Fake news isn’t new to scientists. They’ve been dealing with the fallout from fake news for decades.
Here’s the problem. Every day about 4,000 papers are published in the world’s medical and scientific literature. As expected, these studies follow a bell-shaped curve; some are excellent; some are awful; and most are more or less mediocre. In other words, it’s not hard for scientists to find some journal somewhere that will publish their findings, no matter how ill conceived or irreproducible.
For example, in 1974, John Wilson, a pediatric neurologist in London published a paper in the Archives of Disease in Childhood claiming that the pertussis (whooping cough) component of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine caused about 50 children in the Hospital for Sick Children in London to suffer blindness, epilepsy, paralysis, or mental disabilities.
Fears of the pertussis vaccine crossed the ocean. On April 19, 1982, Lea Thompson, a veteran correspondent for NBC News, aired a one-hour special titled DPT: Vaccine Roulette. The images were riveting. Children stared vacantly into space with withered arms and legs, seizing, crying, helpless. Parents all told the same story; our children were fine, then they got this vaccine, and look at what happened.
The media covered Vaccine Roulette as fact. Anti-vaccine advocacy groups were born. Congress held special hearings. Manufacturers suffered an avalanche of lawsuits. And parents avoided the pertussis vaccine, resulting in massive outbreaks. During the next decade, 14 studies showed that the pertussis vaccine hadn’t caused brain damage. In addition, genetic studies performed 25 years later (when the genetic tools were available) found that the children Thompson had described most likely had Dravet’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by early-onset seizures and severe developmental delays. Although Vaccine Roulette had mischaracterized children who had received the DTP vaccine as vaccine-injured, the notion that a vaccine could cause permanent harm was born.
In the late 1990s, more fake news scared more parents.
In February 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet claiming that the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. Again, the media exploded. And again, thousands of parents chose not to vaccinate their children—hundreds in the United Kingdom were hospitalized with measles and four died from the disease. As had been the case during the pertussis vaccine scare, the academic and public health communities responded. Seventeen studies performed in seven countries on three continents found that the MMR vaccine didn’t caused autism.
Later, an investigative reporter in London found that Andrew Wakefield had misrepresented clinical data as well as failed to inform his colleagues that he had received money through a personal-injury lawyer to essentially launder legal claims through a medical journal. As a consequence, Wakefield’s paper was retracted and he lost his license to practice medicine. Nonetheless, the fear that vaccines might cause autism persists. As a consequence, measles, a disease that had been eliminated from the United States in 2000, is back.
Ten years after Wakefield’s bogus study, another fake news story scared more people about vaccines.
In 2001, a journal called Medical Hypothesis published a paper by two parent activists, Lyn Redwood and Sally Bernard, claiming that the signs and symptoms of autism were identical to mercury poisoning. Because some vaccines contained thimerosal—an ethylmercury-containing preservative—Redwood and Bernard reasoned that vaccines were causing autism.
Two years later, Karin Nelson and Margaret Bauman, neurologists from the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School, respectively, showed that autism and mercury poisoning were in fact quite different. Children with mercury poisoning suffered a narrowing of their field of vision whereas children with autism didn’t. Children with mercury poisoning often developed psychosis whereas children with autism didn’t. And children with mercury poisoning had heads that were smaller than normal whereas children with autism had larger heads. In support of Nelson and Bauman’s observations, seven studies later showed that children who had received thimerosal-containing vaccines were at no greater risk of autism than those who had received the same vaccines that didn’t contain thimerosal.
Nonetheless, the fake news about thimerosal has continued.
On February 15, 2017, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. RFK Jr. was accompanied by Nico LaHood, a criminal district attorney from Texas, Del Bigtree, the producer of an anti-vaccine movie, Tony Muhammed, a reverend from the Nation of Islam, and Robert DeNiro, a popular actor. (Come for the fake news; stay for a photo op.)
LaHood explained that one of his children had suffered hives following a vaccine, which he characterized as an autoimmune reaction that led to autism (hives isn’t an autoimmune reaction; it’s a histamine-mediated reaction); Tony Muhammed explained that a monkey virus that had contaminated early lots of a polio vaccine had caused more than 90 million Americans to develop cancer (more than 30 epidemiological studies have since shown that this contaminating virus never caused cancer in people); RFK Jr. continued to advance the disproven hypothesis that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism (ignoring the fact that during the last 15 years—when thimerosal has been out of vaccines given to young children—the incidence of autism has increased); and Robert DeNiro thanked everyone for being there, said he agreed with RFK Jr., and sat down. If nothing else, this press conference proved that the best way to learn about science and medicine probably isn’t from a panel consisting of two lawyers, one filmmaker, an actor, and a reverend.
At the National Press Club event, RFK Jr. informed the audience that President Trump, concerned about the rising rates of autism, is considering appointing him to head a commission to oversee vaccine safety and scientific integrity—commissions that already exist. RFK Jr. said that his commission would be made up of “Americans of the highest integrity” that might include corporate CEOs and “doctors on television.” In other words, people with no experience in the design, research, manufacture or testing of vaccines and no expertise in areas like immunology, virology, microbiology, statistics, biology, or epidemiology. Ignorance, despite RFK Jr.’s enthusiasm for his personal vaccine commission, is never an advantage.
A federal vaccine safety commission of the type described by RFK Jr. is unlikely to have teeth. Most of the important decisions about vaccines are made at the state level. Nonetheless, RFK Jr. would be given yet another platform for more fake news that could cause more parents to avoid vaccines and more children to suffer—a federal commission working against the health of children.
Paul A. Offit, MD is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (Columbia University Press, 2008)