Vaccines and autism on trial

For anyone who still thinks vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism, please take a deep breath and open up to the possibility that such a theory might be completely wrong.

The latest verdict comes from a special tribunal.   A 3-judge panel has ruled against plaintiffs who were seeking damages, claiming their children had developed autism because of preservatives in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.  We have a brief version of the story on our website.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as the Darwin trial in Dover, PA.  There was no jury, no courtroom theatrics.  Instead, it’s a court that exists only to hear complaints under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.  But, the judges, who are not part of the public health infrastructure, reviewed thousands of pages of studies and other documents.  It sounds like they ruled pretty conclusively.  No link between autism and the vaccine.

This is not a surprise.  Every time an independent group has taken a look at this issue, they’ve come to the same conclusion.  And earlier this week, one of the British authors of a study that has fueled the anti-vaccine movement was revealed to have  faked some of his data (thanks to dogged reporting by The Times of London).

Opponents of vaccines have evolved their theory over the years.  Many now say, it isn’t just one vaccine, it’s the fact that so many are given at such a young age.  (Moving target?)   Still, I haven’t seen any credible evidence to suspect the vaccines.

Pot-smoking and … testicular cancer

Ouch!  That’s not a nice association.

This was a story I couldn’t exactly pass up, because it’s a such a high-interest topic.  But, the scientists involved, and every bit of training I’ve had, warn me not to make too much of it.  (Check out the story that aired on KPLU for an overview, and here’s a press release.)

Steve Schwartz of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has been trying to understand what causes testicular cancer.  You don’t hear much about testicular cancer (unless there’s a story about cyclist Lance Armstrong) because it’s uncommon and it’s usually curable.  But, it’s also poorly understood.  At the urging of his colleague, Janet Daling, they decided to ask if there’s any association between testicular cancer and marijuana smoking.

Based on a survey of men in the Seattle area, some with cancer, some without, they found marijuana smokers had a slightly higher risk of getting testicular cancer.  It’s newsworthy because it’s the first time anyone has shown any sort of link between marijuana and an elevated cancer risk.  The study has several limitations, so it really just points to a possibility, and the need to do more careful studies.  In general, Schwartz points out, our knowledge of the long-term effects of marijuana smoking is small.

Here are some interesting tidbits from Schwartz and the study:

  • The more often you smoke pot, the more your risk goes up.  Maybe the marijuana functions as some sort of “fuel” to keep the cancer cells growing.  When you stop, their growth stops, too.  This pattern has been shown in some types of breast and lung cancer.
  • Testicular cancer is also associated with height.  Taller men, especially those over 6 ft. 2 in., have higher rates than shorter men.
  • Men of African descent don’t tend to get testicular cancer.

It’s a cancer that seems to be triggered in adolescence, and mostly hits men between the ages of 15 and 35.

Add up that profile:  Young, white, tall man who smokes pot.  Seen any of these on a college campus?

(The paper is in the journal Cancer, and it’s called “Association of Marijuana Use and the Incidence of Testicular Germ Cell Tumors.”)

Volcano rumbling near Anchorage

We think of Mt. St. Helens as America’s star volcano.  But, outside the continental U.S. there’s a lot of action.  Not only Hawaii’s dramatic Mauna Loa and Kilauea, but along Alaska’s Cook Inlet there are several “restless” volcanos.

Lately, it’s Redoubt Volcano, about 100 miles from Anchorage. It’s a striking peak, at 10,197 feet (just a little shorter than Mt. Baker in the Washington Cascades).  The U.S. Geological Survey says it expects “an eruption to begin within the next few days or weeks.”  Well, they started saying that more than a week ago.  So, hold onto your hats.

Areas of current activity on Redoubt Volcano, Alaska

Areas of current activity on Redoubt Volcano, Alaska

Last time, in 1989 and 1990, it erupted more than 20 times over a period of several months.  It shot a huge ash plume into the air that almost caused a commercial jetliner to crash.  And melting glaciers turned a nearby river into roaring torrent — which nearly wiped out an oil terminal.  No oil leaked, but buried pipelines were scoured to the surface and thousands of gallons of crude were hastily transferred away.

What will happen this time?  The USGS says the most likely scenario is something similar to 1990.  But, volcano prediction is not the most precise of sciences.  (And for those wondering if there’s any seismic connection between Redoubt and Mt. St. Helens, the answer is no.)