The New Vaccination and Autism Scare: Same Shit, Different Species

The Daily Mail doesn’t have a particularly good record when it comes to views on the causes of Autism. Melanie Phillips for example led the Mail crusade to link MMR jabs to the onset of Autism and although that has now been disproved in scientific terms the doubts still linger in the minds of many. This doubt has been helped by a media quick to look for health scare stories, and quick to place huge faith in barely credible sources.

Last night on Twitter @jameswales Tweeted that the Daily Mail had once again gone beyond parody to report that vaccines are giving autism to dogs. The story has all the hallmarks of a Bad Science classic: ‘Vaccines “are making our dogs sick as vets cash in”‘. Firstly, the classic inverted commas imply that there isn’t a huge amount of truth behind the story, because the Daily Mail is quick to show that the claim is not theirs. Secondly, it has the conspiracy element that appeals to tabloid readers. It isn’t just an accusation that vaccines have side-effects, it is actually implying that vets are making dogs ill just so that they can charge animal owners to make them better. And finally, when we get to the ‘organisation’ behind the ‘research’ or claim, we find out that it is ostensibly a lone woman making unsubstantiated claims.

The claims are made by the charity Canine Health Concern [CHC]. The claims are that vaccines given to puppies have led to conditions such as autism and epilepsy and quotes ‘latest scientific research’ that suggests immunisation after the initial jabs does not need to be repeated for ‘at least seven years, if not for life’.

I visited the website to find out more about the charity and discovered some interesting things. The charity was founded by Catherine O’Driscoll who had two Golden Retrievers die from conditions she believes to have been caused by vaccines. The latest research I could find under ‘Scientific Data‘ was published in 1997. The latest news section gives a link to a Vet Times article on the open letter sent by CHC to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate [VMD], the article is dated 8 March, so presumably CHC has been sent an advance copy to demonstrate how the issue has been written up.

With regards to the entire open letter, I cannot find it on the website, but a Google search found a full copy on Facebook – of all places. The letter argues that the VMD has not properly considered the current accepted immunisation schedule (yearly for the majority of injections) in light of scientific evidence that suggests immunisation should occur less frequently. This issue seems to be separate to the issue of whether such immunisations are making animals sick or not.

Not surprisingly the Daily Mail has muddied the waters by focusing on the accusation that animals are being made sick by vaccines, when the scientific focus of the open letter is on the frequency of the vaccinations, for which evidence is provided and footnoted. The letter ends with the claim that:

This letter is written on behalf of the hundreds of pet owners who have contacted Canine Health Concern after their dogs were made ill or died from unnecessary vaccine procedures, and whose illnesses and deaths remain unreported and unacknowledged. It is signed by veterinarians from around the world, and by some of the animal guardians who join us in calling for an end to a needless and potentially harmful veterinary practice.

Immediately, we can see that this story bears a clear resemblance to the MMR scare, the letter is supported by dog owners who have linked a vaccination with an illness in their animal and have concluded that the vaccination was the cause of it. This is an accusation that does not appear to be grounded in science, the same as the claim about the MMR jabs. The letter only tries to support the claims for a reduction in the vaccinations given, it does not put forward a scientific case for the vaccinations causing sickness.

The Daily Mail has greatly exaggerated the claims made by the CHC in the letter, the letter is not accusing vets or vaccine manufacturers from cashing in on making our dogs sick, rather they are cashing in on giving too many vaccinations. The Daily Mail headline implies that money is being made by vets purposefully making dogs ill, whereas this claim simply isn’t supported in the open letter. The open letter is careful not to push the ‘vaccination makes animals sick’ argument too strongly, largely – I would suggest – to keep their credibility.

With regards to the claim that vaccinations are making dogs sick, Catherine O’Driscoll is the author of two books on the subject: ‘What Vets Don’t Tell You About Vaccines’ and ‘Shock to the System’. I managed to track down a review of the second edition of ‘What Vets Don’t Tell You About Vaccines’ by Nigel Gumley, DVM, and published in the Canadian Vetinary Journal. The review is interesting:

Founded on the belief that vaccination led to illness or the demise of all 6 of her pets, Ms. O’Driscoll’s book is a colorful, yet poor, attempt to devalue the importance of immunization. Convinced of the harmful and oft unreported side effects of vaccination, Ms. O’Driscoll formed the Canine Health Concern, a self-proclaimed pet advocacy group. Using surveys conducted under the auspices of this group, Ms. O’Driscoll leads the reader through liberal quotations, anecdotes, and research, including her own, to arrive at the apparently irrefutable position that vaccines are much more harmful than veterinarians are leading their clients to believe. Reactions, such as arthritis, diarrhea, allergies, ataxia, autoimmune disease, colitis, dry eye/conjunctivitis, epilepsy, loss of appetite, nasal discharges, nervous/worrying dispositions and other behavioral changes, skin problems, weight loss, various cancers, to name a few, are all, in her opinion, connected to immunization through a temporal association, giving a reaction rate of at least 3%.

Ms. O’Driscoll’s assertions, unfortunately, are difficult to substantiate. On one hand, her own retrospective study on a temporal relationship between vaccination and adverse effects, while summarized, is not published for scientific scrutiny. On the other, literature and opinions that are available are often misinterpreted or taken out of context. Despite various attempts to remain credible with references to figures of scientific respect, Ms. O’Driscoll loses the credibility in her dogmatic assertions or interpretations.

Furthermore, the reviewer goes onto add that:

With chapter titles like What vets should know about vaccines, Vaccine do not immunize, Vaccines are deadly poisons, and Vaccines can cause the disease they are designed to prevent, Ms. O’Driscoll leads the reader to the inevitable recommendation that homeopathy is a much safer and more efficacious method with which to protect dogs.

Homeopathy, the alternative to evil medicine that treats people ‘naturally’, but has been proven in repeated, peer-reviewed studies to not work, at all, ever. The CHC, however, are very clear to offer complete support for homeopathy for dogs:

Many dog lovers are moving away from annual vaccination towards the safer homoeopathic nosodes. Nosodes usually come in pill form, made from highly diluted preparations containing the disease-causing organisms or diseased tissue. This method of protection has been used for many years with a significant record of success. Published studies have shown the efficacy of nosodes in reducing the incidence of infection in outbreaks of mastitis in cow herds, kennel cough in dogs, distemper in dogs, meningitis in humans, and tularaemia in mice. As such, the principle of nosodes in disease prevention is well proven.

Once again, the first questions that enter my mind are clear: what evidence? Where can I find it? Who published it? And so on. The CHC website provides no links and no evidence whatosever to back up these claims. The idea of animal homeopathy is the same as human homeopathy, reduce an ingredient until there is virtually no particles left at all in the final pill and have faith that this will somehow trigger an immunity in the animal. Does homeopathy work in animals? Err, no:

When considering specifically veterinary trials, results are even more disappointing than in man, with no controlled studies of any degree of credibility having demonstrated a significant effect. In one memorable paper Taylor et al. (1989) described seven calves treated with a commercially purchased homoeopathic nosode for Dictyocaulus viviparus and seven with a sham solution, both groups then being challenged with virulent larvae. No antibody could be demonstrated in either group, mortality in both groups was high, and there was no difference in the number or morphology of the worms recovered from the groups post mortem. The conclusion was that “There were no discernable differences between the treated and the control groups in their manifestations of resistance to D. viviparus or their clinical responses to the diseases produced.”…

More recently, other authors have reported similar findings. Scott et al. (2002) studied a commercial homoeopathic remedy for dermatitis in 18 dogs suffering from atopic dermatitis. One dog in each group (treated and control) showed a reduction in pruritus (to less than 50% of pre- treatment severity) after treatment. This study also generated much criticism from homoeopathy proponents, mainly on the grounds that as the treatment had not been administered by homoeopaths, the results were therefore invalid. The fact that the remedy used, like the nosode employed by Taylor et al. (1989), had been purchased from a commercial source advertising it as suitable for exactly that purpose, was not commented on by the critics. The following year de Verdier et al. (2003) treated 24 calves suffering from neonatal diarrhoea with a D30 preparation of Podophyllum, and compared them to a group of 20 similar calves given a sham solution, in a double-blind study. There was no significant difference between the groups with respect to depression, inappetance and fever, and the treated group actually had a slightly longer duration of diarrhoea than the control group. In the light of these findings, the authors expressed concern about the welfare implications of the fact that homoeopathic treatment is encouraged among “organic” farmers in the EU. Once again, the study was dismissed by homoeopaths on the grounds of lack of individualisation, ignoring the fact that this is exactly how homoeopathy is actually practised in farm animal medicine.

The author goes on to give some more recent studies (and unlike the CHC, he gives full references and links to the studies), but I think you get the idea by now. Homeopathy has never been proven to perform above placebo in any properly controlled, valid clinical trial. It is as simple as that. Yet, the CHC promote homeopathy for pets as the ‘safer’ alternative to injections. Exactly how safe a dog with no immunity to disease is compared to one that has had the relevant injections is a mystery to me.

Once agin the Daily Mail has stirred up a fear in its readership based on the ramblings of an organisation unfit to comment on the matter. Consider the complete lack of any scientific evidence for homeopathy and consider the following statements on the CHC website:

Although many homoeopathic vets refuse to vaccinate, being convinced of the high risks involved, others will suggest that you vaccinate but try to counteract the side-effects by also giving nosodes. CHC does not recommend this option, as dogs can still experience life- threatening side-effects from the vaccine, nosodes or not…

Please note that kennels are increasingly willing to accept nosode-protected dogs, and some training and ringcraft classes are also becoming more enlightened…

Also, as nosode-protected dogs are usually remarkably healthy, an annual visit to collect nosodes from your vet will probably represent the very worthwhile ‘annual check- up’.

Is this an organisation that demands any credibility whatsoever? Considering that their assertions for vaccines causing sickness in dogs is nothing more than anecdotal (same as MMR and Autism) and at no point is any scientific study actually linked to, it makes me sad that the Daily Mail has given such prominence to the story. Furthermore, the fact that they felt the need to change the angle to make it seem as if vaccinations were far more dangerous than they are, is an action I consider to be criminal. If a dog owner is convinced to not have their pet immunised as a result and that dog dies, then the blood will be on the hands of the Daily Mail.

Consider the impact of the story in terms of the comments, this is the second-highest negatively rated comment:

As a qualified vet nurse I cannot stress enough the importance of vaccinating your pets. Of you who have commented that your pet has never been vaccinated and are fine, you are very lucky. The thing people dont see are the pets that come into my practice in serious pain dying and its heartbreaking knowing that it could have been prevented. The annual vaccination does not just offer the opportunity to vaccinate them it gives them a general health check by a veterinary surgeon, vets are skilled clinicians and they can pick up of things at the earliest possible opportunity, lumps and bumps you may not have noticed etc. I urge you to consider the risk you are taking by not vaccinating your pets these diseases are painful and they are deadly!

– char, derby, 6/3/2010 12:26

Click to rate Rating 112

Compare this to the second-highest positively rated comment:

I was made aware of this ‘scam’ a couple of years ago and do not have my dog vaccinated every year as a result he is far to important a member of my family to take the risk. Trouble is, the pet insurance companies seem to be in on this ‘little number’ as one of the questions they always ask is ‘has your dog had his annual injections’ They need to keep up to date with research and be aware that this one question could be leading them to more insurance payouts than necessary!

– Tats, UK, 6/3/2010 9:38

Click to rate Rating 168

The failure of the Press Complaints Commission to regulate the news media is that the assumption that no-one really takes tabloid newspapers seriously, or that people are intelligent enough to not beleive everything they read, is badly mistaken. Newspapers have an huge influence on their readership – as evidenced during the MMR ‘scare’ when the media convinced a large amount of parents to put their children at risk by not having the vaccinations. The PCC has a responsibility not just to accuracy, but a responsibility for public health issues that are caused by woeful reporting such as this.

Sadly, there are a substantial number of people in society who need protection from organisations like the CHC and a media who are so quick to hype their claims into the next big scare story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *