Significant methodological flaws in a 2020 study claiming to show unvaccinated children are healthier

CLAIM
Vaccinated children are more likely to have adverse health outcomes like developmental delays, asthma, and ear infections compared to unvaccinated children.
DETAILS
Inadequate support: This claim is based on a single study which used highly biased methods. Rigorous and large-scale studies have not found a greater likelihood of adverse health outcomes in vaccinated children.
Misleading: The claim is based on a study which used questionable methods of selecting a study population and which failed to control for confounding factors in its comparison of vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
KEY TAKE AWAY
Large-scale, reputable studies have not found a greater incidence of adverse health outcomes in vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children. A significant problem with the single study cited in this claim is its failure to control for differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, such as healthcare-seeking behavior, which can factor into health outcomes. Furthermore, the study used patient data from handpicked pediatric clinics only, which are not representative of the general population.

FULL CLAIM: Vaccinated children are more likely to have adverse health outcomes like developmental delays, asthma, and ear infections compared to unvaccinated children.

SUMMARY


A study published on 28 May 2020[1] has been used to support a claim shared in articles and social media posts on Facebook and Instagram that unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children. As is typical for this type of claim, the posts have most commonly been shared by Facebook groups that oppose vaccines, but also by groups that promote conspiracy theories.

This claim is not new. A study by Mawson et al. in 2017 was used similarly by vaccine skeptics. Snopes found that study to be fraught with methodological problems and flawed statistical analyses which invalidated its conclusions.

The 2020 study examined the medical records of patients from three pediatric practices as a “convenience sample”, selecting records with diagnoses of developmental delay, asthma, ear infection, and gastrointestinal disorder. The study authors did not clearly describe how these pediatric practices were selected. They then compared the number of vaccinated children who had received any of the four diagnoses to the number of unvaccinated children, and concluded that vaccination is associated with a higher incidence of developmental delays, asthma, and ear infections. As a control, a diagnosis of head injury was used since it is a health outcome unlikely to be related to vaccination.

Scientists who evaluated the study told Health Feedback that it contains numerous methodological flaws, one of which is the non-representative sample population. Karina Top, an associate professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University, pointed out that the proportion of unvaccinated children in the study was much higher than that in the general population. According to a 2019 CDC report on vaccine coverage, only 1.3% of U.S. children had received no vaccinations at two years of age, yet “30% of children in their sample of three pediatric practices had received no vaccines,” she said.

This raises questions about the type of pediatric practices included in the study. If the physicians at these practices were unsupportive of vaccination or more willing to provide medical exemptions for vaccination, these clinics would have drawn families who are more vaccine-hesitant or who object to vaccines for various reasons, she explained.

The non-representative sample is likely to have arisen due to the use of convenience sampling in the study. David Gorski, a professor of surgery at Wayne State University and editor of the website Science-Based Medicine, explained in his blog post that while the study’s method of convenience sampling makes it easy to assemble a study population, this method suffers from several problems:

[T]he main one being that [convenience samples] are rarely representative of the general population and therefore cannot be generalized. Others include bias and over- or underrepresentation of the population. Basically, no matter how you analyze a convenience sample, you can’t generalize it to the larger population.

Apart from the non-representative sample population, Wagner pointed out that “A large problem with this study is that the researchers did not control for differences between the groups of unvaccinated and vaccinated children.”

Controlling for differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated children is important, as vaccination status itself is associated with other factors that can influence health outcomes but do not result from vaccination itself. For example, vaccinated children are more likely to see a doctor when unwell compared to unvaccinated children for various reasons, such as socioeconomic status, accessibility to healthcare services, and possibly greater trust in healthcare professionals[2,3].

As a result, vaccinated children are much more likely to be diagnosed with medical conditions, but this does not necessarily mean that they are more likely to develop such conditions in the first place. Nina Masters, a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Michigan, points out that the authors were aware of this bias, as they stated that “A single significant relationship was seen for the head injury control diagnosis at the 18-month vaccination cut-off, which may be indicative of differences in healthcare-seeking behavior among families of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.” But the authors did not follow up on this by informing the reader of its significance or how it might affect their conclusions.

Notably, the first author of the 2020 study is Brian Hooker, a chemical engineer who previously published a now-retracted study purportedly showing higher rates of autism in African-American boys who had been vaccinated. The study had used “fraudulent methods and failed to disclose conflicts of interest,” said Wagner. Health Feedback also covered the retracted study in an earlier review. The second author of the 2020 study is Neil Z. Miller, a journalist without any training in biology or medicine, who has published other questionable studies in the past.

By contrast, several well-designed studies examining differences in health and developmental outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated children have not detected adverse health outcomes in vaccinated children. A 2004 study in Pediatrics showed no association between vaccines and developmental delay[4]. Another study found that children who had been vaccinated in the first year of life performed better on cognitive tests[5]. Similarly, measles vaccination in developing countries, specifically Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam, was associated with better cognitive test scores[6]. A 2011 study in Germany, which examined the incidence of allergies and infections among more than 13,000 individuals, did not find adverse health outcomes associated with vaccination[7]. Another study in Germany, published in 2014, examined more than 1,300 individuals and found that vaccination was associated with a significantly lower incidence of asthma[8]. A 2020 Cochrane Review of 138 studies showed no evidence supporting an association of MMR vaccination with asthma, bacterial or viral infections, cognitive delay, type 1 diabetes, dermatitis/eczema, and hay fever[9]. At least 20 studies have shown that vaccines are not associated with autism[4,10-29], as this Health Feedback review discussed.

Vaccines are safe and effective. The U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded in a 2013 review that the childhood immunization schedule is safe[12]. The Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has also summarized the scientific evidence showing that vaccines are not associated with a higher risk of asthma or allergies and neurodevelopmental problems like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The American Academy of Pediatricians has also compiled a list of studies relevant to vaccine safety here.

SCIENTISTS’ FEEDBACK


Abram L Wagner, Research Assistant Professor (Epidemiology), School of Public Health, University of Michigan:
Vaccines are safe and effective. Unvaccinated children can get terrible diseases—an unvaccinated 6-year old boy in Oregon was diagnosed with tetanus after having uncontrollable muscle spasms and he was hospitalized for 8 weeks. The Hib vaccine protects against epiglottitis—the swelling of the throat which can cause infants to suffocate. The whooping cough vaccine protects against a disease where children can cough until they throw up and break their ribs.

A recent study examined the relationship between the number of vaccines administered and different health outcomes. A large problem with this study is that the researchers did not control for differences between the groups of unvaccinated and vaccinated children. We know vaccinated and unvaccinated children can come from different environments: living in rural (vs. urban) areas, wealth, proclivity to go to the doctor, etc. All these factors could differ between vaccinated and unvaccinated children and could explain differences in health outcomes. Additionally, this study includes children from handpicked medical practices and is not representative of the general population.

The first author’s previous publication was retracted for fraudulent methods and undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Nina Masters, PhD Student (Epidemiology), University of Michigan:
This analysis does not account for differential healthcare seeking between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. The authors do not evaluate whether there are different numbers of doctor’s visits between the two groups. For example, the unvaccinated group could be more likely to miss appointments with their doctor, which could lead to them receiving fewer vaccines and also having less opportunity for doctor’s visits in which to be diagnosed with various health conditions.

The authors even acknowledge that this bias may exist: “A single significant relationship was seen for the head injury control diagnosis at the 18-month vaccination cut-off, which may be indicative of differences in healthcare-seeking behavior among families of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.” Yet they do not present any information that would enable the reader to better understand the role and scale of this bias.

Diagnosis with many developmental delays may occur in the 3-5 year range, but growing evidence has shown that the factors that lead to these diagnoses occur early in life and during prenatal development—long before any vaccination.

Karina Top, Associate Professor (Division of Pediatrics), Dalhousie University:
First, we know that the large majority of parents do choose to follow vaccine recommendations and at age two only 1.3% of U.S. children had received NO vaccinations. The finding that 30% of children in their sample of three pediatric practices had received no vaccines raises a red flag about the type of practice/physician and patients in their practice. Were the physicians not supportive of vaccines or willing to give medical exemptions and therefore attracted families that were more hesitant around vaccines or who had objections to vaccines for religious, cultural or other reasons? No details are provided regarding how they chose the practices, their location, or type of insurance they accepted (e.g. private, Medicaid).

Because the large majority of children are vaccinated, we know that unvaccinated children are very different from vaccinated children in ways that may also alter their likelihood of being diagnosed with childhood conditions such as asthma, ear infections, and development delay. For example, children from large families with low socioeconomic status may have difficulty getting to vaccination appointments, but those same challenges may make it difficult to get to a physician appointment for a new health problem. The analysis did not take into account demographic or other factors that might influence both a child’s chance of getting vaccinated and their chance of getting diagnosed with any of those conditions (e.g. insurance status, parent age, education, race/ethnicity, presence of other children).

Finally, both authors are well known for promoting unscientific claims about potential harms of vaccines, including the myth of an association between vaccines and autism for which the lead author has had two of his publications retracted by journals, suggesting an inherent bias in their approach.

REFERENCES

 

Published on: 04 Jun 2020 | Editor:

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