Vaccines, Autism Won't Die
MSNBC, June 26, 2005
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Wesley Sykes is
in a rage.
Dinner was late. His cup held water, not soda. Strangers had
stolen his mother’s attention all afternoon. It is too much for
the 9-year-old autistic child to bear. He begins to flap his
arms and shriek, working himself into murderous screams that
shatter his suburban home and all hope of a normal life.
His mother, the Rev. Lisa Sykes, has her own rage, against the
demon she blames for Wesley’s condition. It is thimerosal, a
mercury-based preservative she received in a shot during
pregnancy and he received in childhood vaccines.
To the Richmond, Va., pastor, this is a just crusade. To most
scientists, it’s a leap of faith. The levels of mercury in
vaccines — now and in the past — do not cause autism, they
repeatedly have declared.
But not everyone is convinced. Seven years after it began, the
debate over vaccines and autism just won’t die.
No answers for parents
In fact, it appears to be finding new life. Several churches
have started a grassroots movement to rid vaccines of mercury. A
new book on the issue is getting attention. A Kennedy has
entered the fray.
“I think this issue has persisted, despite a boatload of
scientific evidence...because there are no answers for parents
of children with autism,” said Dr. Sharon Humiston, a University
of Rochester pediatrician with a foot in both worlds. She once
worked for the government’s National Immunization Program, and
she has a son whose autism she refuses to blame on vaccines.
Medical controversies flourish when science is lacking. In this
case, both sides have limited science and each criticizes the
Vested interests make it tough to know who to believe. Many
parents have filed lawsuits. Many scientists have ties to
vaccine makers or are selling their expertise in court cases.
Government officials don’t want people to turn away from
vaccines, which have clearly benefitted public health.
Both sides also have credibility problems. Opponents initially
accused the measles vaccine, which never contained the
preservative, of causing autism. The government defended a
troubled pertussis vaccine for more than a decade before
switching to a safer version.
“There’s conflict on all sides,” said David Kirby, author of
“Evidence of Harm,” a book urging more research.
There are two main questions:
Did older vaccines, which contained more thimerosal than the
trace amounts in modern ones, raise the risk of autism?
Are there risks today? Flu vaccine sold in multidose vials still
contains the preservative, and the government urges flu shots
for pregnant women and young children even though not enough
thimerosal-free ones are available, critics say.
Finding answers is tough because autism, a little-understood
developmental disorder, often is diagnosed at the very ages when
children get vaccines.
The stories are remarkably similar: A seemingly normal child
gets a shot and days, weeks or months later, withdraws from the
world, stops speaking, becomes upset at random stimulation such
as a doorbell, and adopts compulsive behaviors like
Parents blame vaccines, but “that doesn’t make it true, no
matter how strongly they believe it,” said Dr. Steve Goodman, a
Johns Hopkins University biostatistician who served on an
Institute of Medicine panel convened last year to take an
independent look at the evidence, which it found unconvincing.
“There doesn’t continue to be scientific argument.”
Beliefs and evidence are things that Sykes, pastor of Richmond’s
Christ United Methodist Church, understands. A soft-spoken,
slender woman, she does not come off as a radical. She has a
degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. The daughter of two
CIA employees, she was brought up to trust the government.
“I dare them to call me hysterical,” she said. “I’m the last one
who should be screaming conspiracy.”
Her son was a normal, active baby. A photo shows Wesley
clutching an Elmo doll, his blue eyes shining and aware. But in
a later photo, taken after autism had set in, Wesley stares
vacantly next to his smiling brother.
Through a local autism group, Sykes heard a doctor was advising
cod liver oil as a treatment. She gave it to Wesley for three
days, then tried an experiment on her son, who had stopped
responding even to screams. “Wesley,” she said. He looked up at
The pastor was sold. She tracked down the doctor, Mary Megson,
who tested Wesley’s blood for minerals. Most were within a
normal range. The line for mercury, however, flowed off the
“That was my baptism into this issue,” Sykes said.
During pregnancy, she had been given a shot to prevent problems
from occurring because she and her baby had a mismatched blood
factor. Now, she learned that the vaccine contained thimerosal,
which is half mercury. The additive was also in most childhood
vaccines, and had been used since the 1930s to prevent bacterial
contamination, especially in multidose vials.
Failure to regulate industry?
By November 1997, Congress was getting complaints. It
ordered the Food and Drug Administration to review mercury in
vaccines, drugs and food. The government and a doctor group said
there was no evidence of harm but that vaccine makers should
move toward eliminating thimerosal to be safe. It wasn’t until
1999 that vaccines with only trace amounts of thimerosal started
to be introduced.
By then, parents had organized. Barbara Loe Fisher, a Virginia
mom who is president of the National Vaccine Information Center,
which had successfully campaigned for the safer pertussis
vaccine, was disturbed federal officials didn’t order thimerosal
“I believe this is a failure to regulate industry, no question,”
She believes a theory supported by many, that a subset of kids
can’t handle mercury because of a genetic or other kind of
predisposition. Some scientists say it might be something else
in the vaccines, such as aluminum, or a hyper-reaction to the
vaccine itself. There’s a 3 percent to 8 percent recurrence rate
of autism in families and the disorder is four times more common
in boys — more suggestion of a genetic link.
A suburban Kansas City family’s experiences suggest such a link.
The afternoon after Kelly Kerns’ 2-month-old daughter Kaylee got
several vaccines was “living hell,” with the child screaming and
arching her back, her mother said.
“I kept telling myself everybody gets vaccinated — this is OK,”
When Kaylee was 18 months old, her white-blonde hair began
falling out and she stopped talking. Meanwhile, Kerns had twin
boys — Andrew and Daniel. When they were 15 months old, they
received three vaccines. A week later, they stopped talking. All
three children have since been diagnosed as autistic.
In June 2000, government officials, scientists and vaccine
makers held an invitation-only meeting at a Georgia retreat to
review safety data the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention had from several large HMOs.
The CDC’s Dr. Tom Verstraeten presented results of a crude
analysis suggesting mercury might be linked to some problems
like language delays. As for autism, “we don’t see much of a
trend except for a slight, but not significant, increase for the
highest exposure,” he said, according to a transcript that
vaccine opponents have posted on the Internet.
Pressed to quantify risks, Verstraeten demurred, saying, “it is
giving more accuracy to this data than what they really have.”
But he admits that when he reviewed others’ studies, he was
“stunned” to see how plausible the argument of harm was,
according to the transcript.
The Institute of Medicine in 2001 also found the theory
“biologically plausible” but said evidence was inadequate to
accept or reject it.
Verstraeten ultimately published a medical journal article
saying there was little evidence of a link. That enraged U.S.
Rep. Dave Weldon, a physician and Republican from Florida, and
U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican whose grandson has
Relying on 'cigarette science'
Fights over limits to damages that families could seek in
lawsuits followed. They drew the attention of Robert Kennedy
Jr., a lawyer and environmentalist.
“I kept getting approached by these mothers of autistic kids who
said the exposures from vaccines dwarfs any exposure we’re
getting from environmental mercury,” he said.
Kennedy, who has pushed the issue on news shows and in an
article in Rolling Stone magazine, said that when he looked at
the government’s evidence it was “laughably flawed.”
“It was clear to me that the reports they’re relying on are
’cigarette science,”’ he said, referring to tobacco companies’
past arguments that there was no proof cigarettes caused cancer.
Even if there were a link, proving vaccines cause autism is
another matter, said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt
University professor and longtime government vaccine adviser.
There are scientific tests of causation: the problem appears
soon after the exposure; the link makes sense biologically; the
risk rises as the dose rises; the link is strong and consistent
rather than weak or occasional; the problem doesn’t occur
without the exposure (a test rarely met).
The final test: the problem or risk falls if the exposure is
discontinued. Studies from England, where thimerosal was
eliminated sooner than in the United States, indicate that
autism rates continue to rise, not decline, even without the
preservative, he said.
Also, he and other scientists point to the case against silicone
breast implants, involving years of court battles. Lawsuits
alleged the implants caused fibromyalgia, based on isolated
cases. “Now all the epidemiology is against it and that has
quietly shifted away,” Schaffner said. “Scientific issues are
not resolved in the courtroom.”
Sykes has another place in mind.
“When the federal institution will not respond appropriately,
take it to the church,” she said.
More battles, more tears
Two weeks ago, she convinced the Virginia Conference of the
United Methodist church — the largest conference in United
Methodism — to pass a resolution calling for the removal of
mercury from vaccines.
It now heads to the Board of Global Ministries and the Board of
Church and Society of the United Methodist Church for
consideration. The same resolution passed Kerns’ East Kansas
Conference of the Methodist Church 650-0 a few weeks ago.
The Virginia Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
has referred the measure to a committee. The Virlina District
Church of the Brethren, which serves parts of Virginia, West
Virginia and North Carolina, is drafting its own version.
Meanwhile at Sykes’ home, the day that melted down with her
son’s screams was turning into night. Wesley has drifted off to
sleep. The phone’s incessant ringing stops. Sykes’ husband,
Seth, returns home from work. Outside, all is quiet except for
the musical tinkling of a passing ice cream truck.
Later, Wesley wakes up and finishes his dinner. He cuddles with
his dad in the recliner and watches TV before going to bed.
There will be more tantrums, more battles, more tears, for
Wesley and his mother.
But for a rare moment, everything seems normal. There is just
sweet, blessed peace.
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