CDC whistleblower controversy
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|Pricks against pricks|
The CDC whistleblower controversy is a common meme in the anti-vaccination movement (the trending hashtag in Twitter being #CDCwhistleblower, and David Gorski has referred to it as the central conspiracy theory in the anti-vaccination movement), referring to an alleged CDC coverup for years, of apparently damning data that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The controversy started sometime in August 2014. It involves William W. Thompson, a psychologist from CDC who had phone conversations with Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer involving a 2004 case control study by DeStefano et al. published in Pediatrics. This study has examined any cause-effect relationship between MMR vaccine and autism diagnosis rates in children and found none. The conversation, however, was about the omitted data from final version of the paper, which concerned a subset of African-American boys who apparently had higher autism rates, because racial information was not available for every subject and thus comparison could not be done. Hooker secretly recorded the conversation and later cherry-picked parts of it while also attempting (and failing horribly) a reanalysis of the study.
The CDC itself has already went through the lengths of providing instructions on accessing it, so by definition, this whole allegation of a cover-up is patently silly.
I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.
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.
The whole controversy started when Thompson tried coming forward and admitting that the DeStefano et al. paper was a fraud despite the lack of evidence for a fraud or any sort of MMR vaccine and autism link. While it does seem Thompson has cracked under pressure (he suffered from mental health problems), Thompson has expressed some anti-vaccine views, such as the MMR vaccine causing tics in a transcript in Kevin Barry's book Vaccine Whistleblower, and he does appear to have some reservations with the CDC and anxiety problems overall, such as being concerned that he will be labeled as "mentally ill" by those people because he put out information that can't be supported. It is also revealed that he suffered from anxiety issues including losing sleep over the published paper. This is strange because while he is afraid of the CDC assigning him derogatory labels, Wakefield and Hooker have done exactly that as part of a complaint letter to Dr. Harold Jaffe, CDC Associate Director for Science, and Dr. Don Wright, Acting Director, ORI.
Comical screw-up of statistics and redaction
Hooker is an anti-vaxxer who believes his son's autism has been caused by the MMR, and he wants to seek relief from it. He has no background or qualifications in epidemiology, and so with no help from a statistician, he pestered the institutional review board from Simpson University for a reanalysis of the DeStefano et al. study. This is similar to other quacks wanting to "reanalyze" studies only because the results conflict with their personal beliefs. For his love of "simplicity", he has performed incompetent statistical analyses, published in the obscure open-access Translational Neurodegeneration journal, which was later retracted for undeclared conflicts of interest and questionable statistical methods. At the time, Hooker did have an active case against the Vaccine Court and he was also a board member of anti-vaxxer group Focus Autism, which funded Hooker's study, neither which are disclosed. Hooker believes the reasons behind the redactions are false allegations; his statement is published in Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which isn't exactly a quality journal.
Within the reanalysis, misusing the SAS® software, he failed to control for obvious confounding factors (such as not understanding autism diagnoses, that naturally more people will be diagnosed in 36 months than 18 months as symptoms become more apparent) while also trying to construct a cohort study using data designed for a case-control study (essentially an impossibility). His statistical method is also highly prone to amplifying small false positives. Additionally, since he was working from a limited sample size for African-American baby boys., he changed 36 months to 31 months to account for having less than five children.
He also cited several anti-vaccine papers including some Wakefield and Mark Geier (the one and his son who believed in chemical castration for autistic children and lost his medical license in several states) ones.
Nevertheless, even with Hooker's tinkering, it doesn't show much of a relationship between the vaccine and autism outside a simple correlation, and only in African-American boys.
Andrew Wakefield, the well-known fraud and father of the modern anti-vaccination movement, has capitalized on the manufactroversy by releasing a video on YouTube entitled "CDC Whistleblower Revealed". He describes it as a story of "a real fraud. […] Deliberate. High-level deception of the American people with disastrous consequences for its children's health." without any sense of irony regarding his major contribution to the anti-vaccination movement. Additionally, he proclaimed, with a straight face, that the coverup is as bad as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the CDC is worse than Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot
combined (according to Wakefield, at least those guys were not hypocrites). Alas, even in the video, Wakefield admits he was only "partially correct".
The alleged coverup has also prompted another well-known anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to start a protest. Additionally, Kevin Barry wrote a book entitled Vaccine Whistleblower which contains transcripts of the phone conversations. At the Age of Autism, Kent Heckenlively has proclaimed the conspiracy to be "the greatest crime committed in the history of our republic".
The controversy also received attention by politicians when representative Bill Posey, at "Morning Hour" talked about opening investigations to the alleged coverup.
A CNN iReport published an article with an alleged 340% increased risk of autism among African-American boys receiving the MMR, but was later retracted, which probably didn't help contribute to the anti-vaxxer's perception of a cover-up. Outside this, the media coverage on the manufactroversy is pretty quiet, as nothing is really worth covering something so ho-hum for everyone else. In the grand scheme of things, it's probably a good thing, as the less media gets involved in non-issues like this and invoke "balance", the less people will hear about it, although the anti-vaxxer persecution complex can intensify.
- MMR, the CDC and Brian Hooker: A Guide for Parents and the Media - Harpocrates Speask
- Gorski, D. (August 25, 2014) Did a high ranking whistleblower really reveal that the CDC covered up proof that vaccines cause autism in African-American boys?) Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- Park, A. (August 28, 2014) Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link. Time. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
- DeStefano et al. Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan atlanta. Pediatrics. 2004 Feb;113(2):259-66. PubMed PMID: 14754936.
- Orac. (August 22, 2014) Brian Hooker proves Andrew Wakefield wrong about vaccines and autism. Respectful Insolence. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
- CDC Statement Regarding 2004 Pediatrics Article, "Age at First Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination in Children With Autism and School-matched Control Subjects: A Population-Based Study in Metropolitan Atlanta"
- Orac. (August 25, 2015) Kevin Barry, you magnificent bastard, I read your antivaccine book! Respectful Insolence. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- October 14, 2014 http://www.rescuepost.com/files/ori-complaint_rev_1-1.pdf p.19-20
- NaturalSolutions. (Mar 4, 2016) Dr. Hooker on Autism. Youtube. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- Hooker, B. Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data (August 24 2014). Retrieved September 13, 2018. Retraction note: "The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article  as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused."
- CDC Data Manipulation Exposed: Four Years Later.JPANDS. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- Orac (January 5, 2016). The CDC whistleblower documents: A whole lot of nothing and no conspiracy to hide an MMR-autism link. Respectful Insolence. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
- Heckenlively, K. (October 22, 2014) The Hooker/Wakefield/Moody Complaint - "The Hammer Falls!". The Age of Autism. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- C-Span (July 29, 2015) REP. Bill Posey Calling for an Investigation of the CDC's MMR reasearch fraud. Retrieved September 14, 2018.
- Mikkelson, D. (February 3, 2015). Fraud at the CDC Uncovered? Snopes. Retrieved September 13, 2018.