Wrong About Measles, Cancer & Autism: Dan Olmsted’s “Measles, Cancer, Autoimmunity, Autism”

by Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH
Posted: May 28, 2015

Wrong About Measles, Cancer &
Autism: A Review of Dan Olmsted's
Article "Weekly Wrap: Measles, Cancer
Autoimmunity, Autism"
(Age of Autism, May 17, 2014)

Executive Summary

A number of organizations as well as bloggers have arisen over the past several decades claiming that vaccines and/or their ingredients cause a number of disorders, foremost among these is autism. The results of their efforts have been a decline in vaccine coverage and a rise in previously rare childhood diseases, resulting in unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations, long-term disabilities, and even death. The following paper will demonstrate, using as an example an article by Dan Olmsted, founder, owner, and chief editor of Age of Autism, the poor scholarship and science displayed by many antivaccinationists. If people are to decide on whether to vaccinate their children or not, it should be based on scholarly, well-grounded science, and reflect basic common sense, not claims made by people who are deficient in these..

Olmsted’s recent post on Age of Autism, “Weekly Wrap: Measles, Cancer, Autoimmunity, Autism” should raise a number of red flags regarding his scholarship, basic understanding of science, and even common sense. Olmsted’s article claims that a recent study treated multiple myeloma with a measles vaccine. Olmsted then goes on to speculate that measles may have had a preventative effect on cancer and that vaccinations led to increasing rates of cancer.

The conclusions of this paper are:

  1. Dan Olmsted, founder, owner, and chief executive of Age of Autism, posted an article, “Weekly Wrap: Measles, Cancer, Autoimmunity, Autism” claiming a recent study, Russell SJ et al. (July 2014) “Remission of Disseminated Cancer After Systemic Oncolytic Virotherapy” used a measles vaccine to treat multiple myeloma. Olmsted then goes on to speculate that “wild-type measles . . . performs some unsuspected function in preventing the occurrence of cancer.” Olmsted based his entire article on two newspaper accounts of the research with no indication he either read the easily available actual research article and/or understood it. A measles vaccine was not used. Instead it was a genetically engineered measles virus strain that was designed to specifically target cancer cells. In fact, if Olmsted had even read the two newspaper articles carefully, they both mentioned that the measles virus had been so modified.

  2. Though wrong about the use of a measles vaccine, this paper looks at the remainder of Olmsted’s paper to show that even if he had been right about the use of a vaccine, he was still wrong about the inferences from it, thus showing his poor scholarship, poor understanding of science, and overall poor knowledge of the history and current status of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases.

  3. Olmsted traced “the anonymous Case 3 in the first medical paper on autism, from 1943” [Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact”][and found] “his death certificate from July 8, 2011, the cause was listed: multiple myeloma.” Olmsted then writes: “According to Wikipedia, this kind of cancer is increasing, and affecting younger people.” Case 3 was born November 17, 1937, so he was 73½ at the time of his death, certainly not young and well within historical statistics for cancer deaths. Though Wikipedia science articles are well-referenced, this one specifically stated: “Citation needed.” This gives just one example of Olmsted’s illogic and cherry-picking articles that confirm his pre-existing beliefs, ignoring the “Citation needed.”

  4. While Olmsted claims measles is a benign childhood disease, both historical and current statistics tell a quite different story. “In the United States in the prevaccine era, approximately 500,000 cases of measles were reported each year, but, in reality, an entire birth cohort of approximately 4 million persons was infected annually. Associated with these cases were an estimated 500 deaths, 150,000 cases with respiratory complications, 100,000 cases of otitis media, 48,000 hospitalizations, 7,000 seizure episodes, and 4,000 cases of encephalitis, which left up to one quarter of patients permanently brain damaged or deaf.” (Strebel, 2013, p. 358) Prior to the development of antibiotics, opportunistic bacterial pneumonias killed many more. Measles is just as infectious today, just a plane flight away. Given a much larger population and the increasing risk of deaths from secondary bacterial pneumonias due to increasing rates of antibiotic-resistant microbes, without vaccination the above numbers could be significantly higher.

  5. Cancer results from a succession of mutations in normal cells. These mutations occur during cell divisions. Every time a cell divides, approximately six random mutations occur. Most are harmless; but over time, one may not be and then another until cancer develops. Most mutations are random; but environmental factors such as chemicals and microbes can sometimes cause mutations. The more times, the faster the rate of cell divisions, the more chance of mutations. Measles is a system-wide disease that damages and kills cells throughout our bodies. Though initially suppressing our immune systems, the immune response involves an exponential production of immune cells to combat the infection. In other words, the exact opposite of Olmsted’s speculation would occur, that is, the risk of mutations would, if anything, accelerate from “wild-type measles.” Measles vaccines are attenuated (extremely weakened) to elicit a local short-lived infection, just enough to allow the immune system to recognize it and create memory cells ready to defend against any future exposure.

  6. There is a history of microbes and vaccines used to treat cancer and other diseases such as syphilis. For instance, malaria was used to treat syphilis and a tuberculosis vaccine is still used to treat bladder cancer. No one today in their right mind has ever promoted mass infection with malaria to prevent syphilis or mass infection with tuberculosis to prevent bladder cancer.

  7. Olmsted writes regarding Case 3 from the first medical article that diagnosed autism: “Leo Kanner, the author of that first autism paper, noted that “following smallpox vaccination at 12 months, he had an attack of diarrhea and fever, from which he recovered in somewhat less than a week.” (We can assume he had measles.)” Kanner described the mother as a college graduate whose father was a physician, that she took copious notes which “indicated obsessive preoccupation with details. . . She watched (and recorded) every gesture and every “look.” Measles was ubiquitous at the time with a distinct rash that was well-known to those who were raised during this time period. One could, therefore, question why an educated women, with a propensity towards taking copious notes, would fail to recognize and subsequently document her son’s case as suspected measles or, at the very least, document the presence of a measles-like rash along with the fever and diarrhea? It is more likely that the fever and diarrhea either resulted from the smallpox vaccine or from coincident infection by any number of commonly circulating viruses, or even from mild food poisoning. Olmsted’s “we can assume he had measles” is nonsensical.

  8. Olmsted claims Kanner missed a big clue as Case 3’s mother noted his failure to talk: “I can’t be sure just when he stopped the imitation of word sounds. It seems that he has gone backward mentally gradually for the last two years.” Olmsted assumes this resulted from the smallpox vaccination. However, the mother also, in comparing her two children, explained how Case 3 had shown NO anticipatory response to being picked up as Kanner writes in his discussion: “the children’s aloneness from the beginning of life . . . We must, then, assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual, biologically provided affective contact with people.” So Olmsted missed that Case 3 showed clear signs of autism almost from birth and, though the mother was uncertain when “he stopped the imitation of word sounds,” Olmsted decides it must have stemmed from the smallpox vaccination. It appears that it is Olmsted that missed big clues.

  9. Olmsted writes: “In short, the first commercial uses of ethyl mercury triggered the first cases of autism; the explosion in vaccines containing it triggered the autism explosion beginning around 1990.” Olmsted ignores the fact that Kanner, in the first article describing autism discusses how most of his cases had been previously diagnosed as either retarded or suffering from childhood schizophrenia and had shown signs of “extreme aloneness” from birth. There is a long history of the classification of medical conditions changing with new data and medical knowledge, though the conditions were not new, something Olmsted seems to be unaware of. There is good evidence that autism is not a new condition.

  10. Based mainly on one recent article by Classen, “Review of Vaccine Induced Immune Overload and the Resulting Epidemics of Type 1 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome, Emphasis on Explaining the Recent Accelerations in the Risk of Prediabetes and other Immune Medicated Diseases” (February 2014), Olmsted discusses how vaccines overload a young child’s immune system. Nowhere does he or Classen discuss what is known about the number of antigens our immune system can deal with at any one time in relation to the number a child is exposed to daily from the environment compared to the minute number even when five vaccines are given at once. Classen's article is not a systematic review; but a cherry-picked biased presentation. In addition, he fails to deal with all credible alternative hypotheses and he may have misrepresented one article’s findings.

  11. Olmsted claims to be a citizen scientist; but his writing gives NO indication he has attempted to learn the basics of epidemiology, biostatistics, microbiology, immunology and other relevant subjects, nor that he has attempted to learn the history and current status of vaccine-preventable diseases. In fact, he writes in another post: “I am not a chi square guy. I'm an English major. I am in no position to evaluate the techniques used to calibrate the autism rate in black males, or anybody else, before or after the MMR shot.” In addition, given his profession as journalist, his use of newspaper articles without indication he read the actual research article and his use of Classen’s article because it confirmed his pre-existing beliefs fails the minimal requirements of fact-checking/verification expected of any journalist.

  12. Olmsted writes: “It seems almost too simple, but then, as Mark Blaxill says, epidemics are simple by their very nature, once the cause is identified and the truth is told.” The rate of knowledge is doubling at ever decreasing time intervals. The world has become very complex. It may be psychologically advantageous in the short run to retreat into a more simplistic world; but Olmsted and Age of Autism’s use of “belief” falls into one of the caveats for doing science as Neil deGrass Tyson explains in the recent TV series Cosmos: “Believing something doesn’t make it so.” Though we do sometimes find causes of epidemics that lead to interventions, either preventative or for developing treatments, these causes are often situation-specific within a chain of and matrix of events and are often tentative. The science needed to make such determinations is far from simple.

Read Dr. Harrison's full article as a PDF version by clicking here.

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