Reading Between the Lines
Not infrequently, individuals who assertively proclaim that “the science” and “the facts” buttress their position on a given topic do so with the intention of shutting down debate and casting aspersions on those who ask inconvenient questions.1 How often have we been told that the case is closed because “the science says so”? Yet a 2010 editorial in The British Journal of Psychiatry openly admits that published scientific studies often present false results due to biases embedded within the “social fabric of science.”2
Some of the explanations for skewed results are fairly obvious. Publication bias, for example, involves the tendency not to publish studies that generate negative or null results,3 and no one would deny that funding sources also can give rise to blatant conflicts of interest.4 There are other less overt influences as well. Scientific journals with a high “impact factor” are less likely to accurately report effect sizes (the magnitude of difference between two groups) than low-impact-factor journals.2 The country in which a study is conducted also plays a role; North American studies overestimate effect sizes by roughly 10 percent compared with studies conducted outside of the U.S.2 This is important because effect sizes attest to a study’s practical (as opposed to statistical) significance.5
As renowned theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli reminds us, “The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms.” Rovelli says, “The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas [and] prejudices.”6 When those prejudices remain unacknowledged or are denied outright, their influence on the scientific enterprise in turn goes unexamined.
INTRODUCING…THE ZIKA VIRUS
Careful scrutiny of scientific reporting seems warranted in the current medicalpharmaceutical zeitgeist, as the uncritical rush to judgment about the Zika virus reminds us. The virus’s reported arrival on Latin American soil in 2015 has prompted a steady and increasingly heavy-handed barrage of alarmist headlines and agency responses. On February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) quickly issued its highest level of warning for Zika, declaring the virus to be a public health emergency of international concern—only the third time that the WHO has put forth an alert of this magnitude.7 The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed suit on February 8 by elevating its Zika response to the highest level.8
The Zika virus has been around for almost seventy years without attracting much attention. Zika was first isolated from rhesus monkeys by a Rockefeller Foundation-supported research institute in Uganda in the late 1940s.9,10 At present, the Zika virus is a commodity that can be purchased on the Internet for about six hundred seventy dollars.11 In the very small number of human cases of Zika infection documented through 2007, infected individuals either exhibited no symptoms or had mild symptoms that spontaneously disappeared.
The current bout of Zika-related concerns has to do with the virus’s alleged link to a surge in northeastern Brazil of an otherwise rare brain-related birth defect called microcephaly (smaller-than-average head circumference). The previously benign Zika virus also is purported to contribute to Guillain-Barré syndrome in some contexts.
From the beginning of the recent news coverage, the mainstream media have displayed a convoluted logic toward Zika. On the one hand, reporters have been splashing down headlines that present the virus as “insidious, cunning, and evil”12 (see sidebar, page 63) while communicating the WHO conception of Zika as “guilty until proven innocent.”13 On the other hand, some reporters also grudgingly admit (buried outside of the limelight) that the case against Zika is not “airtight”13 and remains “inconclusive.”14
The scientific journal Nature reported in late March that the true magnitude of birth defects in Brazil is “elusive” because the country’s muddy microcephaly figures represent a moving target and lack a meaningful baseline.15 Even more confusingly, when a group of Brazilian investigators used an existing database to examine microcephaly patterns in sixteen thousand babies over a four-year period (2012–2015), they found more microcephaly than expected in all four years, with a peak in 2014—before the charted arrival of the Zika virus in Brazil.16
At first glance, an article in the April 13, 2016 issue of the influential New England Journal of Medicine would seem to definitively lay to rest any doubts about whether Zika is the guilty party.17 After reviewing “available evidence,” the study’s authors conclude that a causal relationship exists between prenatal Zika virus infection and serious brain anomalies. Interestingly, one of the factors that the authors cite to shore up their conclusions is the lack of “an alternative explanation…that could explain the increase in cases of microcephaly.” As a means of “manufacturing consent,”18 it is certainly effective to communicate—in a highly regarded peer-reviewed publication that instantly generates press releases worldwide—the conclusion that there are no other possible explanations for the observed outcomes. As a statement of fact, however, the assertion ignores at least two broad risk factors for microcephaly long recognized by mainstream experts, factors that are prevalent in northeastern Brazil: severe malnutrition and toxic exposures during pregnancy.19,20
MICROCEPHALY AND MALNUTRITION
In normal pregnancies, a baby’s head grows “because the baby’s brain grows.”20 As the photos in the Wise Traditions “Healthy Baby Gallery” routinely illustrate, pregnant women who consume a nutrient-dense whole foods diet produce robust children with beautifully formed and appropriately sized heads and alert and happy temperaments. Malnutrition, on the other hand, negatively affects brain growth (both in utero and during infancy) and can have potentially irreversible implications for intellectual development.21 Animal sources of vitamin A play a particularly crucial role in fetal development. Vitamin A deficiencies result in improper craniofacial development and numerous other abnormalities.22
Brazil’s impoverished northeast—where Zika has drawn the most attention—represents the largest pocket of rural poverty in Latin America, a situation that is likely aggravated by the country’s current economic collapse. Although some reports suggest that nutrition trends in the northeast have been improving,23 and others are documenting the rise in obesity in the middle class,24 chronic malnutrition remains endemic and has advanced from the northeast’s poorest rural areas to the urban peripheries.25 The standard food intake pattern in Brazil is based on rice or manioc, beans, coffee, bread, beef and, increasingly, sugar in the form of soft drinks and fruit juices,26 none of which (except for beef liver) are noteworthy for their vitamin A content.
A study in which rats were fed a “regional basic diet” (RBD) comparable to the imbalanced and nutrient-poor diet commonly consumed by poor children in northeastern Brazil found that brain weights in the experimental rats were about 20 percent lower than those of controls, and the mortality rate among RBD rat pups was 24 percent.27 The researchers concluded that the inadequate regional diet produces nutritional dwarfism and severe malnutrition. Blaming chronic starvation, a pediatrician has characterized the region as “the Pygmy northeast,” stating that two generations of mothers would need to be adequately fed to reverse the dwarfism trend and to “normalize the race.”25 Other nutrition studies in under-five children in the northeast have documented stunting in about 10 percent of children28 and high levels of childhood anemia.29
TOXINS DURING PREGNANCY
In response to an upward trend in pertussis infections in Brazil, the country’s Ministry of Health issued a policy in late 2014 mandating that all pregnant women receive the Tdap vaccine between the twenty-seventh and thirty-sixth weeks of pregnancy, or up to twenty days prior to the expected due date.30 The Tdap combination vaccine is intended to protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. In developing the new policy, Brazil followed the lead of the U.S., which in 2013 began recommending that pregnant women receive the Tdap vaccine in their third trimester of pregnancy.31
Brazil started implementing its Tdap policy in 2015, using a Tdap formulation manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).30 Although the GSK Tdap vaccine contains other troubling ingredients—including formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen) and polysorbate 80 (an industrial surfactant that encourages passage across the blood-brain barrier)32—its use of aluminum adjuvants is especially worrisome because of aluminum’s known teratogenic properties33,34 and status as a perinatal toxicant.35 The risks posed by aluminum adjuvants in vaccines have long been underestimated.36 The WHO lists exposure to toxic chemicals and heavy metals as one of the most common causes of microcephaly.37
GSK admits that “there are no adequate and well-controlled studies [of the Tdap vaccine] in pregnant women.”30 In fact, no vaccine recommended for pregnant women has undergone testing to assess the potential for fetal harm,38 even though vaccine package inserts routinely list encephalopathy (a general term describing abnormalities in the structure or function of the brain) as a known adverse reaction for almost every vaccine on the market (Table 1). Interestingly, one of the U.S. states that makes it hardest for residents to claim a vaccine exemption (Mississippi) has a notably higher prevalence of microcephaly per ten thousand live births (sixteen per ten thousand) than most other states, where prevalence mostly ranges from about one to six in ten thousand.39 It seems reasonable to ask, therefore, whether there is an association between administration of Tdap during pregnancy and subsequent birth defects such as microcephaly—and to demand that the potential risks be seriously evaluated.
Given Brazil’s outsized role as a global exporter of chemically managed agricultural products such as soybeans and sugar, Brazilian women have ample opportunity for exposure to pesticides and other chemicals during pregnancy. Brazil is, in fact, the world’s largest purchaser of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, including highly toxic products such as paraquat and methyl parathion, which are banned in other countries for health reasons.40 Industrial agriculture has particularly “flourished” in the northeast, where scientists routinely find water canals contaminated with pesticides and higher rates of cancer deaths in farming towns.40
Brazil is also the world’s second largest grower of genetically modified (GM) crops after the U.S. Roughly 90 percent of the country’s soybean and corn crops are GM. Many GM crops are “Roundup-ready,” which means that glyphosate (Roundup’s active ingredient) is widely used. Because many weeds have developed resistance to Roundup, Brazilian farms increasingly use Roundup in conjunction with other toxic chemicals.40 Brazil’s National Cancer Institute has conceded, along with the WHO, that glyphosate is carcinogenic,41 and Brazil’s public prosecutor called for a ban on glyphosate use in 2014. Glyphosate is clearly associated with birth defects, including microcephaly.42
In a horrible twist of irony, mosquito-borne diseases often provide an excuse for widespread use of larvicides. In February 2016, as the Zika drumbeat was growing louder, a group of Argentine physicians pointed out that a teratogenic larvicide called Pyriproxyfen had been added to the drinking water in Brazil’s northeast in 2014 with the express purpose of causing malformations in developing mosquitoes.43 The ensuing malformations observed in babies could hardly be a coincidence, the physicians’ report argued. The physicians rejected chemical control measures as counterproductive for both the environment and human health.
“NO ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS”?
Notwithstanding the bland assurances of The New England Journal of Medicine authors, who present Zika as the only possible explanation for the reported cases of microcephaly,17 there are numerous reasons to consider other more likely causes, many of which have been ably investigated and summarized by blogger Jon Rappoport.44 This article reviews only a few of the most obvious suspects. Other possible culprits put forth in the alternative press include industrial pollution from the petrochemical industry,45 the 2015 release in Brazil of GM mosquitoes (with unknown ecosystem consequences)9 and even bioterrorism.46 Where viral scares are concerned, history also seems to repeat itself. During the SARS panic in the early 2000s, for example, a Wise Traditions article noted that industrial chemicals and emissions could far better explain the SARS syndrome than the putative SARS virus.47
It is important to keep in mind that it has yet to be determined whether Brazil’s spike in microcephaly cases is actually “real,” and also to remember that scientists have never previously found an association of microcephaly with Zika.42 As of late May 2016, only four hundred four cases of microcephaly had been confirmed (out of almost five thousand suspected cases) and of the four hundred four, only seventeen (4.2 percent) had any relationship with Zika.42 Moreover, the twenty-five thousand cases of microcephaly observed annually in the United States (as reported by the American Academy of Neurology in 2009)48 require some explanation but cannot be blamed on the Zika virus.
The New England Journal of Medicine article admits that by shifting from a mere hypothesis to actually asserting Zika’s causal role allows for “an intensified focus on prevention efforts, such as the implementation of vector control, the identification of improved diagnostic methods, and the development of a Zika virus vaccine.”17
Picking apart this statement, it is easy to see that the companies producing larvicides, medical supplies and vaccines are going to have a field day with Zika. Scientists in India have already reported the development of two candidate vaccines.49 Meanwhile, young women living in Brazil and other countries where Zika has made an appearance will be forced to rely “on the same…primary care nurses and physicians [they have] always trusted for care”7—even when those providers betray women’s trust by foisting toxic chemicals on developing babies and saying nothing about the importance of meaningful nutrition.
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2. Munafò MR, Flint J. How reliable are scientific studies? Br J Psychiatry 2010;197(4):257-258.
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4. Kern JK, Geier DA, Deth RC, Sykes LK, Hooker BS, Love JM, Bjorklund G, Chaigneau CG, Haley BE, Geier MR. Systematic assessment of research on autism spectrum disorder and mercury reveals conflicts of interest and the need for transparency in autism research. Sci Eng Ethics 2015 Oct 27. Epub ahead of print.
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6. Rovelli C. Science is not about certainty: A philosophy of physics. Edge.org, May 30, 2012.
7. Ehlers S, Wright S. Zika outbreak signals the urgent need for strong primary health care systems. Huffington Post, February 10, 2016.
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Areas with Zika. Updated May 26, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/.
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10. The Rockefeller Foundation. Background on the Rockefeller Foundation and Zika. https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/zika-statement/.
11. Kress G. Who owns the Zika virus? Global Research, February 3, 2016.
12. Sun LH, Dennis B. Why Zika is “much more insidious, cunning and evil” than Ebola. The Washington Post, February 16, 2016.
13. Rosen M. Microcephaly: Building a case against Zika. ScienceNews, March 4, 2016.
14. Tavernise S. Zika virus “spreading explosively” in Americas, W.H.O. says. The New York Times, January 28, 2016.
15. Butler D. Zika and birth defects: what we know and what we don’t. Nature, March 21, 2016.
16. Swan N. Zika virus: Brazilian survey calls into question cause of microcephaly. ABC News, February 7, 2016.
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20. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Birth defects: Facts about microcephaly. Last updated April 7, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/microcephaly.html.
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32. Parpia R. Polysorbate 80: a risky vaccine ingredient. The Vaccine Reaction, January 7, 2016.
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49. Bello M. Indian biotech firm says it has developed 2 vaccines for Zika virus. Reuters, February 4, 2016.
50. Derby K. Florida gets ready to fight Zika virus as Rick Scott declares emergency in four counties. Sunshine State News, February 3, 2016.
51. Watts J. UN tells Latin American countries hit by Zika to allow women access to abortion. The Guardian, February 5, 2016.
52. Schnirring L. Obama seeks $1.8 billion for Zika response; CDC ups emergency level. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, February 8, 2016.
53. Sullivan P. GOP skeptical of new funding for Zika. The Hill, February 9, 2016.
54. Sherwood H. Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis. The Guardian, February 18, 2016.
55. Rettner R, Rowan K. Zika virus: microcephaly may be “tip of the iceberg” for infant problems. Live Science, March 4, 2016.
56. Berenbaum M. The Zika virus doesn’t respect borders. It’s time for immediate U.S. action. Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2016.
57. Schwartz N. Doctor urges 2016 Olympics should be moved due to Zika virus. Fox Sports, May 10, 2016.