Lessons from the shaming of chemically castrating doc who “endangers autistic children and exploits their parents”

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If there’s anything I’ve learned in the three years since I began working on The Panic Virus (the book, not the blog), it’s that the manufactroversies about a causal connection between vaccines and autism have become so bitter and nasty that it’s all but impossible for people who disagree with each other to discuss the issue with even a modicum of civility. (Check out the comments on one of my recent posts for an illustration of this phenomenon at work.)

This is unfortunate for several reasons. First, unless you’re sadistic or masochistic (or both), it’s no fun being thrust into the middle of a pitched, to-the-death style conflict — and I’ve spoken with dozens of reporters, public health officials, and researchers who’ve told me that they’ve developed something akin to an allergy to working on anything involving vaccines or autism because, as one CDC official told me, “life is too short.”

But the acrimony doesn’t just scare off people from actively engaging; it also has a profound affect on more passive consumers of information. As soon as any dispute rises to a certain level of vitriol, it’s inevitable that the partisans start looking (and sounding) like a couple of infants throwing temper tantrums. It might be true that Stevie was in the sandbox first or that Johnie stole his juice-box…but if the teacher needs to put them both in the corner for a timeout, all anyone will remember later is that they were both acting like babies.

This is one of the reasons I believe that those of us who believe in scientific evidence and understand the importance of vaccinating should strive to keep our arguments rational, well-reasoned, and compassionate. It’s not just better-mannered not to partake in mud-flinging–it’s also more convincing.

This does not mean, however, that we should not shine a light on some of the horrors that have resulted from the anti-vaccine movement in this country and around the world. The most obvious of those are the children who are being hospitalized and dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. A less-often acknowledged tragedy is that there are hundreds of desperate families searching for answers who have been spent untold amounts of money on snake-oil “cures” that are at best ineffective and at worst dangerous and cruel. When writing about the men and woman who peddle those cures, as I am about to do, it is a real challenge to keep my outrage from overwhelming my desire to be even-tempered and calm — so caveat emptor.

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With the exception of Andrew Wakefield, there are no more infamous anti-vaccine “researchers” than Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David.

(photo by Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)

According to this ruling (PDF download) by the Maryland State Board of Physicians, which was issued last week, Mark Geier has had his license to practice medicine suspended in the state in which he is based. (As far as I can tell, this doesn’t affect Geier’s ability to practice in the other states in which he’s licensed, including California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington.) That this move comes years too late for scores of children does not mean it is not incredibly welcome.

The Board’s action stems from the Geiers’ peddling of a “cure” for autism that they claim to have developed. I first heard the Geiers describe their approach at an AutismOne conference in Chicago in the spring of 2009. (This passage is from my book’s introduction):

The following afternoon, the father-son team of Mark and David Geier stood on stage in the same lecture hall for the first of their two presentations on “New Insights into the Underlying Biochemistry of Autism.” The most recent insight of the Geiers, who’ve been stalwarts of the anti-vaccine movement for decades, involved a treatment called the “Lupron protocol,” which is based on a theory so odd it sounds like a joke: Autism, the Geiers were claiming, is the result of a pathological reaction between mercury and testosterone, and Lupron, an injectable drug used to chemically castrate sex offenders, is the cure. Before determining whether patients are candidates for their “protocol,” the Geiers order up dozens of lab tests at a cost of more than $12,000. The treatment itself, which consists of daily injections and bimonthly deep-tissue shots, can run upward of $70,000 a year. It also is excruciatingly painful. (In an article in the Chicago Tribune, an acolyte of the Geiers’ described giving a shot to one child: “His dad is a big guy like myself, [and] it took both of us to hold him down to give him the first injection. It reminded me of . . . a really wild dog or a cat.”)

At the time of the 2009 conference, the Geiers had already opened eight Lupron clinics in six different states. Mark Geier, who calls Lupron a “miracle drug,” told a reporter that was just the beginning of their expansion aspirations: “We plan to open everywhere.”

The Maryland ruling’s 48 pages are filled with hair-raising details of the Geiers’ actions. (Over at Left Brain/Right Brain, Sullivan looks at a handful of these).[*] The crucial points, however, can be summed up in one sentence: Mark Geier ”endangers autistic children and exploits their parents by administering to the children a treatment protocol that has a known substantial risk of serious harm and which is neither consistent with evidence-based medicine nor generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.” (Emphasis added.)

Mark Geier’s public shaming will not dull his adherent’s faith in him, just as the revocation of Wakefield’s medical license in 2010 has only further convinced his supporters that there’s a world-wide conspiracy against him. It’s also not going to change the opinion of people like me. Hopefully it will serve as one more piece of evidence for the public at large that the stubborn myth that vaccines cause autism, legitimized and popularized by media figures like Oprah Winfrey, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., David Kirby, and Robert MacNeil, is not just wrong — it is dangerous.

[*]The Geiers’ use of Lupron on autistic children first received widespread attention in 2006, when Kathleen Seidel put together a blockbuster 16-part series on her website, neurodiversity.com. In 2009, the Chicago Tribune ran a series that shone attention on the Geiers’ work, including “Miracle drug called junk science“ by Trine Tsouderos, “Autism treatments: Risky alternative therapies have little basis in science,” by Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan, and ”Pysician team’s crusade shows cracks” by Steve Mills and Tim Jones.

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