Vaccine scammers I call them. They prey on people with a sick kid. Perhaps they want to flog dietary supplements or bleach enemas but today I refer to the proponents of a variety of fake syndromes, which they claim have been induced by vaccines and/or vaccine adjuvants*. The most infamous vaccine scammer in this case is Andrew Wakefield, but this is not about him.
In Confessions of a Confidence Man (pub 1923) Edward H Smith laid out six steps in the confidence (aka con) game. I thought it would be fun to use these six steps to explore the history of “Autoimmune/Autoinflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA)” which is a sort of catch all for nebulous chronic illnesses that include fatigue. Of course behind any scam are the con men and women.
The idea of newly discovered syndromes seems to be a theme for people who seek to derail vaccination programmes. For example most infamously Andrew Wakefield invented a syndrome (the triad of Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder) and then went on to falsify data in order to ‘prove’ that MMR vaccine caused his fictitious condition.
More recently detractors dreamed up HPV vaccination syndrome to describe a vague constellation of symptoms and blame the vaccine. ASIA appears in the literature as a potential mechanism for this fake syndrome (fake because not only is there no evidence for it but there is overwhelming evidence against it .
The confidence game
Step 1. Foundation work. Preparations are made in advance of the game, including the hiring of any assistants required.
In the case of ASIA proponents began publishing hypothesis generating articles on the potential association between environmental exposures such as siliconosis, gulf war syndrome, and something called macrophagic myofasciitis. Morphing on from these seeding ideas came the proposition that vaccine adjuvants cause autoimmunity, and a run of articles in either low level journals or journals where the senior author/s were on the editorial board ensued. This does not mean they are not valid but it is something to note.
In 2011 ASIA as an entity was proposed in the absence of any reasonable epidemiological evidence, followed by a small group of researchers publishing self-citing articles en masse. Just five authors cited the article a total of 150 times. This gains the work prominence.
Step 2. Approach: The victim is contacted.
After an adverse event following immunisation concerned parents can find their needs better met by anti-vaccination groups than the medical establishment. At this time they are vulnerable, worried sick about their kid. The hosts and other members of the organisation feed the concern that the child’s condition may have be caused by a vaccine, in fact they convince the parent that this is indeed the case and provide the evidence established in step 1.
What is particularly sad about this stage is that some of the self-serving narcissistic members of the groups hijack the parental anxiety about the decision to vaccinate their child. The parents now blame themselves for their child’s illness and carry a terrible burden of guilt.
Step 3. Build up: The victim is given an opportunity to profit from a scheme. The victim’s greed is encouraged, such that their rational judgment of the situation might be impaired.
In this case the victims are the parents of children who may or may not have suffered a vaccine injury but are non-the-less unwell. A sick child is a stressful and heart-breaking burden for any parent. In the US there is a no-fault Vaccine Injury Compensation Programme where billions of dollars financed by 75 cents of every vaccine administered are available to compensate families where a vaccine may have caused damage. I say may because there is no “beyond reasonable doubt” required. The bar for evidence is very low. This is good because it enables more people to access support.
For personal injury lawyers this must present an opportunity? Apparently the average pay-out is over a million dollars. I cannot help but wonder if this also presents an opportunity for expert witnesses to profit in some way. Profiteering does not have to be financial but I can’t help noticing that there are several occasions were financial support from established vehemently anti vaccination funders are non-disclosed. Mmmm, I have to disclose mine.
Step 4. Pay-off or Convincer: The victim receives a small pay-out as a demonstration of the scheme’s effectiveness. This may be a real amount of money, or faked in some way. In a gambling con, the victim is allowed to win several small bets. In a stock market con, the victim is given fake dividends.
The way I see it, rather than money the victim receives support and reinforcement by the anti-vaccination lobby who gather around them like a warm fluffy blanket, offering sympathy and much needed support. This may be in contrast to the treatment they received from the health professionals who may well have brushed them off and offered nothing but a sterile consultation and flippant dismissal (shame on you). These parents feel disenfranchised and bitter, just talk to a parent with a child they believe was harmed by a vaccine and who felt they were unheard by the medical community. The con artists are buoyed by their own convictions and self-importance, feedback nurtures their egos, brings more funding, and more opportunity.
Now existing in an echo chamber the concept of the Syndrome (let’s say ASIA) becomes magnified, broadcast through not just academic channels now but through public forums such as social media. The Syndrome is firmly embedded in folklore.
Step 5. The Hurrah: A sudden crisis or change of events forces the victim to act immediately. This is the point at which the con succeeds or fails.
The victim becomes a megaphone for the Syndrome, disseminating the idea throughout their networks. The con has succeeded.
Step 6. The In-and-In: A conspirator (in on the con, but assumes the role of an interested bystander) puts an amount of money into the same scheme as the victim, to add an appearance of legitimacy to the scheme. This can reassure the victim, and give the con man greater control when the deal has been completed.
Entre the pseudoscientist with Doctor or Professor in front of their name (Appeal to Authority). Like knights in shining armour they stand up and defend the victim. On the internet, in the courts.
What proponents of these syndromes disregard are the inconvenient facts. There is no scientific data to support the existence of ASIA let alone a role of adjuvants in any of the associated symptoms. In contrast what does exist is a very large Vaccine Injury Compensation Programme that requires a petitioner to provide evidence of at least a possible connection between a vaccine and their ‘injury. The inventor of the syndrome (who I will not give air to here but you can investigate him yourself) regularly testifies for vaccine injury cases.
Sadly while attention is given to implicating vaccines in illness or disability, for which the vast majority are demonstrably not caused by vaccines, the eye is off investigating the real cause of said conditions and finding better ways to help those affected.
*Vaccine adjuvants are substances included in the formulation of some types of vaccine to improve the immune response to the vaccine. Most vaccine adjuvants are based on the most common metallic element on earth, aluminium. Generally referred to aluminium salts they have a track record extending over 80-years. Yes they are remarkably safe.
Aluminium is ubiquitous in our environment. When babies are born they have aluminium in their bodies. When they breast feed they swallow aluminium, when they bottle feed they swallow more, our food contains aluminium. To escape aluminium you will need to leave earth and find another M-class planet that has no aluminium.
Some people claim that aluminium used in vaccine adjuvants causes all manner of ills, in particular an invention given the fancy name Autoimmune/Autoinflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA). Recently a considered review on the matter was published by experts in immunology, allergic disease, vaccines, aluminium adjuvants and epidemiology including colleagues from the University of Auckland
Current data do not support the causation of ASIA by vaccine adjuvants containing aluminum, which should be of reassurance to patients undergoing routine immunizations as well as to those undergoing allergen-specific IT.