June 25, 2005

Congratulations, Thimerosal Crackpots! You Made The Times Front Page!

Precipitated, I guess, by Robert Kennedy's article in Rolling Stone/Salon, The NY Times waded into the "Thimerosal in vaccines causes autism" quagmire today. And the article leaves me imagining what'd happen if the paper had gone after other polarizing subjects like, say, the Iraq war, Social Security privatization, or the religionization of politics with such unfettered harshness.

The story will only intensify the divisions between believers and skeptics. And while it makes me more skeptical of the whole Thimerosal link, the article's sheer viciousness towards Thimerosal opponents, combined with obviously played down elements of the controversy's history, and unasked/unanswered questions about Kennedy's allegations and citations of industry ties and bias, make me wonder just what the hell is up.

[Of course, my skepticism either way didn't change our own decision to have the kid immunized already. Thanks to those fringe outfits, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service, vaccine manufacturers started removing Thimerosal before the kid was born, anyway.]

While Kennedy's article gets only a single mention, and none of his charges of coverup or industry bias are addressed directly, the reports engage in a serious shock-n-awe campaign that paints the crackpot conspiracy theorists--largely parents of autistic kids and their supporters--as total wackjobs who are ignoring science.

Meanwhile, doctors and immunization officials are cowering behind the increased security that's apparently required to deal with threats from these Thimerosal crazies.

Did someone say crazy?

In a series of House hearings held from 2000 through 2004, Mr. [Dan] Burton [Republican Rep. from Indiana] called the leading experts who assert that vaccines cause autism to testify. They included a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky who says that dental fillings cause or exacerbate autism and other diseases and a doctor from Baton Rouge, La., who says that God spoke to her through an 87-year-old priest and told her that vaccines caused autism.
The "most-quoted expert" of the vaccine-autism nuts is then exposed as a nut himself, working from a basement lab "with cast-off, unplugged laboratory equipment, wall-to-wall carpeting and faux wood paneling."

The mercury quacks then use unproven and apparently dangerous treatments for autism, treatments which can cost "tens of thousands of dollars" [as if any treatment regimen for a condition like autism would cost less].

There's no discussion of attempts by Bill Frist and others to limit vaccine manufacturer liability, nor of the revolving door between drug companies and the government agencies that regulate them, nor the conflicts industry funded-scientists and doctors might face. An outsider like Kennedy saw these as huge red flags, but to the Times reporters (who cover the drug industry), they're apparently a non-issue.

Finally, the impetus for this whole Thimerosal thing is dismissed in a most laughably underplayed and misleading way:

The amount of ethyl mercury included in each childhood vaccine was once roughly equal to the amount of methyl mercury found in the average tuna sandwich.

In 1999, a Food and Drug Administration scientist added up all the mercury that American infants got with a full immunization schedule and concluded that the amount exceeded a government guideline. Some health authorities counseled no action, because there was no evidence that thimerosal at the doses given was harmful and removing it might cause alarm. Others were not so certain that thimerosal was harmless.

In July 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service released a joint statement urging vaccine makers to remove thimerosal as quickly as possible. [emphasis added]

A government guideline? It must be good to be on staff at the Times, becuase if I tried as a freelancer to include as deliberately vague and dismissive characterization of the origins of the controversy I was writing about, my editors would probably tell me to Google "journalism" and kick me out the door.

Even if you don't know that one of Kennedy's article's main points was that the number of recommended immunizations was increased sharply in the late 1980's/early 90's--and the volume of mercury infants were exposed to jumped along with it, as the lone gunman at the FDA noticed--you have to wonder if an urgent statement from the decidedly non-wacko AAP isn't worth a more measured consideration than the Times gives it.

But whatever. BG and I went a few rounds in the earlier comments about parents doing their own research, one of the few points on which we agree. But if you find the RFK piece too one-sided and paranoid, this Times piece is so unequivocally flawed as to raise suspicions of its own. I'm sure it'll strengthen the convictions of those who see a vast conspiracy and coverup ("See? Even the Times is in on it!"). And while this all shouldn't affect parents considering vaccinations today, it'd be nice if some more level-headed assessments of the controversy were published on the front page of the biggest paper in town.

On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research [nyt]
Previously: We're From The Government, And We're Here To Help Cover Up A Giant Immunization Scandal

5 Comments

All I can say is that something has caused a giant leap in the rate of Autism. Maybe not vaccinations, but it is something. I teach preschool and I can not tell you how many kids there have Autism or something very close to it!

When I was a kid in the 80s, I knew one child with Autism. Now I probably know about 20. Everyone I ask knows a child with Autism. And I refuse to believe that it's just because there is more awareness of it now. If that's the case, then why aren't more people my age being discovered to have it? The symptoms are not easily ignored.

That's the problem with conspiracy theories. Anyone you don't agree with, well, they're just part of the conspiracy.

I knew a couple of odd kids growing up who would most likely get dx's today of being somewhere on the spectrum. And who knows, maybe my own child would have just been called a "late talker" and a "quirky kid" back in the days before PDD-NOS was on the books. Part of me believes it's better diagnosis, part something environmental (whether mercury or something else, maybe environment plus genetics). And of course it would be much easier if I could believe that it's caused by something concrete and simple and therefore preventable. We noticed alarming symptoms in my child long before she had the majority of her vaccines. I don't have any mercury fillings. I live nowhere near a coal-fired plant. I ate a bunch of tuna when pregnant, but not all that much. In this age of total accountability and ultra-precision, it feels odd and somewhat 19th-century to have to fall back on "Sorry, these things happen."

I think I will probably be long gone before we find out 1. whether there really has been an increase, rather than noticing and pouncing on symptoms earlier, and 2. if so, what caused it.

The NY Times is obsessed with reporting on autism. I've noticed a constant stream of articles on the subject from them over the past 2 years.

right on, greg. That Times piece was the epitome of bad journalism. what's happening with that rag? first, they come out in support of ousting old ladies from their family homes in New London, and now they treat the CDC and NIH like they're beyond reproach? good thing their funnies section is so good.

The NYTimes! What a JOKE! The same people who sit on the Board at the NYTimes also sit on the same board as Eli Lilly the makers of Thimerosal!

[That is not only an utterly embarassing claim to make, it happens to be incorrect. If you'd take 30 seconds to compare Lilly's board directory to that of the NYTCo, you'll see that there are no shared board members. The remotest possibility are the two guys named Golden, but they joined their respective boards in the late 90's, after working their way up through their respective industries (publishing and finance, not pharma, by the way), well after the whole Thimerosal incidence had peaked.

But why don't you spend another thirty seconds and seriously wonder about the implications of what you're implying: that board members of two vast companies--including what's nominally the most widely influential newspaper in the country--would reach down and manipulate frontpage stories, and micromanage or even coverup details of a vast controversy.

If that's what you really believe, you should sell your house and run for the hills, Donna, because they're coming to get you right now. I hear the trucks pulling up the street.

Seriously, people, there IS a controversy, intelligent people DO take different sides on this issue for different reasons, and there MUST be something more substantive than trite paranoid claims of BOD-level collusion. Which we know only happens in the defense industry. And the securities industry. And radio and music. And software. -ed.]

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