Wednesday, October 31, 2007


On the day after the hilarity of Halloween, many mainstream Christians will be celebrating All Saints Day. [Here’s some trivia for you. One reason that New Orleans’ football team is called the Saints is because the formal awarding of the franchise came on November 1st.]

Maybe it’s because I don’t live in the New Orleans area any more, but All Saints Day just doesn’t seem as important. Still, I’ll think about it, and I’ll reflect on the one real saint I knew in life. Go here to read what I write a couple of years ago on this date.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


In the little-over-two years I’ve been blogging, I have avoided labeling individuals with whom I disagree as “Pharma shills.” It’s a label that is too often thrown around without any substantial support, and it only distracts from the discussion. The only person, thus far, to earn that title from me has been Dr. Paul Offit. And let’s face it, that shoe fits him like the glass slipper fit Cinderella.

That being said, an op-ed piece appeared recently that has made me wonder if there might be someone else in the debate who might be a “Pharma shill.” To keep you from any suspense, the answer is: I don’t know yet, but I can’t rule it out.

Published in differfent locations under the titles, ‘Suffer the Little Children’ No More and Another Blow Against Vaccine Hysteria ⎯ Or Is It, a fellow by the name of Michael Fumento engages in hyperbole after hyperbole to argue his opinion that vaccination is perfectly safe and has, without any room for question, been cleared of any suspected role in the triggering of the current epidemic of developmental disorders (including autism spectrum disorders).

It’s not just that Mr. Fumento ignores that the gradual evolution of the environmental/vaccine hypothesis has moved it beyond looking solely at thimerosal. We’ve come to expect that the defenders of the vaccine industry want to keep the discussion on mercury because it becomes that much easier to quote half-baked epidemiological studies focusing only on that aspect and not upon the processes themselves by which mercury and other toxins trigger disease in our children. No, it’s the snarkiness of his commentary and the over-the-top manner in which he argues his point that set Mr. Fumento apart. Here’s how he starts out:
The vaccine preservative thimerosal has jumped the safety hurdle. Again. So indicates a recent large epidemiological study in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Again” is the problem, though. One huge study after another has cleared thimersorosal as a cause of child developmental disorders, and specifically autism, but there is a powerful lobby that couldn’t care less.
By “one huge study after another,” I suppose he means the Verstraeten study, which after the “helpful feedback” received at Simpsonwood managed to remove the unmistakable connection between thimerosal and autism. What was left ⎯ in the principle author’s words ⎯ was a “neutral study,” i.e., one that proved nothing. Or maybe Mr. Fumento is referring to the Danish study which changed the study criteria halfway through, leaving the absurd impression that a mercury-based preservative actually protected children from autism.

But it was Mr. Fumento’s paranoid reference to “a powerful lobby” that made me do a double-take. That is absolutely Offitian in tone. What organization or group do we have on our side that could possibly have the clout to affect public policy that PhRMA has?

So who is this Michael Fumento? His canned bio tells us he is “an author, journalist, and attorney specializing in science and health issues,” and “he is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.” So that tells us he’s a smart guy who is generally friendly toward big business. But what can one find by looking beyond the official bio?

Michael Fumento has been a busy guy through the years. In arguing that the pesticide Alar was perfectly safe on apples, Fumento once wrote that the public questioning of safety claims was “one of the slickest hype campaigns in recent American history.” He has repeatedly complained about the attention and resources devoted to combating the AIDS epidemic, referring to it as a “politically correct disease.” He refers to Gulf War Syndrome as a mere myth. The deference he shows studies issued by official agencies is apparently not absolute. He sharply criticized the surgeon general's findings regarding the dangers of second-hand smoke; Mr. Fumento seems to think there's no real health hazard in having cigarette smoke blown into one's face. In looking at what Mr. Fumento has written about pharmaceutical issues, I discovered that he had addressed the vaccine-autism connection on previous occasions, some of it during his stint with the Scripps-Howard News Service.

It is the demise of his relationship with Scripps Howard that gives us a glimpse into Mr. Fumento’s character. This what Business Week reported in January 2006:
Scripps Howard News Service announced Jan. 13 that it’s severing its business relationship with columnist Michael Fumento, who’s also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from agribusiness giant Monsanto ⎯ a frequent subject of praise in Fumento’s opinion columns and a book.

In a statement released on Jan. 13, Scripps Howard News Service Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland said Fumento “did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson recieved a $60,000 grant from Monsanto.” Copeland added: “Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.” In the Jan. 5 column, Fumento wrote that St. Louis-based Monsanto has about 30 products in the pipeline that will aid farmers, “but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land.”
The basics are that Monsanto made gave $60,000 in 1999 to the Hudson Institute to support a book on agri-business written by Mr. Fumento. For his part, Mr. Fumento down-played the payments, explaining that “I’m just extremely pro-biotech.” With regard to the Scripps Howard piece, Mr. Fumento stated that “he sees no conflict of interest . . . because the grant came several years ago,” and he thought “there’s a statute of limitations on that.” Monsanto, on the other hand, declared that its financial relationship with the Hudson Institute was “ongoing,” although it denied any wrongdoing with the Scripps Howard article.

In the absence of information regarding financial relationships between vaccine manufacturers and either the Hudson Institute or Mr. Fumento, it’s impossible to state whether this guy is a shill or just a very obnoxious idealogue. On such questions, I often resort to the “duck test,” which looks to the apparent nature of something. If it quacks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, and waddles like a duck, you are more probably than not looking at a duck. So far, Mr. Fumento is quacking rather loudly. Time will tell if he has feathers and waddles.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Once again, Autism Speaks is managing to unite the disparate worlds of the biomed and neurodiversity sub-communities by disgusting everyone with a sense of decency.

My buddy, Ginger, over at Adventures in Autism, pointed out a recent post from the always lively and provocative blogger on the ND side of things, the self-described Autistic Bitch from Hell. ABFH has noted the apparent approval Autism Speaks has thrown toward disgraced biologist, Dr. James Watson.

For anyone who has been living in a hole, Dr. Watson, a Nobel laureate, has on a number of occasions espoused views on genetics that can only be labeled as racist. It’s the same Dr. Watson who once referred to stupidity as a disease for which there might be a genetic “cure” (a “cure” that implies eugenics). Even most of us who are “curebies” find that offensive.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Over the last few months when I have been, for the most part absent from the bloggosphere, I probably could have predicted that Paul Offit would be involved in the timing of my return.

There’s been a lot said recently about the claiming of religious exemptions to avoid vaccination of children. Perhaps it’s due to an upsurge of interest in the vaccine issue in the wake of Jenny McCarthy’s recent media appearances. In any event, the Associated Press recently distributed an article entitled “Parents Use Religion to Avoid Vaccines,” which sparked quite a discussion on the web. As I join in the discussion, let me emphasize that what I have to say is not a scientific discourse, but rather examines the legal/ethical/moral/religious issues.

The AP writer, a fellow named Steve LeBlanc, tells us that:
Twenty-eight states, including Florida, Massachusetts and New York, allow parents to opt out for medical or religious reasons only. Twenty other states, among them California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio, also allow parents to cite personal or philosophical reasons. Mississippi and West Virginia allow exemptions for medical reasons only.
The article examines a recent increase in the claiming of religious exemptions ⎯ the numbers actually doubling or tripling in some states. Instead of asking why religious people might actually have objections, Mr. LeBlanc apparently spoke to only one parent, a woman who acknowledged that she is not particularly religious and characterized her claim of a religious exemption as “misleading.” So the writer apparently extrapolated that all or most parents who claim an exemption must likewise be misleading the states.
Some of these parents say they are being forced to lie because of the way the vaccination laws are written in their states.
And of course, whenever the media talks about vaccination policy, they always go to the same source for a quote: our old buddy, Dr. Paul Offit, who holds at least one vaccine patent.
“Do I think that religious exemptions have become the default? Absolutely,” said Dr. Paul Offit, head of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and one of the harshest critics of the anti-vaccine movement. He said the resistance to vaccines is “an irrational, fear-based decision.”
Based on the constant bragging of the CDCC as to increasing vaccination rates, I think labeling the choice of a religious exemption as the “default” is a shining example of Doc Offit’s customary resort to hyperbole. And the reference to an “anti-vaccination movement” tells me that Mr. LeBlanc buys into Offit’s paranoid “us versus them” worldview (see my discussion of his book, The Cutter Incident).

Paul Offit is not the only Doctor O to weigh in on the issue. The medical blogger, Orac, has also had his say. Orac and I first started sparring a few years back, and we managed to develop what I would classify as a civil and cordial relationship. I can even say that I agree with him on many issues. Vaccination policy and the possible role of vaccination in the triggering of the current autism epidemic, however, are issues on which our views are sharply different.

In a recent post, Orac leads into the AP article by writing:
I’ve written before how this misplaced deference has resulted in a spate of laws that allow parents easily to declare a religious exemption and refuse to have their children vaccinated⎯all legally. In the last couple of months, news has come out that indicates that the problem of parents taking advantage of “religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children has grown worse than previously thought. . .
Orac, who does not seem to be very religious himself (apart from a near-religious devotion to what he deems to be good science), makes clear that he believes most claims of religious exemptions are nothing more than sham:
While some parents ⎯ Christian Scientists and certain fundamentalists, for example ⎯ have genuine religious objections to medicine, it is clear that others are simply distrustful of shots.
. . .

In other words, the fear-mongering over vaccines of antivaccinationists, coupled with religious exemption laws in many states, are making it possible for more and more parents simply to lie in order to claim a religious exemption to which they are not (morally, at least) entitled . . .
. . .

Although I’m dismayed at such behavior and the undue deference to religious ideas that allow such laws to make it easy for parents to lie, I can sort of understand why some parents, mislead by antivaccination misinformation, might decide that they have no choice but to lie to “save their children.” Sort of understand, but not condone.
The AP article quotes Doc Offit attempting to sound reasonable:
Offit said he knows of no state that enforces any penalty for parents who falsely claim a religious exemption.

“I think that wouldn’t be worth it because that’s just such an emotional issue for people. Our country was founded on the notion of religious freedom,” he said.
Perhaps Offit has not heard the same stories I’ve heard out of New York, regarding parents who cannot back up their claim of religious exemption with some sort of official documentation from a recognized church. I’m not familiar with the rules in New York, and I invite any corrections on this point, but parents in that state tell me that their children are not allowed in school without that documentation. Sounds like a penalty to me.

Steve LeBlanc, Paul Offit, Orac, and apparently the State of New York all assume that a deeply held religious belief requires some sort of specific church decree to validate the conviction. Pardon my less-than-religious language, but there is only one word that adequately describes that viewpoint: bullshit!!!!

Again, let me emphasize for the sake of clarity that I am not discussing the scientific merits of any particular viewpoint. As I have written on numerous occasions, I consider the science on these questions to be far from conclusive. The question here is not scientific validity; it is individual conscience.

With the exception of a few sects that have an institutional distrust of modern medicine, most denominations do not take a formal theological stand one way or the other on whether vaccination is good or evil per se. To be sure, groups who are part of particular denominations may make generalized statements about the subject as a commentary on public policy. Recent statements issued by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church decrying the use of thimerosal in vaccines stand as one example. I’m sure those who disagree with me can cite examples of church-related organizations calling for increased efforts to vaccinate particular populations. Again, these are more in the nature of public policy commentaries, perhaps guided by broad theological principles. As far as I know, no major mainstream denomination has declared that either vaccinating or not vaccinating a child qualifies as a sin.

As a believing member of a mainstream christian denomination, I am guided by broad principles of what is right and what is wrong. Those principles tell me that I should avoid doing harm to innocent children. If I am personally convinced that the health benefit of a vaccine outweighs the potential risk, I must have my child vaccinated as a moral imperative. On the other hand, if I am personally convinced that the risk to my child is high, an equally strong moral imperative commands that I refrain from vaccination.

The problem with enforcement of mandates is not so much that it is an “emotional issue,” but rather that it is impossible to actually see within the heart of any individual.

Not surprisingly, Orac believes that mainstream scientific opinion trumps religious freedom:
Undue respect for religious beliefs that clash with the scientifically demonstrated ability of vaccines to prevent disease safely enables parents who are either antivaccinationist or who have been mislead by antivaccinationist fearmongering a relatively easy method to bypass vaccination laws and an easy avenue for physicians peddling non-evidence-based attacks on vaccination to help them do so.
In an addendum to his post, though, Orac starts to make sense, although his rationale is probably far different from mine:
Either non-medical exemptions should be allowed for any reason, religious, pseudoscientific, or whatever, or they should not be permitted at all. Why should religious objections to vaccination be privileged above any other objection, such as philosophical or plain “I just don't want to”? There’s no rational reason why they should.
There’s a broader issue here than just religious freedom. The real debate should be whether a government has to right to dictate a specific medical procedure or health-related practice. There are certainly “antivaccinationists” who believe that vaccines, by their nature, are doing more harm than good to the human immune system. But there are also undoubtedly many parents who may accept the need for vaccination in principle, but who question whether the enormous number of shots on the current schedule present an unacceptable risk. For example, the parent of a young girl may accept the need to vaccinate for measles, but not for HPV. If a parent chooses to wait until a child has reached an age where the risk of contracting Hepatitus B becomes more palpable, should that child be denied school enrollment prior to that immunization?

There are no easy answers in this debate. Assuming solely for the sake of argument that there is validity to the “herd immunity” theory (which is taken in some quarters as, if you’ll pardon the expression, an article of faith), then a parent is not only making the choice for his/her own child, but for other children as well. It is a delicate balancing process lies at the heart of every societal debate we have about the limits of freedom and self-determination.

Unfortunately, we do not have all the information we need to make an informed decision as a society. We have no idea what cumulative impact the huge number of scheduled vaccines are having on the immune system of any given child. And we’re only starting to figure out that some children may be particularly susceptible to damage from particular vaccines or components.

Until we know more, there is very little we can settle by debating the real question. In the meantime, we must err on the side of freedom from governmental interference, and leave the everyday choices to individual conscience. And we can pray that the choices we make for our children ⎯ whether those choices are to vaccinate or to not vaccinate ⎯ are wise.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

MICHAEL LANG (1958 – 2007)

Okay, I really didn’t mean to take that long a break from blogging. It just sort of happened. I got busy with life for a while and . . . well, as my wife says, you never have to explain things like being late or forgetting about something to other autism parents; they understand how it is.

Before getting to what’s on my mind, I do want to thank the friends who emailed or left comments to make sure all was well. Yes, everything is well ⎯ great even. I got a little caught up in being there for a young man who is making incredible progress these days (and fighting the occasional fight for him), and I wanted to keep my focus there.

All that being said, there is also sad news. Many of us in the autism world lost a good friend a few days ago.

The families who practice biomedical interventions with their autistic children are often confronted with charlatans who are out to make a buck at our expense, but then again we also come across truly good people who have joined us in this battle for all the right reasons. Michael Lang was one of the really good guys.

Michael and his company, Brainchild Nutritionals, offered high quality vitamin and mineral supplements in liquid form. But his quality as a person rather than just the quality of his products will be his legacy. My wife, Sym, knew him better than I did, my contact being just a brief introduction along the way. But I knew what he did for folks like us. Sym came to know him as a friend she could always call on.

All I ever needed to know about the man was what happened a couple of years ago, when the Rankin family still lived in South Louisiana. It was the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, when those of us who lived in the strike zone were slowly reestablishing contact with the outside world. One of the earliest calls that came through on Sym’s cell phone, even before we made it back from our evacuation, was Michael Lang. He had two questions: how were we, and what could he do to help? Michael wound up sending supplements, free of charge, to families who had lost so much. As far as I know, he never tried to make a big deal of it; he considered it a simple act of kindness that required no recognition.

We’ve met some good people on this journey. On October 16, 2007, cancer stole a good one from us. Michael Lang will be missed.

Michael did not accumulate great wealth from his enterprise. His reward was the satisfaction of helping families like his. If you would like to return the kindness, a fund has been set up for his children. Donations may be sent to the Michael Lang Children’s Fund, account number 048274377, c/o Bank of the West, 2020 North Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.