Gray fox at a wildlife rescue center in Lafayette, CA
I have returned sobered from the Twelfth International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma, Sept 29–Oct 1 in Boston.
Dr. Robert Block, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), opened the conference with an address titled “While We Argue, Children Die: The Consequences of Misinformation,” arguing that the press has been getting it wrong by reporting that shaken baby syndrome is now in doubt.
If the number of shaking diagnoses is not decreasing, Block said, then “the assertion that there has been a significant shift in medical opinion and medical thinking is false and it is not supported in basis of fact.”
Block protested that an upcoming law-journal article misrepresents the intent of the 2009 AAP position statement recommending that doctors drop the term “Shaken Baby Syndrome” in favor of “Abusive Head Trauma.” The goal of the new name, Block said, was “not to detract from shaking as a mechanism of abusive head trauma as much as to broaden the terminology to account for the multitude of primary and secondary injuries that result from abusive head trauma.”
The article Block cited—“Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence: Getting It Right”—was written by law professors Keith Findley and David Moran, with pediatric radiologist Patrick Barnes and pediatric neuropathologist Waney Squier, in response to an earlier article in the same journal —“A Daubert Analysis of Abusive Head Trauma/Shaken Baby Syndrome“—by pediatrician, attorney, and pediatrics professor Sandeep Narang. Dr. Narang had proposed in that piece, as he did again at the Boston conference, that the diagnosis of child abuse is best left to the experts who have devoted their careers to studying it.*
Like Dr. Narang, Block emphasized the importance of clinical experience. The experts have seen “thousands and thousands of children, of all ages, in all stages of health, from perfectly healthy to perfectly dead,” Block said, “Without that experience one cannot understand, get involved in, begin or end that science that we so desperately need.”
Arguing that child-protection doctors are forced to spend their time fighting baseless attacks, Block asked, “Can the media, and the folks who feed the media, be held responsible for injuries to, and deaths of, children?”
Block encouraged the building of multi-disciplinary bridges, where physicians from different specialties can share experiences and learn from each other. Conversation is difficult “with people who are emotionally invested,” he said, and he would welcome the entry of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences into the arena.
Monday morning’s keynote address—”A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Denialism in Child Abuse Pediatrics” by Dr. Christopher Greeley, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center—reaffirmed that there is no disagreement within the medical community about abusive head trauma.
“I believe this not to be a medical debate,” Dr. Greeley opened, but “a legal debate with a white coat on.”
Greeley proposed that critics of the known science behind shaken baby syndrome have fallen for the allure of their own personal narratives. “They think, ‘This is Galileo trying to prove his case to the people,’” he explained. “They think, ‘I have this knowledge and it’s being squashed by misguided authority.’”
Alluring at it is, that narrative is false, he said. “Are we the overbearing establishment? Is Dr. Block our pope?”
Dr. Greeley characterized those who question SBS theory as denialists, and he outlined their tactics:
- Manufacture of doubt—emphasizing small areas of disagreement to give the impression of fundamental flaws
- Identification of conspiracies
- Creation of impossible expectations—demanding that the child abuse literature provide the same kind of evidence produced by drug trials, for example
- Use of fake experts
- Misrepresentation and logical fallacies—the “straw man,” for example
- Selectivity of citation
Dr. Greeley’s slide show of media denialism included offerings from major news outlets (the 2008 Discover magazine piece by Mark Anderson, Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2010 New York Times op ed, Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine cover story, and the Frontline/ProPublica/NPR critique of child death investigations) as well as small internet voices (the Medill Innocence Project, MedicalMisdiagnosisResesarch, Medical Veritas [which seems to be an anti-vaccine organization], this blog, and the EBMSI conferences), plus a radio commentary by Phyllis Schlafly.
In the professional arena, Dr. Greeley lambasted the 2003 literature review by Dr. Mark Donohoe, “Evidence-Based Medicine and Shaken Baby Syndrome,” which had concluded that “the commonly held opinion that the finding of subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhage in an infant was strong evidence of SBS was unsustainable, at least from the medical literature.”
Donohoe had searched the Biomednet Medline database using only the phrase “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” Greeley pointed out, four years before the phrase was officially adopted into the Medical Subject Headings maintained by the National Library of Medicine. Donohoe did not search for terms like “abusive head trauma,” “child abuse,” “subdural hematoma,” or any of the other phrases that might have captured additional relevant articles, Greeley charged, and then he didn’t even read all of the articles he found. Although Donohoe’s search was conducted in 1998, the article wasn’t published until 2003. Greeley said that his own search using Donohoe’s described strategy, even limiting the time range to 1966-1998, produced far more citations than the 54 Donohoe reported.
“Donohoe is a horrible paper and you should never cite it,” Greeley summarized. Noting that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had in fact referenced Donohoe in her minority opinion in the Shirley Ree Smith decision, he speculated, “Surely Justice Ginsburg didn’t read this paper… or she wouldn’t have cited it.”
He also criticized medical-journal articles by Drs. Pat Barnes, Waney Squier, Jennian Geddes, and Steven Gabaeff and the “Getting It Right” law-journal article by Findley et al.
In other sessions I heard speakers explain that Vitamin D levels in a newborn are unrelated to bone fragility, hypoxia does not cause subdural hematoma, and physicians always do a complete work-up for other conditions that might cause the symptoms before diagnosing abuse. While I’m still puzzling over the medical possibilities, I know from personal experience that the third point is an unattained ideal.
I had hoped the conversation was opening up, but it’s hard to feel encouraged after being dismissed as a denialist. More to come.
* Dr. Narang’s article posits that there is no real medical debate about AHT and concludes:
“It is understandable that lawyers will look for opportunities to create doubt in the minds of jurors. However, the only way to appropriately improve the chances for justice in the courts with respect to AHT is to assure that an unbiased, financially-unmotivated, medical expert testifies to the current state of medical evidence.”