Respectful Insolence

Bill Maher: Antivaccination wingnut

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgVacation time! While Orac is off to London recharging his circuits and contemplating the linguistic tricks of limericks and jokes or the glory of black holes, he’s rerunning some old stuff from his original Blogspot blog. This particular post first appeared on December 19, 2005. I don’t know if Bill Maher is still an antivax nutcase, but I’m guessing that he probably is. Enjoy!

Via Skeptico, I’ve learned of some more antivaccination stupidity issuing forth from self-proclaimed “skeptic” Bill Maher during his recent appearance on Larry King Live. Get a load of this:

MAHER: I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can…

KING: You mean you don’t get a — you don’t get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why?

MAHER: Because it’s got — it’s got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn’t prevent. First of all, that’s…

KING: I haven’t had the flu in 25 years since I’ve been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease. I would stop getting your…

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.

Ooh, boy. As Skeptico points out, that’s a very specific claim, that getting flu shots more than five years in a row will increase your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease by ten-fold. Personally, I’m unaware of any good (or even not so good) evidence that flu vaccines can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, but I’m always willing to try fill in the gaps in my knowledge. That’s why I wonder what research, if any, supports Maher’s assertion. Based on past experience, my guess is probably none, but, as Skeptico does, I will try to keep an open mind with regards to this topic and join Skeptico in e-mailing Bill to provide a specific source for his claim. My guess is that Maher probably read it on the altie kook site Whale.to or somewhere similar.

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I thought about it a little more, and, because I was curious about where Maher might have found such a claim, I did a little investigating. First, I did a simple Google search using the terms “flu vaccine Alzheimer’s.” Guess what website came up first when I did my search? If you said the extremly flaky Whale.to website. . .you won! Here it is, right from the source:

According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (http://members.aol.com/nitrf), the world’s leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg’s speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer’s to quadruple statement is from John’s Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998.

Fudenberg?

Hmmm. That name sounded very familiar, so I did a little more digging. It turns out that Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who published an absolutely horribly designed study in the Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism, nearly all of whose authors later publicly retracted their authorship. This study, now thoroughly repudiated, caused a major scare in Britain and elsewhere regarding MMR, echoes of which persist even today, with anti-vaxers still citing Wakefield’s Lancet study as “evidence” that MMR causes autism. (Particularly hilarious is when they attribute MMR “causing” autism to the mercury in thimerosal, mainly because MMR has never contained thimerosal.) Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious “treatments” for autism that led to some problems with his medical license. In November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was “guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct,” and he was fined $10,000 and ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs). His medical license was also placed on suspension. In March 1996, he was permitted to resume practice under terms of probation that did not permit him to prescribe any drugs. His medical license expired in January 2004; and in March 2004, he applied to have it reinstated. However, after a hearing in which the Board considered a neuropsychatric report issued in 2003, Fudenberg agreed to remain in a “retired” status and withdrew his application for reactivation of his license. Nowadays, Dr. Fudenberg runs a nonprofit “research” organization called Neuro Immunotherapeutics Research Foundation and still appears to be pushing dubious remedies for autism. He also charges $750 per hour for “review of past medical records,” $750 per hour for “determining what new tests need to be ordered; ordering of new tests; evaluation of new tests,” and $750 per hour for “determining which therapy will work and which will not; discussing this with patient along with an in-depth study of past medical history to determine what makes a patient better or worse.”

All of this sounds a lot like practicing medicine to me, which makes me wonder how someone with a lapsed medical license can get away with providing such “services” at such inflated prices. (Once again I have to wonder if I’m in the wrong business.) Of course, none of this means Dr. Fudenberg doesn’t make a valid point, but he certainly hasn’t supported it, as far as I can tell, and I looked. And just because he’s published over 660 scientific papers in his career (not 800, as claimed, at least not according to PubMed, unless he published a lot before 1965) doesn’t mean he isn’t off the wall. After all, later in life Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling marred his legacy by lending his name to a lot of dubious vitamin C quackery. Besides, as far as I can tell, with one exception in 1999, Dr. Fudenberg hasn’t published any original research since the late 1980’s. If you look at his PubMed publication list, you’ll find that there is nothing after around 1989 other than review articles, speculative articles in Medical Hypotheses, plus a publication or two in dubious journals such as Biotherapy (which is no longer published). Looking at the list, a knowledgeable person can tell right about when Dr. Fudenberg started to descend into fringe medicine, sometime between 1985-1989. And, try as I might, I couldn’t find an article by Fudenberg to support his claim about the flu vaccine that Maher parrotted on Larry King Live.

In any case, the specific dubious autism treatment with which Dr. Fudenberg was involved is the use of something called “transfer factor” to make a combined measles vaccine and autism “cure.” The method of making these so-called “transfer factors” is bizarre in the extreme and involves injecting mice with measles, extracting and processing white blood cells, injecting the result into pregnant goats, milking the goats after kid-birth and turning the product into capsules for autistic children. In a patent application (based in part on the infamous Lancet paper) obtained by Brian Deer, Wakefield represented a vaccine/therapy for “MMR-based” autism using transfer factor as potentially a “complete cure” for autism or for “alleviation of symptoms.”

So what did Dr. Fudenberg base his claim about flu vaccines and Alzheimer’s on? Try as I might, I couldn’t find any research that supports this assertion, at least not in PubMed. Any Google searches done inevitably brought up the same quote as above or variants of it, but no source pointed me to any actual research supporting Dr. Fudenberg’s claim, even though he did seem to imply that he had done a study. Certainly there is nothing I could find in the peer-reviewed literature when I searched Dr. Fudenberg’s name with the term “influenza.” Indeed, the only paper I could find on PubMed on the subject of the flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s disease concluded:

After adjustment for age, sex and education, past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza was associated with lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease (odds ratio [OR] 0.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.27-0.62; OR 0.60, 95% CI 0.37-0.99; and OR 0.75, 95% CI 0.54-1.04 respectively) than no exposure to these vaccines…Past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza may protect against subsequent development of Alzheimer’s disease.

My goodness! It looks as though the flu vaccine might actually protect against Alzheimers! True, this is a retrospective study using a self-questionnaire, which is a big problem. It definitely needs to be replicated with a more reliable study methodology than what was used and doing individual studies for each vaccine, rather than lumping four vaccines together in one study. However, I’d be willing to bet that, for all its shortcomings, this study is probably better evidence than Dr. Fudenberg can produce, and there is zero doubt in my mind that it’s way better evidence than Bill Maher can produce, given that he undoubtedly got his bogus claim from either Whale.to, the infamous conspiracy-mongering Rense.com site, Vaccination Liberation, or (of course) from altie supreme Dr. Mercola. Clearly, Bill Maher has difficulty evaluating the reliability and plausibility of evidence with regard to his beliefs in unnamed “toxins” rather than microorganisms causing disease, something he’s shown before when he swallowed whole the myth of Pasteur’s supposed deathbed “recantation” that he was wrong, and he sure seems pretty credulous about “evidence” coming from anti-vax websites.

But that’s not all. Maher also parrotted the claim that it was better sanitation, not the polio vaccine, that eliminated polio. This is simply not true. Better sanitation certainly helps eliminate such diseases, but sanitation was pretty good in the 1950’s, just before the polio vaccine was developed, and polio outbreaks were still fairly common and still quite feared. (People of a certain age will remember polio scares that occurred throughout this country before the polio vaccine was developed that would shut down public swimming pools and baths.) In actuality, better sanitation may have made people more susceptible to severe complications from polio, because sanitation made sure that most people were no longer routinely exposed to the virus as children. Also going against Maher’s assertion is the observation that when polio vaccination rates fall, polio returns. It’s the same with other infectious diseases, like pertussis.

I’ve written about Bill Maher’s medical wingnuttery before. Given his antivaccination statements based on no evidence or on demonstrably incorrect evidence and his support of PETA, it’s hard for me to conclude now that Bill Maher, who likes to represent himself as hard-nosed “skeptic” speaking truth to power, is anything other than a total wingnut, at least when it comes to medicine. As The Uncredible Hallq points out, Maher seems far more certain about his “ability to think” than is justified based on the evidence of his own words. Worse, he’s not just peddling “concerns” about vaccination or “skepticism” over whether specific vaccinations have an insufficiently favorable risk-benefit ratio to justify their use, an argument scientists and doctors sometimes make for certain vaccines. No, he’s pushing a misguided belief that vaccines do more harm than good and a hostility towards vaccination in general that are both wrong-headed and just plain wrong. Vaccination represents arguably the single most effective public health intervention ever developed by “conventional” medicine. It has all but eliminated diseases that once ravaged huge swaths of this planet and will to protect billions of people from horrific diseases–that is, unless muddle-headed alties like Bill Maher have their way and persuade people that they don’t need to vaccinate their children or themselves.

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    August 27, 2007

    “In actuality, better sanitation may have made people more susceptible to severe complications from polio, because sanitation made sure that most people were no longer routinely exposed to the virus as children.”
    I understand Polio was one of the few diseases that affected rich people worse than poor – because they were less likely to be infected till a later age when it did more harm.
    I would imagine many people whose memory was beginning to fail might forget to go and get their flue shot, which might help explain a negative correlation between vaccinations and Alzheimers.

  2. #2 ORK
    August 27, 2007

    Oh no say it is not so.
    Please not Maher.

  3. #3 Oldfart
    August 27, 2007

    It won’t do you any good to point out that you couldn’t find any evidence of such a study. The wingnuts will just claim that “they” suppressed it.

  4. #4 MarkH
    August 27, 2007

    Don’t be so surprised Ork, he’s got several kinds of crankery going on. He’s a pretty classic left-wing crank.

    He’s pro-PETA/animal rights, he’s a toxin paranoid, and yes, he’s against western medicine – even devoting lots of time to Deepak Chopra. While he does appear to be a real atheist – and even gave Chopra a bit of a hard time about his evidence for some of his stuff, he clearly buys into Choprawoo.

  5. #5 khan
    August 27, 2007

    Goats?

  6. #6 Doug
    August 27, 2007

    What a shame. It’s nice to have an atheist celebrity, but is it too much to ask for a rational one?! What’s with these posers that invoke rationalism then spew out anti-vaccine nonsense.

    Perhaps PZ’s new movie role will launch him into movie star status and eclipse the crackpot atheists.

  7. #7 Dave
    August 28, 2007

    Actually, Maher is not entirely anti-vax. He was supportive of Gardasil when it was announced. Partly, I think, because the rabid anti-vaxers were against it, claiming it would cause promiscuity. His reply was “HPV shots don’t cause promiscuity — tequila shots do.”

  8. #8 llewelly
    January 7, 2008

    Personally, I’m unaware of any good (or even not so good) evidence that flu vaccines can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s …

    Isn’t it obvious? You won’t get Alzheimer’s if you die (say… from flu) first.

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