Wednesday, February 09, 2005

COLUMN -- Mercury/vaccine bill would provide 'firewall protection'

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:21 AM |  

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

What do you say to the father of an autistic child?

What do you say to the father of a child who passed all her baby milestones on time … and who then helplessly watched the child he loved regress into a self-absorbed shell?

What do you say when that father lashes out at drug companies and politicians for "poisoning for profit" his little girl with vaccines laced with thimerosal — a mercury-based additive intended to prevent vaccine contamination?

What do you say to the father of an autistic child when you think he's wrong?

That was my reaction to a phone call I received after my column on the flu vaccine shortage appeared on these pages. I'm old enough to remember classmates with limbs shriveled by childhood polio. The childhood vaccination program is a real and proper government success story. Doubting the conspiracy theory, I was nonetheless curious.

And indeed, curiosity-driven but cursory research turned up "no evidence of harm" from thimerosal and the trace amounts of mercury found in vaccines. But it also unearthed annoying bits of data that just didn't fit where my skeptical attitude wanted to push them.

Autism is a neurological disorder. It affects a child's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond to his surroundings. There is clearly a genetic predisposition for autism, but expanding scientific evidence admits the plausibility of environmental influence. And classical manifestations of autism are mirrored by behavioral and biological characteristics of mercury poisoning. Mercury is a known neurotoxin.

Consider: Before 1980 the historical rate of diagnosed autism was four to five cases for every 10,000 live births. In 2002, the National Institutes of Health revised that figure to one case for every 250 births. Current figures peg the ratio at one case in every 150 births.

Then consider this: Over that same time frame, as new vaccines were mandated by legislation and government regulation, the amount of mercury injected into some babies nearly tripled. By 1999, a baby who received all recommended vaccines at his two-month checkup might be injected with 118 times the EPA safe dosage average for a single day.

Put another way, in order to reach a safe dosage level for the mercury contained in the single Hepatitis B shot mandated for all infants, a baby would need to weigh 275 pounds.

These data are significant because a bill (S.F. 639) is currently before the Minnesota Senate Health and Family Security Committee that would prohibit vaccines that contain mercury from being administered in Minnesota unless there are exceptional circumstances. It faces an uphill climb.

It would be reassuring if this legislation were inspired by one of the myriad federal agencies charged with protecting Americans from dangerous drugs. It was not. How about the Minnesota Health Department? It opposes the legislation. The Mayo Clinic?

"There are no data to support the theory that thimerosal causes developmental disorders, such as autism," reads a January 2005 letter to the HSF Committee from the clinic. "To imply it does misleads the public."

What gives?

In Minnesota and across the nation, it's pushed by parents, united by the common desire to know what happened to their kids and why, teamed with independent researchers who have uncovered the connections among vaccine schedules, mercury exposure and autism.

While the government remained silent, these passionate parents have exposed flaws in the nation's vaccination program that might have damaged thousands of children and created financial liabilities and confidence issues that threaten a program that ought to represent government at its best.

Alarmist? Three months ago, I'd have said, "Absolutely." Today, I think the word "alarmist" is too tepid.

S.F. 639 is an important bill because, as its supporters say, it builds a protective firewall between Minnesotans and a federal and state bureaucracy reluctant to investigate its own performance and admit to and correct its own mistakes.

A newspaper column can, at best, elevate the visibility of the S.F. 639, but can only scratch the surface of this scientific, political and emotional issue. I will be devoting additional columns to the topic regardless of the fate of S.F. 639.

The autism epidemic -- and it is an epidemic -- doesn't go away if S.F. 639 fails to become law. It doesn't go away because bureaucrats won't acknowledge good science that indicates there might be a problem. And it certainly doesn't go away just because bureaucrats don't know what to say to the father of an autistic child.

UPDATE: A major problem researching Vaccines/Mercury/Autism is wading through a lot of messy stuff on both sides of the issue. Many have labeled the parents pushing the connections as everything from "hysterical" to being "anti-immunization." On the other hand, the Vaccine/Mercury/Autism groups include many people who make conspiratorial hay out of the Bush/Quayle family connections to Ely Lilly and charge their rhetoric with phrases like "poisoning our children."

Nonetheless, there is very good information out there, that if objectively considered, leads a person to believe that at the very least government agencies had been less than diligent in managing the national vaccination program -- a legitimate function of government in the name of public health. Tragic results have occurred that were entirely preventable within the context of the program.

Following are two reputable sources from which to start any research on the Vaccine/Mercury/Autism connection. These are private groups with a bias that mercury in vaccines, especially the additive thimerosal, does cause neurological damage in some children. However, they are not "anti-vaccine" nor "anti-government." They do take politicians and government officials to task and do cite conflicts of interest and the cozy relationship of pharmaceutical companies and government, but in a generally non-partisan manner.

Bottom line, on either of these sites, and many others, if you want to find trees that block your view of the forest, you can. But if you keep an open mind, you'll find those bits of data that just don't fit where you may want to push them. That's when discussion and action start.

The Coalition for SafeMinds (Sensible Action For Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders) is a private nonprofit organization founded to investigate and raise awareness of the risks to infants and children of exposure to mercury from medical products, including thimerosal in vaccines. Safe Minds supports research on the potential harmful effects of mercury and thimerosal.

National Vaccine Information Center
The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) is dedicated to the prevention of vaccine injuries and deaths through public education. NVIC provides assistance to parents whose children have suffered vaccine reactions; promotes research to evaluate vaccine safety and effectiveness as well as to identify factors which place individuals at high risk for suffering vaccine reactions; and monitors vaccine research, development, policy-making and legislation. NVIC supports the right of citizens to exercise informed consent and make educated, independent vaccination decisions for themselves and their children.