Monday, June 20, 2005

Mercury, autism and childhood vaccine issue becomes political

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:39 AM |  

I was afraid of this -- the politicizing of the link between autism and childhood vaccinations. Case in point -- my good friend Captain Ed writes today about the “pseudoscientific” link between autism and thimerosal in children’s vaccines.

ABC plans to broadcast an interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr on the supposed link between autism and thimerosal in children's vaccines. Salon and Rolling Stone paired up to run an article on this subject earlier called Deadly Immunity, which advocates the fear-mongering about the supposed dangers of life-saving vaccinations. The blog Respectful Insolence takes Salon, Rolling Stone, and Kennedy apart over the biased presentation and the scientific ignorance displayed in the article.
Describing Kennedy's article as "pseudoscience" is simplistic at best. When science enters into the political arena of sound bites and partisanship, it naturally degenerates rather quickly into "pseudoscience." Reputations are sullied to discredit good science and dedicated public service. Problems inherent in bureaucracy that have festered over decades are laid at the feet of currently elected officials. And all the good work that created visibility for the thimerosal issue is reduced to fodder for political advantage.

Politics clouds the issue, but it doesn't alter underlying truths, nor does it make the real issues go away. Dismissing Kennedy and others with the "pseudosceince" tag is as wrong as over-extending the evidence to draw unwarranted conclusions.

David Kirby, whose book “Evidence of Harm” is the “Silent Spring” of the National Immunization Program, repeatedly made this point during his Twin Cites appearances: The connection between the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal and increased rates of autism has not been proven, but there is sufficient scientific evidence -- epidemiological, theoretical, and practical scientific evidence -- to warrant further official investigation.

Kirby’s disclaimer hasn’t stopped a growing number of articles, like Kennedy’s, that make claims that exceed the evidence and paint all public officials with the brush of corruption. That’s more than unfortunate -- it’s tragic.

It’s tragic because the discussion should be about the affected children. The discussion should be about bureaucratic responsiveness. It should be about the way the government is going to manage the National Immunization Program in the future. Instead it will about who’s to blame and how can the issue be milked for political advantage.

Strip away the sound bites, and here is the crux of the issue --

To prevent bacteria contamination of vaccines, the mercury-based preservative thimerosal is added to multi-dose vials. Mercury is a known neurotoxin. The amount of mercury in a single shot is relatively small; however the relative toxicity of the mercury depends on the body weight of a child when the shot is given.

Over the decade of the 90s the childhood vaccination schedule was significantly increased and shots were given at a much younger age. Over the same time period, reported cases of autism increased dramatically at a four to one ratio, boys to girls. This increase was more than could be accounted for by better diagnosis changes in definition. According to the CDC, 1 child in 166 live births has autistic symptoms.

Following this observation, theoretical studies were done showing a correlation between autistic symptoms and symptoms of mercury poisoning. Epidemiological studies were done using government data that showed a statistically significant correlation between the amount of mercury delivered through vaccinations and an increased rate of diagnosed autism.

Subsequently, hard science supported the plausibility of a connection between mercury and autism by demonstrating how mercury is absorbed into brain tissue and how it affects nervous system development. Studies also found that testosterone enhanced the toxicity of mercury. This research did not address what actually happens when a child is vaccinated. It did, however, establish the plausibility of a mercury connection to autism.

Other researchers have established that children with autistic symptoms lack certain chemical elements that are necessary to remove heavy metals, like mercury, from their bodies. Further research demonstrated that this is a genetic trait.

A significant number of parents have treated their autistic-diagnosed children for mercury poisoning using biomedical approaches and have seen significant reduction in autistic symptoms.

When all this is pulled together, it presents a strong, albeit circumstantial, case that a significant number of individuals cannot excrete mercury from their systems, which causes neurological damage that presents itself as autism-like symptoms. When the number of vaccinations was low and given later in childhood, this trait was not evident. As the number of vaccinations increased and the age of vaccination decreased, more children reached a “tipping point” where damage and symptoms occurred.

The policy implication is not stopping vaccinations, but acknowledging that one vaccination schedule does not fit all. It requires an examination of whether or not, independent of the autism question, it makes sense to inject newborn children with a neurotoxin. It raises questions about government responsiveness to legitimate concerns. This is my issue with Dr. Harry Hull of the Minnesota Department of Health, who opts for policy consistency rather than looking at new research.

It’s failure on the part of the bureaucracy -- both government and pharmaceutical companies -- to even consider policy questions or attach any credibility to the growing evidence of harm that has brought us to the political flashpoint.

Kennedy’s entry into the fray only the tip of political iceberg. This from the New York Daily News--
Autism parents plan campaign against W

A coalition of parents with autistic children is launching a stinging lobbying campaign against President Bush today, accusing him of reneging on a campaign-trail promise to ban mercury from vaccines. The group, Unlocking Autism, will deliver letters to the White House and Capitol Hill, urging Bush and lawmakers to prohibit use of Thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that contains mercury.
On June 7, Unlocking Autism sent out an email to its “calling network,” which Unlocking Autism’s Shelley Reynolds described to me as an “old-fashioned calling tree” that ultimately reaches between 60 and 70 thousand people across the country. The email provided phone and fax numbers for the Capitol Hill Operator, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Laura Bush’s office number with the charge to “call as often as you like.” According to a email put out by the group --
Yesterday was just fabulous. The UA/NVIC ad campaign was delivered to every member of Congress and the Senate. The packets were distributed at the National Vaccine Advisory Committee meeting and we told them that parents would continue calling and fighting for this until the mercury was removed from vaccines. We received a phone call last night from an autism community leader that informed us that the White House had contacted him and asked him to persuade us to stop interfering with the White House. He said that they asked us to direct calls to the comment line. We told that leader that we will not allow parents comments to be diverted to a recording where the can be ticked off as a piece of data and then deleted.
Think that’s gutsy for a group of parents --
We called the White House this morning and told them that we were making a decision about whether or not parents should continue contacting the White House today. We told them to get back with us with a decision maker by 8:30am central time. No one called us back. They apparently need to hear from you all again.
Numbers were provided for Carl Rove, White House Communications Director Nicole Devonish, Claude Allen in White House Domestic Policy and Andrew Card.

These folks aren’t about to be deterred.

Politically, this issue is a potential embarrassment for the Bush Administration. Circumstantially, the Bush family has financial ties to Eli Lilly Company, the patent originator of thimerosal. Several pharmaceutical and ex-pharmaceutical executives hold key positions in the Bush Administration, including homeland security. Sen. Bill Frist is one of the black hats on this issue, pushing legislation, including a section of the Homeland Security Act, to absolve Lilly of any future liability for thimerosal-caused injuries.

During the fall Presidential campaign, Unlocking Autism asked both presidential candidates if they supported removal of mercury from all childhood vaccines. President Bush said “yes” in writing, which significantly influenced this voting block, but since the election, the President has refused to take action despite repeated requests from parents.

Unlocking Autism is now using grassroots political muscle to force the president to enforce a 1999 directive to drug companies by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove mercury from all vaccines. They want President Bush to issue an Executive Order to compel drug companies to remove mercury preservatives from vaccines.

The significance of the Kennedy article is that he becomes the first major Democrat (if only in name) to overcome the cognitive dissonance between antagonism toward President Bush and unwavering faith in big government to effectively and efficiently deliver health care. The thimerosal issue can hurt Bush, but if it does, it will also raise significant questions about how the FDA, the CDC and the National Immunization Program did their jobs throughout the 90s, the Clinton years, and the era of Hillary’s Vaccines for Children program.

The irony is, the politicizing of this issue might do more to hurt the National Immunization Program’s credibility than the issues raised by the parents of autistic children, which if addressed when first raised (notably the early 90s by Dr. Maurice Hilleman, America’s most prolific vaccine researcher) would have today been a non-factor politically.

Another irony, as Kirby -- himself a liberal Democrat -- acknowledged (and admitted some surprise) support for the notion that mercury might play a role in autism has come primarily from the conservative media. Nationally Air American declined to interview Kirby and NPR asked to be removed from his mailing list. As noted, liberals have been viewing the issue as an attack on big government health care rather than on the Bush administration.

If Kennedy’s effort, however well-intentioned from the parents point of view, politicizes the issue to the point where conservatives jump ship to defend the administration, the real losers are going to be the parents and the children, the very people wronged in the first place by big government indifference. The likely outcome of politicizing led by liberals will be a lot of “conflict of interest” legislation, more oversight and more regulation.

The issue is not as simple as Kennedy or his critics would make it. My hope is Captain Ed and the other big guys that pick up on this issue as it becomes more political will treat it as a matter of science and not hunker down in political bunkers. It’s not about conservatives and liberals, the Bush administration or suddenly converted Democrats. It’s about big government, regardless of who’s in power. That’s the political issue that needs to be addressed.

I’ve written quite a bit on this issue, which can be found here.