Fact-Checking the Facebook “Fact-Checkers”
By Brian S. Hooker, CHD Board Member, and Science Advisor, Focus for Health
On May 27, 2020, the paper “Analysis of Health Outcomes of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Children: Developmental Delays, Asthma, Ear Infections and Gastrointestinal Disorders” that I coauthored with Neil Z. Miller was published in the journal SAGE Open Medicine. By June 2, 2020, Facebook “fact-checkers” declared the paper “unsupported” and flagged Children’s Health Defense’s references to the study on the social media platform. Instead of following the link to the peer-reviewed study, Facebook now directed the reader to a critique completed by Healthfeedback.org, an organization that is a part of the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Safety Net with ties to the Gates Foundation. To view the original paper, one would have to bypass the “fact-check” to be directed to the SAGE Open Medicine website.
Playing fast and loose with the facts
Unfortunately for the public, the so-called “fact-checkers” at Healthfeedback.org play fast and loose with the facts. First, prior to considering the study at hand, the “fact-checkers” label my previous Hooker 2014 study “fraudulent,” a most serious and reputation-harming charge. “Fraudulent” is a legal term of art which means “the intentional use of deceit, a trick or some dishonest means to deprive another of their money, property or a legal right.” The fact of the matter is that Translational Neurodegeneration, where my 2014 study was published, did retract the article under enormous pressure from the Vaccine Industry. But, in so doing, that Journal never cited “fraud,” “deception,” or “dishonesty” as a basis for the retraction. Rather, that Journal retracted the article because of a purportedly undisclosed conflict of interest, but without any finding that the non-disclosure was intentional or material. Indeed, that study has since been republished in an expanded form (Hooker 2018).
Using a convenience sample
The primary criticism of the Hooker and Miller 2020 study was the use of a convenience sample which refers to the cohort of 2047 children, from 3 separate pediatric practices in the United States, that formed the basis for our study. Convenience samples are used routinely in epidemiology and also form the basis for the FDA approval of drugs and biologics.
Within the piece, Dr. David Gorski, a pro-pharma blogger states, “Basically, no matter how you analyze a convenience sample, you can’t generalize it to the larger population.” FALSE. The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) own studies, many that are cited in the “fact-checking” piece, are almost exclusively based on convenience samples. The study presented by Destefano et al. 2004 in the journal Pediatrics on the timing of the MMR vaccine and autism was completed using a convenience sample of approximately 2400 children in public school districts in Metropolitan Atlanta. This was not a representative sample of the U.S. population as the percentage of African American children in the study was 35.4% compared to that of the U.S. at the time at 16%. Yet this study is the CDC’s basis for denying a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism in the U.S.
The “fact-checkers” cite Andrews et al. 2004 (Pediatrics) which is also based on a convenience sample of children in the United Kingdom despite the fact that the CDC cites it as “proof” that thimerosal-containing vaccines in the United States do not cause autism. Also, the “fact-checkers” cite four studies (regarding both thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine) on children in Denmark as proof that vaccines don’t cause autism in U.S. children despite many distinctions between the two populations of children.
Finally, the “fact-checkers” cite five studies that are based on the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink, a computerized database of the records from nine Health Maintenance Organizations in the U.S. This could also be considered a “convenience sample” as it excludes children who are on Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans as well as those on Medicaid and focuses only on the HMO demographic.
The necessary meaningful statistics
Evidently, the “fact-checkers’” big beef with the use of a convenience sample is the fact that 30.9% of the cohort was unvaccinated by their first birthday. This number makes sense in a study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children as a significant number of unvaccinated children would be necessary to derive any meaningful statistics whatsoever. “Fact-checkers” accuse the co-investigators of not controlling for differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated children but seem to ignore the fact that we selected and evaluated differences in the control diagnosis of head injury, a diagnosis that has nothing to do with vaccination. When the “fact-checkers” do acknowledge the control diagnosis, they point out a single, marginally significant relationship between vaccination status and head injury reported in Hooker and Miller, 2020 but neglect to point out that for all of the rest of the analyses (11 total), no relationship between vaccination and head injury was observed. Hooker and Miller discuss differences in healthcare seeking behavior between vaccinated and unvaccinated children as a potential limitation of the paper and cite Glanz et al. 2013 which showed that under-vaccinated children were less likely to see medical practitioners for outpatient visits, with an incidence risk ratio of 0.89. However, it is clear that effect estimates above 2.0 cannot be explained away simply by stating that unvaccinated children are not going to their healthcare provider as much.
The 2004 Pediatrics study (Andrews et al. 2004) cited by the “fact-checkers” showing “no association between vaccines and developmental delay” was completed on thimerosal-containing vaccines with a control group of thimerosal-free vaccines. The “fact-checkers” deceptively couch this as “vaccinated versus unvaccinated study” but there were no unvaccinated children considered in the analysis. The “fact-checkers” also deceptively state that over 20 studies show that vaccines are not associated with autism. It’s unclear why the “fact-checkers” discuss autism when “fact-checking” our paper since we never analyzed autism. Again, the studies listed focus on thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine considered separately and did not consider unvaccinated children. The only study focused on the vaccination schedule (Destefano et al. 2013) is fraught with methodological errors, including overmatching of cases and controls, to the point that it is scientifically invalid, not to mention that there were no unvaccinated children in the study.
“Fact-checkers” also cited studies claiming better cognitive performance in vaccinated children. However, these studies considered no unvaccinated children but instead looked at minor delays in the vaccination schedule (Smith and Woods 2010) or the presence/absence of measles vaccination in children who received the BCG and polio vaccine (Nandi et al. 2019).
Facebook’s censorship of the paper I coauthored with Neil Miller is pedestrian. Looking beyond the veneer of the write-up of the “fact-checkers,” one sees an attempt to deceive, not educate the reader. I welcome everyone to receive our work with an open mind. Our recommendation from the study is clear: “A thorough evaluation of vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations is essential to understanding the full spectrum of health effects associated with specific vaccines and the childhood vaccine schedule in totality.” In addition, Children’s Health Defense has an exhaustive compilation of studies where vaccinated and unvaccinated populations are compared.