09.01.14 10:45 AM ET

Anti-Vaxxers Have a New Hero

A CDC scientist says he and his colleagues hid research regarding the MMR vaccine and autism. Hello, anti-vaxxer field day.

Is a whistleblower still a whistleblower if, after blowing it, he professes he didn’t even know he was holding a whistle in the first place?

Such is the bizarrely ambiguous status of Dr. William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and the epicenter of a manufactured controversy within the anti-vaccine community. One of the authors of a study on the safety of the MMR vaccine published a decade ago, Dr. Thompson recently collaborated with Dr. Brian Hooker on a reanalysis of the data used in that study, apparently motivated by remorse at having deviated in some way from scientific probity during the original research. Recorded snippets of phone conversations between the two were then featured in an amazingly inflammatory YouTube video produced by Andrew Wakefield, in which the CDC’s study is compared negatively not only to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis scandal, but also to Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

According to Dr. Hooker’s more recent paper, the original data actually showed an increased risk of autism in African-American males given the MMR vaccine before age 36 months. The article was published in the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, and I would love to offer my own thoughts on its methods. Unfortunately, the only conclusions I will be able to draw at this time stem from this statement appearing on the journal’s website where the study used to be:

“This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say my guess about that study’s methods would be “not good.”

Since being outed by Wakefield as the so-called “CDC whistleblower,” Dr. Thompson has issued a statement through his lawyer. As of this writing, the increased traffic appears to be crashing the law firm’s website, but a full text of the statement can be found at the science blog Respectful Insolence. (The surgeon and medical researcher who writes there under the name Orac has done a very detailed series of posts about this entire tempest in a teapot.) In that statement, Dr. Thompson says:

“I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.”

I contacted Dr. Frank DeStefano, the first author of the Pediatrics study, for comment, and received a reply from Health Communications Specialist Angela Fisher at the CDC. She directed me to the Centers’ official statement on the controversy, which explains why some data about the race of studied children were omitted, and why a slight increase detected in the incidence of autism amongst vaccinated children was likely related requirements for enrollment in preschool special education programs. It also notes that further studies and reviews have found no relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Upon request for more a more specific response to Dr. Hooker’s accusations, I received the following detailed reply from Belsie González, Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the CDC:

“As this topic was so sensitive and complex, the CDC study published in Pediatrics in February 2004 underwent clearance at CDC, the usual process of internal review for scientific accuracy that all CDC papers undergo. In addition, before submission to the journal, the manuscript was reviewed by five experts outside of CDC and an independent CDC statistician (see acknowledgements section of the paper for specific names). Finally, all reputable journals undergo peer-review of all submitted papers before final publication.

The 2004 CDC study was designed as a case-control study. This means, children with autism (cases) were specifically identified, and children without autism (controls) were identified to be similar to the children with autism in other respects. When data are collected in a specific way for a specific type of statistical analysis (a case-control study in this instance), using those data in a different type of analysis can produce confusing results. Because the methods in Dr. Hooker’s reanalysis were not described in detail, it is hard to speculate why his results differed from CDC’s. We would be interested to learn more about how he analyzed the data to reach the conclusions made in his study.”

In short, not only did experts outside of the CDC verify the original study, but Dr. Hooker’s new paper likely reaches the findings it does because he uses the wrong kind of analysis for the data set.

Whatever the conclusions one wishes to draw about Dr. Hooker’s findings, it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one who thinks that vaccines are safe. Dr. Thompson’s statement continues:

“I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”

It’s very difficult to understand what Dr. Thompson intended by contacting Dr. Hooker in the first place. The snippets included in the video are clearly cherry-picked, and repeated for effect throughout. If he would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating their child, why would be throw in his lot with a man who is strongly associated with the anti-vaccine movement? As Orac notes, it is a very least a failure of due diligence.

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What does seem clear is that Dr. Thompson had no intention of being a whistleblower in the first place. From later in the statement, he says, “I have had many discussions with Dr. Brian Hooker over the last 10 months regarding studies the CDC has carried out regarding vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes including autism spectrum disorders… I was not, however, aware that he was recording any of our conversations, nor was I given any choice regarding whether my name would be made public or my voice would be put on the Internet.”

So not only were whatever qualms Dr. Thompson had insufficient to have him remove his name from the original study, they were neither enough to make him speak out publicly in the decade since nor have him willingly attach his name to any effort to debunk it. Not a lot of air tooting that whistle, no matter what the video would lead viewers to believe.

When determining how seriously to take any study, one of the most important considerations to keep in mind is the bias of those conducting it. Indeed, Dr. Thompson’s statement goes on to say that he wants to assist “objective and unbiased scientists” in the work of understanding vaccines’ safety. But the bias in this case could not be more obvious.

Wakefield, the granddaddy of the anti-vaccine movement, whose own study was retracted by The Lancet and whose license to practice medicine in Britain was revoked, has used Dr. Thompson in a way that he claims not to have intended, as neither Wakefield nor Dr. Hooker had the compunction to inform him that he was being recorded or used in the video. Further, Wakefield wasn’t content to merely go full Godwin by invoking Hitler—he chose to make reference to Stalin and Pol Pot, too. Why he didn’t throw in reference to the Salem witch trials and the Challenger disaster for good measure is beyond me. Please note that these monsters of the 20th century are compared favorably to the CDC study’s authors.

That’s not mere bias. That’s a slant bad enough to give viewers scoliosis.

I strongly suspect that the reanalysis of the original study, as indicated by the CDC response, was merely torturing the data until they confessed to what an anti-vaccine author wanted them to say. Since I cannot access the new article now, I will let the journal’s removal of it speak for itself, along with Dr. Thompson only being publicly associated with it unwillingly.

But at the end of the day, the ultimate conclusion remains the same. Vaccines are safe, and there is no good evidence to link them to autism. I fully support all parents choosing to give them to their children, just like Dr. Thompson says.