Something Genomics Does Need To Confront: Anti-Vaxxers

Last week, a Canadian arbitrator ruled in favor of a parent who wanted to prevent the vaccination of her kids (the father had gone to court to get the kids vaccinated). This from the article leapt out of me (boldface mine):

Fogelman said the “most compelling” part of Bark’s testimony was her suggestion that the mother had a genetic mutation that made it more difficult to clear the “toxins” in vaccines, and that her sons may have inherited that mutation.

Variations in the MTHFR gene are a popular villain in the anti-vaccination movement. But only one published study — from 2008 — has pointed to any link between the gene and vaccine side effects: an increased risk of mild reactions like fever and skin rashes in people with the variation who received the smallpox vaccine. That shot is no longer given to children.

Anytime you see the word toxin, bullshitting is underway. That said, the misuse of human genetics is disturbing (boldface mine):

…it should be no surprise that the thin veneer of science that coats these tests is now being applied by anti-vaccine advocates. They claim that genetic tests can predict whether a child will have a reaction against vaccines, and this argument has taken ahold of many in their movement. There are entire Facebook groups dedicated to “genetic mutations” and “vaccine adverse reactions”, where parents attribute various health conditions in their children to the interaction between “toxins” in vaccines and genetic variants.

Studies have been conducted examining whether there are genetic variants in patients that have had vaccine adverse reactions, but the definition of “vaccine adverse reaction” isn’t what Twitter arguments and Facebook groups would have you believe. They are well described and defined reactions: rare cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, viscerotropic disease after yellow fever vaccinations, and the regular fever and rashes that many get after a vaccine. Interestingly, papers examining epileptic seizures after TdAP vaccinations found that children had a genetic basis for epilepsy and that the vaccination itself was not the cause for the epilepsy. And despite what parents in Facebook groups may believe, there aren’t any variants associated with vaccine adverse events after the MMR vaccine.

Most discussions surrounding genetic variants and vaccines fixate on a single gene: MTHFR or methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, an enzyme that plays an important role in the metabolism of folate. There are entire websites dedicated to MTHFR, where this enzyme is painted as holding the key to the mysteries behind many different conditions, including the amorphous “vaccine adverse events” and autism. I was able to find only one study that found genetic association with variants in MTHFR after a vaccination: a paper that looked at only 1442 variants in the genome in 69 patients who were given the smallpox vaccine, where “adverse event” was defined as a temperature greater than 38.3ºC, rash, or swollen lymph nodes. That’s it. The study has not been replicated, much less with modern vaccines.

Here’s a bit more on MTHFR:

I’ve asked every antivaxxer who has mentioned this to tell me in their own words what MTHFR is and how it relates to vaccination without looking it up, but not a single person has other than to call it a mutation. Strange. MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. It is a gene on chromosome 1 which encodes an enzyme that catalyses 5,10-methylenetetrahydrofolate to 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (which has to do with homocystine metabolism and is some pretty goddamned fancy science). There are many polymorphisms (ie variations) of the genes, and some are incredibly common (for example, 10% of the North American population has 2 copies of a specific polymorphism). Preliminary research shows it may increase the risk of schizophrenia or dementia, but no research shows the gene has anything to do with any vaccine side effect. MTHFR is a polymorphism, not a mutation. Those two words are not synonymous.

I know you think citing MTHFR makes you look smart, but it has the exact opposite effect. If you didn’t understand the above paragraph but still think MTHFR is a mutation which causes autism, it isn’t and it doesn’t.

If you want to know why some of us got all het up over genetic testing companies playing fast and loose with whether they were offering diagnoses, here’s why:

Do we in the biotech sector have any right to state that MTHFR testing is a scam and that vaccine reactions cannot be predicted, if we have done little to decry DNA soccer tests? We have no moral or intellectual right to deny one but not the other. The biotech sector should take a strong stance against these modern snake oils, and should take a more active role in educating the public in what their technologies can and cannot do. Placing this burden solely on the shoulders of academics who lack resources and time for such efforts seems irresponsible, as these individuals keep playing whack-a-mole in their efforts to educate the public against companies that keep popping up.

Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine against anti-vaxxism, but the companies that facilitate this pseudoscience need to be regulated into the ground.

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