Washington Post | July 15, 2005
The CDC estimates that between 1 in 500 to 1 in 166 babies in the United States are born with autism, a condition that affects areas of the brain which control verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as social interaction. That's up from 1 in every 10,000 births in the 1980s. For this reason, many health officials characterize autism as a growing epidemic, the exact reasons for its rise so far unknown.
It's also why there is a growing chorus of doctors, health officials, activists and parents of autistic children who believe autism is in fact a man-made disability -- one which government health agencies, in collusion with pharmaceutical companies, knew about, but covered up. If true, as activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote recently in a provocative Rolling Stone article, and "our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry, to poison an entire generation of American children," then "their actions arguably constitute one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine."
No doubt, but Mr. Kennedy's "conspiracy" so far rests on thin evidence, not to mention a certain degree of ideological spin. The alleged culprit in this burgeoning controversy is the vaccine preservative thimerosal -- a mercury-based additive once commonly found in many childhood vaccines. In 2000, the CDC held a conference of top government health scientists and officials to discuss a disturbing study by CDC epidemiologist Tom Verstraeten, which found a statistically significant link between mercury-based vaccines and autism. The conference concluded that further research was needed before the health community could make a determination.
Mr. Kennedy, as well as others, however, see the CDC conference as the beginning of an elaborate cover up to protect the makers of vaccines. On the surface, this is an age-old liberal shibboleth: Allowing the American public to know that their indispensable vaccines are in fact poisonous would be bad for business.
A big problem with this theory is that the CDC did exactly as it promised after the 2000 conference. Studies done in the wake of Mr. Verstraeten's by the National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine have found no evidence that a correlation exists between thimerosal and autism, though a few suggested that further study was needed. European studies have reached similar conclusions. The journal Pediatrics conducted the most recent review of these studies in September 2004 and found that the "studies do not demonstrate a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and Autistic Spectrum Disorder" and that epidemiological studies "that support a link demonstrated significant design flaws that invalidate their conclusions."
This does not get the federal government or "Big Pharma" off the hook, however. As late as 1991, the CDC and FDA were advising parents to increase their child's vaccination regimen, even though the theory that these mercury-base vaccines caused autism had been around for several years. It was also around this time that autism rates began to increase. Mercury itself is a neurotoxin and probably should not be given to infants at all.
But one must avoid passing conclusions on seemingly related incidences, particularly in science. Why, for example, does autism appear in boys four times as frequently as girls? It should also be noted that the term autism today covers a wide spectrum of disabilities, many of which were not diagnosed decades ago.
Today, drug makers have removed thimerosal from many vaccines given to children. There's also a bill in Congress, the Combating Autism Act, sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum and Christopher Dodd, that would increase government resources to better understand autism, because in the end there's much we still don't know. Parents should also be aware that the danger of infectious diseases is still far greater than the danger of autism. Until science has resolved the matter, parents should definitely get vaccinations for their children -- but should also insist that such vaccinations are mercury-free.