Metro State Atheists

Promoting Science, Reason, and Secular Values

The truths and myths about the anti-vaccine movement

Thanks to the A-Team for this blog

I don’t usually ask, but if you agree with this blog, Please give kudos and comment. I want as many people to see this blog as possible.

The following paragraph was written by Myspace user “TPO” as an introduction to his blog that reposted the same article:

“I am posting this to counter the rash of QUACKERY, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, and DOWNRIGHT DECEIT about vaccinations the public has been spoon fed by the mainstream media lately. I’ve also seen this misinformation posted in forums, bulletin boards and other venues throughout the web and nowhere is it more prominent than here in the MySpace community. Not only is it irresponsible to spread this nonsense, it is downright dangerous to the health and wellbeing of people all around the world. If you agree, then please post this article in a blog of your own or post a bulletin with a link to it.

Peace, love and all that other good stuff…TPO”


VACCINES & AUTISM: Myths and Misconceptions

The Anti-Vaccination Movement

Despite the growing scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and that neither vaccines nor mercury cause autism, a stubborn vocal minority claims otherwise, threatening the effectiveness of this public health program.


Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast (, author of the NeuroLogica blog ( NeuroLogicaBlog), and president of the New England Skeptical Society

Michelle Cedillo has autism, which her parents believe is the result of her childhood vaccines. In June 2007 they had the opportunity, along with eight other families, to make their case to the Autism Omnibus—a U.S. Court of Federal Claims that was presided over by three “special masters” appointed for the purpose. These nine cases are the first test cases that will likely determine the fate of 4,800 other claims made over the past eight years for compensation for injuries allegedly due to childhood vaccines.

Vaccines are one of the most successful programs in modern health care, reducing, and in some cases even eliminating, serious infectious diseases. Public support for the vaccination program remains strong, especially in the United States where vaccination rates are currently at an all-time high of >95 percent (CDC 2004). Yet, despite a long history of safety and effectiveness, vaccines have always had their critics: some parents and a tiny fringe of doctors question whether vaccinating children is worth what they perceive as the risks. In recent years, the anti-vaccination movement, largely based on poor science and fear-mongering, has become more vocal and even hostile (Hughes 2007).

Of course, vaccines are not without risk (no medical intervention is), although the benefits far outweigh those risks. Because vaccines are somewhat compulsory in the United States—although opting out is increasingly easy—a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established to streamline the process for compensation for those who are injured due to vaccines (USDOJ 2007). It is this program to which the Cedillo and 4,800 other families are applying for compensation.

In the last decade, the anti-vaccine movement, which includes those who blame the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine for autism, has largely merged with those who warn that mercury toxicity is the cause of many of the ills that plague mankind. The two groups have come together over the issue of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in some vaccines. They believe that it was the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines that led to the apparent autism epidemic beginning in the 1990s.

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that typically manifests in the first few years of life and primarily involves a deficiency of typical social skills and behavior. In the 1990’s, the number of autism diagnoses significantly increased, from between one and three to about fifteen cases per ten thousand, although the true incidence is probably between thirty and sixty per ten thousand (Rutter 2005). During this same period, the number of vaccines given in the routine childhood schedule also increased. This led some to assume, or at least speculate, causation from correlation—perhaps the vaccines or something in them created this “epidemic” of autism.

We can now say, from multiple independent lines of evidence, that vaccines do not cause autism. For one thing, the autism “epidemic” probably does not represent a true increase in the disorder, but rather an artifact of expanding the diagnosis (now referred to as autism spectrum disorder, ASD) and increased surveillance (Taylor 2006).

In 1998, researcher Andrew Wakefield and some of his colleagues published a study in the prestigious English medical journal Lancet that claimed to show a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism (Wakefield 1998). Wakefield’s theory was that the MMR vaccine, which contains a live virus, can cause in susceptible children a chronic measles infection. This in turn leads to gastrointestinal disturbances, including what he calls a “leaky gut” syndrome, which then allows for certain toxins and chemicals, like those from bread and dairy that are normally broken down by the gut, to enter the bloodstream where they can access and damage the developing brain.

Although the study was small and the evidence was considered preliminary, this article sparked a firestorm. As a result of the study and the media coverage that followed (and continues to this day), MMR compliance in Great Britain plummeted, resulting in a surge of preventable disease (Friederichs 2006).

Subsequent to the seminal article in the Lancet, many follow-up studies were performed testing the autism-MMR vaccine correlation. As the follow-up studies began to be published, however, it became increasingly clear that there was no link between MMR and autism. For example, a study in the British Medical Journal found that autism rates continued to climb in areas where MMR vaccination rates were not increasing (Taylor 1999). Another study found no association with MMR and autism or GI (gastrointestinal) disorders (Taylor 2002). Other studies showed no difference in the diagnosis rate of autism either before or after the MMR vaccine was administered (Honda 2005), or between vaccinated and unvaccinated children (Madsen 2002). Most recently, a study found that there was no decrease in autism rates following removal of the MMR vaccine in Japan (Honda 2005).

In 2001, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed all of the MMR-autism data available to date and concluded that there was no association and essentially closed the case (IOM 2001)—a conclusion confirmed by still later studies, such as the Honda study in Japan cited above.

If Wakefield had simply been wrong in his preliminary findings, he would be innocent of any wrongdoing—scientists are not faulted if their early findings are not later vindicated. However, in May 2004, ten of Wakefield’s co-authors on his original paper withdrew their support for its conclusions. The editors of Lancet also announced that they withdrew their endorsement of the paper and cited as part of the reason an undisclosed potential conflict of interest for Wakefield, namely that at the time of its publication he was conducting research for a group of parents of autistic children seeking to sue for damages from MMR vaccine producers (Lancet 2004).

It gets worse. Investigative reporter Brian Deer has uncovered greater depths to Wakefield’s apparent malfeasance. Wakefield had applied for patents for an MMR vaccine substitute and treatments for his alleged MMR vaccine-induced gut disorder (Deer 2007). So, not only was he allegedly paid by lawyers to cast doubt on the MMR vaccine, but he stood to personally gain from the outcome of his research.

Andrew Wakefield. (Credit: Tom Miller) [Photo via Newscom]

Further, during the Cedillo case testimony, Stephen Bustin, a world expert in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), testified that the lab Wakefield used to obtain the results for his original paper was contaminated with measles virus RNA. It was therefore likely, Bustin implied, that the PCR used by Wakefield was detecting this contamination and not evidence for measles infection in the guts of children with autism who had been vaccinated, as Wakefield claimed. And finally, Nicholas Chadwick testified that the measles RNA Wakefield found matched the laboratory contamination and did not match either any naturally occurring strain or the strain used in the MMR vaccine—a fact of which he had informed Wakefield (USCFC 2007).

All of this, plus other allegations still coming out, has caused Britain’s General Medical Council to call Wakefield before its “Fitness to Practice” panel for review of his alleged professional misconduct (GMC 2007).

Believers in the MMR-autism hypothesis dismiss the findings of the larger and more powerful epidemiological studies that contradict a link. Instead, they have turned Andrew Wakefield into a martyr, dismissing the evidence of his wrongdoing as a conspiracy against him designed to hide the true cause of autism from the public. Wakefield is unrepentant and maintains his innocence (Gorski 2007).

With the MMR-autism hypothesis scientifically dead, attention soon shifted to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in some childhood vaccines (although not the MMR vaccine). There is little doubt, and no controversy, that mercury, the major component of thimerosal, is a powerful neurotoxin, or poison to the brain. However, toxicity is always a matter of dose. Everything becomes toxic in a high enough dose; even too much water or vitamin C can kill you. So the real question is whether the amount of mercury given to children in vaccines containing thimerosal was enough to cause neurological damage.

Author of the book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic David Kirby (center) speaks as president Harvey Fineberg (left) of the Institute of Medicine listens during an interview by moderator Tim Russert (right) on NBC‘s Meet the Press August 7, 2005, at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C. Fineberg and Kirby talked about the rising number of autism diagnoses among children and the controversial charges of a government conspiracy to allow mercury exposures from childhood vaccines to more than double between 1988 and 1992. The Institute of Medicine reviewed all MMR-autism data and concluded that there was no association. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press) [Photo via Newscom]

Proponents of the mercury hypothesis argue that the ethylmercury found in thimerosal was given in doses exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits. This load of mercury should be considered with prenatal vaccine loads possibly given to mothers, and to other environmental sources of mercury, such as seafood. Furthermore, underweight or premature infants received a higher dose by weight than larger children. Some children, they argue, may have a specific inability to metabolize mercury, and perhaps these are the children who become autistic.

Fear over thimerosal and autism was given a huge boost by journalist David Kirby with his book Evidence of Harm (Kirby 2005). Kirby tells the clichéd tale of courageous families searching for help for their sick children and facing a blind medical establishment and a federal government rife with corruption from corporate dollars. Kirby echoes the core claim that as the childhood vaccine schedule increased in the 1990s, leading to an increased cumulative dose of thimerosal, autism diagnoses skyrocketed.

In the end, Evidence of Harm is an example of terrible reporting that grossly misrepresents the science and the relevant institutions. As bad as Kirby’s position was in 2005, in the last two years the evidence has been piling up that thimerosal does not cause autism. Rather than adjusting his claims to the evidence, Kirby has held fast to his claims, which has made him a hero alongside Wakefield of the mercury-autism-connection crowd as he has squandered his credibility.

There have now been a number of epidemiological and ecological studies that have all shown no correlation between thimerosal and autism (Parker 2004 and Doja 2006). I have already mentioned that the current consensus holds that there is no real autism epidemic, just an artifact of how the diagnosis is made. If there’s no epidemic, there’s no reason to look for a correlation between thimerosal and autism. This has been backed up by The Institute of Medicine, which has also reviewed all the available evidence (both epidemiological and toxicological) and concluded that the evidence does not support the conclusion that thimerosal causes autism (IOM 2004).

Especially damning for the thimerosal hypothesis are the recent studies that clearly demonstrate that early detection of autism is possible long before the diagnosis is officially made. Part of the belief that vaccines may cause autism is driven by the anecdotal observation by many parents that their children were normal until after they were vaccinated—autism is typically diagnosed around age two or three. However, more careful observations indicate that signs of autism are present much earlier, even before twelve months of age, before exposure to thimerosal (Mitchell 2006). In fact, autism expert Eric Fombonne testified in the Autism Omnibus hearings that Michelle Cedillo displayed early signs of autism clearly visibly on family video taken prior to her receiving the MMR vaccine (USCFC 2007).

Meanwhile, evidence is accumulating that autism is largely a genetic disorder (Szatmari 2007). This by itself does not rule out an environmental factor, but it is telling that genetic research in autism has proven so fruitful.

Mercury alarmists, in the face of this negative evidence, have been looking for rationalizations. Some have argued that the thimerosal in prenatal vaccines may be to blame, but recent evidence has shown a negative correlation there as well (Miles 2007).

What we have are the makings of a solid scientific consensus. Multiple independent lines of evidence all point in the same direction: vaccines in general, and thimerosal in particular, do not cause autism, which rather likely has its roots in genetics. Furthermore, true autism rates are probably static and not rising.

A demonstrator carries a sign protesting the use of mercury in vaccines past the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 20, 2005. Some three hundred people marched demanding that mercury not be used in vaccines anymore amid concern that it is the cause of autism and other neurological diseases in children. However, numerous studies show no correlation between Thimerosol and autism. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images) [Photo via Newscom]

The only researchers who are publishing data that contradicts this consensus are the father-and-son team of Mark and David Geier. They have looked at the same data and concluded that thimerosal does correlate with autism. However, the hammer of peer-review has come down on their methods and declared them fatally flawed, thus rendering their conclusions invalid or uninterpretable (Parker 2004). Also, like Wakefield, their reputations are far from clean. They have made something of a career out of testifying for lawyers and families claiming that vaccines caused their child’s autism, even though the Geiers’ testimony is often excluded on the basis that they lack the proper expertise (Goldacre 2007). The Geiers were not even called as experts in the Autism Omnibus hearings.

The Geiers are now undertaking an ethically suspect study in which they are administering chelation therapy to children with autism in conjunction with powerful hormonal therapy allegedly designed to reduce testosterone levels. Chelation therapy removes mercury, and so it is dependent upon the mercury hypothesis, which is all but disproved. Moreover, there is no clinical evidence for the efficacy of chelation therapy. The treatment is far from benign and is even associated with occasional deaths (Brown 2006).

With the scientific evidence so solidly against the mercury hypothesis of autism, proponents maintain their belief largely through the generous application of conspiracy thinking. The conspiracy claim has been made the loudest by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in two conspiracy-mongering articles: Deadly Immunity published on in 2005 (Kennedy 2005), and more recently Attack on Mothers (Kennedy 2007). In these articles, RFK Jr. completely misrepresents and selectively quotes the scientific evidence, dismisses inconvenient evidence as fraudulent, accuses the government, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry of conspiring to neurologically damage America’s children, and accuses scientists who are skeptical of the mercury claims of attacking the mothers of children with autism.

Despite the lack of evidence for any safety concern, the FDA decided to remove all thimerosal from childhood vaccines, and by 2002 no new childhood vaccines with thimerosal were being sold in the U.S. This was not an admission of prior error, as some mercury proponents claimed; instead, the FDA was playing it safe by minimizing human exposure to mercury wherever possible. The move was also likely calculated to maintain public confidence in vaccines.

This created the opportunity to have the ultimate test of the thimerosal autism hypothesis. If rising thimerosal doses in the 1990s led to increasing rates of autism diagnosis, then the removal of thimerosal should be followed within a few years by a similar drop in new autism diagnoses. If, on the other hand, thimerosal did not cause autism, then the incidence of new diagnoses should continue to increase and eventually level off at or near the true rate of incidence. In 2005, I personally interviewed David Kirby on the topic, and we both agreed that this would be a fair test of our respective positions. Also, in an e-mail to science blogger Citizen Cain, Kirby wrote, “If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS [Department of Developmental Services] system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis” (Cain 2005).

Well, five years after the removal of thimerosal, autism diagnosis rates have continued to increase (IDIC 2007). That is the final nail in the coffin in the thimerosal-vaccine-autism hypothesis. The believers, however, are in full rationalization mode. David Kirby and others have charged that although no new vaccines with thimerosal were sold after 2001, there was no recall, so pediatricians may have had a stockpile of thimerosal-laden vaccines—even though a published inspection of 447 pediatric clinics and offices found only 1.9 percent of relevant vaccines still had thimerosal by February 2002, a tiny fraction that was either exchanged, used, or expired soon after (CDCP/ACIP 2002).

Those who argue for the link have put forth increasingly desperate notions. Kirby has argued that mercury from cremations was increasing environmental mercury toxicity and offsetting the decrease in mercury from thimerosal. The Geiers simply reinterpreted the data using bad statistics to create the illusion of a downward trend where none exists (Geier 2006). Robert Kennedy Jr. dodges the issue altogether by asking for more studies, despite the fact that the evidence he asks for already exists. He just doesn’t like the answer. Kennedy and others also point to dubious evidence, such as the myth that the Amish do not vaccinate and do not get autism. Both of these claims are not true, and the data RFK Jr. refers to is nothing more than a very unscientific phone survey (Leitch 2007).

The Autism Omnibus hearings have concluded, and while we await the decision due early next year, I am optimistic that science and reason will win the day. Just as shown in the 2005 Dover trial of intelligent design where the full body of scientific evidence was given a thorough airing in court and subjected to rules of evidence and the critical eyes of experienced judges, science tends to win out over nonsense. By all accounts, the lawyers for those claiming that vaccines caused their children’s autism put on pathetic performances with transparently shoddy science, while the other side marshaled genuine experts and put forth an impressive case.

But the stakes are high, and not just for the 4,800 families. If the petitioners win these test cases despite the evidence, it will open the floodgates for the rest of the 4,800 petitioners. This will likely bankrupt the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and will also risk our vaccine infrastructure. Pharmaceutical companies will be reluctant to subject themselves to the liability of selling vaccines if even the truth cannot protect them from lawsuits.

Thimerosal still exists as a necessary preservative in multi-shot vaccines outside the United States, especially in poor third-world countries that cannot afford stockpiles of single-shot vaccines. Anti-thimerosal hysteria therefore also threatens the health of children in poor countries.

And of course a victory for the anti-vaccination activists would undermine public confidence in what is arguably the single most effective public health measure devised by modern science. This decrease in confidence will lead, as it has before, to declining compliance and an increase in infectious disease.

The forces of irrationality are arrayed on this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple respect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence.


Brown, M.J., T. Willis, B. Omalu, and R. Leiker. 2006. Deaths resulting from hypocalcemia after administration of edetate disodium: 2003–2005. Pediatrics. 118(2):e534–36.

Centers for Disease Control. 2004. MMWR Weekly, November 12. 53(44):1041–1044. Available at

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization. 2002. Practice Records of the meeting held on February 20–21, 2002, Atlanta Marriott North Central Hotel. Available at

Citizen Cain. 2005. Slouching Toward Truth—Autism and Mercury, November 30. Available at

Deer, B. 2007. Andrew Wakefield & the MMR scare: part 2. Available at

Doja, A., and W. Roberts. 2006. Immunizations and autism: a review of the literature. Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences 33(4):341–46.

Friederichs, V., J.C. Cameron, and C. Robertson. 2006. Impact of adverse publicity on MMR vaccine uptake: a population based analysis of vaccine uptake records for one million children, born 1987–2004. Archives of Diseases of Children 200691(6):465–68. Epub 2006 April 25.

Geier, D.A., and M.R. Geier. 2006. An assessment of downward trends in neurodevelopmental disorders in the United States following removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines. Medical Science Monitor 12(6):CR231–9. Epub 2006 May 29.

General Medical Council. 2007. July 16. Available at

Goldacre B. 2007. Opinions from the medical fringe should come with a health warning. The Guardian, Saturday, February 24. Available at

Gorski, D. 2007. Andrew Wakefield: The Galileo gambit writ large in The Observer. Respectful Insolence, July 9, 2007. Available at

Honda, H., Y. Shimizu, and M. Rutter. 2005. No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46(6):572–79.

Hughes, V. 2007. Mercury Rising. Nature Medicine 13(8):896–7. Epub 2007 August 31.

Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). 2007. Autistic spectrum disorder: No causal relationship with vaccines. Paediatrics & Child Health 12(5): 393–95. Available at

Institute of Medicine. 2001. Immunization Safety Review: Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine and Autism. April 23. Available at

Institute of Medicine. 2004. Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism. May 17. Available at

Kennedy, R.F. 2005. Deadly immunity. June 16. Available at

———. 2007. Attack on mothers. June 19. The Huffington Post. Available at

Kirby, David. 2005. Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lancet Editors, 2004. Lancet 363(9411).

Leitch K. 2007. Autism amongst the Amish. Left Brain/Right Brain. 22. Available at

Madsen, K.M., A. Hviid, M. Vestergaard, D. Schendel, J. Wohlfahrt, P. Thorsen, J. Olsen, and M. Melbye. 2002. A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism. New England Journal of Medicine 347(19):1477–1482.

Miles, J.H., and T.N. Takahashi. 2007. Lack of association between Rh status, Rh immune globulin in pregnancy and autism. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A1. 143(13):1397–407.

Mitchell, S., J. Brian, L. Zwaigenbaum, W. Roberts, P. Szatmari, I. Smith, and S. Bryson. 2006. Early language and communication development of infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 27(2 Suppl):S69–78.

Parker, S.K., B. Schwartz, J. Todd, and L.K. Pickering. 2004. Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autistic spectrum disorder: a critical review of published original data. Pediatrics 114(3):793–804.

Rutter, M. 2005. Incidence of autism spectrum disorders: changes over time and their meaning. Acta Paediatrica 94(1):2–15.

Szatmari, P., et. al. 2007. Mapping autism risk loci using genetic linkage and chromosomal rearrangements. Nature Genetics 39, 319–28.

Taylor, B. 2006. Vaccines and the changing epidemiology of autism. Child Care, Health, and Development 32(5):511–19.

Taylor, B., E. Miller, C.P. Farrington, M.C. Petropoulos, I. Favot-Mayaud, J. Li, and P.A. Waight. 1999. Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association. Lancet 12;353(9169):2026–2029.

Taylor, B., E. Miller, R. Lingam, N. Andrews, A. Simmons, and J. Stowe. 2002. Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and bowel problems or developmental regression in children with autism: population study. British Medical Journal 16; 324(7334):393–96.

United States Court of Federal Claims. 2007. Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Transcript of Day 6. June 18, 2007. Available at

United States Court of Federal Claims, 2007. Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Transcript of Day 8. June 20, 2007. Available at

USDOJ, About the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Available at

Wakefield, A.J., S.H. Murch, A. Anthony, J. Linnell, D.M. Casson, M. Malik, M. Berelowitz, A.P. Dhillon, M.A. Thomson, P. Harvey, A. Valentine, S.E. Davies, and J.A. Walker-Smith. 1998. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351(9103):637–41.


October 1, 2008 Posted by | Medicine, Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience, science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Homeopathy: Deadly Consequences

From the National Institute Against Health Fraud


The quackery-related death of a 17-month-old girl has sent shock waves across Canada. No one aspect of the story is unusual. The scenario is a classic combination of cultural vulnerability, modern urban mythology and quackery.
The Victim

Dead from malnutrition and pneumonia is Lorie Atikian. Eight months before her death on September 25, 1987, Lorie was a perfectly healthy baby. When she died she was nearly bald, covered with deep red rashes, and so emaciated that the paramedics thought they were being tricked by being given a doll to treat.
The Parents

Lorie’s parents Sonia, 38, and Khochadour, 54, are emigrants from Lebanon and Syria. In addition to Lorie, the couple has two teenage children. Like many people these days the Atikian’s were concerned about modern food additives, pesticide residues, and drugs. Their cultural background may have made them a bit more vulnerable, but like most people they held positive attitudes toward “natural” food and medicine. Sonia became enamored with Gerhard Hanswille, an “herbologist.”
The “Herbologist”

Gerhard Hanswille, 55, says that he learned herbology in Germany through self-study and books (Germany has a tradition of folk medicine that includes a great deal of Medieval herbalism). In 1972, Hanswille obtained a mail order doctoral degree in naturopathy from “Bernadean University” (BU) located at that time in Las Vegas, Nevada. BU, which was never approved or accredited to offer any courses, was closed down by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1976. It then moved to California where it operated for several years before eventually becoming “authorized” under the State’s liberal rules (Aronson, 1983). California has tried to close BU but has been blocked by its claim to being a religious school of the Church of Universology (Emshwiller, 1987).

Hanswille owns two “House of Herbs” stores, writes and gives seminars at which he expounds his theories, which include making wax and clay effigies sealed with drops of blood and sperm (notions founded in Monism and Vitalism which are the basis of most primitive folk medicine). Hanswille’s book describes how to heal diabetes, epilepsy, TB, tumors and paralysis by “touchless massage.” Hanswille likens the technique to dowsing for water, something that “not everyone can do.” Sonia paid $450 to take Hanswille’s course.
The Promise

Hanswille’s compelling vision of natural health made a convert of Sonia. When she became pregnant with Lorie in 1985 Hanswille convinced her to remain “pure” for the sake of the child. She testified that Hanswille promised to make Lorie a super baby. “That baby is going to be very different. Its going to develop without chemicals. Its going to be strong and pure…it going to be very special.” Hanswille convinced Sonia that vaccinations would “poison” her child, and that ultrasound examination would damage an unborn baby’s brain. He had Sonia tell her pediatrician that she would not be bringing Lorie in any more because the family was moving to California. Hanswille was described as “. . .like a doctor. . .surrounded by medicine and books. . . sure of what he was saying. He always had an answer.”
The Regimen

Hanswille advocated an organic, vegetarian diet. He sold the Atikians a special juicer for $400 alleging that their own juicer “burned the nutrition” out of fruits. Among the special products the Atikians purchased from Hanswille were a bottle of baby oil that cost $16, a bar of soap costing $7.40, and a 3 kg box of laundry detergent that cost $35.99.

When Lorie became ill she was treated with royal jelly, “cell salts” (homeopathy), and an herbal concoction brewed by Hanswille. He also treated Lorie with an electromagnetic “vitalizing” machine that “stimulates the blood” and has attachments such as an electrified comb that “livens up the hair.” Sonia Atikian testified that they became very concerned about Lorie’s condition but that Hanswille assured them that it was normal for clumps of her baby’s hair to fall out and not to worry if Lorie didn’t gain weight. Hanswille told Sonia that taking Lorie to a hospital would be like “holding a loaded gun to Lorie’s head and pulling the trigger.”
The Legal Charges

The Atikians were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their baby daughter (child neglect). Up until now Hanswille has not been charged with anything. He has angrily complained that he feels like “the accused” but denies that he did anything wrong. He says that he “cannot tell people what to do,” that it is up to the parents to make decisions for their children. The judge instructed the jury that it was all right for them to “vent your spleen” over the activities of Hanswille “and his ilk,” but neither he nor herbalism were on trial in the death of little Lorie.
The Verdict

On June 12 the Atikians were found guilty of child neglect. Sentencing is scheduled for July 6.
How Unusual Is This Case?

The sad story of the death of little Lorie Atikian received national coverage in Canada by the Toronto Star (5/10-6/13) and The Globe and Mail. It is the kind of story that elicits harsh blame of the parents for their gullibility. “How could they have been so foolish?” is the usual response. The reality is that most of the public is sympathetic to the underlying assumptions that condemn modern food, commercial agriculture and extol “natural” medicine. The herbal industry is trying to distance itself from Hanswille by saying that the case is “not typical.” However, we believe that what Hanswille told the Atikians is not only widely believed by health food and natural (herbal) medicine ilk; it largely represents the philosophy that is used to justify the existence of “alternative” medicine and herbalism. The faith the Atikians placed in Hanswille seems cult-like, but how different is it than the confidence a patient must put in a surgeon, anesthesiologist, radiologist, or physician who hold lives in their hands?
Murder, By Words Alone?

In 1962, a California chiropractor was convicted of second-degree murder by words alone in the death of 11-year-old cancer patient, Linda Epping. To get a conviction, the prosecutor had to prove that “his fraudulent representations … caused Linda to die when she died” (Miner, 1964). We do not know enough about Ontario law to know if what Hanswille did constituted the unlawful practice of medicine, and if so, the resultant death of Lorie Atikian makes such a felony. We do know that Lorie’s death is even more tragic than Linda Epping’s because Linda had a form of cancer that is usually fatal while Lorie was a healthy baby with a normal future. People who presume to give health advice that can make the difference between life and death must be regulated by the government and held accountable for their misdeeds. Consumer protection law holds that practicing medicine is a privilege, not a right. Like driving a car or flying an airplane, only those who are qualified are granted such privilege by the state. It is clear that the state has a compelling responsibility to protect vulnerable people–and their children–from the glib purveyors of pseudomedicine. It matters not that such practitioners are sincere in their beliefs. Experience teaches that, when it comes to quackery, zealotry can be more dangerous than fraud.

* Miner J. “The Phillips case–A new dimension in murder,” J Forensic Sci, 9:(1):1-10, 1964.
* Aronson V. “Bernadean University: a nutrition diploma mill,” ACSH News & Views, March-April, 1983.
* Emshwiller JR. “Phony parchment,” Wall Street J, April 2, 1987.”

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Acupuncture and Acne

Check out the article below from Sunday Mail.

“Acupuncture Bill Is Chinese Torture

Far East remedy for acne makes skin problems worse

No wonder Yesim McKeag is needled by a Chinese herbalist who promised to cure her acne for good.

She signed up for 16 acupuncture sessions and medicines costing s840. But over three months her skin got worse and high-street chain Herb-medic refused a refund.

Yesim, 33, said: “The treatment was completely useless. My skin is worse but Herbmedic are refusing to return my calls.”

The firm have 10 outlets in Scotland but more than 90 in the UK and Ireland.

Yesim, of Inverleithing, Edinburgh, signed up at their store in the city’s St James Centre in June.

She said: “I was stressed with the acne and had tried everything. Their doctor promised it would clear up.

Houswife Yesim at first paid s180 for three acupuncture sessions each lasting 20 minutes.

The herbalist then told her a hormonal imbalance was to blame and she would need further treatment.

She paid s383.50 for 12 more sessions costing s30 each plus fees for herbal teas and medicines.

A week later she paid s160 for more medicine.

Yesim said: “Bill and I were going on holiday so I couldn’t attend the acupuncture.

The doctor told me I had to buy more medicine to keep me going.”

She then paid a further s117.50. But when her skin got worse, her husband Bill, 50, took her to a specialist.

She said: “I had blood tests which clearly showed no hormonal imbalance.

“The doctor at Herbmedic was talking nonsense.”

Yesim complained but the firm refused to refund a penny – not even the s90 for three treatments she had not yet taken.

In an email to management consultant Bill, they said Yesim’s treatment failed because it was interrupted by her holiday and that they would complete her course.

I got on to Herbmedic at their head office in Barking, Essex.

They said: “We believe we acted appropriately but as a goodwill gesture we will in this case offer a no-obligation refund.”

Thrilled Yesim said last night: “I’m delighted The Judge has managed to sort this out for me.”

I am glad that like Yesim’s acne, this problem has been cleared up.”

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment