Anchorage Daily News
Concerns over vaccines leave parents stuck in the middle
Award-winning author of book on vaccines and autism to speak in Anchorage
By DEBRA McKINNEY
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: April 13, 2006)
Twenty-some years ago, autism was relatively rare in this country, affecting one in 10,000 children. Today, one in 166 are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and everyone, from parents to officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wants to know why.
Study after study comes up empty-handed. Even so, some parents and others are convinced they have the answer. They believe a preservative once widely used in vaccines is responsible for this explosion of autism as well as attention deficit disorder and other developmental impairments. That preservative is thimerosal, developed in the 1920s, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration existed, and later grandfathered onto a list of FDA-approved additives without extensive agency testing. And thimerosal, it turns out, is 50 percent mercury, a well-documented neurotoxin.
The medical establishment is adamant there's no science-based connection between mercury and autism and that the benefit of vaccinating children, sparing them from a host of horrible diseases, far outweighs the risks.
This issue, long considered the territory of conspiracy theorists and zealots, has never had a higher profile than now. Nor has the credibility of the CDC been under such attack.
Last week, an advocacy group placed a full-page ad in USA Today accusing the CDC of a cover-up. And some lawmakers have recently taken up the cause, pushing for more studies, more access to data and definitive answers. The medical establishment thought it had provided that answer, in 2004, when the Institute of Medicine released of review of study data showing "no evidence of harm."
BOOK REVIEWS BOTH SIDES
Whether there's something to this or not, now is ripe timing for a visit by David Kirby, author of the provocative New York Times best seller on the topic, "Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy." He'll be speaking in Anchorage on Monday and Tuesday. (See Page D-1 for details.)
Kirby knew nothing of this controversy until a couple of weeks before he became completely immersed in it. A freelance journalist and contributor to The New York Times and other publications, Kirby was researching story ideas to pitch to magazines in November 2002 when he heard about families in Los Angeles who were treating their autistic children with vitamins, special diets and other alternative therapies.
"One of the mothers happened to mention that there was mercury in vaccines and some people thought there might be a connection," he said in a telephone interview from his home in New York. "I really thought that sounded farfetched."
Then a week later, the House of Representatives passed the Homeland Security bill, and that changed his mind.
"That's when everyone found out this rider had been slipped in at the last minute that would have dismissed all lawsuits against Eli Lilly (which developed the additive) and vaccine makers because of a preservative called thimerosal, which is 50 percent mercury.
"That was a big ah-ha moment. The mother in Los Angeles wasn't crazy; there really was mercury in vaccines."
Kirby dug into the matter, thinking he'd be doing a magazine piece centered on the politics behind the issue.
"I wanted to know why someone was so worried about this to go to such extraordinary lengths to protect drug companies from liability," he said.
He quickly realized what he had was a book. Several stories in one, as he sees it.
"There's the human drama and tragedy, because (autism) is a real terrible thing that's happened, that's happening, to families in every community in this country," he said. "And then there's the scientific mystery:Why are we seeing so much more today than we did in the past?
"Then we have the political story, starting with the Homeland Security bill, a political whodunit. And it continues to be an interesting political story about the influence of pharmaceutical money in our system. And then, finally, it's a courtroom drama."
Thimerosal has been used for decades, without much notice, in vaccines and other medical products to prevent contamination. That changed as childhood vaccines were added to the immunization schedule in the late '80s and early '90s. Good for disease prevention.
But as Kirby says in his book, no one bothered to add up the cumulative doses of mercury associated with those vaccines.
"So yes, we've been given mercury in vaccines many, many years," he said. "But we ended up basically tripling the amount of mercury we were giving, and we started giving it much younger -- and, in some cases, prenatally."
Due to public pressure, beginning in 1999, thimerosal was phased out, or reduced to only trace amounts, in childhood vaccines, with the exception of the influenza vaccine. (Parents can request a mercury-free flu shot.) Children born between roughly 1992 and 2002 had the peak exposure, according to Kirby.
Kirby's book has created quite a stir, and last month it received the prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting in the book category.
Judges had this to say about "Evidence of Harm:
"Kirby told the story of stonewalling, denial and cover-up by federal regulators, medical groups and the pharmaceutical industry. And he documents covert efforts by some of those same powerful forces -- along with the U.S. Congress -- to grant blanket immunity for drug companies that put mercury in vaccines. ... Kirby's careful and meticulous reporting is exemplary in its balance, accuracy and documentation."
"Evidence of Harm" is also one of five finalists for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, which honors journalists and their role in "drawing the attention of the public to important current issues."
QUESTION OF BALANCE
Naturally, not everyone is happy with this book.
"I'm sure I'm cursed in some medical circles," Kirby said.
Among other complaints is that it's biased toward the parents' point of view, an emotionally charged one.
Kirby said he tried.
"I started by contacting everyone on the other side -- the FDA, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the drug companies and the IOM. The IOM and CDC responded favorably, agreeing to be interviewed. The AAP turned me down, the FDA and the drug companies as well. And the CDC canceled my interview 20 minutes before our scheduled time, after I had flown all the way down to Atlanta."
" 'Cover-up' is a very loaded word," he said. "I don't use that word. But definitely there's a lack of transparency."
Kirby's visit is sponsored by the Anchorage-based nonprofit Vaccination News, a Web site launched by Sandy Gottstein, known in the vaccine safety movement by her former married name, Sandy Mintz. She first got involved in vaccine issues in 1982.
"I'm a 'take charge of your own health' kind of person," Gottstein said. "And when my first child was born, I just started researching it. I have a background in psychology research, and the more I read, the more concerned I became."
Although her own children were not autistic, she has fought long and hard for informed consent and the right of parents to choose not to vaccinate their children. She has also pushed for more meaningful studies involving kids who have never been vaccinated.
"I truly support informed choice. That means having good information, which we really don't have because proper studies have never been conducted."
Gottstein said she's thrilled to be bringing Kirby here.
"I can't thank him enough for writing this book," she said.
Kirby is grateful to her too.
"I used her Web site extensively as a resource when I wrote the book," he said. "It's probably the most comprehensive daily roundup of what's being reported in the media around the vaccination safety issue."
VALUE OF VACCINATION
Immunization officials here hope this controversy won't make parents afraid to vaccinate their children.
When Dr. Richard Mandsager, director of the Alaska Division of Public Health, first came to Alaska 1985, every day he saw babies and young children suffering meningitis in the pediatrics ward. He has no desire to go back to those times.
Nor does Laurel Wood, Immunization Program director for the Alaska Division of Public Health.
Before the polio vaccine, for instance, as many as 20,000 children developed the crippling disease each year. Now, a case of polio would be extremely rare. There are many more such examples.
"I think the majority of people, particularly in Alaska, where we've seen some of these diseases, are highly supportive of immunization and understand that they have an amazing benefit to our entire way of life," Wood said. "Vaccines have been incredible lifesavers. I think it's important that we remember how incredibly valuable they have been.
"People should not be afraid of vaccines; they should remain fearful of these diseases. They have not gone away. The reason we have not seen a lot of them in the past 20 years is because of vaccines."
If Kirby had children, would he have them vaccinated?
"You don't want your child getting measles or polio or pertussis (whooping cough). They can be very serious, and if you can prevent them, why wouldn't you? That's my own personal opinion.
"We just need to make sure we're vaccinating safely and appropriately and in a way that builds confidence in parents, so they feel good about taking their kids in for vaccinations. But a lack of transparency is not a good way to build confidence. In fact, I think it's the opposite.
"This question is not settled," Kirby added. "It's still very much an open question, and we have to find the answer as soon as possible. Yes or no: Does mercury contribute to autism or not?
"And if it does, we have a lot of work to do in terms of eliminating exposure, developing treatments and trying to help these families financially. And if it doesn't, we have even more work to do. Because then we're back to square one."
Daily News reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAVID KIRBY, journalist and author of "Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy," will talk about his work and sign books from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday at the University of Alaska Anchorage bookstore and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday in Wilda Marston Theater at Loussac Library. Both events are free and open to the public. Kirby also will be the featured speaker at the Downtown Rotary luncheon for members and guests at noon Tuesday. (566-0401)
WEB SITES WITH INFORMATION ON BOTH SIDES OF THE VACCINE MERCURY CONTROVERSY:
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov
Alaska's immunization program: epi.alaska.gov
Sandy Gottstein's Vaccination News: vaccinationnews.com
Author David Kirby's site: evidenceofharm.com
See the controversial ad placed in USA Today by an advocacy group: putchildrenfirst.org