Wednesday, March 16, 2005

COLUMN -- Objective look taken at vaccines, autism

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:03 AM |  

Posted on Wed, Mar. 16, 2005

Objectivity is the first principle of journalism. Presenting a balanced view of all sides of an issue defines a simple (and simplistic) measure; "balanced" is not equivalent to "accurate."

Therein lie the conflicting reactions of praise and condemnation for New York Times contributor David Kirby's new book "Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A Medical Controversy."

"Objectivity is something I grappled with the whole time I was writing the book," Kirby told me in a phone interview. "Books have a point of view. But a point of view is different than advocacy.

"The title emerged from the text itself," Kirby said. " 'Evidence of harm' actually appears about 17 times in the book. 'Evidence' is the proper word for the title. There is a growing body of evidence of harm from vaccines containing mercury. 'Proof of harm' uses a very loaded word, and I didn't want to go quite that far."

Interest in Kirby's book (pre-release orders place it No. 78 in the sales ranking) are driven in part by the unprecedented rise in autism rates. Before 1980 the historical rate of diagnosed autism was four to five cases for every 10,000 live births. The CDC pegs the current autism ratio at one case in every 166 live births.

Kirby notes that those figures have compelled officials, however reluctantly, to consider another biological component to autism besides other prevailing genetic theories. There is no such thing as a genetic epidemic. What is that biological cause? That's the question Kirby addresses.

On one level, "Evidence of Harm" encapsulates the controversy over the use of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in childhood vaccines.

Kirby does his journalistic duty and presents the conflicting evidence over whether mercury in childhood vaccines contributed to the unprecedented rise in cases of autism. Often he uses the advocate's own words. Sometimes those words -- or lack of them -- are damning.

"Many of the public health officials who discount the thimerosal theory were unwilling to be interviewed for this book (or prohibited from speaking by superiors)," Kirby writes. "Readers are invited to reach their own conclusions on the evidence."

On a second level, "Evidence of Harm" is the inspiring story of a handful of parents of autistic children challenging the powers-that-be with evidence supporting the scientifically plausible theory of a mercury-autism connection and demanding that it be properly investigated. Pursuing the truth, they dare go where establishment business, science and government fear to tread.

The notion that vaccines might cause harm, even to a minority of kids, "threatens the very core of what these bureaucrats believe in," Kirby quotes the father of an autistic child as saying. "The whole apparatus is there to do good. . . .The notion that [vaccinations] are harmful is unthinkable [to them]."

But the parents' fight is more than just another David versus Goliath story. There is a third level on which one can read "Evidence of Harm." Regardless of one's belief or even interest in a mercury-autism connection, "Evidence of Harm" is a devastating picture of ineffectual bureaucratic response to urgent concerns of the very people the system is intended to serve.

So is "Evidence of Harm" an objective examination of the mercury-autism connection?

If one expects a balanced view that considers all arguments equally valid, the answer is no. Kirby points out the misrepresentations and overstatements of each side in the debate, but, as he should, he makes no apologies for nor creates camouflaging cover for weak arguments in the name of "balance."

But if one expects, as one should, that the author has unflinchingly followed where the research led and rendered an accurate account of what he found, then the answer to the objectivity question is undeniably yes.

"Evidence of Harm" is an important book.

It is an information source for parents with autistic children and for prospective parents concerned not only that their children are vaccinated, but that they are vaccinated safely.

It is an important book for politicians and policy-makers lest they forget that theirs is to protect those who put their trust in them; theirs is not preserving a system at the expense of those the system is meant to serve.

And it is an important book for everyone else, for it reminds us, yet again, that securing individual welfare is not to be found in blind trust of bureaucratic systems — however well-intentioned.

That is my objective opinion.