The Age of Autism: Doctors for
Dan Olmsted, United Press International, February 9, 2006
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As doctors and health authorities
fight state bans on mercury in vaccines and keep giving it to
kids and pregnant women, one fact stands out: their certainty.
The image of pediatricians and public officials as valiant
defenders of mercury takes a bit of getting used to, given their
longstanding efforts to keep the toxic element out of our food,
our bodies and the environment.
No reasonable person -- let alone health professional -- would
advocate keeping mercury in childhood vaccines unless they were
absolutely certain it was an exception to this lethal legacy.
That's especially so because vaccines can be made without the
mercury preservative, called thimerosal. You can take it out and
still protect the health of American children through
vaccination, and if you had a shred of doubt about its safety,
surely you would.
If you keep it in, you had better be right.
But what is the real degree of certainty that thimerosal is
safe? Is it absolute? Beyond a reasonable doubt? A preponderance
of the evidence -- the lesser standard that applies in civil
cases but not when someone's freedom (or life) is at stake?
Here's the kind of thing that makes doctors -- most of whom have
no more ability than you or I to investigate the safety of
vaccines for themselves -- feel so certain. It's a paper titled
"Vaccine Safety Controversies and the Future of Vaccination
Programs," and it appears in the November 2005 issue of The
Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.
The authors are from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, which recommends the childhood immunization
schedule; the United Nations World Health Organization, which
oversees the vaccination of tens of millions of people worldwide
every year, and several big universities. The report was
supported by "unrestricted grants from GlaxoSmithKline
Biologicals, Sanofi Pasteur MSD, several universities and other
"Thimerosal has been used for (more than) 60 years in infant
vaccines and in other applications and has not been associated
with adverse health effects in the general population, except
when persons have been exposed to amounts many orders of
magnitude greater than found in vaccines or pharmaceuticals,"
the authors write.
That's a ringing endorsement of safety (whether it's supported
by the data is an issue I'll address in upcoming columns). But
keep reading: "It should also be borne in mind that the risks of
thimerosal-containing vaccines to the fetus, premature infant
and low-weight infant have insufficiently been studied."
Whoa. "Insufficiently studied" -- after more than 60 years of
giving thimerosal to pregnant women and babies of every size and
shape? Nonetheless, the CDC recommends flu shots for pregnant
women and 6-to-23-months-olds and won't recommend
thimerosal-free versions. As a result, most flu shots still
Another new study is condescendingly titled, "When science is
not enough -- a risk/benefit profile of thimerosal-containing
vaccines," by Australians C. John Clements and Peter B. McIntyre
in the journal Expert Opinion on Drug Safety:
"Thimerosal is safe as a vaccine preservative, and should
continue to be used in settings where accessibility and cost
require that multi-dose vials of vaccine are available."
Clements advises the WHO on vaccine policy; McIntyre is director
of Australia's National Center for Immunization Research and
Surveillance of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases.
"The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion rejects the
hypothesis that neurodevelopmental abnormalities are causally
related to the use of thimerosal in vaccines," they point out.
This is the kind of ammunition public health officials and the
American Academy of Pediatrics are firing back at proponents of
mercury bans --"overwhelming" evidence that thimerosal is safe.
In Illinois, the state AAP vigorously opposed the ban.
"Though well intended, these bills do not advance public health
and could inadvertently diminish our state's efforts at fighting
influenza," the AAP said. "Though it is a mercury-containing
compound, thimerosal does not pass from the bloodstream into the
brain to any significant degree."
The state legislators listened politely to that dubious
assertion -- and voted to limit thimerosal in childhood vaccines
anyway. But that was not the last word.
As reported by R. L. Nave in the Illinois Times last month:
"Citing cost concerns and a potential shortfall for the upcoming
flu season, the Illinois Department of Public Health filed for a
12-month exemption to the Mercury-Free Vaccine Act, passed last
summer to limit the use of vaccines containing mercury. However,
child-health-care advocates who lobbied for the bill's passage
are upset by what they believe was a premeditated attempt by
IDPH to circumvent state law."
This is what you call chutzpah -- public health authorities
thwarting the express will of the people, certain that flu shots
will save humanity and mercury never hurt anybody. Does the
governor never fire anyone?
Almost lost in this crossfire is the simple fact that in 1999,
these selfsame health authorities -- the CDC, the Public Health
Service, the pediatricians, the family physicians -- urged drug
companies to remove thimerosal from childhood immunizations in
the United States as soon as possible.
Most childhood vaccines -- in the United States, not overseas --
are now thimerosal-free. But that's hardly a blanket
reassurance, because most flu shots do contain thimerosal.
Yet the CDC is still studying whether thimerosal causes autism.
"We do agree the preponderance of evidence to date suggests
there is no association between thimerosal and autism," CDC
spokesman Glen Nowak told us last month. But he said CDC
Director Dr. Julie Gerberding is committed to exploring all
possibilities until the cause or causes of the disorder are
"Dr. Gerberding has made it clear the CDC has not ruled out
anything as possible causes of autism, including thimerosal,"
Nowak said. "Science is a dynamic process. We have continued to
fund studies to look at the role, if any, of thimerosal."
Given these caveats, what would you do? Well, there are two
maxims of medicine that might apply. "First, do no harm," is the
The second, related concept is the precautionary principle
which, according to wikipedia.org, "is the idea that if the
consequences of an action are unknown, but are judged to have
some potential for major or irreversible negative consequences,
then it is better to avoid that action."
So: Vaccines don't need mercury. Even government experts
acknowledge some possible risks -- to the fetus, for example --
are insufficiently studied 60 years on. A link to autism has not
been ruled out. They're continuing to investigate, as they
But the doctors and their public and private allies are battling
state by state to stop mercury bans, and the CDC won't recommend
a thimerosal-free flu shot for kids and pregnant woman. There's
a phrase for this approach:
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