Wednesday, June 22, 2005

COLUMN -- Don't allow partisanship to muddy autism discussion

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:10 PM |  

NOTE: I'm posting my Pioneer Press column much later than usual today because I've spent the morning responding to email about it. It was picked up by the Schafer Autism Report, a widely distributed autism newsletter. It was not well-received by the parents with autistic children.

As regular readers know, I have very strong opinions about the likelihood of a link between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in childhood vaccines and neurological disorders including autism. I have for some time watched as the issue has become politicized, and I have been frustrated by the cursory, if at all, way the issue has been covered locally. Those latter two sentiments were the genesis for turning the previous post into my weekly Pioneer Press column.

Of the emails I’ve received, many are vulgarly angry with me. Most are of the mind that Robert Kennedy’s entry into the autism fray is not a partisan signal. They are glad to have his voice. They see good things happening because a Kennedy is speaking up, however stridently. I’ll look at some specific objections in later posts. Below is column from the Pioneer Press.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

I have been afraid of this for some time now — the politicizing of the medical controversy over the mercury-based vaccine additive thimerosal and its connection to autism. Last week "Rolling Stone" and simultaneously published a slap-upside-the-head article, "Deadly Immunity," by Robert Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy leads, "When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government rushed to conceal the data — and to prevent parents from suing drug companies for their role in the epidemic."

Kennedy's inflammatory prose might grab media attention — the media understand political scandal better than biochemistry — but it also considerably degrades the thimerosal discussion. Worst case, Kennedy's tirade confirms a public consensus that "desperate" parents behind the "vaccine scare" are simply looking for someone to blame for their children's misfortune.

That's more than unfortunate, it's tragic.

The parents' motivation is neither greed nor vengeance. Their motivation is a need to know what happened to their children and prevent it from happening to others. To that end, the autism discussion must first and foremost focus on science.

Instead of making the scientific case, Kennedy goes for the political jugular. Absent from his conspiracy theory piece is any of the sound, significant scientific evidence supporting the link between thimerosal in childhood vaccines and neurological dysfunction.

As a public health story, the growing body of evidence supporting a connection between childhood vaccines and the incredible increase in cases of autism — one case per 166 live births — is an underreported story. For the most part, the media don't want to touch it, and when they do, it is only to report the controversy, not pursue the truth.

Having virtually wiped out deadly childhood diseases, the National Immunization Program is such a sacred cow that it is inconceivable it might have damaged a generation of American children on an epidemic scale. It's OK for tough reporting on a politically correct story like the AIDS crisis, but no responsible media outlet wants to be perceived on the wrong side of universal immunization — even if that's where good science leads.

Complex science doesn't survive in the political arena of sound bites and partisanship, where reputations are devoured to discredit both good science and dedicated public service. All the cumulative science that is the "evidence of harm" from thimerosal becomes the collateral damage of political carnage.

Nonetheless, "responsible" media abdicate ongoing autism coverage to blogs, radio and television personalities such as Don Imus and Montel Williams, and political partisans such as Kennedy.

The political significance of Kennedy's entry into the fray is that he is the first major Democratic name to resolve the liberal cognitive dissonance between antagonism toward President Bush and blind allegiance to government health care.
The thimerosal issue can embarrass Bush. He has backed off a written campaign promise to support removal of thimerosal from vaccines.

Bush's family has close personal and financial ties to thimerosal patent originator Eli Lilly & Co. A number of people with strong pharmaceutical industry connections hold key Bush administration positions.

The irony is, Kennedy's conspiracy theory emphasis also raises bothersome questions about the credibility of the National Immunization Program — today and in the era of Hillary Clinton's Vaccines for Children program. It strikes at the heart of liberal faith that government can effectively and efficiently coordinate national health care.

Another irony: So far most support for the thimerosal connection to autism has come from the conservative media and conservative members of Congress. If Kennedy's effort politicizes the issue to the point where conservatives jump ship to defend the administration, the real losers are going to be parents and their autistic children.

The outcome of a political charge led by liberals is demonization of vaccine manufacturers, more government oversight and more regulation, more centralization and more bureaucratic structure. Inherent bureaucratic indifference, not, as Kennedy implies, greed and malicious individual motivation, is the cause of today's autism crisis.

The thimerosal controversy is not as simple as Kennedy would make it nor as sexy as the press would like it to play. It doesn't naturally fall into a neat political package. Covering it requires investigation and a conclusion, not merely reporting with objective indifference.

The thimerosal connection to autism is first about science. A responsible media should not let bureaucrats, politicians and even parents of autistic children, frustrated as they might be by bureaucratic indifference, forget that.