Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flu during pregnancy raises risk of schizophrenia

With all the talk of swine flu, or whatever they're calling it these days, I couldn't help but recall some research I came across years ago. It found that pregnant women who contract the flu have an increased risk their child will develop schizophrenia later in life.

Schizophrenia is a serious psychosis — a mental illness characterized by disordered thinking — that can include visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. In colloquial language, it means you're insane. Schizophrenia affects about 1% of the U.S. population and can be seriously debilitating, requiring institutionalization in severe forms. You may recall the movie A Beautiful Mind in which actor Russell Crowe portrayed a man with schizophrenia. The symptoms don't usually appear until a person is around 20 years old.

The link between maternal flu infection and schizophrenia was published by Dr. Alan Brown, a Columbia University psychiatrist, in 2004 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. His research team looked for antibodies to influenza in archived blood samples from 64 women whose children developed schizophrenia as adults and a control group of 125 women whose children did not. Women who had higher levels of influenza antibodies in their first or second trimester of pregnancy had offspring who were 3 to 7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Brown calculated that if the women had not had the flu during pregnancy, 14 percent of the schizophrenia cases could have been prevented, an effect he calls potentially enormous.

Although researchers do not know the mechanism of action, many think a certain protein released by the mother’s immune system in the wake of a flu infection goes on to harm the infant's developing brain. A flu infection stimulates the release of an immune system protein called interleukin-6, which in normal amounts helps the immune system do its job. However, the release of abnormal amounts of IL-6 is associated with autoimmune disorders such as allergies and asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and more. In the wake of a flu infection, the immune system can go haywire. The normal result of fever, inflammation and secretion of glucocorticoids like cortisol, aka the 'stress hormone,' can go bananas and cause the immune system to destroy good cells — possibly in this case of schizophrenia, brain cells in specific regions of the brain of the developing fetus.

Given the known genetic links to schizophrenia, it is also possible that an inherited predisposition to an abnormal immune system reaction in the wake of flu is another risk factor. After all, the vast majority of women who get the flu during pregnancy do not have children that grow up to have schizophrenia. According to Brown's research, the overall risk of schizophrenia from flu is small — 97% of children born to women who got the flu while pregnant will not develop schizophrenia. But what if you have inherited a predisposition to over-react to the flu? Perhaps your risk of having a child with schizophrenia goes up — way up.

This is certainly something they arouses my concern given I have a family history of autoimmune disorders in my immediate family. My mom is a walking advertisement for screwed up immune system and my little sister developed an autoimmune response to the flu when she was 6 — a rare condition called ITP that put her in the hospital for a week. Then there's a more distant relative who actually had schizophrenia. Needless to say, I have already started taking precautions at work and will happily become a hypochondriac washing, antisocial freak just to be safe.

Regardless, it is interesting that schizophrenia may yet turn out to be a partially communicable disease.

By the way, if you are sick, please cough into a tissue or your sleeve and not your hands!!
If you put those germs on your hands you spread em!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Synopsis of a Week: AKA Finally some time to myself!

What a long week! In lieu of an academic post, I'm going to wrap up the week in RBoC style. That's random blogging on couch — so appropriate given I haven't been feeling well and finally managed to move from the bed to the couch. What an upgrade! And perfect timing too, given that I've caught up on all the online TV that I no longer have the staying power to stay up for to watch 'live.' I do have an academic post planned that I hope turns out to be at least timely if not really fascinating. It's on the psychological ramifications of swine flue.

The Week in Review

* Two sets of parents visit.
One thing can be said for certain — when parents visit, they really want to make sure you eat! I have never eaten so much before in my life, or out so many times in a week. I love that it ran the gammut from fast food (Quizos sandwiches) to upscale sit down places. It's really, really nice when parents pick up the bill, too! Yay! THANK YOU!!! They also brought presents for the baby. I really don't think we will ever have to buy baby clothes — ever. We now have so many onesies and sun dresses I honestly don't know where we're going to store them all. Even the newfies got pressies (pancake breakfast) from 'grandpa.' Video at the end!

* Most of baby stuff purchased.
What a relief this is to have researched major items that need to be bought and the reviews they've gotten and to have finally pulled the trigger on purchases. In a nutshell, the most important things we have checked off the list:
  • Crib: a dark (walnut stain) hardwood crib made by Atlantic Furniture.
  • Stroller: Baby Jogger City Mini stroller in brown/tan found on Albee baby for $20 less than Amazon. I decided on this one since it had the best overall reviews for the price.
  • Car seat: Evenflo triumph advance LX convertible seat. It accomodates newborns of 5 pounds to kids up to 50 pounds, going from rear facing infant seat to a forward facing booster seat. See it here.
  • Oven: Yeah, I know, how is this a baby item? Our oven has it's controls on the front within kid reach instead of up on top, and with a local appliance store having a big going out of business sale, I decided these were two great reasons to finally buy Mr. Field Notes a new oven. He's the house chef, and we are both thankful for that! The oven has a smooth top, so no more ugly, dirty coils.
  • Ceiling fan: He. he. he. The ceiling fan in the living room suddenly looked really, really ugly once we (ha ha ha, I mean Mr. Field Notes) put in the wood floor. So I got us a new one. Since it will circulate air in to the baby room, it's really a purchase for the baby.
  • Boppy: The pillow that makes nursing easier. It's basically an open donut. I got a super cute cover for it too.
  • Things still needed: A baby bath tub, ear thermometer, crib sheets, burp cloths, diapers and a baby carrier/sling. I know there's probably other stuff, but shouldn't be anything major left.
* Got my hair cut!
I chickened out of the freebie-teaching hair cut I had volunteered for at a new local salon (that looked sketchy) and got one at a swanky spa-salon while my mom and sisters were in town. I ended up having about 4 inches taken off the bottom and layers put in. It was amusing — and exhausting — having my mom and two sisters along for the ride. Even my new gay hairstylist said my 'mom's a bit much!' How about that? Well, it's true. I told him there's a reason I went into psychology! He was fun and did a great job with my hair. It weighs a lot less now and I can do more with it on account of him thinning it out in the back and adding layers. I even wore it curly for the day which is a huge change.

While we were there we met a local celebrity - Tonya from MTV's the Real World. We didn't recognize her until my stylist whispered it was her. She chatted with my sisters for a while. It was amusing. They thought she was pretty trashy-looking and her boyfriend was mega preppy. It was all mildly amusing. Apparently she told my sisters that I'm 'one of the cute pregnant ladies.' And, thanks to mom and sister #2, I now have 2 curling irons to experiment with when.... I have time or want to raise the eyebrows of everyone at work. They've only even seen me with straight or completely pulled back hair. Curls. Ha!

They got new toys. My sister's little boy thought their favorite old toy — Big Green Monster — was pretty cool. And why not? It has squakers, rattles and makes a weird farting noise when squeezed. He also liked the rings they chew on and play tug of war with. I think he wanted to play with them, but due to so many people in the house the dogs were too freaked out. They did much better with my dad when he visited by himself. He seems to be the only visitor they allow in their inner circle. He does have a way with animals. It's pretty cool. When he was here we took them all to the dog park and had a grand time.

And, Katy finally got her football. She's still recovering from a busted toe, which had caused her to limp for several days, so we haven't let her play football yet, but now that the swelling has gone down and she's walking well, I think it's time — once it stops raining! We're not sure what happened to her tow, but it did swell up badly. Our best guess is that she stepped on a bee and got stung. She's fine now, but for a while, we had been calling her Tripod. Poor kiddo. She was so frustrated during the whole time out period but was mentally upbeat and kept asking to go out, to go for rides, etc. even though she was gimping around.

* Custom paper orders.
Oof da! I was so busy I had to make paper while my dad was here. Poor guy had to watch as about 30 sheets were made. I think he made it all the way to the end, without getting bored. Or, maybe he was bored and just didn't show it.

One of the orders was a huge one - 250 butterflies made from lavender and printed with wedding guest names. I think they turned out beautifully, so I'm going to add them to the selection of products I offer. They took longer than I anticipated, so the price will go up from what I originally charged. I think the market can accomodate it though given that I'm the only one that offers butterflies that are printed for use as wedding table place cards. We'll see how it goes, not that I'm in a hurry to sell a bunch more given how busy I have been, and will be.

* Baby kickins' and pregnancy complaints galore. Ugh.
I'm sure it all be 'worth it.' But in the meantime why do I have to experience every pregnancy symptom in the book? The heartburn is awful. Sometimes it makes me so queasy I don't even want to eat. It's like I have a resurgence of first trimester pregnancy sickness: nausea and food aversions all over again. Just about the only thing I am always excited to eat is ice cream and that's because it rarely gives me heartburn!

I've also been getting the practice contactions known as Braxton-Hicks contractions. I've been getting them several times a day every day for months now but they've recently become much stronger. So have the baby kicks which means she's getting bigger. Sometimes she kicks so hard and rolls around so much it makes me sick to my stomach. And then there's the feeling I have a snake slithering around in the matress right next to my skin when I'm on my side. It's her, but man it feels like a snake. Unsettling! It all makes sleeping darned near improbable for longer than, well, honestly, however long it takes for one hip to get sore! I will be so relieved when I can sleep on my back and stomach again. The only place I am totally comfortable is while taking a bath.

I am exhausted! For the next month I have just one goal — take it easy and not get swine flu!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Could lice prevent asthma?


But yes, according to new research published in the journal BMC Biology. Mice with the most lice had calmer immune systems than uninfested mice, adding to evidence that hyper-clean living contributes to asthma and allergies.

The idea is that if the immune system is not properly primed with germs, bugs, and pathogens during childhood, the immune system can go haywire, basically inventing problems to solve when it has nothing to do. Asthma and allergies belong to a broad class of conditions known as auto-immune disorders. In these conditions, the immune system launches a hyperactive response to harmless triggers such as pollen, pet dander, and even the individual's own body cells.

This is sort of pet subject for me, given that my mom and sisters have all had allergies, asthma or other auto-immune conditions. It's also a sore subject for me because no one ever listens to me about keeping the house too clean — except for my dad — he gets it. Perhaps because it's a convenient excuse to not clean the house, something I am sure he doesn't really like to do. My mom on the other hand is a complete neat freak/germaphobe. She takes it to downright scary levels. I think it's insane, personally. And she is coming to visit tomorrow, which means I do need to give my house a top to bottom cleaning so she doesn't freak out.

But while I give the house just enough dusting to make sure the dark wood furniture doesn't look gray, just enough vacuuming to eliminate most of the newfies' under-furniture-and-corner hair balls, and just enough scrubbing to make the kitchen and bathroom appear to be clean, I will keep in the back of my mind the funny yet sage advice from a scientist whose immune system talk I attended at a conference: Be sure to have at least some dog poop in your sheets!

Although I can no longer remember the details of Marlene Zuk's talk, I do recall the take home message is that you need some germs in your environment to have a healthy immune system. Without stuff to fight off, the immune system launches assaults on stuff it shouldn't, causing you to actually be less healthy. Zuk's talk echoes what I had learned in the psychoneuroimmunology course I took during grad school. All of this makes me wish I had the time to read Zuk's book, Riddled With Life. She was an engaging and hilarious speaker, so I am
sure her book is great.

How could you not enjoy reading the work of a scientist who advocates for having a little dog poo in your home? I know we have trace fecal matter throughout the Field Notes' house. Hopefully, Baby Field Notes will have a terrific immune system.

We'll have to trade the lice for poo though. I draw the line at lice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A wild hair of an idea.

Today I volunteered to receive a free haircut from a local salon in exchange for being a "hair cut model." Basically, a complete newbie will be cutting my hair. I get to choose from a book of styles and can keep it longish, which I fully intend to do so I can keep it all pulled back if this wild hair of an idea goes awry, which it very well could.

I may after all find out that you get what you pay for.

While I know other women, including probably most of my female friends (and my guy friends for that matter too) would never in a million years go for this, my attitude about hair is completely laissez-faire. I get it cut maybe once every two years — or more. I just don't really care about having it styled either. Keeping it all pulled back all the time works for me. I never blow dry, curl or dye it. I don't do anything to it besides brush it and wash it. Which means, in hairdressing terms, my hair is extremely healthy: It's in mint condition. It's also extremely easy to maintain — and cheap in terms of both money and time.

But, it does need to be cut when it gets too long and heavy. And I am at that point, so by volunteering I scored a free haircut which is great because I don't want to pay an obsurd amount for taking several inches off the bottom. That shouldn't cost 60 bucks! And, if it goes awry at least it will be at a length that I can keep it pulled back.

The deal is that a complete novice will do the hair as part of training. The salon owner I called today, after seeing a blurb in our local newspaper about this need for 'hair models,' said that the hair people practice on wigs first then real people and they are looking for volunteers to be the real people-guinea pigs. I have to go to the salon in the next couple of days to have my photo taken and look through the book to choose a hair cut. Should be interesting!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book shelf shuffle amid Barkin' Dogs and Bible Thumpin'

Yesterday I must have been out of steam when a couple of Mormon missionary boys wound up on my porch. I had been organizing my large collection of books on evolution and primate behavior when I was suddenly jolted out of my task, which was entirely pleasant and all-consuming.

My task found me revisiting all the material I've read over the years, well, at least that in book form as there are still a good thousand or so paper articles currently residing in files in the baby's room (where will those go once she realizes it's not cool for her mama to store academic paraphernalia in her closet?).

I got to admire the completeness of my collection and revel at the thoroughness of my margin notes marked in red ink. I always use red to help me immediately see my thoughts vs. those of the author. I was especially struck by the apparent joy I had while reading a certain critique of the field of Evolutionary Psychology. I made it something like 400 pages into the book, writing and arguing back on nearly every page the whole way. It made me wish I still had that kind of time.

Then the barking dogs. Zounds alive! I thought perhaps Mr. Field Notes was home early so I opened the door prior to hearing any knock. And there they were, hopeful, standing before 2 humongous barking dogs and a pregnant lady — missionaries come to spread the good word of the lord.

The last thing I apparently was in the frame of mind to do was invite them in to talk, let alone be a decent human being. I simply smiled, put my hand up in an ambiguous wave/no gesture and shut the door. That was about all the humanity I could muster up. And with two giants mouthing their concern in the background, nobody would have heard anything else anyway.

I have nothing at all against Mormons. In different circumstances I may have invited them in and made them non-caffeinated tea and asked if they wouldn't mind helping me move books while we talked. I'm sure they would have happily helped. And, I bet they would have had a very interesting experience on account of exactly which books they'd be shuffling.

But, I didn't have the time or the energy for that. I just wanted them to go away. Yet they knocked and said plaintively, "Uh, hello?"

I ignored them and went back to my evolutionary book shelf shuffling while the dogs barked — wishing I hadn't been such a butthead.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

RBFB: Random Blogging From Bed

Other academic sorts RBoC, randomly blog on campus, posting bulleted tidbits from campus. Me? I'm Random Blogging From Bed.

Yes, by 6pm my day is finished — thanks to being 'in a family way' now. It was a highly productive day, although I am so tired I honestly can't remember what I even did. I am pretty sure it involved some mix of some soft of mental and physical work.

I do remember vacuuming ants. Those annoying little beasts are back, necessitating another trip to the store to buy stakes for the perimeter of the house. Add that one to the list of stuff sure to be forgotten once actually *at* the store...

Yesterday is also pretty much a blur, though I do remember trying to find maternity clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing some sort of burka. Everything I tried on was either tent-like or was exceedingly feminine. I am pregnant but I have zero desire to dress like a 5-year-old girl. My god, does every shirt have to have ruffles, lace and/or flowers on it? And these aren't necessarily clothes that are made for pregnant women! They are what appears to be 'in style.' I have never really been a fashionista type, but I do care about wearing clothing that is stylish and flattering to my figure, and I really, really don't do ruffles, lace or flowers or pink. The closest I get to pink is dark burgundy. I would guess that some people would say I dress like a boy, and that's true to some extent, but it's all figure revealing stuff. I have a waist; I show it. And just because I'm now pregnant, I have no desire or intention to suddenly become feminine. Gag. Vomit. Barf. Where the heck do women who still have an hourglass figure (from the front anyway) while pregnant get clothing that isn't awful?

Katy gave me a hilarious fit of laughter yesterday. I am still giggling about it. We were at the dog park where she had been playing catch with a football she found there. The wind was howling cold so I suggested we pack it up and head home, especially since Katy had already flopped down to pant and drool over the worn out pigskin more than once. She was tired. So Mr. Field Notes and the two digbats and I made our way down the hill to the exit gate. We focused on getting Yuki's leash back on her and turned around to put Katy's on. But she had vanished! What the heck? Where did Big K go and why? Why? It's not like her to just disappear. She's a total homebody. We both called out for her. A little while later, here comes Katy bounding down the hill toward us with that football in her mouth.

She had run back up the hill, way off back in to the dog park interior, to go back to get it. What a nut! And she actually thought she could take it home with her. She looked so proud too, coming down the hill with a facefull of pigskin.

She's such a card. I love her big gallumpfyness. Guess she'll be getting a football for Christmas this year!

Wish me luck finding non-burka-like things to wear for the next several months! Even better — pass along whatever websites you know of where I can actually buy non-feminine, professional-looking, figure flattering clothing for pregnant women.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dogs & 2-year-olds share ability to understand pointing gestures

This month's Animal Cognition journal carries a sweet little gem of a study on when babies and dogs understand what it means when adults point. Kids up to age 2 and adult dogs only pay attention to whatever body part is outstretched — be it arm or elbow — and ignore whichever direction the index finger happens to point. But at age 3, kids grasp they're supposed to pay attention to the finger even if it's pointing in the opposite direction of an outstretched elbow. Dogs don't.

I don't know about you, but I know with dogs — and maybe soon I'll find out with really young human kids (?) too — that puppies spend months just sniffing your finger before they understand the whole gestural pointing thing. Both Katy and Yuki were finger sniffers before they looked in the direction of a pointing hand. I didn't keep track of how old they were before they 'got it' but I bet that you can measure a dog's intelligence based on how early during their development they stop sniffing your finger when you point.

The authors of the study conclude that children and dogs show generally similar abilities to understand gestures like pointing and directional glancing because of their shared environment and long history of co-evolution.

Glancing at what you want is a great way to communicate your desires if you can't speak. Yuki just recently figured that out and now looks up at her leash and then at us, repeating the leash-look/human-look sequence a couple of times. Katy goes one step, nah, make that six steps further and backs herself up while whistle-whining and going through the look sequence. Backing up is something I taught her to do early on because she'd lunge and snap at my hand to try to get a thrown toy within an inch of it being released. More often than not, I got chomped instead of having a nice game of fetch. So I taught her to back away — and wait for the throw. It wasn't long before she generalized that to anything she wanted: treats, morning and dinner chow, walks, pats. We joke all the time that when she really, really wants something, she'd back herself right into to the neighbors house if she could.

I know I will have a load of fun observing the three 'kids' interact and learn from each other. I really hope the baby doesn't ape too many things from the dogs! Glancing to indicate what you want — YES! Licking the floor and carrying around rope bones in your mouth — NO.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Gorillas Getting P***ssed

So much for Gorillas in the Mist, these days says a photojournalist, it looks more like gorillas getting pissed — that's British for getting drunk. Evidently the journalist noticed a group of mountain gorillas he visited were enjoying some fermented bamboo shoots a little too much.

See more pics and his story here.

By the way, primates seem to love indulging in alcohol and research has found the proportion of sipping simians to tee-totaling ones is about the same as seen in human populations. What's more, alcoholism has been observed to run in families among monkeys just as it does with humans. Researchers contend there's a genetic basis to the propensity to become alcoholic given a booze-indulging environment.

Monkeys on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean steal tourists drinks. You can see the results of that in this tourist video:

This video is one I frequently use in class when I talk about zoopharmacology - or animal self-medication.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Plum Blossoms are here!

One of the selling points of our house when we bought it, in my opinion, was the plum tree in our backyard. It only sports blossoms for a short time. A stiff breeze always comes within a few days and whisks them all away. But in those 4-5 days, the tree is profuse with tiny white petals and buzzing bees. They make quick work of pollination. Later in the summer we'll have gobs of edible plums. And while the blossoms are here, the tree looks stunning and smells out of this world.

I snipped off several twigs to bring inside and put them in a vase. Not only do they look pretty but the perfume the room naturally. Eh, so do the newfies, but this smells way better! One of these days I'm going to figure out which flowering plants to plant so that I always some sort of blossom to snip and bring inside. I had no idea what I was doing when I started my garden so I inadvertently chose plants that bloom in late summer.

I wish I had pics of the full tree, but instead I put my nose to the grindstone and took pictures of cards I made so I'd be able to make use of the excellent but momentary backdrop. The day after I took the pictures, the forecast called for gray skies and rain. Our spring is long overdue. Comparing the dates of last year's plum blossom photos, it looks like this year the blossoms came 3 weeks later.

Seeing the weeping cherry trees just about to explode makes me want to buy one for the front yard but they cost $60 and the environment in our front yard is downright brutal because of the exposure and the extremely well draining soil. I worry it wouldn't make it. So, I think I'll stick with the lavender that's there for now.

Another tree I'd love to have somewhere is a saucer magnolia. Someday..

And I've always wanted bleeding heart bushes. I think I may have found the perfect location for them in the one spot of good shade we have. I'll just have to figure out how to keep Yuki out of them. She is one destructive little wretch. At least I can rely on Katy to pull weeds. She's excellent at it. Only attacks the weeds — never the good plants. It makes me wonder how she knows. With Yuki it's the opposite. She picks the best stuff. Last year it was the jasmine, snapdragons and lilies. Who knows what it will be this year.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ultrasound shots! Meet the baby early — sort of.

Here she is! We have a name. At least, I think we do. We are 90% sure on it, I'd say. And no, we're not telling anyone so don't come asking!

At 2 months... just a little alien bean.

3 months

5 monthsShe's looking straight 'at the camera' with her hand under her chin.

And she has big feet.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Burn Baby Burn: Heartburn is associated with baby hair.

When I came into this world, I did so with a full head of thick hair. I've always had loads of hair. Thick, thick hair.

I fully expect to have a baby with a full head of hair too.

But what I didn't realize until recently is that there is actually research evidence that confirms the 'old wives tale' that says if mother has heartburn during pregnancy, the baby will be hairy.

I started looking into it over the weekend when I got heartburn so bad that I ended up with acid actually in my mouth. It woke me up at night too.

I have to say I was a bit surprised to find there is actually some pretty solid research on the subject. The journal Birth published a study in 2006 that found a nice linear relationship between severity of heartburn and the volume of infant hair. The correlation was significant at p<0.001 which is actually pretty impressive.

Most (23 out of 28) women who reported moderate or severe heartburn had babies judged to have a lot of hair. In contrast, most (10 out of 12) women who reported no heartburn gave birth to babies judged to have little to no hair.

The researchers analyzed whether any maternal or infant characteristics were associated with newborn hair. These included infant sex, weight and height as well as maternal prepregnancy weight, age, education level, occupation status, number of previous births, height, general pregnancy anxiety, ethnicity and medications taken for heartburn. No correlations were found with newborn hair, thus reducing the possibility that a third factor unrelated to infant hairyness was at play.

I know it's just one study, but given my heartburn and the fact that I myself was born with a full head of luscious, thick hair I'm placing my bets on having a babe with lots of hair at birth.

... not that that makes me feel any better about the horrendous heartburn I've been having! But it is nice to know that heartburn is associated with something good. The heartburn and acid reflux has caused me to change my diet. Humpf on that. I love salsa and spicy food, and citrus and garlic and onions and just everything that is fun to eat, like pizza. Unfortunately those are all no-go foods. Hopefully at my appointment this week I'll get some ideas on what I can eat that is fun but won't make the heartburn really bad. My guess is all I'll get is advice I already know: no eating before bed, stay upright after eating, no carbonated beverages or caffeine, no spicy or fried food, elevate my upper body while sleeping (not a very fun position, by the way). They'll probably say I should take Tums.

At least I'll get to educate my doc on the study, which is always fun. My last doc loved me, I think, in part because every time I saw her I had something educational up my sleeve to whip out and share.

No one really knows why there's a connection between heartburn and fetal hair, but the researchers speculate that high levels of estrogens and progesterone trigger both fetal hair growth and relaxation of the stomach sphincter. A mouse model supports their hunch.

.. And, yes, that is me in the pic.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Is autism caused by vaccines? The straight truth.

More and more these days I notice parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella because they have heard that the vaccine causes autism. They are all shockingly uninformed, but don't realize it. Part of the problem lies in the fact that they don't realize the one bit of highly publicized research evidence that supports the autism link is riddled with multiple and damning problems. And just this week, it got a lot, lot worse.

According to an investigation by the Sunday Times newspaper, the doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine, Andrew Wakefield, fabricated the data that created the appearance of a possible link with autism. He lied. You can read the full article here.

Compared to lying, the other problems with Wakefield's research seem minor in comparison. But nevertheless, even if the results were not made up, the fake-o numbers still do not in any way warrant the autism hysteria that has erupted over vaccines.

And the effect of the hysteria is significant. After the publication of Wakefield's research in 1998, rates of vaccination fell from 92% to below 80% in the UK, according to the Times. And in just ten years, the number of confirmed cases of measles skyrocketed to 1,348 compared with just 56 in 1998.

Aside from the glaring problem with using fabricated data, the other problems with Wakefield's research are threefold, scratch that fourfold!

1. extremely small sample size: The research included only 12 kids!

2. relied on retrospective evidence: Rather than starting out with a sample of children who neither had autism nor had yet been vaccinated, the study used parents who reported autism symptoms after the child was vaccinated. In other words, the researchers relied on parents of autistic children’s memories of events — parents who were understandably upset and far from objective observers.

3. biased sample, i.e. not randomly selected: Almost half of the kids' parents were recruited by a lawyer who planned to sue the vaccine manufacturers. Even Wakefield himself received money to assist the case by finding scientific evidence of the link between autism and the vaccine. You can read more about that here.

4. conclusions overstated the data: The published article stopped short of concluding that there was a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, when Wakefield spoke to the press he made no such disclaimer. And to this day, outspoken celebrities jump on the bandwagon.

One reason some parents think vaccines caused their child's autism is the timing of diagnosis. The first signs of autism don't appear until around 18 months to 2 years of age, the same time period in which kids are vaccinated. It is this unfortunate timing that makes parents think the vaccines caused the condition. Another case of erroneous correlation = causation thinking.

If vaccines really were causing autism, you'd at least expect to see the incidence of autism rise and fall with the rise and fall of vaccination rates — but it doesn't. You can read the published research yourself here. The article also has an impressive list of other relevant research articles on the subject. I think it's pretty much overwhelming evidence that something other than vaccines causes autism.