The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for August, 2010

Why Vaccines Matter: Whooping Cough is Coming Back

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 31, 2010

When talking to people about the importance of getting vaccinated, I often hear the following argument, or some variation thereof: “Why should I bother getting vaccinated, because disease XXX isn’t even around anymore!” Of course, this is a perfect example of ignoring the reason why those diseases are kept in check (a.k.a. the incorrect cause fallacy); so many dangerous diseases are not an issue (or used to not be an issue) in industrialized society is due to widespread vaccination campaigns over the last few generations.  These diseases, such as pertussis (also known as whooping cough), are not completely gone, however – they are merely lying dormant.  In fact, because of the scare tactics put forth by many in the anti-vaccination movement over the last 20-30 years, vaccination rates have been dropping; and that gives an opening for these diseases to come back.  I can think of no other example which so clearly illustrates that pseudoscience & conspiracy mongering misinformation can kill.

And that is exactly what is happening – whooping cough is on the rise again, and rates of infection in the United States are increasing at alarming rates, and people (mostly children) are starting to die from an easily preventable disease. The bottom line really has to do with herd immunity, which basically states that if enough of the population is vaccinated against a particular disease, then not enough people can become infected to allow the virus to effectively propagate (which provides protection to those who, for whatever reason, cannot receive vaccinations).

If you think this isn’t a problem, think again.  The following article outlines very clearly why it is so important that we not become lackadaisical regarding these illnesses.  The solution is simple: talk to your doctor, get yourself vaccinated, and encourage those around you to do likewise…

Whooping Cough Makes Whopping Comeback

Christopher Wanjek
LiveScience’s Bad Medicine Columnist
Sat Aug 28, 2:55 pm ET

Whooping cough sounds fantastically antiquated, up there with scurvy and St. Vitus Dance – diseases you didn’t think anyone in America got anymore.

But whooping cough, named for the high-pitched “whoop” a person makes when inhaling, has made a comeback, with an incidence rate up by a whopping 2,300 percent since 1976, the year when fear of the vaccine began to take hold and vaccination rates started to plummet. In 1976 there were only about 1,000 reported cases; in 2005, the most recent peak, there were nearly 27,000 reported cases (and likely over 1 million unreported cases), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With outbreaks that cycle every three to five years, the respiratory tract infection might peak again this year, and the CDC recommends you get a booster shot soon.

We’re not off to a good start. In June, California declared a whooping cough epidemic after the death of five infants. So far there have been nearly 3,000 reported cases across six states, according to the CDC, a sevenfold increase compared with this time last year. Whooping cough season doesn’t really kick in until the fall.

A reversing trend

Whooping cough, known in the medical trade by its more conservative name, pertussis, is nearly completely preventable through vaccination. Pertussis was once a leading cause of infant death, with over a quarter million cases and about 8,000 total deaths annually in the United States during the peak years in the 1930s, just before the advent of the vaccine in the 1940s, according to CDC statistics.

By the 1970s, through vaccinations, whooping cough was as endangered as the whooping crane, with only about 0.000005 percent of the population infected. Unfortunately, fears that the DPT vaccine (a combo for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) could cause brain damage in rare cases – not entirely unfounded – gave rise to the anti-DPT movement in many industrialized countries.

At issue was the “whole-cell pertussis” element of the vaccine, since replaced in most countries, including the United States, with an “acellular” formulation (which includes purified proteins from the Bordetella pertussis bacteria), indicated by the “a” in DTaP, a common abbreviation for the vaccine these days. While never conclusively associated with brain damage, the original formulation was tied to other serious albeit rare side effects, such as allergic reactions and seizures.

Hype and consequences

The impact of the anti-vaccine movement was dramatic. In Great Britain, immunization rates for whooping cough dropped from over 80 percent to 33 percent (and in some regions to less than 10 percent) from 1974 to 1977. Then the epidemic hit. In 1979 there were over 100,000 cases and 36 deaths worldwide. In Japan in 1975, amidst public worry, the government suspended mandatory pertussis vaccines for infants; the 1979 epidemic killed over 40 children there. The same scene repeated itself in other countries, as well.

In June 2009 researchers reported in the journal Pediatrics that children who didn’t receive the whooping cough vaccine were 23 times more likely to contract pertussis. In the June 2010 issue of Pediatrics, researchers found no connection between the vaccine and seizures.

Herd mentality

The recent upsurge of whooping cough cases is not entirely the fault of the anti-vaccine movement. For the pertussis incidence rates to remain low – even among the vaccinated, because the vaccine isn’t 100-percent effective – there needs to be herd protection, in this case over 90 percent of the entire population immunized, to minimize the number of carriers.

Fewer than 85 percent of children are fully immunized against pertussis, according to the CDC. Some parents simply forget to keep up the multi-shot schedule. And for adults, vaccinated as children, the strength of the immunization has waned.

To curb the epidemic, the CDC is recommending that adults get a booster shot. Most adults have never received one and have never been told to get one.

Going natural is perhaps not the best bet. While pertussis is rarely deadly for otherwise healthy adults, struggling through the aptly named “100-day cough” isn’t particularly pleasant, with its uncontrollable fits of violent coughing around the clock.

Also, in the August 2010 edition of Clinical Infectious Diseases, James Cherry of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA addresses a common myth that living through a bout of pertussis offers lifetime immunity. Not so. Protection from the vaccine and booster lasts longer, although no more than 10 years.

One limiting factor for a fully immunized population could be the fact that, for adults, the booster shot might not be covered by medical insurance. So your decision might come down to coughing it up now or coughing it up later.

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

U.S. Appeals Court Finds No Link Between Vaccines & Autism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 28, 2010

I’m on a vaccine kick lately, probably because of my involvement through the Women Thinking Free Foundation & Skepchick’s work to bring a free vaccine clinic to Dragon*Con 2010. I’ll provide more details about that, as well as the launch of the Hug Me – I’m Vaccinated! campaign, later this week.  For now, I just wanted to share with you my thoughts about an epic win in court for science & evidence-based medicine :)

No link between vaccines and autism, appeals court rules

updated 8/27/2010 6:07:09 PM ET

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that vaccines are not to blame for autism.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a decision last year by a special vaccine court, which concluded there’s little if any evidence to support claims of a vaccine-autism link.

Scientist years ago reached that conclusion, but more than 5,500 families sought compensation through the government’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

Friday’s ruling came in the case of Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., who is disabled with autism, inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that her parents blame on a measles vaccine given at 15 months.

In the 2009 ruling Special Master Denise Vowell wrote that the evidence “is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive. Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding” of autism.

In its ruling Friday the appeals panel said “we have carefully reviewed the decision of the special master and we find that it is rationally supported by the evidence, well-articulated, and reasonable. We, therefore, affirm the denial of the Cedillos’ petition for compensation.”

Earlier this year the so-called vaccine court also concluded that the additive thimerosal is not to blame for autism, an added setback in a long-running battle by parents convinced there is a connection.

The decisions help to offer reassurance to parents scared about vaccinating their babies because of a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Some vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are on the rise.

I have no doubt that the hard core anti-vaccinationists, like Jenny McCarthy, will just spin this as some kind of conspiracy theory about how the courts are in the pocket of Big Pharma, and so on.  I know that no amount of logic or evidence will convince those who have gone way down the anti-vax rabbit hole, but hopefully the news will convince those on the fence.

Posted in medical woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptics, Humanists, and Atheists Reach Out to Give Aid to Pakistan

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2010

We’ve all been hearing the news of the devastation in Pakistan due to the unprecedented floods they are experiencing now.  I honestly cannot comprehend the level of human tragedy which must be on display there, but I can see how to help out.  In the spirit of providing aid to those in their time of need, I would like to pass along to you all a message I recently received from the Center For Inquiry concerning the SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) program. Read on, and whether you are religious, non-religious, skeptical, or whatnot, please consider helping out…

Increasing Need in Pakistan

As Pakistan faces the worst natural disaster in its history, SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) must provide assistance: every dollar you give will be sent directly to Oxfam to provide food and clean water. We have selected Oxfam as our partnering charity because the need for adequate nutrition and hydration is increasing in the aftermath of the flood.

Share Pakistan Logo 082010

Pakistan’s flood is of unprecedented proportions. At least 20 percent of the country’s land mass has been affected. According to BBC reports, “The damage is extraordinary. The sheer force of the rushing water swept away everything in its path—even roads and bridges. Recovery will be long and slow.”

Consider this news from BBC mobile: “UN officials have described the humanitarian situation in Pakistan as critical.” Here are the grim statistics (as of August 26):

  • 1,539 people have died
  • 17 million have been directly affected
  • 1.2 million houses have been destroyed, leaving an estimated 8 million people homeless
  • 3.2 million hectares of standing crops have been lost or damaged
  • A large proportion of people have no access to clean water or sanitation

Today, millions are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as cholera while struggling with other health problems including diarrhea and dehydration. In flood-affected areas, health problems usually increase after four to six weeks. Without adequate nutrition and clean drinking water, conditions in Pakistan will only worsen.

As the situation continues, human misery is mounting. More funds are desperately needed. Pakistan’s infrastructure has been shattered—making it more difficult to provide aid where needed. Unfortunately, this disaster will have a major and lasting impact on the people of Pakistan.


We hope that you can give generously to the SHARE campaign to help Pakistanis in need. Thank you!

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Penn & Teller Call “Bullsh*t!” on Anti-Vaccination

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 24, 2010

Today, I got my annual influenza shot, and as I was doing so my thoughts naturally turned to the general question of vaccines & the pseudoscience spread by those who think vaccines are somehow, in some weird alternate reality, a bad thing.  Bottom line: the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous because it endangers the lives of innocent people; the results of widespread non-vaccination can be deadly.  I think skeptical magicians Penn & Teller articulate very well in this video exactly why this is the case.  Please, get vaccinated, and share this important & life-saving message…

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin’s Intelligent Design Talk at the University Club of Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 20, 2010

This past Tuesday, I attended a talk by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute at the University Club of Chicago.  Attending this talk with me was Jamie Bernstein (her post on the event is located over at the Friendly Atheist blog) – we were both very curious to see what Luskin had to say on the topic of intelligent design (ID), which is essentially another form of creationism.

The event was a casual luncheon, and I must profess that the people gathered there were quite pleasant.  After Jamie & I seated ourselves and started our meals, the group (which numbered approximately 30 in total) held an invocation (appropriate, considering as how the St. James Fellowship and Salvo Magazine – both Christian organizations – sponsored the event).  It was at this time that Jamie & I felt a wee bit self-conscious, because we had started our meals before the prayer while everyone else was waiting – oops.  But no one made a big deal out of it, for which I was thankful.

After awhile the talk got underway.  I did my best to transcribe the talk on my computer, and I will include the notes I took below – all of my specific after-the-fact commentary will be in bolded italics

Me and Casey Luskin (right) after his talk – though we butted heads (more on that below) during his presentation, we agreed that it wasn’t necessary to get out the boxing gloves :)

Intelligent Design: Dead Science or Future of Biology?

talk by Casey Luskin (M.S., J.D., ESQ) of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture

at the Fellowship of St. James, University Club of Chicago

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

Event Honoring Dr. David Gorski & Vaccination Clinic at Dragon*Con!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 18, 2010

This coming Saturday, August 21st, Dr. David Gorski – contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and author of another popular, yet anonymous, blog – will be coming to Chicago to give a lecture on the anti-vaccination movement and various other topics related to alternative medicine woo. This event is co-presented by the Chicago Skeptics, the Women Thinking Free Foundation (WTFF), and the Center For Inquiry Chicago. Details are at the event’s Facebook page…

Chicago Skeptics, The Women Thinking Free Foundation, and the Center For Inquiry-Chicago, are excited to co-present a talk by and discussion with Dr. David Gorski. A breast cancer surgeon and researcher, Dr. Gorski has been on the front lines of the anti-anti-vaccination movement as well as fighting against pseudoscience disguised as alternative heath care in many realms.

From his Science-Based Medicine bio:
Dr. Gorski first became interested in pseudoscience and “alternative” medicine around 2000, when quite by accident he wandered into the Usenet newsgroup and began critically examining the claims there. Since then, he has accumulated considerable experience refuting quackery and pseudoscience online. For the last five years, he has blogged under a pseudonym, producing what is consistently ranked as one of the top ten medical blogs, and is happy to drop his pseudonym in order to join such an accomplished group of skeptical doctors to discuss science- and evidence-based medicine (SEBM) for a broad audience. (Finding Dr. Gorski’s other, far more (in)famous blog persona is left as an exercise for the interested reader.)

Science-Based Medicine Blog:

Now, the evening of Dr. Gorski’s talk, there is going to be a fundraiser put on by the Chicago Skeptics and the WTFF. The proceeds from this fundraiser are going to go towards a vaccination clinic at Dragon*Con in Atlanta during Labor Day weekend! So, if you’re in the Chicago area this coming weekend, please click the link above to get a ticket to the fundraiser, but if you’re not and you’d like to contribute to this worthy cause, then I refer you to this excellent post over at Skepchick about it :D

As part of the Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated launch at Dragon*Con, the Skepchicks are organizing vaccine clinic during Dragon*Con. We are providing FREE vaccines for any Dragon*Con participants who want them. We’ll also be distributing information and education about vaccinations during the event.

Here’s where we need your help.  While the vaccines and staffing are being provided completely free to us, because of the late notice, we needed to rent space to actually have the clinic.  We are paying for space in the Mall at Peachtree Center, which is connected to the Dragon*Con main hotels and we need to raise some money to cover the rent, plus posters, pamphlets and other materials to help promote this. Our goal is to raise $1,500 which will cover all of that. Elyse and the Women Thinking Free Foundation have already raised $800 for the launch so we need $700 more. Ironically, Elyse can’t come to Dragon*Con. She would have to bring her daughter with her and she can’t risk it because of the pertussis epidemic. So we’re going to be launching this project without her, very sadly.

If you can, please help out by donating a few dollars to this extraordinarily worthy cause. You can donate via PayPal to or visit the Women Thinking Free Store and donate there.

This is literally an effort that will save lives. And, if you’re at Dragon*Con, come by and get vaccinated!

Posted in medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Evolution & Creationism on Futurama

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2010

In a post over at the Panda’s Thumb blog, it came to my attention that there was a recent episode of Futurama which took a humorous look at the evolution/creationism question; and it appears that an old friend, the FSM, makes an appearance as well.

My favorite line: “And I remind you that evolution is merely a theory, like gravity or the shape of the Earth!” :)

Check it out…

As will become apparent soon enough, this week is going to be a big one for me in terms of posting about evolution & creationism.  You’ll see what I mean soon enough – stay tuned!

Posted in creationism, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Phil Plait’s “Bad Universe” Coming This Fall!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 15, 2010

I am pleased to announce that “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait – author of the Bad Astronomy blog – will have his own television show this coming fall on the Discovery Channel called Bad Universe! Way to go, Phil!!! :)

I know that Phil’s been working on this for a long time, and it’s hard as hell to get skeptical & scientific shows on cable nowadays, so I want to do all I can to get people to tune in.  So with that, check out the sneak peak of Bad Universe

Coming this fall to Discovery, a new series that debunks all the junk about the Universe! Phil Plait is an astronomer on a mission to challenge the myths of the universe with scientific proof.

Posted in skeptical community, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Conservapedia Disconnected from Reality: Einstein’s Theories Are a Left-Wing Conspiracy?!!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 15, 2010

We’ve all heard of Wikipedia, which tends to be a pretty decent source of info – at least most of the time – because it can point a reader to a lot of good primary sources of information.  It seems that some time ago, ultra-conservative religious fundamentalist nutbag Andrew Schlafly decided that Wikipedia had a “liberal bias” and started his own wiki called Conservapedia which has a very obvious conservative, right-wing bias.

In a post that is almost so crazy so as to be indistinguishable from parody – a phenomenon known as Poe’s Law – Andrew Schlafly has put an article up on Conservapedia claiming, no kidding, that Einstein’s theory of relativity is a sham & just part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. This recent article from Talking Points Memo Muckraker outlines the stupidity and down-the-rabbit-hole thinking from Schlafly…

Conservapedia: E=mc2 Is A Liberal Conspiracy

Andrew Schlafly and Albert Einstein.  One of these is a scientist who revolutionized physics in the 20th century, and the other is a religious fundamentalist douchebag who wants to rewrite history & ignore science in order to fit everything into his twisted little worldview (guess which is which).

To many conservatives, almost everything is a secret liberal plot: from fluoride in the water to medicare reimbursements for end-of-life planning with your doctor to efforts to teach evolution in schools. But Conservapedia founder and Eagle Forum University instructor Andy Schlafly — Phyllis Schlafly’s son — has found one more liberal plot: the theory of relativity.

If you’re behind on your physics, the Theory of Relativity was Albert Einstein’s formulation in the early 20th century that gave rise to the famous theorum that E=mc2, otherwise stated as energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light. Why does Andy Schlafly hate the theory of relativity? We’re pretty sure it’s because he’s decided it doesn’t square with the Bible.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in conspiracy theories, physics denial/woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Needs Your Help!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 11, 2010

If you’re like me and you are rather skeptical of various claims made by religious fundamentalists regarding the accuracy, or “inerrancy” as they call it, of their holy books, then you might find a useful resource in the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB). Actually, the SAB critically analyzes not just the Bible, but also the Quran (Koran) and Book of Mormon as well. I have found it an extremely useful resource when arguing with someone who claims their “literal” reading of the Bible is sensible or even consistent; note that the SAB, to my knowledge, doesn’t really get into the question of God’s existence, it tends to just stick with the question of the logical fallacies within these holy texts…

In any case, the reason why I say the SAB needs your help is simple: there is, as of this writing, no iPhone or similar app for the SAB. The creator of the SAB, Steve Wells, and I have been in contact about creating just such an app, as we both think it would be a great way to get these critical arguments out there, but Steve has neither the time nor technical expertise to program an app.

So, I told him that I would write a blog post asking the skeptical community for help, and here it is.  If you, or anyone you know, has experience writing app’s for the iPhone (or Droid, etc) and you’re interested in helping Steve out, please let him know – his email is swwells [AT] gmail [dot] com – tell Steve I sent you :)

Posted in internet, religion, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »


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