View from Brussels: Do the anti-vaxxers have a case at all?

One of the many crimes imputed to President Trump is his willingness to listen to vaccine sceptics. Bad science, critics say. But a Danish study argues that mercury compounds in vaccines correlate with health problems. Is it worth a commission, anyway?

Whenever a large number of people in the 115 to 125 IQ range believe something fervently my temptation is always to look at the opposite claim. This is the category of people who are intelligent and occupy high positions in society – I’ve heard it said that the average captain of industry has an IQ of about 123 - but they’re not that intelligent and some of their success comes from their survival instinct to go with the flow with what other people in their above average cohort who are also successful believe. But group-think among the sophisticated and successful is not the same thing as the truth.

I can’t stand the way people like these go on and on about what a moron Donald Trump is. Europeans are at least as vociferous as Americans. 

President Trump recently launched yet another front in his multiple attack on received wisdom and political correctness when he made noises that suggested a favourable attitude towards the anti-vaccination movement, whose leading figure is Robert Kennedy, nephew of the late JFK. As recently as this week Trump told an audience that he believed there could be a link between vaccines and the rise in autism in children. While Kennedy has told American newspapers that he’s been in frequent talks with the American president about setting up a presidential commission on the issue, which many science journalists believe they debunked comprehensively a few years ago with the thorough demolition of the reputation of the original researcher on the autism-vaccine link, Britain’s Dr Andrew Wakefield. His original paper made many parents in the western world shy away from vaccinations for their children.

The standard argument is that parents who refuse vaccination for their children are selfish and unscientific. Selfish because vaccines work like this: they confer not only immunity against a large range of the childhood diseases, which once caused havoc, but also provide a so-called herd immunity. It reduces the number of carriers and hosts in the population which makes it harder for a disease to spread and thus protects those who are too old, too young or have some other disability that prevents them from taking the vaccine personally.

Some childhood diseases require very high levels of vaccination coverage to be effective. For measles, for instance, the safe rate is about 96 per cent; a figure lower than that and epidemics easily arise. There are several thousand cases in Germany each year partly because vaccination is less strongly legally enforced than in the United States.

I won’t raise the extremely emotional and infected (pardon the pun) debate about Andrew Wakefield here but Kennedy’s main point is that one compound in the modern vaccines may be dangerous and not sufficiently investigated. He believes the basic efficacy of vaccines and buys all the arguments and logic behind herd immunity and has had all his children vaccinated, at least partially and judiciously. He just wants to look at the details and believes that the medical industry has had too easy a ride on vaccines for too long and provides too much lobbying money to legislators.

Once a vaccine gets on to the national schedule it’s a surefire money earner for pharmaceutical companies who have to spend a minimum of money on marketing and enjoy complete immunity from lawsuits (by law). At the moment the average child in the developed world can take, through the course of their childhood, over a dozen vaccines containing 50 or more doses, and while it’s been enormously successful at reducing childhood diseases, 99 per cent for measles and mumps, and completely eradicating, thank God, diseases like polio and smallpox, there are still outstanding health issues which cannot be ignored, he believes. You can be in favour of the theoretical principle of vaccines without believing that all the outstanding issues have been resolved.

I am far from being an expert, but this, I think, is Kennedy’s argument:

He is particularly critical of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in many vaccines which are being given to millions of children and pregnant women in Europe and America and around the world. Thimerosal is 50 per cent ethyl mercury which he argues is more toxic and persistent in the brain than the highly regulated methyl mercury that accumulates in fish. In his book on the subject, Thimerosal: Let the Science speak, he cites a number of peer-reviewed studies from university scientists that apparently show how dangerous a neurological poison it is and that amounts of the neurotoxin that children receive are as high today as before 2003 because of its continuing use in flu jabs, even though it has been removed from paediatric medicines.

At least some studies show that the removal of thimerosal from vaccines benefits children’s health. He quotes a 2013 study in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which apparently demonstrates a 33 per cent drop in childhood autism spectrum disorder in Denmark after thimerosal was removed from Danish vaccines in 1992.

A presidential commission could apparently look into a broader range of vaccination issues, such as the strength of the pharmaceutical lobby and allegations of corruption in the Centers for Disease Control.

What of it? I think I would have been more sceptical towards Kennedy and his ‘anti-vaxxers’ before my family had its own brush up against the received wisdom.

One family member was diagnosed with a seriously advanced case of diabetes recently which has gone into remission by that person going on a very low carbohydrate high-fat diet to minimise carbohydrate – i.e. sugar intake – a diet that until recently was much frowned upon by the medical establishment and which this person’s GP strongly recommended against. Well, it worked, so GPs are not always right.

The dangers of a high-fat diet have been pumped into us by media and educators for decades but actually the calorie burning mechanism of fat converted into ketones is an entirely respectable way for the body to acquire its energy and it avoids entirely the poisonous pathway for diabetics of trying to adapt sugars (i.e. carbs). According to several studies and experts, there is evidence that saturated fat diets – apart from being life-savers for diabetics – are not bad for your heart, contrary to received wisdom. The respected Nina Teicholz, author of the The Big Fat Suprise, has written: “When people on low-carb diets have been compared head-to-head with those on low-fat diets, the low-carb dieters typically scored significantly better on markers of heart disease, including small, dense LDL cholesterol, HDL/LDL ratio, and triglycerides, which are a measure of the amount of fat circulating in your blood.” And the high fat diet is usefully supplemented with vitamin tablets and moderate consumption of protein.

The alternative for diabetics to the high-fat diet is to inject insulin on a daily basis which is fiddly and has side-effects and is a solution that runs out of road eventually.

The high-fat diet ought to be a no-brainer but as many interesting books by supersmart science journalists such as Teicholz or Gary Taubes – called mavericks by nutritionists in academia – convincingly show, the food industry (and associated academics) heavily lobbied for the demonisation of fat in the 1960s, and so we are where we are today with the profusion of erroneous low-fat diet advice (and profitable low-fat, high-sugar food product lines for the uninformed) and an epidemic of diabetes.

I personally believe, having read half a dozen books on the subject, that it could be the health scandal of the century. Could there be similar scandals brewing in the vaccine field? Kennedy seems to think so.

Please Donald Trump: if you set up a vaccine commission, set up a diabetes commission too.

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