"My heart goes out to every parent of an autistic child, but blaming vaccinations isn't going to help." Salon readers debate the use of mercury-based preservative thimerosal in vaccines.

Published June 17, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read "Deadly Immunity," by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and "The World Just Fell Out From Under Me," by Julia Scott.]

We need to put the supposed thimerosal-autism link into perspective. As childhood deaths from measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, polio, hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and Haemophilus influenzae type B decrease, fear of side effects from vaccination increases. Over the years a large number of illnesses and conditions have been credited to immunizations because of timing. Pretty nearly anything that can be diagnosed in children has been linked to immunizations because people can't help thinking that events that happen around the same time must be related. But a temporal relationship does not demonstrate causality.

"The fact that Iowa's 700 percent increase in autism began in the 1990s, right after more and more vaccines were added to the children's vaccine schedules, is solid evidence alone," says state Sen. Ken Veenstra. But Veenstra is wrong. That isn't evidence. That isn't anything but coincidence. The 1990s also saw a sharp increase in the use of car seats for children, but no one is blaming them. A 700 percent increase in autism, or any other diagnosis, is much more likely to indicate a growing awareness of a possible diagnosis, rather than an actual increase in patients suffering particular symptoms. And if Veenstra cared to do a little bit of research, he would see that the less specific diagnosis of "mental retardation" dropped as sharply as autism increased.

My heart goes out to every parent of an autistic child, but blaming vaccinations isn't going to help.

-- Kaethe Douglas

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s piece on the alleged vaccine-autism connection replays the anti-vaccine community's greatest hits and is a retread of an Erin Brockovich wannabe's recent book on the same subject. A secret meeting! To cover up the awful truth! Bloodsucking politicians bribed by Big Pharma! Great story. If only it were true.

Kennedy claims he "read the Simpsonwood transcripts," but since he indiscriminately parrots the rhetoric of the anti-vaccine crowd, I flatly don't believe it. No intelligent person could read that document and not understand that it represents 50 doctorate-level individuals wanting to make sure they are responsibly interpreting data. They were anything but prejudiced against the conclusion that vaccines could cause autism. If anything, they wanted to take every precaution against mistakenly concluding there was no connection. But there is an obvious price for concluding that there is one, and the scientists did not lightly end up on that side of the question.

No amount of squawking over the political angle can cover up the fact that autism has increased in Denmark and Sweden since the discontinuation of thimerosal-containing vaccines there. There is no arguing with the large, statistically sound English studies showing no elevated autism rate in thimerosal-exposed children. Kennedy describes these studies as flawed, but the truth is, they are unimpeachable.

(What about the Geiers, who claim to have found fantastically high rates of autism among children who received thimerosal? Would that be the same Geiers who had never even heard of SAS, a basic tool of statisticians, before encountering it at the CDC? The same ones who print their "work" in vanity press journals and have been roundly debunked by not only the Institute of Medicine but also the American Academy of Pediatrics and other academic researchers? The father who is a gynecologist-geneticist and the son who runs a consulting business helping people sue doctors?)

I usually chuckle when I read a letter to the editor of a newspaper that ends with "Cancel my subscription." What a tantrum-y, impotent gesture. Now that I know Salon lacks standards for verifying the accuracy of its content, though, I realize that it's a waste of bandwidth. I want my money back.

-- Lisa Randall

What has Mr. Kennedy done? Has he relegated himself to the league of crackpots like me who cause most people to look away uncomfortably and then shake their heads at the sadness of my delusions? Or has he used his powerful name and position to shed factual light on a shameful and criminal act of violence perpetrated against our children by the very people who are supposed to protect them?

My son's flu vaccinations contained thimerosal -- a fact I did not know until after his vocabulary disappeared, he stopped smiling and laughing, and his family no longer seemed to have any meaning in his life. Now I now know that testosterone and antibiotics make mercury more harmful to individuals, and that certain individuals are far more susceptible to mercury damage. I also know that, although my son is diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder, a more accurate diagnosis would be mercury poisoning. Parents need to know that, just as their doctors do not warn them of the dangers of thimerosal (and their dentists do not warn them of the dangers of mercury amalgams), so they will not tell them that autism/mercury poisoning is treatable.

-- Anita Kugelstadt

Thank you for publishing that well-researched, yet incredibly depressing, article about the connection between vaccines and autism. I have been trying to avoid reading too much about politics as of late because it usually throws a wet blanket over my day. But Kennedy is my hero and I respect his writing so I decided to risk it and read the article. This is an extremely important issue that I fear will not get the press it deserves because the pharmaceutical companies have deep enough pockets to keep the story out of most national publications (wouldn't want to piss off advertisers).

Very few people take responsibility for their health. They put blind faith in their doctors, the drug companies and the CDC. Though it has been known for many years that there was a potential link between autism and vaccines, and I've been preaching the dangers of this blind faith to my friends who have children, it wasn't until Kennedy's article connected the dots for me that I had a strong enough argument to get them to hear my warnings. Now I can plunk this article down in front of them and give them more solid proof than just the word of some "granola-eatin' hippie."

-- Dena Rissman

RFK Jr. is justified in his concern about mercury toxicity. However, he does a disservice to autistic citizens by relying on an insular circle of informants directly involved in a well-funded P.R. campaign designed not only to convince the world that thimerosal should be removed from vaccines administered to children and pregnant women, but also that most autistic people are "victims of poisoning" and in need of detoxification procedures. Many participants in this campaign have either a financial interest or emotional investment in public acceptance of this highly debatable assertion, and no fewer "conflicts of interest" than anyone else.

There are many whose lives are affected by autism whose experience includes evidence that autistic traits run in families, and no evidence of vaccine damage. Many have also have recognized their own autism in adulthood. While some have been diagnosed, others have no need for professional evaluation, yet benefit from understanding how their life experience has been shaped by their autism. Autistic cognitive differences persist over the lifespan, into maturity, even after resolution of health problems that may significantly impair a person's functioning.

Kennedy quotes Boyd Haley's oft-repeated sound bite, "If the epidemic is truly an artifact of poor diagnosis, then where are all the 20-year-old autistics?" In fact, Professor Haley knows that there are plenty out there, but acknowledging their existence or the legitimacy of their claims that they're just as autistic as the children he has met would contradict his misconception that autism did not even exist before major vaccination programs. He corresponded with many autistic adults after I initiated The Petition to Defend the Dignity of Autistic Citizens, protesting his coinage and use of sensationalistic terms to describe autism. The petition bears 677 signatures from autistic citizens, families, friends, researchers, service providers and others from around the world. It remains online and continues to gain signatures from those who disagree with his rationalization that degrading descriptions of autistic children are appropriate to employ in order to raise public awareness about the dangers of mercury.

It is disrespectful to automatically discredit those who seek to discuss disability issues publicly but who are unwilling to participate in games of medical show-and-tell, or to publicly portray their lives in devastating terms, or to agree that they or their family members are poisoned and in need of detoxification. Nonetheless, autistic citizens who dispute the conclusions and tactics of autism-equals-poisoning crusaders are commonly met with demands to produce diagnostic documentation, accusations that they are "pseudo-autistics," and outright contempt. Dissenting parents have been called "in denial," "clueless," "ignorant," and other such insults. I have had a complete stranger offer to pay for hair tests for my children in order to disprove his suspicions that they are somehow "toxic," simply because I publicly stated my concerns in an open letter documenting the nasty side of the autism-equals-poisoning P.R. juggernaut, a side of which Mr. Kennedy must either be unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge.

-- Kathleen Seidel

I am the father of a loving 9-year-old autistic boy. My wife and I found out firsthand about the legislation added to the Homeland Security bill, as we had sought legal counsel against the vaccine manufacturers long before the bill was passed. After the bill was passed we were advised of the rider by our legal counsel and told that they could no longer pursue the case. My wife and I had done a lot of research on the subject before going forward with the suit, wanting only for our son to have some restitution. He is making some progress, but it will be a lifetime battle for him. I just wish someone would step up and take responsibility on this issue. Thanks again to Mr. Kennedy for his work on the subject.

-- Neil Waltz

Shame on Salon for publishing such poorly researched articles about the supposed dangers of thimerosal, a preservative that was present in certain vaccines until its use was largely discontinued in 1999.

In the past five years, hundreds of studies have been done by independent researchers looking for a correlation between vaccines, thimerosal and neurologic disorders such as autism. The studies have repeatedly failed to find any such link. However, the media neglects to report this and instead latches on to one study performed in 2003 that did find a statistical correlation between thimerosal and autism. This is a grave disservice to the general population, because many fail to understand that the key in determining the validity of a research study is in repeatability of the results. The results of the 2003 study have never been repeated. Additionally, on closer examination, the 2003 study was found to have many design flaws, which call into question the validity of the results.

Furthermore, the finding of a correlation does not imply causality. What if I made the sweeping statement that anyone who ever ate bread was going to die? The statement is true, because everyone is going to die at some point. But does this mean that they died because of the fact that they ate bread? Of course not! Similarly, stating that nearly 99 percent of children with autism were vaccinated at some point in their lives is meaningless, because nearly 99 percent of all children in this country are given a vaccine at some point in their lives.

The question that remains on the minds of many is that if thimerosal represented no health threat, why did the CDC and the FDA recommend its removal? Simply put, it was removed to appease the public. It is far easier to remove the preservative than it is to risk the health of thousands of children whose well-intentioned parents opt not to get them vaccinated. Why risk the health of these children, and indeed the health of the general population, when the preservative could easily be removed?

The sad thing about autism is that causative agents remain elusive, and parents of autistic children are looking desperately for a cause in hopes of finding an effective treatment. But looking to thimerosal is a waste of resources. There is no link.

-- Erin C. Amerman

Mr. Kennedy's article, however well intentioned, will ultimately lead to more and more parents refusing to get their kids immunized, and that hurts all children. My son has received his immunizations, but that doesn't give him 100 percent protection. If he comes in contact with one of these unvaccinated kids who are carrying measles or hepatitis B or mumps, he still stands a chance of contracting these deadly diseases. The only way to ensure total protection is to have everyone be immune. It is profoundly immoral to further scare parents away from immunizing their children.

Mr. Kennedy fails to mention (except fleetingly) that very few vaccines now contain thimerosal. He should say that loudly and clearly. He should stress that the diseases these vaccines prevent are monstrous and are known to be fatal to children and adults. If thimerosal is proven to be the cause of every single case of autism in the United States (as the article clearly implies), that will be horrible -- but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is dangerous to public health to engage in this sort of conspiracy-theory-mongering.

-- Matt McLaughlin

Lujene Clark agonizes over her son's vaccines -- but did she ever feed him a tuna fish sandwich? How much tuna, shark and swordfish did she eat before she was pregnant? Have they ever spent time near a coal-fired plant? Unfortunately, there are plenty of environmental sources of mercury that could dwarf the content of vaccines.

It is possible that mercury is a catalyst for autism -- but if vaccines are responsible we should be seeing the autism rates go down, since it has been removed from vaccines in the United States and elsewhere. Meanwhile, it's also possible that some other environmental toxin or virus is the catalyst.

Humans grab for answers, especially when faced with tragedy. And it's horrible for parents who must figure out how to get the special therapies for their kids and how to care for them in a country where they'll lose their health insurance if they have to leave their jobs, and where many of the most promising therapies have to be paid out of pocket. However, I think the obsession with vaccines is a blind alley -- one that steals resources and energy from other research that could be more fruitful.

I'm disappointed that Salon would carry three such biased articles without addressing other possible causes for this horrible syndrome.

-- Elaine Lindelef

I have a 10-month-old son. My wife and I read up on the mercury issue before his vaccinations. While remaining skeptical, the CDC's public statement on its Web site about the preservative made us decide that it was prudent to not allow him to be vaccinated or injected with anything containing thimerosal. Our pediatrician had the same reaction: no smoking gun, but a prudent move in case one materializes -- especially since all injections our son needs are available without thimerosal.

-- Glenn Fleishman

By Salon Staff

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