Are WHO and UNICEF secretly sterilizing Kenyan women with a tetanus vaccine? Maybe, but probably not.

Last week, the bishops of Kenya accused the WHO and UNICEF of secretly lacing a tetanus vaccine with a hormone intended to induce miscarriage and sterility in Kenyan women of childbearing age, in an effort to reduce the population. The bishops issued a press release, saying:

[W]e shall not waver in calling upon all Kenyans to avoid the tetanus vaccination campaign laced with Beta-HCG, because we are convinced that  it is indeed a disguised population control programme.

We do know that the WHO and UNICEF do not take seriously the bodily integrity of poor families, especially women. The West has a shameful history of exploiting third world populations in the name of humanitarian efforts. So the bishops’ allegations are understandable, and if they are true, this is a dreadful crime against humanity. But if the allegations are false, then spreading the story could have disastrous results. Neonatal tetanus brings a prolonged and agonizing death to tens of thousands of children every year. If Kenyans are afraid to vaccinate against tetanus, people will die needlessly.  That’s why I didn’t write about this story, even as it cropped up everywhere. All I could find  was the same facts and sources in every story, no new information. Now we have some new information, and there is more on the horizon. The story is far from settled, but there are strong reasons to suspect that the bishops’ allegations arise from a misunderstanding and there has been no sterilization campaign.  Catholic News Agency did an excellent job of reporting the story in a balanced way:

“There are aspects of this that need to be raising red flags because of history and because of the way it was all being done. But raising red flags doesn’t mean that there’s something that actually has occurred,” said Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University.

The red flags are primarily: (a) that the vaccination campaign targeted women of childbearing age, raising suspicions that the effort was tied to population control, and (b) that, when the vaccine was tested at the request of the Kenyan bishops, hCG was found. HCG, in high enough quantities, can induce miscarriage and sterilization. But these red flags can both be explained.

The WHO said that they decided to focus the vaccination campaign on women of reproductive age “because of the focus on eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.” They also said that the methods needed to provide adequate protection against tetanus for unborn and newborn children require a different testing schedule than the one usually used for other forms of tetanus.

But what about the hCG detected in the vaccine? Why would it be in a tetanus vaccine at all, even in low levels “millions of times less than the amount needed to trigger this contraceptive response“? The WHO and Donovan both noted that the techniques used by the labs who tested the vaccines, and the reports they produced, are irregular and problematic. One likely explanation for the small levels of hCG detected? A false positive. Donovan explains:

“If these were labs that were using tips to test for pregnancy and such, they may not be the appropriate measuring techniques for picking up small amounts of hCG, leading to false positives.”

“I suspect that the tests that the hospital labs tried to do for the Catholic bishops weren’t really designed to test the way that they did, maybe giving them erroneous results,” he added.

For a detailed and rigorous explanation of why it is by no means certain that the tetanus vaccine is anything but a tetanus vaccine, Rational Catholic has once again done the legwork , sifting carefully through the possibilities of what may or may not have happened here, and explaining in detail how a false positive could have been found. Rational Catholic also notes:

I have seen the lab results from the tests performed at the request of the bishops in Kenya, and my understanding is that they will be published shortly in an online news source.  I will update and link to them when that happens.

The main obstacle to finding the truth seems to be that the local government in Kenya did not initially take the bishops’ concerns seriously, but that may be changing.According to a Kenyan newspaper, (link courtesy of the Rational Catholic post)

[T]he Parliamentary Committee on Health ruled that a joint team of experts from the Ministry of Health, Catholic Church and other stakeholders would conduct a fresh round of independent medical tests to end the controversy on the safety of the vaccines.

There is mistrust and bad feeling on both sides, but it is clear that both the Kenyan bishops and the Kenyan government are eager to make sure that Kenyans are not dissuaded from protecting themselves from a vaccine that saves lives, so we can only pray that the new round of testing will be definitive and that the results will be shared in a clear and transparent way. In the mean time, I urge concerned readers with good intentions to stop spreading the story that the vaccine was deliberately and secretly contaminated. This has not been proven, and can only add to the general confusion about vaccine safety.

Rational Catholic continues dismantling the shoddy science in Dr. Deisher’s vaccine/autism study

The indefatigable Rational Catholic, still undeterred by accusations of being an enormous meany-pants, has provided us with part two of what will be a three-part series explaining why there is no reason to accept Dr. Theresa Deisher’s study proposing a link between vaccines and autism.

In part one, Rational Catholic teased out the problems with Deisher’s statistical methodology. In part two,  Problems with Deisher’s Study: Biological Implausibility, Rational Catholic systematically dismantles Deisher’s actual hypothesis.

Noteworthy: Part II was updated to include commentary from Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, who has read all of Deisher’s public work. Fr. Austiraco has just been awarded his second research grant from the NIH. Rational Catholic added his comments on Deisher’s work with permission from Fr. Austiraco, who is a Dominican priest with a Ph.D in Biology from MIT. He teaches theology and biology at Providence College.

Congratulations to Fr. Austiraco (pictured below) and to Rational Catholic for their faithful work pursuing truth through rigorous science!



PIC Fr. Austiraco

But what if we’re not scientists?

When Catholics have a hard time understanding or accepting some point of doctrine, their path is not easy, but it is clear. John XXIII reportedly told a man,  “Accept the teaching you can accept, and pray to accept the ones you can’t.” We do this because we understand that the magsterium, the teaching authority of the Church, speaks for Christ and deserves our obedience. We don’t always like it, and we don’t always manage it, but our job is at least to try to accept the doctrine we don’t like or can’t understand, and to work toward understanding why the Church teaches what it does. Augustine, the original Mr. I Did My Homework, said “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

So that’s faith. Science is different. There is no magisterium in science; and we are never required to work as hard as we can to make ourselves accept an idea that seems wrong or false. If something sounds wrong, it is okay to look for another explanation from another source. It is more than okay: it’s the right thing to do.

But what if we are not scientists? What if we are not capable, because of time, temperament, training, or plain old brain power, to understand certain specialized information? We can’t all be experts in everything. Sooner or later, even intelligent people are going to come across something we don’t understand.

It’s not fashionable to admit this, but it’s indisputable. We all have our limits. We all get in above our heads at some point. This is especially true when we’re talking about medicine, because medicine stands at an uncomfortable crossroads: it involves extremely complicated matters, making it hard to grasp, and it directly affects us and the people we love, making it very personal. What to do?

Again, it’s not fashionable to admit, but all sensible people do the same thing: we decide who we’re going to trust. We pick someone who seems to understand the issue better than we do, and we decide to believe what that person says.

A good many people don’t realize that this is what they’re doing. They say they’ve “done their homework” or “researched the matter thoroughly.” Really what they mean is that they’ve found a bunch of books and articles that are written at a level they understand, and they have talked to a bunch of people who seem trustworthy, and they have decided that they are going to trust that the people who seem to understand the matter better than they do.

There is nothing wrong with this system! In fact, most of us have no choice, because we can’t all be experts in everything. So we decide who we’re going to trust. This is what Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life has done. Vinnedge’s degree is in business administration, and so she has decided that, not being trained in science herself, she will trust someone who is: Dr. Theresa Deisher. And this is what I am doing when I decided to trust the folks at Rational Catholic who have been patiently, systematically plowing through Dr. Deisher’s study and compiling a list of problems they found in the study.*

I am not an expert in science of any kind. What I do, and what I recommend that other people do, is this:  Don’t pretend to understand more than you do. Instead, be smart about consciously, deliberately choosing whom to trust — and be ready to change your mind, if you have reason to stop trusting that person. The person you trust need not be a degreed expert in the field. Some of the best teachers are people who have educated themselves in matters that interest them; who know how to explain things well; and who are good at pointing other people toward more information.

So, how do we go about deciding which experts to trust, and which to be suspicious of? Here are a few of the traps we can fall into:

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because he expresses his ideas in an unpleasant way. I wish people wouldn’t do this, because it ratchets up emotions and makes me reluctant to share otherwise solid information. But unpleasantness of expression is not, in itself, a reason to disbelieve the facts, as long as the facts are there along with the unpleasantness.

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you mad or upset or scared.

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he said something that makes you feel happy or peaceful or contented. 

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he has a degree or went to a certain school. Educational credentials tell you something; but in many cases, it’s easy to produce someone who disagrees with your expert but who holds the same degree and who went to the same or an equally prestigious school.

Mistrusting a knowledgeable person because you disagree with him about unrelated things. If he is wrong about lots and lots of things, then beware; but remember that you’re not swearing fealty to a prophet and all that he professes; you’re simply assessing a specific idea. Lots of people are right about some things and wrong about others.

Trusting a knowledgeable person simply because he agrees with you about other things. We see this mistake among secular people when they mistrust scientists who are pro-life, simply because they are pro-life. This is clearly unfair. But Catholics make the exact same mistake when they trust someone simply because he is pro-life. It goes like this: Scientist X opposes his abortion, therefore all of his ideas about everything must be pro-life, therefore you must agree with all of his ideas about everything or else you are not truly pro-life.

Trusting a knowledgeable person because it would be uncharitable to question his findings, or because his personal life is difficult at the moment. This is just bizarre, and I’m always amazed to hear this idea being treated as if it means anything. Being mean to people is a sin against charity. Criticizing ideas is why God gave us brains. (This mistake, too, has a corollary in the secular world: people accept experts simply because they are contrary and annoy people.)

Trusting a knowledgeable person because he has published a study in a scientific journal. This is, unfortunately, not the gold standard for research that it ought to be. There are reputable journals and disreputable journals, and many have low standards for what they will print, but have chosen prestigious-sounding names for themselves.

Trusting a knowledgeable person who says things that you don’t understand at all.  Remember, the reason you decided to trust this person is because you believe he understands things better than you. But he should still be able to convey at least some of what he understands to people who are not experts, or he should at least be able to point you toward more accessible explanations. Someone whose writing is entirely opaque to you is someone you have no reason to trust. Technical words and complicated sentences are often a smokescreen for people who are either trying to fool you, or who don’t understand the subject matter themselves, but have picked up some dazzling vocabulary.

Remember, you’re not a complete moron, or else you’d be off refreshing your news feed for more photos of Paris Hilton’s new puppydog, rather than reading a post about scientific research. As a non-moron, you don’t have to head into these things blind. There are some things you can check yourself. Here is a useful chart to use as a starting point, when you hear a new idea and are wondering whether to get behind it or not.




And remember: nobody likes to be challenged, but good science stands up to scrutiny. Questioning someone’s study is not an attack, or an attempt to silence that person. It’s just what all credible scientists should expect, especially if their studies contradict what nearly every other researcher in the field has found.  If you are being scolded for the mere act of challenging an idea, then that in itself is a sign that the science may be bad.


*Part one: The Numbers went up the other day. It is a response to the way Deisher has gathered and analyzed her statistics. Here is a summary:

– Change points are artifacts of poor statistical approach (i.e. they aren’t real)
– Even if the change points were real, they do not correlate to introduction of changes in exposure to fetal cell line vaccines.
– If the change points were real, they do, contrary to Deisher’s claims, correlate to changes in diagnostic criteria between DSM editions.

Therefore, the central premise of Deisher’s argument (changes in autistic disorder diagnoses correlate with fetal cell line vaccines and not other factors) is not supported by this study.

If you are wondering why Catholics like the authors of this blog are criticizing Dr. Deisher, then you should read Rational Catholic’s post, and stay tuned for parts two and three, where the conclusions she reaches will be analyzed just as closely. There is nothing personal, scurrilous, hateful, or uncharitable in responding in detail to a scientific study. The authors of Rational Catholic believe that parents should not be frightened away, by Deisher’s study or by anybody else, from vaccinating their healthy children.