Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Battling conspiracy theories, Internet innuendo is tough

by Howard Fienberg
April 12, 2000

Congressman Chris Shays calls the military's anthrax vaccination program "a well-intentioned but overwrought response to the threat of anthrax." Many soldiers agree. They are more frightened of the mandatory regimen making them sick than they are of possible court martial.

Is the military's anthrax vaccination program really something to fear? Headlines like "The Pentagon's Toxic Secret" (Vanity Fair) and "Shot to Hell" (Phoenix New Times) indicate many in the media think so.

But is this just another Gulf War "toxic scare"?

Many news reports have accused the Pentagon of experimentally inserting the substance squalene in place of the usual alum in the anthrax vaccine. They claim this could explain why some Gulf War veterans suffer a range of debilitating symptoms collectively known as "Gulf War Syndrome."

A few researchers claim to be able to detect antibodies to squalene in veterans, but Pentagon officials assert that testing is pointless because squalene was never used in Gulf War vaccines. They also deny that such testing could differentiate between antibodies to naturally occurring squalene in the body and those of synthetic squalene from a vaccination. Even if squalene antibodies are found in veterans, they argue, this does not prove that squalene is responsible for Gulf War illnesses.

Some journalists have been less gullible. Newsday's award-winning science reporter, Laurie Garrett, also questioned the squalene hypotheses. She pointed out that if the researchers had "succeeded in measuring such antibodies, this would constitute the first time in the history of immunology that anti-fat antibodies have been found. Most antibodies are directed against proteins."

The Pentagon and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) have conducted 1,749 human tests of vaccines containing squalene. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), no participants in any of the Pentagon or NIAID trials developed autoimmune diseases from the use of squalene. As Newsday's Garrett reports, "there's no evidence of side effects in the experimental vaccines that the military acknowledges use squalene."

The case that squalene causes "Gulf War Syndrome" is in need of hard evidence. The symptoms run the gamut of a medical dictionary, and most Gulf War veterans suffer no more than the rest of the population when it comes to specific diseases. Many U.S. veterans who complain of illness were never vaccinated or are not suffering from autoimmune diseases. Some veterans from other countries involved in the war against Iraq complain of autoimmune disease symptoms, yet they were never vaccinated against anthrax.

So many possible causes have been proffered -- exposure to chemical weapons, depleted uranium weapons, oil fires, sand mites, insecticides and stress -- for the syndrome's vast range of symptoms that finding an underlying condition or a simple explanation has proven elusive.

No reasonable scientific evidence exists to show long-term harm from the vaccine. Individual soldiers, usually not trained medical personnel, are prone to the post-hoc fallacy: "I got ill some time after I got my shots, therefore the shots must have caused my illness." Capt. Michelle Peel told 60 Minutes that "It's not a matter of what I think. My body told me that the shot was not good for me." Intuition may be a powerful motivator, but not a substitute for science.

News stories about frightened soldiers and sick veterans, like that 60 Minutes episode, evince much emotion, but obscure real scientific evidence. The force of the narrative leads readers to an unsubstantiated and sensational conclusion: the Pentagon recklessly poisoned its own soldiers.

The only tenable approach to the vaccination problem includes scientific inquiry and an intelligent risk assessment. Though even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admit that no vaccine is 100 percent safe, it seems an anthrax attack against our soldiers is more likely than long-term ill effects of the anthrax vaccine.

And while illnesses tied to the anthrax vaccine in the long term hover near the realm of science fiction, the detrimental effects of anthrax are grounded in science fact.

Conspiracy theories, Internet innuendo and dubious scientific research -- each by itself is easily dismissed. Unfortunately, rumors like these get passed around so much that people accept them as truth. News media have often aired such rumors untempered by skepticism. The result is a media-created echo-chamber: the belief that, although there is no evidence, the rumors must be true because the media have reported them so often.

Ignoring scientific evidence will not help any soldiers -- it will only scare them sick.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (www.stats.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving public understanding of scientific and social research. He has extensively researched Gulf War illnesses.


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