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Bad Medicine

Claim:   The CDC has intentionally suppressed proof of vaccine-related cases of autism in African-American boys from reaching the public.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, August 2014]

Is the following true: Fraud at the CDC uncovered, 340% increased risk of autism hidden from public.

Origins:   On 24 August 2014 a CNN iReport claiming intentional suppression of data relating to rates of autism among specific populations of African-American boys following MMR vaccinations went viral. The story seemed to disappear mysteriously, further fueling the notion that an intentional coverup was underway.

The idea that vaccines lead to autism is not a new conspiracy theory, nor is it a particularly uncommon one. A now heavily discredited study published in the medical
journal Lancet in 1998 planted a seed of fear about vaccine safety; and despite efforts to counteract the widespread concern among worried parents, public health officials continue to encounter growing public resistance to vaccination. And the CNN iReport in question was based on a video which featured William Thompson, a senior researcher at the CDC, seemly "confessing" to anti-vaccinationist Brian Hooker about a coverup at the CDC, and included material such as a claim by Dr. Andrew Wakefield (who in 1998 published a fraudulent research paper claiming a link between MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism and has since been barred from practicing medicine in the UK) asserting that the results of a study proving a link between autism and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations had been "hidden" by the CDC:

Dr. Andrew Wakefield: "This is a real story of a real fraud. Deliberate. High-level deception of the American people with disastrous consequences for its children's health."

"Over a decade ago, Dr. Scott Montgomery and I put forward a hypothesis for MMR vaccine and autism: the age you receive the vaccine influences the risk. We shared this hypothesis with vaccine officials, members of the Centers for Disease Control, at meetings in Washington, D.C. and Cold Spring Harbor. A group of senior vaccine safety people at the CDC studied it. It panned out. We were right — at least partly.

"By Nov 9, 2001, nearly thirteen years ago, senior CDC scientists knew that the younger age exposure to MMR was associated with an increased risk of autism. In 2004 they published, but they hid the results. "MMR was declared safe."

One very important aspect of this current rumor is the conflation of CNN's news brand with its iReport, the latter being a platform under which anyone may submit content. Confusion about CNN's role in the reporting of this claim is now referenced at the top of the restored post; but earlier versions of the story did not clearly designate the report's crowdsourced nature, and many readers were incorrectly led to believe CNN was doing the reporting as a news network.

Currently, a few links are circulating from CNN iReport concerning a CDC whistleblower coverup. One is titled "Fraud at the CDC uncovered, 340% increased risk of autism hidden from public," and another is titled "CDC Autism Whistleblower Admits Vaccine Study Fraud."

The second link was published on 22 August 2014, and the iReport post claims explicitly that the CDC was involved in an intentional coverup:

William W. Thompson, PhD, Senior Scientist with the CDC has stepped forward and admitted the 2004 paper entitled "Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta," which has been used repeatedly by the CDC to deny the MMR-autism connection, was a fraud.


Dr. Thompson has admitted the 340% increase in boys receiving the MMR vaccine "on time," as opposed to delayed, was buried by himself, Dr. DeStefano, Dr. Bhasin, Dr. Yeargin-Allsopp, and Dr. Boyle ... Dr. Thompson first called and spoke with Dr. Brian Hooker, who then revealed the information to Dr. Andrew Wakefield and the Autism Media Channel.

One factor driving the conspiratorial narrative was the disappearance of the CNN iReports in question, leading many to assume that the CDC colluded with CNN to suppress the information:

However, the allegedly-suppressed reports are currently readily available on the CNN iReport site, now with a disclaimer appended to them:

CNN PRODUCER NOTE: CNN iReport is the network's user-generated news community. This story was initially pulled for further review after it was flagged by the community. CNN has reached out to the CDC for comment and is working to confirm the claims in this iReport.

A number of claims relating "CDC whistleblower" allegations are currently circulating the social web, particularly on pages and sites that favor medical conspiracy theories. Despite the volume of posts on the subject, no credible verification of these claims has emerged amid intensifying levels of rhetoric. The context of Thompson's remarks as presented in the video footage (seen in the above tweet) has not been made clear, but as ScienceBlogs noted of that video, it appears to be highly manipulated and misleading:

Somehow, some way, a senior CDC scientist has made the massive mistake of speaking with Brian Hooker. That CDC scientist is William Thompson, well-respected (until, possibly, now) scientist and co-author of Destefano et al, as well as first author on a widely cited NEJM study showing no correlation between thimerosal in vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders, among other studies. The first thing I noticed listening to Thompson in Wakefield's video is just how little he is quoted. Instead he's paraphrased by Hooker, who portrays himself as Thompson’s "confessor" to whom Thompson is "confessing." The parts with Thompson's voice appear highly edited, brief sound bites. They sound, at least the way they are presented, highly damning on first listen. It seems very odd on first listen. Heck, it sounds very odd on second listen. So what really happened? Again, who knows? You’ll excuse me if I reserve judgment until more information comes in from sources other than Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker because I suspect that what we're seeing is a highly one-sided presentation of cherry picked information.

The CDC has since issued a statement regarding the data in question, with instructions for accessing the study at the center of the controversy. As the CDC noted, the authors of that study suggested the most likely explanation for the moderate correlation between autism and vaccination in young children was the existence of immunization requirements for autistic children enrolled in special education preschool programs:

Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.

The study looked at different age groups: children vaccinated by 18 months, 24 months, and 36 months. The findings revealed that vaccination between 24 and 36 months was slightly more common among children with autism, and that association was strongest among children 3-5 years of age. The authors reported this finding was most likely a result of immunization requirements for preschool special education program attendance in children with autism.

On 27 August, Thompson released a statement via law firm Morgan Verkamp, LLC, confirming that he had spoken with Dr. Brian Hooker. Titled "STATEMENT OF WILLIAM W. THOMPSON, Ph.D., REGARDING THE 2004 ARTICLE EXAMINING THE POSSIBILITY OF A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MMR VACCINE AND AUTISM," Thompson's statement was released here and it begins:

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 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.

Thompson also states that he had not been made aware that conversations he'd had with Hooker had been recorded, nor did he consent to being quoted publicly on the matter of the 2004 Pediatrics study:

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 share his beliefthat CDC decision-making and analyses should be transparent. 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.

He concludes:

Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information. I will do everything I can to assist any unbiased and objective scientists inside or outside the CDC to analyze data collected by the CDC or other public organizations for the purpose of understanding whether vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism. There are still more questions than answers, and I appreciate that so many families are looking for answers from the scientific community ... My colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since this matter became public. In fact, I received a performance-based award after this story came out. I have experienced no pressure or retaliation and certainly was not escorted from the building, as some have stated.

On 27 August, Hooker's study in Translational Neurodegeneration was removed from public domain due to concerns raised about the research's conclusions. The journal stated:

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.

For a thorough analysis of the flaws and misinformation associated with the current CDC autism "cover-up" conspiracy theory, we recommend the posts on the subject at ScienceBlogs, which note of the claim at the heart of this matter (i.e, allegedly suppressed proof of a 340% increased risk of autism in African-American boys after MMR vaccination) that:

Vaccination data were abstracted from immunization forms required for school entry, and records of children who were born in Georgia were linked to Georgia birth certificates for information on maternal and birth factors. Basically, no significant associations were found between the age cutoffs examined and the risk of autism. I note that, even in the “reanalysis” by Brian Hooker, there still isn’t any such correlation for children who are not African American boys

Wakefield claims that African American boys were "neglected" [in Thompson's study]. He also claims that this is vindication for him, but, of course, it is not. Notice how he completely neglects to mention that in every other subgroup [examined in the study], even Hooker couldn’t torture the data to make it confess a relationship between age at MMR vaccination and autism in any other population other than a very small population in the study: African-American males. Whenever that happens as you slice epidemiological data finer and finer, you should be alert for the very distinct possibility that what you're really looking at is a spurious correlation. As I pointed out before, Hooker in reality merely confirmed that Wakefield was wrong about everyone except African-American males, and, given how small this subgroup was in the study, almost certainly didn’t find any evidence supporting Wakefield’s hypothesis (such as it is) for even African-American boys. Yet, Wakefield, as deluded as he is, spins it as "vindication." He even thanks Hooker for getting a "senior scientist at the CDC" to come forward and "confirm" that some of those "ideas we put forward" are true. Holy hell! Even if you spin Thompson’s statements in the most unflattering manner possible towards the CDC and his co-investigators, Thompson said nothing of the sort!

Last updated:   30 August 2014

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