Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Raising more Hull

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:01 PM |  

Today via email I received a note from the father I quoted in my February 9th vaccine column. Apparently, he was offended by State Epidemiologist Dr. Harry Hull’s OP-ED piece critical of my columns on the possible connection between mercury in childhood vaccines and autism. He left Dr. Hull a voice mail about the piece. Dr. Hull responded with a very polite email. I am sure that Dr. Hull did not mean anything offensive to parents of autistic children, as he notes in his email. His OP-ED comments were directed at me.

I’ve already responded to Dr. Hull’s comments here. Apparently he hasn’t seen them, for in his email to the father, he speculates that I must have based my research on a single book. He suggests that I ought to have done a more "thorough" job of research.

I find that comment a little disconcerting given that in support of his position that there is no connection between thimerosal and autism he cites to this father of an autistic daughter the Sunday Pioneer Press article “Study: Autistic children lack antioxidant” (which I have already discussed here) as “another possible cause of autism.”

Had a layman, or even a pediatrician whose practice keeps him too busy to keep current on all the latest literature, made that observation, it might be understandable. But one would think the head of a state public health agency preaching thoroughness, might also practice it.

After some “thorough” research (the article read like it was edited so I Googled the source), I found that the Pioneer Press version edited out a key paragraph of the original story --
The finding is suggestive, several experts said, because glutathione also is crucial for neutralizing toxic heavy metals such as mercury, which is found in food, the air and, at one time, a vaccine preservative called thimerosal.
Wait a minute. Dr. Hull is the state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. Is it unreasonable to expect that he might have been able to make that connection even considering the edited paragraph? If not, shouldn’t his own “thorough” research into the causes of autism started a bell ringing somewhere? A number of existing studies of autistic children have noted a lack of glutathione. Less-than-thorough I knew that. I recieved half-a-dozen emails from parents around the country pointing me to various articles and studies to that effect.

What’s significant about the new study is that it indicates a genetic cause for deficiency in this anti-oxidant that enables excretion of heavy metals, notably mercury.

I did note that Dr. Hull is an epidemiologist, right? Well, then might not he conjecture that the new study, in fact, lends credence to the mercury/autism connection? At the least, it's suggestive of the need to reevaluate past epidemological studies.

A major argument used by people like Dr. Hull is that no large-scale epidemiological study has shown a statistically valid link between vaccinations and autism. However, if the new study is valid (Jill James et. al. available on the Internet), then all those large-scale studies have a fatal flaw; they necessarily assume that all children in the studies are genetically equivalent in the ability to excrete mercury. That it appears is not the case.

Here’s the point. In all of this there are a great number of unknowns. The new study might not be valid. There may be additional unrecognized genetic and environmental factors. The analysis of the connection might be flawed. But the evidence is significant enough, the harm is significant enough, the numbers being harmed are significant enough (1 damaged child in 166 live births), that government agencies, like that overseen by Dr. Hull, ought to be doing more than demonizing the people that are asking legitimate questions about vaccine safety based on sound science.

Dr. Hull accuses me of not doing thorough research. That’s a criticism I might accept from some of the parents who have spent years juggling care of autistic children with researching the complexities of biochemistry, but I won’t accept it from a health care professional that uses a truncated newspaper article as “scientific” support for his position.

I would expect a health care professional to be a little more (dare I say) “thorough” before dispensing information to a concerned parent of an autistic child. I would ask -- who is it that is doing a “disservice” to the public?