Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Autism and scapegoating Big Pharma

Nature sometimes deal out a raw deal. It is not kind, benevolent, motherly or generous. It just is. And sometimes the results for us, and other living creatures, is awful.

One of the most potent myths around is that nature is good and man is evil. It really is just another version of the old religious view that had man as an evil sinner destroying the Garden of Eden and leading the world toward Apocalypse. The green Left is far more religious than they actually realize -- they sure aren’t science based.

In the past I have covered their knee-jerk tendency to scream and point fingers at humanity as the culprit anytime some thing seems to go wrong. For instance, when bees started dying environmental groups in the US were announcing the role of genetically modified crops in the die out. In Europe where such modern technology for crops was not yet used some blamed mobile phones instead. In the end it appears that a naturally occurring fungus was to blame.

Just a few days ago we mentioned the retreating ice cap on Kilimanjaro which was repeatedly blamed on man. When the studies were done it appeared to be another entirely natural occurrence. Man was again exonerated and nature was to blame.

I suspect part of this is out of a desire to have a scapegoat. People want there to be a “reason” that something happens. Preferably a reason that has someone to blame. It is so much easier to take our anger out on people than on natural processes.

Add to that mix the often hysterical nature of environmental fear propaganda which immediately targets any new technology, most old ones, chemicals, genetic modification, and just the presence of humans. Now toss in some of the old fashioned greed encouraged particularly by the US legal system where juries can award multimillion dollar awards to people for any perceived or believed wrong. And then the constant scapegoating of humanity makes sense.

I was taken by the sad story recently published in the New York Times about a family that is dealing with autism which illustrates my point.

Bob Wright, in his day job is chairman of NBC/Universal. He and his wife Suzanne are also the founders of Autism Speaks, a charity dedicated to finding a cure for autism. The Wrights founded the charity when their grandson Christian was diagnosed as autistic. Yet the family is now split apart.


Daughter Katie, Christian’s mother, has bought into the argument that autism is caused by environmental factors. The environmental group says man is to blame for their woes. They claim that preservatives found in vaccinations are responsible for autism. And that only vitamin supplements and right diet can solve the problem. And Katie is pissed off that her parents haven’t embraced the “environmental” causes of autism sufficiently.

Katie insisted that vaccinations were the causes of her son’s problems. She told America that much on Oprah. Yet, as the Times notes, “No major scientific studies have linked pediatric vaccination and autism”. Of course today that means nothing. People have been taught by the environmental lobby to ignore science. Man is to blame. So the paper notes, “many parents and their advocates persist, and a federal ‘vaccine court’ is now reviewing nearly 4,000 such claims.”

This claim has potential I fear. First, vaccinations are produced by pharmaceutical companies and they have very large budgets. That means they can be held ransom for very large sums in settlements. And this can happen even if there is NO evidence they are responsible. All people need do is bring into court grieving mothers with their autistic children and present emotive accusations. The companies will produce scientists. The weeping families will present environmental lobbyists or hacks for the green movement. Jurors won’t know enough science. They will feel sorry for the families. No one ever feels sorry for pharmaceutical companies. The jurors will reason that Big Pharma can afford it and those poor families sure could use the help.

Jurors will find it easy to rule against the producers of vaccinations and award hefty settlements to each litigant and their child. Of course, there are many more such families waiting in the wings who are not part of the lawsuit. And the jury will never consider the long term ramifications of their generosity.

Vaccinations might become more scarce. At the very least they will become more expensive. Billions from Big Pharma’s budgets will be diverted to settlements for something for which they were not responsible. Research will suffer as a result. Even if all the settlements could be taken from profits that makes pharmaceuticals less profitable and thus discourages investment in the field. Less investment still means less research. Others will suffer.

As the prices of drugs go up the professional haters of “Big Business” will point to that as proof of the cruelty of capitalism and demand nationalization of the industry. Michael Moore might even make another one of his fictional documentaries. And they will point to the lack of research is some field as even more evidence.

The Wrights found themselves under attack by their activist daughter. She did an interview, with a man hawking his own book on the evils of vaccines, where she demanded that the “old guard” (her parents) give up their “failed strategies” and allow others (herself?) to “have a chance to do something different with this money.” The money in question is the funds raised by the Wrights to try and help find a solution to autism. Of course the Wrights were hurt and said their daughter doesn’t speak for them or for the charity. The daughter responded attacking her parents for “character assassination”.

But Autism Speaks has funded those who are in line with science and those who are not. Why the later I don’t know. One board member and contributor said: “If you look at what projects Autism Speaks has funded, we are agnostic.” That means they give the claims of the environmental lobby equal validity as that of science. This is sort of like the “intelligent design” of autism.

Bob Wright suggested that his daughter’s campaign is out of desperation. Her son’s condition worsened. “When you have that sense of hopelessness, and don’t see results you do things that other people think are too risky. The doctors say, ‘Wait for the science.’ But you don’t have time to wait for the science.”

And that is the problem with junk science. In this case they have an immediate scapegoat: vaccines. And they have an immediate solution: vitamin supplements and diet.

The daughter insists her parents aren’t doing enough: “Show me evidence that they’re actively researching vaccines.” (That is vaccines as a cause of autism not as a preventative.) But the science doesn’t back the vaccine argument. Never mind reality she knows what she believes. The daughter is understandable upset but she seems to be more hysterical and angry than rational and she seems to be blaming the wrong target.

Certainly there is plenty of reason to think that genetics, not environmental factors, are responsible for autism. Remember all children are vaccinated. So if vaccines are responsible then the number of cases ought to be pretty evenly distributed throughout the population.

Yet boys are more often victims of autism than girls. And the age of the father, when the child is conceived, seems to have a role. Fathers over 40 years of age are more likely to parent an autistic child. And they are just as likely to father an autistic daughter. Younger fathers are less likely to have autistic children and much less likely to father an autistic daughter.

One study has shown that that there is a 60% concordance rate for autism among monoszygotic twins but only a 4% rate between dizygotic twins and other siblings. So if the twins are identical the rate is 15 times higher. Other research says that the concordance rate could be as high as 90%. In other words the pattern of autism does not fit the theory that vaccines are the cause. But it fits the pattern that the causes are genetic and natural.

And if that is isn't enough researchers at the Institut Pasteur, in Paris, have pinpointed a specific gene responsible for some, though not all, cases of autism.

Perhaps something will blow the genetic theory out of the water. It can happen. But if one is trying to help find a cure for this problem then it makes sense to bet according to the odds. And the numbers strongly point to a genetic component not to vaccines. But that won’t appeal to some.

Science will take longer. Vaccines could be changed now. If naturally caused there is no one to blame but nature. If vaccines are responsible you can blame pharmaceutical companies. If nature is to blame there will be no settlements. If vaccines are blamed then settlements for everyone. If nature is to blame then the anger becomes internalized as there is no one to attack. If vaccines are to blame you can vent your anger at the pharmaceutical companies. If genetic, many parents fear that means they are responsible. Far better to blame Big Pharma.

There certainly are some benefits to blaming pharmaceuticals for autism. Unfortunately finding a solution to autism doesn’t appear to be one of them.

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