Quicksilver Salesmen

By Michael Fumento

The American Spectator Online, January 18, 2008
Copyright 2008 The American Spectator Online

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Grant the anti-childhood vaccine fanatics this; they are dogged. Absolutely no amount of data and no number of studies from any array of sources will sway them from their beliefs – or claimed beliefs – that thimerosal, a mercury-containing vaccine preservative once used in many such injections, is causing the so-called “autism epidemic.”

Therefore a California Department of Public Health study in the current Archives of General Psychiatry hasn’t either. Nevertheless, for the rest of us there are two valuable lessons. First, the lack of a thimerosal connection to the developmental disorder has once again been reaffirmed. And second, those fanatics really and truly are fanatical – as a British Medical Journal book reviewer put it, an “angry and paranoid universe.”

These people operate over 150 anti-vaccine web sites that claim not only a thimerosal-vaccine connection but a Massive World Wide Conspiracy (MWWC) to cover up of the alleged link. Not incidentally, they also send me some of the vilest hate mail I’ve ever received, while sending death threats to Public Health Service officials who have quit their jobs in fear.

As a precautionary measure – surely influenced by the anti-vaccinationists – thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines as of March 2001 (except flu shots, which contain a trace amount.) This allowed a before and after comparison. Properly labeling California’s tracking of autism cases “the gold standard of autism epidemiology,” the angry paranoids and those who make a living catering to them confidently declared that soon the California data would show a dramatic drop in diagnoses.

Indeed they quickly asserted it had done so, as did former New York Times writer David Kirby, author of the influential 2005 book Evidence of Harm - Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. Never mind that this alleged peak, in 2002, came far too early to have reflected cessation of thimerosal use. (Not incidentally, Kirby was early on a spokesman for a group, AmfAR, that promoted more AIDS spending through pushing the myth that AIDS was breaking out into the general heterosexual population.)

Later the infamous father-son team of Dr. Mark and David Geier published a study they claimed showed a dramatic 35 percent drop, also beginning in 2002. The Geiers make their living as expert witnesses and consultants for lawyers making vaccine harm claims against the government’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VCIP).

INCREASING CALIFORNIA CASES

But now there has been enough time, and the news is good for parents and bad for the fearmongers. The Archives study evaluated autistic children referred to the state’s Developmental Services System and covered the years 1995 to March of 2007. Children as young as age 3 were evaluated. If thimerosal-preserved vaccines cause autism, the researchers said, diagnoses should have started falling in 2004 – not 2002.

But as this chart from the paper shows, there been no plummet, no decline, no leveling. There hasn’t been the least bit of decrease in the increasing number of cases.

"We are reassured that we found no link between routine childhood vaccination and increases in childhood autism in the data," study lead author and California DPH Medical Officer Robert Schechter, a physician, told the medical e-zine WebMD.

Further, the California findings are hardly anomalous. As the Archives paper noted, “Our findings are in concordance with the rigorous 2004 review of at least 12 previous published and unpublished studies by the IOM Immunization Safety Committee, which concluded that the body of evidence rejected a causal relationship between [thimerosal containing vaccines] and autism.”

Included in the IOM review were three studies looking at the entire populations of Sweden, Denmark, and Canada respectively. In all three countries thimerosal-containing vaccines were discontinued in the late 1990s and in all three, as with California, autism rates climbed at the same pace as before.

None of which has done the least to dampen the ardor or arrogance of the anti-vaccinationists, who in fairness aren’t necessarily nuts but sometimes just opportunist.

Included are environmentalists such as the Environmental Working Group and individuals like environmental crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Scaring parents over thimerosal in vaccines is intended to buttress their campaign against coal-fired power plants. It sounds strange, doesn’t it? But the relationship is that thimerosal comprises about 50 percent ethyl mercury, while the stuff from power plants that gets into fish that pregnant are warned about eating is called methyl mercury.

Despite the difference of merely one letter (You know, like “cat” and “rat.”) scientists say there is a drastic difference in how each is metabolized and thus their potential for harm. That said, the Maternal Nutrition Group, a coalition of nutrition groups and experts including several federal agencies, last October concluded a review of studies by recommending that pregnant women eat far more fatty fish than they do, citing in part a low risk even from methyl mercury.

Finally, there are parents of autistic children. Most, mind you, just want the best science to prevail. But many are desperately looking for somebody to blame or are trying to cash in on their kids through the vaccine insurance program.

THE ONLY GOOD VACCINE IS NO VACCINE

But the driving force remains that angry paranoid universe that, whatever some members claim, in fact oppose all vaccinations. That’s why they see no inconsistency in continuing to rail against vaccines that have been discontinued for almost seven years. It explains why they also fiercely target the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella), insisting it, too, causes autism – though MMR never contained thimerosal. The most recent “expert” to weigh in on that is former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who aptly demonstrated her 38-C IQ in claims on Oprah and in her best-selling book.

As with fluoridated water, there is a bizarre segment of our society that sees childhood vaccines as some sort of black magic and have latched onto the unquestionable rise in autism rates to make the point. Indeed, the single group most affiliated with this branch of thinking, or not thinking as it were, and that published the Geier paper in its online journal (which isn’t even indexed by MedLine), is the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Inc. It has its roots in the old anti-fluoridation far right which really did consider fluoridation as communist plot. (And, again, it pushed the “heterosexual breakout of AIDS” myth.) It’s also on physician Stephen Barrett’s “Quackwatch” list of “questionable organizations.”)

Yet the evidence has long pointed to genetics as being the overwhelming causation factor in autism, evidence strengthened by a group of three studies published in the January 10 American Journal of Human Genetics.

As to the indisputably large increase in autism diagnoses, the so-called “autism epidemic,” “diagnoses” appears to be the key word. Over the years, the definition of the disorder been expanded. By great coincidence, the increase in autism diagnoses in kids has paralleled a decrease in mental retardation diagnoses. Moreover, growing awareness of the problem has led to identification and labeling of cases that once were missed. Increased identification and proper diagnosis of a problem is a good thing.

Whatever the motivation of individual proponents, these people have scared parents throughout not only the U.S. but many other countries into refusing to vaccinate their children. These parents become free riders, relying on those parents who do vaccinate to keep diseases at bay through “herd immunity.” That means that immunization rates in the wider population are high enough (for example, 85 percent for diphtheria) to protect those not immunized.

But if enough people free ride, then herd immunity is lost and what follows is the return of childhood diseases we hardly think about anymore. Diseases like pertussis have made comebacks in countries as diverse as the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Japan, and Sweden after anti-vaccinationist scares.

Better known as “whooping cough,” pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing. You can hear it here. Pertussis cases went from fewer than 8,000 in the U.S. in 2001 to over 25,000 in 2005.

The vaccine fearmongers won’t acknowledge any of this; indeed many claim vaccines never brought these diseases under control in the first place and therefore play no role in keeping them in check.

Appealing to such people is impossible, but we can limit the damage by appealing to those susceptible to their vicious false propaganda. We must. The Public Health Service needs to start a public interest campaign to fight back. Now if only they can get as spokesperson a Playmate with a D-Cup . . .


Read Michael Fumento’s other work on disease, on vaccines and on pharmaceuticals.