Thursday, August 11, 2005

Thimerosal, vaccines and autism -- Robert Kennedy rides out of the hills and shoots the wounded, again

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:07 PM |  

I’ve posted my review (and Pioneer Press column) of the “Meet the Press” segment featuring Dr. Harvey Fineberg of the Institute of Medicine and David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm discussing the hypothesis that the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal is connected to an increase in diagnosed cases of autism. I have also posted a Pioneer Press column I wrote very critical of Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s Rolling Stone article on this topic.

Once again, this time in a post on, RFK rides out of the hills after the battle and shoots the wounded. He piggybacks on another author’s work with out giving him named credit, way overstates the conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence in that work and uses inflammatory rhetoric that denigrates the evidence he defends.

Although I support the position Kennedy defends, I again want to stress that Kennedy’s rhetoric and reasoning hurts that position in the long term. As a writer that owes much of what I have written on this topic to the persistence of others, I find Kennedy’s consistent lack of crediting others a disingenuous attempt to make himself and his politics the center of the controversy rather than the issue itself.

Kennedy writes --

On Sunday morning's Meet the Press, Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, debated New York Times reporter and author David Kirby about the strength of the science linking the current epidemic of neurological disorders among American children to the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal. The Institute of Medicine as well as the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration base their defense of Thimerosal on four flimsy studies ginned up by the pharmaceutical industry and federal regulators who green-lighted the use of Thimerosal in the first place. Those fraudulent studies deliberately targeted European populations which were exposed to a fraction of the Thimerosal given to American children.
Kennedy’s facts here are essentially correct, but the rhetoric detracts from a reasonable assessment of the studies he questions. The studies are flawed for valid scientific reasons -- some methodological flaws, but more importantly insistence on using this data in the face of new genetic studies that indicate a need to evaluate the validity of epidemiological evidence from what appears to be a genetically diverse base vis a vis the ability to excrete heavy metals. Personnel involved in these studies did have previous connections to the thimerosal issue, but use of words like “fraudulent” and “flimsy” and the implication of intentional misrepresentation of data is way out of line -- especially given Kennedy’s repeated misrepresentations in this post and that Rolling Stone corrected in his article "Deadly Immunity" From Rolling Stone --
NOTE: This story has been updated to correct several inaccuracies in the original, published version. (Lengthy corrections and clarifications follow.)
Kennedy goes on in his Huffinton Post --
If Dr. Fineberg genuinely wants to test his assertions about Thimerosal safety with epidemiological data, he should commission a study comparing American children who were exposed to vaccines to the Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists or others, who, for religious reasons, did not receive Thimerosal-laced vaccines.
Call this a personal or professional bias, but Kennedy makes that paragraph and the next sound like he is proposing a new area of study based on raw data from the Amish community. In fact, he is simply regurgitating analysis done by Dan Olmsted in an excellent series of articles written for United Press International under a series heading “The Age of Autism” (without giving him credit). Olmsted’s research (his own words)--

“ . . . has centered on the Amish to try to determine whether an isolated population in the United States has the same prevalence of autism as the "English," as the Amish call the rest of us. The idea: Because Amish ways are so different -- from what they eat to how they spend their time to the fact that most do not vaccinate their children -- they might offer clues to autism.

That is, it is important to know whether their autism rate is notably different. So far, there is evidence of fewer than 10 Amish with autism; there should be several hundred if the disorder occurs among them at the same 166-1 prevalence as children born in the rest of the population. The Amish have big families, and they should also have autism.
Olmsted’s articles are excellent for the questions they raise, not the answers they provide -- which is what journalism is all about. Olmsted’s articles are another bit that lends credibility to the thimerosal theory, but at the end of the day, they are journalism, not scientific research. Nonetheless, Kennedy, who criticizes government agencies for fraudulent claims concludes --

A recent survey by United Press found that autism is virtually unknown among Pennsylvania's large Amish populations -- a strong indication that vaccines are indeed a principal culprit of the epidemic. Despite the repeated urgings of independent scientists and the families of autistic children, the federal agencies involved have refused to commission such a study and have closed federal vaccine files in order to derail the creation of those studies by outside scientists.
Olmsted’s investigation cannot be portrayed as a strong indication that vaccines are a principal culprit in the rise of diagnosed autism. Other factors other than vaccines might enter into the Amish equation. Olmstead's research is journalism, not science. Its significance lies in the questions it raises that government agencies cannot answer.

And once again, Kennedy skirts the edge of truth when he accuses federal agencies of refusing to conduct such a study. Dan Olmsted asked that question at the recent CDC press conference. The response from the CDC was evasive, but plausible -- from a scientific perspective, it is difficult to isolate a population to achieve scientifically valid results. In this case, I agree there are more pressing biological invesitigations into thimerosal that government ought to be pursuing.

Finally, and most importantly, Kennedy makes a major misrepresentation when he equates such a study with certain closed CDC data files. The closed files (which is a valid issue in another sense) relate to data on adverse reactions to vaccines, including autistic symptoms. This data is not appropriate for conducting a study comparable to Olmsted’s journalistic investigation of the Amish.

Further, in Olmsted’s own words --

My research among the Amish so far does not point a finger at any one cause, but if a much lower prevalence holds up under more scrutiny, it might suggest that something "environmental" -- in the broad sense of coming from outside the body rather than from a solely genetic or metabolic disorder -- could be the decisive trigger in a huge increase in autism cases.
Here, Olmsted is being the ultimate “objective” journalist. He’s looked at the evidence and actually drawn a conclusion, but he’s remained careful not to exceed his evidence. He recognizes that his research doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly doesn’t negate the plausibility of the thimerosal theory and it is another bit of evidence supporting it -- evidence, not proof, of harm.

An idea, unfortunately cannot be responsible for the people that support it. The many valid criticisms of Kennedy’s self-serving, misrepresentation of the thimerosal issue that have and will appear should not be taken as refutation of the hypothesis itself. Kennedy is an unfortunate personification of the straw man those denying neurological damage from thimerosal would have had to invent. As I posted previously, that is more than unfortunate. It is tragic.