-8 does not list vaccines as a cause of infant mortality, even though it does include two different general diagnosis codes complications from vaccines and several codes, each specific to a given vaccine.
Just for yucks, I went back to look at even earlier ICD versions. ICD-6 and -7 have codes for complications of smallpox vaccines and other vaccines, while ICD-5 only has a code for sequelae of smallpox vaccination, which is what earlier versions of ICD also have. The bottom line is that codes for vaccine complications have always been part of the ICD system, and the current system still has them. There is nothing to stop a coroner from using them when determining a cause of death.
Gaunt also cites the Vaccine Court:
In one case, an African American male infant (JB) received seven vaccines at his 4-month well baby visit. He died the next day. The medical examiner stated that the cause of death was SIDS. After hearing the evidence, the vaccine court Special Master stated in his decision: “I have concluded that the petitioners have demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the vaccines can and likely did play a critical role in this child’s death by stimulating the production of inflammatory cytokines that suppressed the respiratory response and caused the vulnerable infant to be unable to respond in the normal way to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in his system.” Most cases of alleged vaccine-caused injury or death get rejected by vaccine court. The evidence must be overwhelming and irrefutable for the petitioner to have any chance of winning the case. This case was originally classified as SIDS, but solid evidence proved that vaccines caused this infant boy’s death.
I wrote about this case and Vaccine Court decision in detail when it was released. The first thing to note is that the Vaccine Court did not conclude that vaccines caused this child’s death from SIDS. As I put it at the time, for this case speculation and cherry picked science beat strong epidemiology showing no link between vaccines and SIDS, which is why I said at the time that the Vaccine Court does sometimes get things wrong. I also noted that this case was an outlier that ignored all the other previous National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, (NVICP) rulings that had rejected the very the hypothesis of “cytokine storm” as a mechanism for vaccines to cause SIDS. More importantly, though, if you’re going to cite this case, you really should mention that the Federal Court of Claims overturned this decision in 2018, a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit in 2019. The judgment concluded that the original decision was arbitrary and capricious because it ignored previous decisions and applied a too-low standard of proof to the case. I like to view this particular decision as an example of how the Vaccine Court, contrary to how it’s portrayed by antivaxxers, actually bends over backwards to try to compensate complainants.
For a relatively brief article, Not-A-Doctor Gaunt does manage to do quite the Gish gallop. For instance, he claims:
The CDC vaccine schedule calls for the hepatitis B vaccine to be given on the day of birth. At 2 months, it calls for 8 vaccines (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTaP), polio, hepatitis B, pneumococcal, haemophilus B, and rotovirus.) At 4 months, it calls for 7 vaccines (DTaP, polio, pneumoccal, haemophilus B, and rotovirus.) Then at 6 months there are 9 more vaccines on the schedule (DTaP, polio, hepatitis B, pneumococcal, haemophilus B, flu, and rotovirus). No worries that 7 to 9 vaccines given to an infant at one time might kill some infants. The authorities routinely exonerate the vaccines and encourage the selection of SIDS as the appropriate cause of these deaths. VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System) data shows that more than 78% of reported infant deaths occurred within the first 7 days post-vaccination. This does not prove that vaccines killed these infants, but it is highly suspicious.
Again, VAERS is a passive reporting system, and babies do get several vaccines at 2, 4, and 6 months. Given that the peak incidence of SIDS occurs between 2-4 months of age and SIDS is uncommon after six months of age, one would expect a number of cases to occur within a week or two of vaccination by random chance alone, just as we expect a number of cases in which the first symptoms of autism are reported within a month or less of vaccination. You know what’s interesting here, though? Notice the vaccination schedule cited by Not-A-Doctor Gaunt. Notice which vaccine is not on it. That’s right, children under 6 months of age do not routinely receive the MMR vaccine. Look at the CDC vaccine schedule for children; the first dose of MMR isn’t recommended until 12 months of age, long past the age when SIDS occurs. Gaunt started his whole narrative by claiming that SIDS was a term coined in the late 1960s, conveniently not long after the rollout of the measles vaccine, and yet SIDS occurs primarily in an age range much younger than when the first dose of MMR is administered. This observation alone shows that MMR could not possibly be a cause of SIDS. That’s quite the bait-and-switch that Gaunt and antivaxxers pulled with this narrative!
And don’t even get me started on Gaunt’s citation of another Goldman and Miller dumpster dive claiming to relate increased risk of hospitalization to vaccination or his parroting the vilest antivax lie of all, that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.” It’s a lie that’s been used to try to free child abusers from prison after they killed children. Gaunt also cites an apocryphal story from Archie Kalokerinos about aboriginal children in Australia supposedly dying in large numbers from vaccines; that is, until Kalokerinos discovered that they were malnourished and that vitamin C would save them. In brief, Kalokerinos was an antivaxxer affiliated with the antivax group the Australian Vaccination Network who routinely spread lots of conspiracy theories about vaccines, including that vaccines were used to spread HIV/AIDS in Nigeria as part of a deliberate genocide perpetrated by the World Health Organization and the Save The Children Fund, that they were used by the Australian government to kill a large number of Aboriginal Australians, and that the United States planned to exterminate criminals by encouraging them to get vaccinated.
Gaunt also Gish gallops with some other observations. He cites an awful “analysis” by Amy Becker and Mark Blaxill that tried to relate a decline in SIDS to COVID-19 lockdowns that resulted in delays in childhood vaccination, falsely concluding that this shows that vaccines cause SIDS. I discussed the flaws in their “analysis” in detail when they published their nonsense. He cites Japanese authorities raising the age for first vaccination from 3 months to 2 years in the 1970s as a result of the DTP scare in the 1990s, claiming that after “this change, the sudden infant death rate following vaccination improved by 90%.” Well, yes. Looking at a population of 2 year olds and older would just by random chance alone result in a much lower death rate, given that the peak SIDS incidence is before age 6 months. Babies who make it to 2 years old are, of course, far less likely to die of SIDS. Also, Gaunt cites a paper that shows that the incidence of adverse events after acellular pertussis vaccination was similar to that of whole cell pertussis vaccination among two year olds and forgets to mention the resurgence of whooping cough that resulted from Japan’s policy change, with 49 deaths in 1979, far more than the number of deaths associated with DPT. One notes that Japan made a similar mistake with the MMR vaccine nearly 20 years later, with the result being a resurgence in Rubella.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that we’ve met Not-A-Doctor Gaunt before, in the context of his having authored another post on AoA, this one entitled The Elephant in the Living Room. The post is built around a metaphor involving a two-year-old child found in the living room with his head crushed. In the room there is also an elephant whose “hooves” are dripping with blood. This happens as the police are examining the crime scene:
The younger detective says, “What about the elephant? It seems clear that…” His older partner interrupts him and takes him aside. He says, “If you want to keep your job, you will disregard the elephant as a suspect. It is an absolute career killer to accuse an elephant of anything bad. The CDC has funded several scientific studies which show that elephants are safe and effective and above reproach. Take it from me, you don’t want to go there. We can come up with any cockamamie story we want but it is totally politically incorrect to even mention the possibility that the elephant had any role in this child’s death.” The younger detective said, “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
That’s right. Not-A-Doctor Gaunt actually used a metaphor in which vaccination was likened to an elephant crushing a toddler’s head but not being suspected of the crime because of a religious or ideologic belief that the elephant can’t do anything wrong. This is the sort of man we’re talking about.
The claim that vaccines somehow cause SIDS is an old antivax lie based on the observation that the peak age of SIDS just happens to coincide with an age range in which infants get a number of vaccines (2 months, 4 months, 6 months). It’s a multifactorial condition that has nothing to do with vaccines. Indeed, one strong argument that it does not is simply to cite the incidence of SIDS since the 1990s. Guess what? This decline started falling dramatically in the early 1990s, which is when, as antivaxxers like to point out, the childhood vaccine schedule started to expand to include several more vaccines. This decline also corresponded with the promotion of the Back To Sleep campaign to encourage parents to have their infants sleep on their back, given that stomach sleeping is a known risk factor for SIDS.
Not-A-Doctor Gaunt’s narrative is a familiar one to those of us who’ve been following the antivaccine movement. It confuses correlation with causation and ignores history and evidence. It’s not surprising to me that a new version of this myth in which a similar false claim has arisen about SADS has emerged after the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. When antivaxxers have only a hammer, everything looks like a nail to them.