Bill Maher: Anti-vax wingnut

Via Skeptico, I've learned of some more antivaccination stupidity issuing forth from self-proclaimed "skeptic" Bill Maher during his recent appearance on Larry King Live. Get a load of this:
MAHER: I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can...

KING: You mean you don't get a -- you don't get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why?

MAHER: Because it's got -- it's got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn't prevent. First of all, that's...

KING: I haven't had the flu in 25 years since I've been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease. I would stop getting your...

KING: What did you say?

MAHER: That went better in rehearsal but it was still good. Absolutely, no the defense against disease is to have a strong immune system. A flu shot just compromises your immune system.
Ooh, boy. As Skeptico points out, that's a very specific claim, that getting flu shots more than five years in a row will increase your likelihood of getting Alzheimer's disease by ten-fold. Personally, I'm unaware of any good (or even not so good) evidence that flu vaccines can increase your risk of Alzheimer's, but I'm always willing to try fill in the gaps in my knowledge. That's why I wonder what research, if any, supports Maher's assertion. Based on past experience, my guess is probably none, but, as Skeptico does, I will try to keep an open mind with regards to this topic and join Skeptico in e-mailing Bill to provide a specific source for his claim. My guess is that Maher probably read it on the altie kook site or somewhere similar.

I thought about it a little more, and, because I was curious about where Maher might have found such a claim, I did a little investigating. First, I did a simple Google search using the terms "flu vaccine Alzheimer's." Guess what website came up first when I did my search? If you said the extremly flaky website. . .you won! Here it is, right from the source:
According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (, the world's leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer's Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer's is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg's speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer's to quadruple statement is from John's Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998.

Hmmm. That name sounded very familiar, so I did a little more digging. It turns out that Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who published an absolutely horribly designed study in the Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism, nearly all of whose authors later publicly retracted their authorship. This study, now thoroughly repudiated, caused a major scare in Britain and elsewhere regarding MMR, echoes of which persist even today, with anti-vaxers still citing Wakefield's Lancet study as "evidence" that MMR causes autism. (Particularly hilarious is when they attribute MMR "causing" autism to the mercury in thimerosal, mainly because MMR has never contained thimerosal.) Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious "treatments" for autism that led to some problems with his medical license. In November 1995, the South Carolina Medical Board concluded that Fudenberg was "guilty of engaging in dishonorable, unethical, or unprofessional conduct," and he was fined $10,000 and ordered to surrender his license to prescribe controlled substances (narcotic drugs). His medical license was also placed on suspension. In March 1996, he was permitted to resume practice under terms of probation that did not permit him to prescribe any drugs. His medical license expired in January 2004; and in March 2004, he applied to have it reinstated. However, after a hearing in which the Board considered a neuropsychatric report issued in 2003, Fudenberg agreed to remain in a "retired" status and withdrew his application for reactivation of his license. Nowadays, Dr. Fudenberg runs a nonprofit "research" organization called Neuro Immunotherapeutics Research Foundation and still appears to be pushing dubious remedies for autism. He also charges $750 per hour for "review of past medical records," $750 per hour for "determining what new tests need to be ordered; ordering of new tests; evaluation of new tests," and $750 per hour for "determining which therapy will work and which will not; discussing this with patient along with an in-depth study of past medical history to determine what makes a patient better or worse."

All of this sounds a lot like practicing medicine to me, which makes me wonder how someone with a lapsed medical license can get away with providing such "services" at such inflated prices. (Once again I have to wonder if I'm in the wrong business.) Of course, none of this means Dr. Fudenberg doesn't make a valid point, but he certainly hasn't supported it, as far as I can tell, and I looked. And just because he's published over 660 scientific papers in his career (not 800, as claimed, at least not according to PubMed, unless he published a lot before 1965) doesn't mean he isn't off the wall. After all, later in life Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling marred his legacy by lending his name to a lot of dubious vitamin C quackery. Besides, as far as I can tell, with one exception in 1999, Dr. Fudenberg hasn't published any original research since the late 1980's. If you look at his PubMed publication list, you'll find that there is nothing after around 1989 other than review articles, speculative articles in Medical Hypotheses, plus a publication or two in dubious journals such as Biotherapy (which is no longer published). Looking at the list, a knowledgeable person can tell right about when Dr. Fudenberg started to descend into fringe medicine, sometime between 1985-1989. And, try as I might, I couldn't find an article by Fudenberg to support his claim about the flu vaccine that Maher parrotted on Larry King Live.

In any case, the specific dubious autism treatment with which Dr. Fudenberg was involved is the use of something called "transfer factor" to make a combined measles vaccine and autism "cure." The method of making these so-called "transfer factors" is bizarre in the extreme and involves injecting mice with measles, extracting and processing white blood cells, injecting the result into pregnant goats, milking the goats after kid-birth and turning the product into capsules for autistic children. In a patent application (based in part on the infamous Lancet paper) obtained by Brian Deer, Wakefield represented a vaccine/therapy for "MMR-based" autism using transfer factor as potentially a "complete cure" for autism or for "alleviation of symptoms."

So what did Dr. Fudenberg base his claim about flu vaccines and autism on? Try as I might, I couldn't find any research that supports this assertion, at least not in PubMed. Any Google searches done inevitably brought up the same quote as above or variants of it, but no source pointed me to any actual research supporting Dr. Fudenberg's claim, even though he did seem to imply that he had done a study. Certainly there is nothing I could find in the peer-reviewed literature when I searched Dr. Fudenberg's name with the term "influenza." Indeed, the only paper I could find on PubMed on the subject of the flu vaccine and Alzheimer's disease concluded:
After adjustment for age, sex and education, past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza was associated with lower risk for Alzheimer's disease (odds ratio [OR] 0.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.27-0.62; OR 0.60, 95% CI 0.37-0.99; and OR 0.75, 95% CI 0.54-1.04 respectively) than no exposure to these vaccines...Past exposure to vaccines against diphtheria or tetanus, poliomyelitis and influenza may protect against subsequent development of Alzheimer's disease.
My goodness! It looks as though the flu vaccine might actually protect against Alzheimers! True, this is a retrospective study using a self-questionnaire, which is a big problem. It definitely needs to be replicated with a more reliable study methodology than what was used and doing individual studies for each vaccine, rather than lumping four vaccines together in one study. However, I'd be willing to bet that, for all its shortcomings, this study is probably better evidence than Dr. Fudenberg can produce, and there is zero doubt in my mind that it's way better evidence than Bill Maher can produce, given that he undoubtedly got his bogus claim from either, the infamous conspiracy-mongering site, Vaccination Liberation, or (of course) from altie supreme Dr. Mercola. Clearly, Bill Maher has difficulty evaluating the reliability and plausibility of evidence with regard to his beliefs in unnamed "toxins" rather than microorganisms causing disease, something he's shown before when he swallowed whole the myth of Pasteur's supposed deathbed "recantation" that he was wrong, and he sure seems pretty credulous about "evidence" coming from anti-vax websites.

But that's not all. Maher also parrotted the claim that it was better sanitation, not the polio vaccine, that eliminated polio. This is simply not true. Better sanitation certainly helps eliminate such diseases, but sanitation was pretty good in the 1950's, just before the polio vaccine was developed, and polio outbreaks were still fairly common and still quite feared. (People of a certain age will remember polio scares that occurred throughout this country before the polio vaccine was developed that would shut down public swimming pools and baths.) In actuality, better sanitation may have made people more susceptible to severe complications from polio, because sanitation made sure that most people were no longer routinely exposed to the virus as children. Also going against Maher's assertion is the observation that when polio vaccination rates fall, polio returns. It's the same with other infectious diseases, like pertussis.

I've written about Bill Maher's medical wingnuttery before. Given his antivaccination statements based on no evidence or on demonstrably incorrect evidence and his support of PETA, it's hard for me to conclude now that Bill Maher, who likes to represent himself as hard-nosed "skeptic" speaking truth to power, is anything other than a total wingnut, at least when it comes to medicine. As The Uncredible Hallq points out, Maher seems far more certain about his "ability to think" than is justified based on the evidence of his own words. Worse, he's not just peddling "concerns" about vaccination or "skepticism" over whether specific vaccinations have an insufficiently favorable risk-benefit ratio to justify their use, an argument scientists and doctors sometimes make for certain vaccines. No, he's pushing a misguided belief that vaccines do more harm than good and a hostility towards vaccination in general that are both wrong-headed and just plain wrong. Vaccination represents arguably the single most effective public health intervention ever developed by "conventional" medicine. It has all but eliminated diseases that once ravaged huge swaths of this planet and will to protect billions of people from horrific diseases--that is, unless muddle-headed alties like Bill Maher have their way and persuade people that they don't need to vaccinate their children or themselves.


  1. Good takedown.

    I was too lazy to do a search myself to find the source of the quote, but a commenter called woly
    posted the same source you did. And I discovered that quote is repeated verbatim all over the web. No research or studies mind you, just a quote from “the world's leading immunogeneticist”. Cough cough, oh yes. Can you say “argument from authority”?

    Nice find of that study showing vaccines reduce alzheimer’s too.

  2. I'm pretty sure that Maher had a face lift a couple of years ago. If so, it would seem that he's willing to accept Western Medicine some of the time.

  3. Skeptico,

    I wrote most of this up on Saturday and didn't check on your post again before posting my article.

  4. Can one say that Fudenberg was *de-licensed*?

  5. KING: I haven't had the flu in 25 years since I've been taking a flu shot.

    Not an "Altie" here, but in the last 25 years I have never had the flu shot AND I have never had the flu. Coincidence?

  6. Yeah, I noticed that too. I had also wanted to make a snarky comment that maybe Fudenberg was right about vaccines and Alzheimer's, given the general level of intelligence of discourse on the Larry King show.

    I restrained myself--until now.

  7. Maher seems to be suffering from paranoid personality disorder. His pattern of speech also indicates erratic thoughts. It makes me wonder what he's abusing, in addition to the admitted marijuana.

    I find it hilarious and sad that has an article entitled "Paranoid/Paranoia: Media Buzzwords To Silence The Politically Incorrect."

  8. A few months ago I did a check on Fudenberg's publications, and I noticed the same thing. Lots of papers a few decades ago, and then a trickle to very little.

    After reading about his mental health status which prevented him from getting his medical license back, I am wondering if he has not succumbed to some kind of neurodegenative disease. Possibly not Alzheimer's, but something else (perhaps similar to what happened to Nicola Tesla, who himself went from brilliant to bizarre).

  9. Thanks for taking the time to take what he said apart.

  10. I checked to see if Maher is one of the 98% of entertainment-biz folks who never graduated from college, and was surprised to find he actually graduated from Cornell. But his major was [drumroll . . .] ENGLISH (syn. Terminal Unemployability), so he need not be taken seriously about anything scientific, medical, or otherwise quantitative.

  11. Oi, doctor bud, having an arts degree does not make one an altie, nor does it make one ignorant of medical, scientific or quantitative subjects. Critical thinking skills apply and are taught across the academic spectrum, though some, such as Maher, miss that part of their education. What's Dr. Fudenberg's excuse? He seems to have emerged from your discipline.

    It may be fun to chortle into your beard about the so-called Terminally Unemployable, but let's face it, that's a cheap shot. Let's stick to legitimate targets for scorn, like those who insist that HIV doesn't cause AIDS (at the expense of their children) and those that fuel anti-vax paranoia.

  12. "Nice find of that study showing vaccines reduce alzheimer’s too."

    So they did a case control study and asked Alzheimer's patients to recall whether or not they'd had flu vaccines? That's pretty bad study design. I can't imagine how a flu shot would have any impact on Alzheimer's, except that it may make old folk live longer, and hence more likely to develope the disease.

  13. grad student hack said: "What's Dr. Fudenberg's excuse? He seems to have emerged from your discipline."

    Best guess is some kind of mental illness or some kind degenerative brain disease. At one time he was qualified, but there are thoughts that he has an illness: which states "Professor Fudenberg plainly suffers from disability, and Brian Deer publishes this information only because he believes the public interest justifies the intrusion."

    Hence, the comparison I made to Nicola Tesla:

    Though the biography I read about him over a decade ago did not call it obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD. But there may be similarities to Howard Hughes, who seemed to get worse as he aged. Fudenberg may have one of many mental illnesses that progress with age.

    I have no explanation for Mahar. Other than he is starting to get sucked into the cult of his own celebrity, and actually believes his own publicity. I would not attack his education, since my artist mother was probably the smartest all around person I knew (she explained number bases, like binary and octal, to me when got them in math).

  14. Bill Maher is not particularly funny, and he certainly is way past his, apparently temporary, reign as an A-List television personality-he was never quite a star.

    Now, having said that we quickly can get to the bottom of his wing-nuttiness. He is either seeking publicity by being contrary, or he is just one of those individuals for whom logical analysis and logical thinking is not possible due either to a poor education, a low attention span, or a low IQ.

    It seems to be difficult for some intelligent people to accept that intelligence is not required to be either active in or successful at show business or, for that matter, television news reading.


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