This title isn’t quite correct, but I couldn’t resist, since it sounds so catchy, evoking images of harmonica playing in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rock Hill is located in beautiful York County, South Carolina, just off Route I-77, about 30 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina. From my nerdy scientist’s point of view, the people of Rock Hill have a lot to be happy about. They have a good local online newspaper, the Herald Online, and an up and coming medicine/health reporter named Mary Jo Balasco. On the 1st of June, Ms. Balasco published two stories. One story was entitled, “The experts weigh in…,” and in this article she interviewed “two experts about the pros and cons of vaccinating children against common diseases and what is known about the causes of autism.” The experts were Dr. Jennifer Shu, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Marguerite Colston, spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America. Both Dr. Shu and Ms. Colston gave rational answers to questions about recommendations on vaccines, whether vaccines cause autism, why some people think vaccines cause autism spectrum disorder (ASD), whether vacines can cause adverse reactions in children, whether thimerosal in vaccines is a concern, whether combination shots are dangerous, the possible causes of ASD, the causes of “the rapidly rising rates” of ASD’s, and whether children with ASD can recover.

A half-hour search on the internet reveals three things about Herald Online reporter Mary Jo Balasco. First, just a few short years ago she was a reporter for The Johnsonian, the campus newspaper of Winthrop University. Second — no surprise — reporting for the Herald Online isn’t enough to make ends meet. It seems she also runs Mary Jo Balasco Catering on Main Street in Rock Hill.* Third, the very day the story came out (actually two stories; see below) Mary Jo Balasco was at the receiving end of the snake oil venom of the folks over at Age of Autism. The Media Editor at Age of Autism laments,

Why couldn’t reporter Mary Jo Balasco find even one expert on our side? Why couldn’t she contact any of the national organizations who do link vaccines to autism? Why is she seemingly unaware of the Poling case, the upcoming rally in Washington, the latest vaccine research from the U. of Pittsburgh, or the comments made by former NIH head Bernadine Healy on CBS News?

I’m going to make a guess here. I’ll guess that Mary Jo Balasco is an intelligent human being who stayed awake in high school science classes and knows how to tell the difference between evidence-based knowledge and unscientific rubbish. That perhaps she did consider contacting “any of the national organizations who link vaccines to autisms,” but decided that the idea was wacko. That she was aware “of the Poling case, the upcoming rally in Washington, the latest vaccine research from the U. of Pittsburgh, or the comments made by former NIH head Bernadine Healy on CBS News,” but decided that a court case, people in green shirts on the DC mall, a non-peer-reviewed poster presentation, and a political appointee from the first Bush administration with zero scientific credentials are worthless when a medical reporter is preparing a story involving science. In fact, I think CBS News should be embarrassed that a reporter for a local newspaper is doing a better job than Sharyl Attkisson, who, in her reporting on vaccines and autism, has stooped lower than the lowest of British tabloid newspaper reporting. (More on this in a later post.)

Anyway, for the story on autism discussed above, and a story on vaccines (discussed below) Mary Jo Balasco wins Epi Wonk’s Local Health and Medicine Reporter of the Month Award.

Now to the second story, which is entitled, “A risk to vaccinate? Some parents are asking that as concerns are raised over links with autism.” In this article, we learn that a lot of parents are worried about vaccinations — that there are “too many, too soon.” Fortunately, for the good of the public’s health, it seems that most pediatrician’s in the Rock Hill area follow the CDC/AAP schedule, although they’re very willing to spread the shots out at the request of parents. So they have Palmetto Pediatrics, Rock Hill Pediatric Associates, and Sunshine Pediatrics — all group practices that follow evidence-based guidelines on childhood vaccinations, but are willing to bend at parents’ request.

Then they have Dr. Anthony Castiglia. Dr. Castiglia is board-certified in Family Practice and has an office in Mooresville, North Carolina, which is about an hour’s drive from Rock Hill. Mary Jo Balasco did interview him, so I assume he has pediatric patients from Rock Hill. He said most of the parents with vaccination-age children who visit his practice opt not to immunize their children. He also said, “The most important thing is to have a good immune system and do it naturally, not to do it with vaccines.” In case you’re wondering whether Dr. Castiglia is a graduate of the Jenny McCarthy School of Medicine, I was able to determine that Dr. Castiglia is a 1957 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Medicine. I really couldn’t bear to do more than three minutes of research on the guy, but I do know that Merri and Gary first learned about healing with light from Dr. Castiglia, and that the doctor does “chelation and other IV therapies.”

Meanwhile, last week there were seven cases of measles in children in DuPage County, Illinois.

So here’s my final question today: With regard to immunizing children, how many Anthony Castiglia’s are there in the U.S? And what will be the long term consequences?

*CORRECTIONS: Mary Jo Balasco does not run a catering business on Main Street. Her husband had one and named it for her, but it only ran for six months — many years ago. She graduated from York Technical College School of Nursing at the age of 20. She then worked in Intensive Care Units and Emergency Rooms for 14 years. For the last four years she has been staying at home with two children (age 17 and 15) and taking classes at Winthrop University. In 2006, she decided to “put her nursing license on inactive” to pursue journalism. She was also an intern at the Charlotte Observer. Her “dream is to write for science publications such as National Geographic and Discover.” (I learned all this from e-mail communications from Mary Jo this morning. Apparently, she’s a better reporter than I am.)

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28 Responses to “Rock Hill, South Carolina Blues”  

  1. 1 Matt

    Yo WonkSter!

    Thanks for bringing Mary Jo to my attention. I’m glad to hear that people with a critical eye are out there , and sorry to hear that the “autism community” (or, more accuratly, a fringe of it) are harassing her.

    Not that I am surprised. It is totally their style.

    that “healing with light” nonsense should be enough to set off the alarm bells for anyone.

    “With regard to immunizing children, how many Anthony Castiglia’s are there in the U.S? And what will be the long term consequences?”

    Too many. One is too many.

  2. 2 Mary Parsons

    I really couldn’t bear to do more than three minutes of research on the guy…
    she’s a better reporter than I am…

    You see - that’s the problem with you people. Spent too much time reading actual journals and reports and getting real qualifications rather than relying on the Diploma from Google U. [/snark]

    And kudos to Mary Jo Balasco, I feel that your award is an honour and I shall look out for her in National Geographic.

  3. 3 Esther

    “So here’s my final question today: With regard to immunizing children, how many Anthony Castiglia’s are there in the U.S? And what will be the long term consequences?”

    Apparently, too many. Dr. Jay Gordon, atendee at the “Green our Vaccines” rally, has a legit medical degree AFAIK. As does this doctor (who isn’t technically anti-vaccine, but does hold and promote a lot of woo-enhanced ideas on the subject and is spreading them to the guillible mommies at Babycenter. Breastfeeding saves more babies than vaccines? Hepatitis B is merely an STD so kids don’t really need their birth dose? I expect a pediatrician to know better).

  4. 4 andrea

    Great blog! Love epidemiology, and added you to my blogroll.

    Care to do some stuff on the difference between prevalence and incidence of autism, with respect to diagnostic changes and census methods? (I know the difference between incidence and prevalence, but I don’t have access to all the necessary data to be able to fully illustrate things.)


  5. 5 EpiWonk

    This idea hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s probably a good idea. For example, in the Young-Geier paper that I’m in the process of critiquing, they use the term prevalence rate when they should use the term cumulative incidence rate. They also use the term “rate ratio” when they should be using “risk ratio.” Yes, I think I will do post on this in the near future.
    Epi Wonk

  6. 6 PalMD

    …and McCarthy and Carrey use the phrase “instance of austism” in the literature for their Green Our Vaccines March. Friggin’ idiots.

    And as to “how many Anthony Castiglia’s are there in the U.S?” As was said above, too damned many.

  7. 7 Hilary Butler

    You ask this question:

    So here’s my final question today: With regard to immunizing children, how many Anthony Castiglia’s are there in the U.S? And what will be the long term consequences?

    I can pretty much guarantee that Castiglia’s/Gordon/Einstein practices will be watched like a hawk, and if there are cluster’s of deaths, they will all be used as an example of just how ‘dangerous’ it is when doctors ‘go off the rails’.

    Your, and your readers ‘concerns’ about all their patients might have more merit, if they didn’t quite smack of self-righteous smugdom.

    History might one day prove that those you all medics here chose to point the fingers at now, have the right of it, somewhere down the line.

    Perhaps, Epiwonk, you might also like do a comparative analysis, sometime, of the rates of preventable medical error comparing some “conventional” paediatric practices, with those practices some of your readers take such delight in sneering at. There are plenty to chose from.

    Yet I don’t see any medical studies showing that the patients of these pediatricians are dying like flies, so you?

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