On 24 August 2014 a CNN iReport claiming intentional suppression of data relating to 340% increased risk 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
The second iReport published on 22 August 2014 explicitly claimed that the CDC had been involved in an intentional coverup:
Dr. Thompson has admitted the 340% increase in boys receiving the MMR vaccine "on time," as opposed to delayed, was buried by himself,
On 27 August, Thompson released a statement via law firm Morgan Verkamp, LLC, confirming that he had spoken with Dr. Brian Hooker and that he had "omitted statistically significant information" from his study. 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 began:
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.
What got lost in the brouhaha over Dr. Thompson's "confession," allegations about a "cover-up" at the CDC, and threats of whistleblower lawsuits was what should have been the main point: Did collected data actually prove that the MMR vaccine produces a 340% increased risk of autism in African-American boys? The answer is no, it did not.
On 27 August 2014,
The CDC 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 that 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:
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.
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:
So is Hooker’s result valid? Was there really a 3.36-fold increased risk for autism in African-American males who received MMR vaccination before the age of 36 months in this dataset? Hooker [performed] multiple subset analyses, which, of course, are prone to false positives. As we say, if you slice and dice the evidence more and more finely, eventually you will find apparent correlations that might or might not be real. In this case, I doubt Hooker's correlation is real.
There's no biologically plausible reason why there would be an effect observed in African-Americans but no other race and, more specifically than that, in African-American males. In the discussion, Hooker does a bunch of handwaving about lower
What [Hooker] has done, apparently, is found grist for a perfect conspiracy theory to demonize the CDC, play the race card in a truly despicable fashion, and cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the CDC vaccination program, knowing that most of the white antivaccine activists who support [him] hate the CDC so much that they won't notice that even Hooker's reanalysis doesn’t support their belief that vaccines caused the autism in their children.
Last updated: 3 February 2015