Thursday, May 26, 2005

David Kirby's book promotion in the Twin Cities

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:18 PM |  

A few observations from David Kirby's stop in the Twin Cities to promote his book "Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A Medical Controversy."

It’s important to note that in presenting his material Kirby makes a repeated effort to stress two things.

First, he is not presenting “proof” of harm from mercury in vaccines, but “evidence” of harm. Kirby constantly reminds his audience that as a journalist, his job is not to answer scientific questions, but to raise them. One of his objectives is to spur government research to provide a definitive answer to the question. He makes the case that there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting a mercury/autism connection. That and the fact that government authorities often refused to be interviewed while he was writing the book, give the book its slant toward there being a connection.

Second, Kirby emphasizes over and over again that neither he nor the people he writes about are anti-vaccine. What he and they want is simple assurance that vaccines are safe and that research is done into some of the controversial biomedical treatments for autism. As Kirby noted, parents, physicians, and public health officials are pretty much flying blind for lack of research and government consistency. Nonetheless, independent research, in the case of one treatment study independently and anonymously funded research, is leading the way.

Most of the technical epidemiological and hard science related to a mercury/autism connection that Kirby discussed can be found in posts on this site. In addition to that information, Kirby offered a couple of unique insights that relate to other discussion taking place on this blog.

Kirby, a self-defined New York liberal, noted that conservative media outlets were more responsive to his book than were the liberal media. For example, while he has done three interviews on local Air America stations, his one national Air America interview was canceled at the last minute, and he has been unable to secure another on any national Air America show. MPR requested that it be removed from Kirby’s mailing list because they only work with “important authors.”

In the Twin Cities, prior to his visit Kirby was interviewed on David Strom’s Taxpayers League Live radio program on AM 1280 "The Patriot." In studio was one of Minnesota’s “Mercury Moms,” the mother of diagnosed “autistic” child, recovering with the help of biomedical treatment for mercury poisoning. Significantly -- she has a Wellstone bumper sticker on her car and has written to Nick Coleman about the autism issue. But it was David Strom that picked up the interview that might help parents of autistic children while Nick worried about a blogger’s sexual preference.

Related to the liberal conservative world view, I posted here the findings of a Pew study that found low-income liberals, far more than low-income conservatives, believe that people do not necessarily get ahead by working hard. Less than half of disadvantaged liberals believe that everyone has the power to succeed.

Of the parents that were at the first Kirby lecture, given the sponsorship of the event which consisted largely of traditionally liberal groups, a good percentage of the audience were political liberals. And if anyone has a right to whine and be pessimistic and make the claim that life has treated them unfairly, it's the parent of an autistic child.

However, these people were certainly not the pessimistic liberals the Pew study described. Even parents with seriously ill children were upbeat and enthused about Kirby’s appearance and their involvement with their children’s treatments. The energy was contagious. Where does it come from?

Might it have something to do with the fact that the government has not only told these parents "We're not going to help you," but it has said "You're nuts, and we're going to get in your way"? What these people have accomplished in terms of elevating their issue and pioneering treatment for their children is nothing short of amazing -- all without government help and in fact with government opposition.

I would make the case that taking their fates and futures into their own hands, regardless of how unfair the fate or how uncertain the future, is what gives these parents the energy they have not simply to exist day-today, but to live positive lives despite their situations. These parents may not love their children more than those of us blessed with healthy kids, but they certainly express it more easily.

A second point Kirby made that I found interesting concerned reaction to his book. He noted that reaction was, generally, extremely positive, for which he was thankful but also disappointed. Although some publications and reviewers savaged the book (some without even reading it), few are willing to come on air and discuss the issue with him. He’s anxious to spark deiscussion, but no one wants to discuss.

Kirby’s stop in the Twin Cities is a case in point.

Today Kirby appeared on Kare11’s morning news show. According to Kirby, the station tried to find someone -- from the Minnesota Health Department, a pediatrician, any medical professional -- to come on the air at the same time. None did. (Developing . . . )

According to some of the parents attending the afternoon lecture -- parents who through their activism are familiar with the state players at the Department of Health -- a "Management Analyst 4" from the Minnesota Department of Health was present. To anyone’s knowledge, no one with a vaccine-related responsibility was present. (Developing . . . )

At his book signing at Bound to Be Read on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, before Kirby presented, someone anonymously placed on chairs set up for his presentation a flyer entitled “A Few Good Questions for David Kirby.” Some might characterized these as “I gotcha” questions, but most were legitimate questions -- if the real intent was to discuss the answers. However, when Kirby asked if the person leaving the flyer were present, no one stepped forward.

The point is, the questions were never intended to be answered, but were there only to induce doubt in the minds of people that had come, many parents or grandparents of autistic children, and discourage them from seeking answers to and possible treatment for the autistic children. One can only surmise that if such action were not taken out of cruelty, its purpose was to preserve the status quo and protect a public health system that itself has worried it was “asleep at the switch.”

Kirby noted that such tactics have not proved unusual on his book tour.

And finally, following the national CDC lead, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a formal warning about David Kirby’s book. The CDC memo listed talking points that health officials might use to refute Kirby’s points. Neither memo recommended that health officials actually read the book and formulate their own opinions.

Kirby often repeated, especially in answering audience questions, that he did not believe there was any kind of organized conspiracy, speculating it is just very hard for people whose intentions were nothing but good to accept that they might be doing harm -- although he did acknowledge that a very few people in high health positions do realize what is going on.

Nonetheless, an oft-cited criticism of parents, researchers and (shock) even journalists looking at this topic is that they are a bunch of conspiracy theory wackos. That’s not the case, but looking at situations that surrounded Kirby’s visit, one at least has to acknowledge that resistance by public health officials to even look at the mercury/autism connection is pretty damn well organized.

A final point -- did I mention that the mercury/vaccine issue might have a significant role in the 2006 off-year elections? That it might determine who is NOT on the 2008 presidential ticket? (Developing . . . )