Thursday, September 6, 2018

#2067: Tetyana Obukhanych

Tetyana Obukhanych is one of the only people in the anti-vaccine movement with genuine, relevant credentials, and they sure let you know. Obukhanych has a PhD in Immunology, and has apparently had a stint as postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and Stanford, although she does not seem to have a research or academic position at present. She has even (co-authored) genuine research papers. Of course, her academic publications, like her dissertation, actually show that vaccines are safe and effective. 

But what matters to the antivaccine crowd is not what her research, what little there is, shows, but what she says, for instance in her self-published book Vaccine Illusion: How Vaccination Compromises Our Natural Immunity and What We Can Do To Regain Our Health(note both the appeal to nature and appeal to empowerment in the title) and in her “lectures”, public talks and interviews (e.g. for – antivaccine activists often refer to these as “studies” (an example discussed here, snf further discussed here) – in which she pushes classic antivaccine information. What she says matters, since she’s got credentials, and therefore authority. Never mind that the 8000 members of the American Association of Immunologists disagree with her; Obukhanych’s credentials are, for antivaxxers, the proof that makes the whole edifice crumble. Apparently Obukhanych changed her mind about vaccines (and science) when she discovered that, although she allegedly contracted measles and whooping cough during her teens, her Ukrainian medical records showed that she had indeed received the vaccines; the discovery led her to outright reject the field of immunology rather than her trust in the quality of early Soviet-era Ukraininan records (or vaccine doses), despite it being well known that those fully vaccinated may still be susceptible to diseases, especially during outbreaks, which indeed did plague the Ukraine during Obukhanych’s teenage years. 

Evidence: how does it work (hat-tip ... unknown: tell me if it's yours)

Indeed, among her standard canards is that since vaccinated people sometimes get the disease, vaccines are worthless, completely neglecting, as dumb and mathematically illiterate people are inclined to do, the rather obvious point that that vaccines reduce the risk often by way over 90% (in which case herd immunity would have protected the rest were it not for the fact that some people refuse the vaccines, which is a good thing even if protection isn’t 100%. Indeed, Obukhanych has some basic problems with grasping basic mathematical relations (or she is lying). For instance, she objects to the Hib vaccine by claiming that “the introduction of the Hib vaccine has inadvertently shifted strain dominance towards other types of H. influenzae (types a through f);” yes, by lowering the occurrence of Hib, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis among children <5, other H. strains have increased in percentage of all H-incidences! Concluding that this is an objectionto the Hib vaccine is probably one of the most inept pieces of reasoning we’ve had the opportunity to cover in our Encyclopedia thus far.

Despite her training, the antivaccine tropes Obukhanych is running are surprisingly trite and misinformed (more details here; and, to repeat ourselves, despite relying on her credentials she has done no actual research that backs up any of them, which is what should actually matter). According to Obukhanych, you should for instance be wary of the elite experts when discussing vaccines; after all, experts didn’t even know that the smallpox vaccine didn’t provide life-long immunity – at least not until the end of the 19thcentury. Also, she has claimed that there is no theoretical or evidence-based explanation for immunity, which reveals a surprising lack of knowledge of what should be her own field of expertise (alternative, she is lying, of course) – indeed, Obukhanych’s lack of expertise in her own purported field of expertise is stunning, to the extent that she doesn’t even seem to know what the field actually is; according to her immunology is “a science that studies an artificial process of immunization – i.e., the immune system’s response to injected foreign matter [… it] does not attempt to study and therefore cannot provide understanding of natural diseases and immunity that follows them;” this is false and blatantly contradicts for instance the description of immunology given by her own employer. Neither does she know really how vaccines work, or how they are monitored to ensure safety. (More here.) You can find a comprehensive discussion of Obukhanych’s misinformation here.

Now, Obukhanych seems occasionally to admit that “vaccines reduce the overall incidence of childhood diseases,” but maintains that the is a bad thing (the “vaccine paradox”, she calls it) since it makes them “infinitely more dangerous for the next generation of babies,” which does not sound likeit reflects the history of polio or smallpox or anything that is based on any remotely plausible mechanism. Obukhanych has, however, voiced her support for homeopathy, too, which may explain some of the cognitive patterns guiding her “reasoning”.

She is also a herd immunity denialist (“for most communicable viral diseases there is no herd immunity in the post-elimination era”), which is a confusion about math more than anything else. To bring the point home, she points out that “the apparent absence of major viral epidemics in the U.S. is now due to the absence of endemic viral exposure, not herd immunity.” Apparently some antivaxxers will read that and think “that sounds like reasonable point”. Those people are not only misinformed but genuinely stupid. ("What stopped polio outbreaks was not the vaccines but the absence of polio".)

Given her credentials, however, Obukhanych has, as mentioned, become a major player in the antivaccine circus, being a central participant for instance in the Vaxxed tour and one of the “experts” involved in the The Truth About Vaccines “documentary” series. Recently, she has been involved in the website Building Bridges in Children’s Health, an antivaccine page that will purportedly “help parents learn about vaccines and develop communication resources” (i.e. learn antivaccine talking points to throw at doctors) and “educate” about perceived “vaccine dangers, the benefits of childhood diseases (she is pro-disease), and how to manage if you are being bullied by a pediatrician or reported to CPS for your healthcare choices. Apparently she is also helping to “educate doctors” to overcome science their “indoctrination” at Physicians for Informed Consent.

Diagnosis: Crank and pseudoscientist, and certainly not a scientific researcher, regardless of the antivaxx crowd’s desperate attempts to portray her as such. But on paper she might look strong – if you are a bit selective with respect to what you put on that paper – and that illusion of credibility is used for all it’s worth and more to push the vaccine manufactroversy. Dangerous. 

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