Tomorrow afternoon, a handful of anti-vaccine groups and activists will hold a press conference in Washington, DC, announcing the results of a “major investigation” conducted by “parents of children with autism” that has found that children who have been compensated by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) are more than three hundred times more likely to be diagnosed with autism as children in the population as a whole. Will the discovery that “the federal government [has] paid millions of dollars to vaccine-injured children with autism”^ finally force “[the] government to acknowledge a link between vaccines and autism?”
I doubt it — and thank goodness for that. Since the Vaccine Court and the compensation program it administers are, to say the least, a little complicated`, here’s an analogy to explain why.
In 1984, I got my first computer — a Timex Sinclair 1500.* In the 27 years since then, home computers have gone from being objects of fascination (and limited utility) to being ubiquitous (and incredibly useful). A quarter century ago, a relatively small number of Americans spent all day staring at computer screens all day; now, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) do. All of this time spent in front of LCD displays has caused various health issues — including eyestrain.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there was some national fund to help pay for eyeglasses for people who suffered from computer-related eyestrain. It’d be virtually impossible (or at least prohibitively time-consuming) for every single person who could potentially be eligible to prove that his eyestrain resulted from computer use…so instead, anyone who could demonstrate that he suffered symptoms of eyestrain, such as blurred or double vision, in the month after buying a computer would automatically get the $20.
Now, take an sample of, say, 100,000 computer users and let’s say that 10,000 (or ten percent)`^ exhibited symptoms indicative of eyestrain and also applied to the program for the $20 they were therefore entitled to. And let’s also say that one percent of that total, or 100 people, were later hospitalized with brain cancer. That would mean that one in 1,000 people with computers were hospitalized with brain cancer+– a figure that is a little more than four times greater than the .24 per 1,000 that are hospitalized with brain cancer in the population as a whole.
There are a couple of conclusions you could draw from this: You could also conclude that some people who were experiencing blurred or double vision because of brain cancer had applied to, and were granted, the $20 given to people assumed to have computer-related eyestrain. You could investigate whether people who submitted claims to the eyestrain program were also more likely to receive regular medical care — and therefore more likely to get diagnosed with cancer. You could also look for confounding factors, such as the fact that computer use correlates positively with economic status, and economic status correlates positively with life expectancy, and age correlates positively with incidence of cancer (i.e., the longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer) — which mean that computer users are more likely to get diagnosed with cancer for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with actually owning a computer.
Or you could conclude that frequent computer use causes brain cancer. It’d certainly be the conclusion most likely to get attention in the media.
Two months ago, I gave a speech in Boulder, Colorado. A woman in the audience who was a member of the Boulder Vaccine Safety Coalition raised her hand. The first thing she told me was that she hadn’t finished my book. Then she said she wanted to know why I didn’t support more research into vaccine safety — especially since, she said, $300 billion was spent each year on the promotion of vaccines versus only $20 million spent on vaccine safety research.
I’m not sure where she got her figures — but I told her I agreed with her larger point: More money should be spent researching vaccine safety. (I also told her I would like to talk with her at greater length about the issues she raised…but she left before the talk was over.) Part of the reason more money isn’t spent is because there aren’t enough incentives for pharmaceutical companies to conduct ongoing research into vaccines already on the market^`. Another is that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars has been spent replicating research and assuaging parents, like the ones holding tomorrow’s press conference, who believe that vaccines cause autism — and will never be convinced otherwise. There’s also an ever-growing amount of money spent containing outbreaks (like the current measles outbreak in Minnesota) caused by unvaccinated children. Finally, there’s all the money spent combating merit-less anti-vaccine messages.
Put it all together and you have activists who are ostensibly fighting for vaccine safety creating an environment that is, in actuality, leeching time and energy and money that could (and should) be spent actually making vaccines safer. As I’ve said dozens and dozens of times, I don’t blame these activists for this; I believe they are, for the most part, operating with the best of intentions. I do, however, blame the media for fueling the issue and politicians for pandering to their most vocal constituents. It’ll be interesting to see what ends up getting reporting about this latest manufactroversy over the next several days.
[^] Note that the language here is “the federal government [has] paid millions of dollars to vaccine-injured children with autism” and not “the federal government [has] paid millions of dollars to vaccine-injured children because of their autism.” The federal government’s vaccine-compensation fund has also paid lots of money to children who end up being left-handed — but that doesn’t mean that vaccines causes their left-handedness.
[`] I’m hoping to get a chance to write more about this in the next few days.
[*]The only things I really remember about my T-S are that 1) it was cool as hell, and 2) I spent a lot of time writing pointless BASIC code — things like, “10 PRINT ‘I have a cool computer’ 20 GOTO 10.” Before this morning, I actually thought I’d owned the Sinclair 1000, but apparently the 1000 had its own display and the 1500 plugged into a black and white TV — and mine definitely plugged into a black and white TV. Ah, the fallibility of memory.
[`^] Figures edited from example of 1,000/one percent to 10,000/ten percent.
[+] It’d actually mean that one percent of the people with computers who had applied for and were given the $20 voucher were hospitalized with brain cancer — but that’s making things a little more confusing than necessary.
[^`] Hopefully more on this one day soon as well.