More readers sound off on the controversial link between mercury and autism. Plus: High fives for Sen. Durbin's comparison of Gitmo to Soviet gulags.

By Salon Staff
Published June 18, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read "Deadly Immunity," by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and responses from Salon readers.]

It amazes me that readers found Mr. Kennedy's article not well researched, dismissed its findings, and even suggest that it will cause people to not vaccinate their children. Did we read the same article? Because I came away with a different perspective.

I did not come away with the idea that I should forgo vaccinating my child when he or she is born. I got the clear impression that Mr. Kennedy does not want that to be the outcome. He rightly points out that if drug companies and the government agencies assigned to protect our health do not do all they can to make childhood vaccines safe, it is their actions that will cause people to mistrust vaccinations, not the actions of those who bring such lapses to light.

Mercury exposure is bad for the health of our children no matter what one believes about the link to autism. We should be doing all we can to decrease the risks to our children's health and not blindly dismiss people who bring up such risks as being crackpots or misguided. It doesn't hurt to be prudent to ask about thimerosal. The more information we have, the better off we are to make an informed choice. Unfortunately, many parents did not have that choice and many parents in Third World nations still do not. That's what Mr. Kennedy's article rightly points out.

-- Sara Ellman

Thank you very much for an article to balance the claims by the government and the pharmaceutical industry that thimerosal is a harmless preservative. As a professional working with children with autism and a family member of multiple people with autism spectrum disorders, I have been waiting a long time for a respectable source to cover this topic. I do not feel by any means that vaccines are the only cause of autism, but they must certainly play a part.

The vast majority of families I have interacted with over the last eight years have stories of the changes they noticed in their toddlers, starting with vaccinations. Part of me understands the government's assertion that thimerosal is not to blame for the autism epidemic our country is facing. The public health crisis we could all face if everyone decided to stop vaccinating is much worse than what we face in the fight against autism.

I do, however, believe that the government, pharmaceutical companies and physicians in this country need to collaborate to develop a more sensible vaccine schedule. Combination vaccines that have become the preference due to managed-care influences are harmful to the developing nervous systems of children. I feel that these have been developed and promoted because they cost less, not because they are beneficial.

-- Erin Shane

Whether there's a "well-funded" P.R. campaign to promote the linkage of thimerosal and autism or not, isn't it common sense that mercury should not be in anything injected into children?

-- Betsy Burtner

I have just finished reading this alarmist article. It is, of course, impossible for me to comment on the actual articles and data that Mr. Kennedy refers to. However, I can refer both you and him to an unbiased, evidence-based site, Bandolier, where you will find a comprehensive review of all the factors that have been suggested as being responsible for the rise in autism rates in the last 30 years or so. In summary, there is not a scrap of evidence to show that thimerosal or any vaccine is responsible. Indeed, the data shows that autism rates continued unchanged after thimerosal was discontinued in Denmark. Without trying to make a case for Big Pharma, I think we forget the ravages of uncontrolled polio, measles, rubella and mumps in the days before immunization. Baseless fear-mongering about childhood immunization does no one any favors.

-- Robert Barkwell

Thank you for furnishing us with the original documents concerning thimerosal. I devoured the transcript of the Simpsonwood conference and urge anyone interested in this issue to take the time to read it. My reading of it is quite different from that in your article. It is a tribute to the kind of service you provide your readers that we can review original documents and form our own conclusions. Many thanks.

-- Seth A. Davis

The letters in response to your investigative package on the thimerosal-autism connection reflect the very deep and emotional divides that have defined this issue since its first appearance on a somewhat broader public stage in the late 1990s. As the father of an autistic child it is a rancor I am more than familiar with.

The problem with any discussion on this issue is that neither side can even agree on basic facts. Has there really been an increase in autism, or are these larger numbers the results of better diagnosis and an increased use of autism as a diagnostic code? Is there a relationship between thimerosal exposure and a diagnosis of autism? Some data analysis has been shown to support a relationship, while other analysis indicates there is none. Accusations of conflicts of interest, disingenuous motives, and disposal of inconvenient facts abound.

I believe that both sides are sincere in their beliefs. The thimerosal people are genuinely concerned that a terrible misstep in public health policy has occurred. The more virulent critics on this side believe that the mistake has been complicated by a deliberate attempt by those with a vested interest to suppress this information.

Those who do not subscribe to this theory are concerned that support of what is, in their minds, a discredited theory will sow much greater harm among the nation's children by suppressing inoculation rates, causing deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases. The more virulent among them believe the "merc" marauders are simply trying to find a culprit, any culprit, to blame for their children's illnesses and to wrest substantial financial compensation for their troubles.

There are devastating consequences as a result of either "truth." To date, this is a fight between groups that are highly invested in the outcome. It doesn't matter which statistics, facts or results from experiments are published; neither side is going to accept an outcome that does not favor their point of view. There will be never-ending charges of conflicts of interest, faulty methodologies and bad faith.

But this question is not the sole concern of those who are presently in this fight. It is an issue that has the potential to affect literally every child born in America from this date forward.

I personally believe that the rise in autism in the 1990s is a real, puzzling and worrisome development. I also believe that, while not yet proven, the potential relationship between the use of thimerosal and the rise in autism diagnoses is suspect enough to warrant open and independent investigation. I hope the effect of Robert Kennedy Jr.'s article and the work of others in this vein is to bring this debate out into the public square so that we it might get the independent, transparent examination it deserves.

-- Martin Bounds

[Read "Durbin Takes Gitmo Head On," in War Room.]

Many commentators have weighed in on Sen. Durbin's recent comments regarding U.S. actions at Guantánamo Bay. Some of them seem to understand the struggle of balancing the need for information with the need to retain the right to call ourselves civilized. But others seem to insist that, when weighing it out, it's better to err on the side of hypocrisy: that the ends justify the means so long as we're at war and so long as we don't look too closely at those means.

We're at war because of a clash of cultures. One culture believes that suicide missions (whether walking into a group of people with a bomb around your waist or flying a plane into an office building) are an acceptable means of accomplishing their goal of driving the "infidels" from their lands. The other culture believes that there is a point at which the ends do not justify the means. We generally at least play lip-service to the idea that we are members of the latter culture. History, however, teaches us that this is not necessarily the case. We remain the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons. We believed that ending the war in the Pacific was an important enough "end" to justify unleashing the horrific power of the atom. Some may argue that the only reason we decided that atomic weapons should no longer be used was that our enemies acquired them.

Today, Americans are indeed torturing prisoners at Gitmo and at other, yet-to-be-revealed locations around the world. Some suggest that because the methods of torture we are using aren't quite as bad as those used by other regimes, we are somehow less culpable. This is a fallacy, a mere quibbling over details. You cannot be a minor torturer any more than you can be a little bit pregnant.

Durbin is being criticized for comparing us with repressive regimes of the past that used torture as a political tool. Some say his comparison fails because we're not as bad as all that -- yet we are indeed using torture as a tool. I, and very many others, would prefer that we not be torturers at all.

If a culture wishes to claim moral superiority, it must remain morally superior in all its words and deeds, or its claim is hollow.

It's not a question of having "the stomach" for it or not. It's a question of having the moral strength to remain above using torture, despite the temptation of expediency. (We'll leave for another time the huge amount of evidence suggesting that torture is a mostly ineffective means of getting information.) There are other ways to get the intelligence we need to protect ourselves. Those ways take time, and they require that we reinvest in human intelligence: acquiring on-the-ground, detailed knowledge of the other culture and their languages and habits. Taking a shortcut by way of using torture is not OK. It is a road to our ruin.

-- Tim Howe

Salon Staff

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