Every few months, we see another prominent anti-vaccine activist circulate a document that purports to be a scientific document proving that our current administration schedule is dangerous. Every time one of these documents appears, the social media go a bit berserk, with scientists scrambling to rebut the latest accusations. Needless to say, this is a tiresome exercise, but today is a rainy day and I’m stuck inside with a sick kid, so here goes….
Who is Kelly Brogan?
Kelly Brogan, MD is likely a new name to those of you who follow vaccine policy. She is a “holistic psychiatrist” practicing in New York City. She has written a book on this subject, and has been making the rounds of the CAM talk circuit. For instance, she’ll be speaking next month at the Goop Summit.
She is an interesting individual, to say the least. Clearly, she has strong anti-medication leanings when it comes to mental health management. She also appears to have some idiosyncratic beliefs about HIV treatments. She has an impressive list of publications from prior to 2009, but like so many anti-vaccine physicians, none of those publications are relevant to the field she has chosen to make her fame.
She has written a brief e-book (e-pamphlet, really) that she has made available for free through her website. It is this 23-page document that I’d like to dissect today, because it is a great example of the way that the anti-vaccine activists selectively cite data to support their beliefs.
I would consider this work to be a canonical example of pseudoscience, or the use of the trappings of science to make a non-science argument. In seventh grade, we all learned that science was a way to ask questions about the world in a way to help to eliminate our biases and beliefs from the assessment. In pseudoscience, however, we start with an answer, and selectively access the work of others to build an argument. She offers us a textbook example of pseudoscience in action.
Citing Retracted Research
The first obvious clue to the level of the science we will see here is the first research discussion, found on pages 4-5. This is the Mawson study of vaccinated versus non-vaccinated kids. This was a laughable study that recruited homeschooled kids by email and used methodology that no real research would consider valid. Oh, and you’ll note that the original study is hosted on a private server, because it has been retracted by the publishing journal.
In addition to citing fake research, she also fails to cite the much more definitive statement on the subject. This 2010 article from the journal Pediatrics shows pretty conclusively that on-time vaccine delivery is not associated with any deficits in neurodevelopment.
Philosophy Disguised as Science
Anti-vaccine activists often betray their level of bias through the heavy-handed statements that they make. My favorite one here is on page 5, where Dr. Brogan states “I’ve questioned the fundamental logic of the us versus them anti-germ premise that underlies vaccine design.” This is, of course, factually correct. Our vaccine design is (for the most part) aimed at helping our immune systems fight off infection.
But think about this statement from the opposite direction. Is Dr. Brogan suggesting with a straight-face that our problem is really that we have not made sufficient peace with Neisseria meningitidis or Corynebacterium diphtheriae? Many of the most important advances in the life span of humans, from clean water and indoor plumbing through to septic technique in childbirth and universal vaccination policies have essentially been anti-germ. I will humbly argue that any doctor who is arguing for more germs is not spending much time treating C. diff patients.
Baffle with Bullshit
On page 7, Dr. Brogan makes the alarmist point that vaccinations mess up our exosomes. Once the momentary sense of panic subsides, you might think, what are exosomes? Read more here or here. As the second link makes clear, the biology of exosomes is in its infancy, so we know very little about the function of exosomes or how they respond to the environment.
So, in a sense, Dr. Brogan is not wrong that vaccinations could affect exosomes. Just like she wouldn’t be wrong if she said that there might be a small Hello Kitty teacup orbiting 6 feet over the surface of Mars. But her argument is completely fabricated, and has no basis in science.
On page 11, Dr. Brogan cites a preliminary study in macaques as evidence that the CDC vaccination schedule (at least the mid-90s version) could lead to changes in neuroanatomy. She then makes the assertion that it is the only such study ever done in primates.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed by now, it is not. In fact, the same researcher followed up her preliminary data with another trial, published in 2015. Spoiler alert: there were no significant differences in the two treatment groups at the end of the study.
Every anti-vaccine writer worth his or her salt eventually comes back around to the adjuncts in vaccines. And, true, some of them sound scary. Particularly, formaldehye and aluminum could potentially be problematic at high doses.
But that is the catch. The amounts of exposure to these items from the vaccine schedule is miniscule, and each has been extensively studied before going into the CDC schedule. For more on aluminum in vaccines, refer back to this post.
Vaccines Aren’t that Important Anyway
Pages 16-21 are devoted to another favorite anti-vaccine argument – that vaccines are not all that effective anyway. The presented charts are evergreen in the anti-vax literature. They are also completely misleading. Sure, infant mortality declined precipitously in the early 20th century as medicine and public health evolved from a primitive state. But this is not an argument about vaccines.
In fact, our vaccination schedule very clearly does work, especially when we stick to it. We have clear evidence that reductions in disease incidence and mortality are real. Here is a more balanced view of the subject.
Oh, and By the Way….
For my money, the most egregious anti-vaccine propaganda tacks a sales pitch on to the end of the alarmist pseudoscience. Why, it just so happens that Dr. Brogan has a program to help undo the (fake) damage that she claims is done by vaccines. This should tell you all you need to know about her motivations and credibility.
I don’t know Dr. Brogan, and probably never will. I can’t claim to have any insight into her reasons for putting out this document. But I find it necessary to call her on the carpet for the way this document gives a misleading picture of vaccine science and, by extension, slanders nearly every vaccine scientist and pediatrician in the world.
Often, the job of a vaccine advocate is to play defense. As Winston Churchill said, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. I’d like to see this stop. I’d like to see us do a better job of holding these anti-vaccine (or pro-disease, if you will) folks accountable. For example, what would Dr. Brogan say to the 20 some Minnesota families whose infant children were hospitalized from measles last year? Would she help out at the hospital? Help those immigrant families pay their bills?
If I tell a person that I believe in the Gerson program, and it (predictably) fails, my license is understandably in jeopardy. Whether I made that recommendation because I am ill informed, crazy, or a knowing fraud is immaterial. But, if I write an article or give a talk opposing vaccination policy, to date, there has been no repercussion from state medical boards to date. I expect this will change soon.
While I hope this is the last one of these anti-vaccine screeds that I see, I know it won’t be. I bet somebody is sitting at a computer much like mine working an a selectively cited and overly dramatic version at this very minute. I also fear that, like Dr. Brogan’s article, the next one will bounce around the internet, convince a few more vaccine-skeptical individuals to opt out, and make us even more likely to see more kids die. It is time for this to stop.