Robert F. Kennedy Jr. responds to a reader's scrutiny of key quotations in his article "Deadly Immunity." Plus: Grateful readers thank Kennedy.

Published June 25, 2005 9:59PM (EDT)

[Read "Deadly Immunity," by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.]

The article "Deadly immunity" by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. centers around the June 2000 CDC meeting at Simpsonwood, the transcript of which supposedly reveals that a CDC study shows that thimerosal was the cause of childhood autism. However, many of the central and most damning statements in the article are mischaracterizations of some participants' statements.

The most egregious error occurs in the article's lead-in summary, and again on the first page of the piece. The article lead-in states, in part: "When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government rushed to conceal the data."

And the article elaborates, on Page 1: "According to a CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten, who had analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical records of 100,000 children, a mercury-based preservative in the vaccines -- thimerosal -- appeared to be responsible for a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children."

These two statement are false. Here is the direct quote by Mr. Verstraeten from the transcript of the conference regarding his study's findings on a link between thimerosal and autism (Page 44): Tom Verstraeten: "This is the result for autism, in which we don't see much of a trend except for a slight, but not significant, increase for the highest exposure. The overall test for trend is not statistically significant."

Regardless of the validity of other parts of the article, the primary claim made in the article that the transcripts of the Simpsonwood conference show that Dr. Verstraeten asserted that "thimerosal ... appeared to be responsible for a dramatic increase in autism" is simply false. Not only does Dr. Verstraeten never state that thimerosal is responsible for a "dramatic increase" in the disease as you claim he does, he does not even draw a relationship between thimerosal and a risk factor for autism. To be clear, on the correlation between thimerosal exposure and autism, he states, "The overall test for trend is not statistically significant."

I take issue with other parts of your article as well.

Article, Page 1: "Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study 'should not have been done at all.'"

This quote is erroneous on several levels. First, it says that Dr. Clements 'DECLARED FLATLY that the study 'should not have been done at all.'" This is false; he says (Page 247): " ... PERHAPS this study should not have been done at all." Your intentional deletion of the word "perhaps," which permits your inaccurate characterization of the statement as a "flat declaration," dangerously undermines your credibility.

Further, you truncate the end of Dr. Clements' quote in a way that radically alters its meaning. Here is the full quote (Page 247): John Clements: "And I really want to risk offending everyone in the room by saying that perhaps this study should not have been done at all, BECAUSE THE OUTCOME OF IT COULD HAVE, TO SOME EXTENT, BEEN PREDICTED [emphasis added]..."

You also cut-and-paste other quotes of Dr. Clements in order to create a new stream of speech that never existed. You wrote, "Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization ... warned that the results 'will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled.'"

This joins together two utterances that were actually distinct and separated, and, more perniciously, it also reverses their order of appearance to create the false impression that the second sentence refers to the first. Also, the word "other" is missing in the quote in the article ("used in OTHER ways").

Here's the real quotation from the transcript:

"But there is now the point at which the research results have to be handled [note -- no italics], and even if this committee decides that there is no association and that information gets out, the work has been done and through freedom of information that will be taken by others and will be used in other ways beyond the control of this group."

You may feel that the meaning is unaltered; I feel quite differently. But that's not the point: The question is, why did you feel it necessary to distort the text, rather than letting readers see the unaltered original quotation?

Article, Page 1: "All of the scientific data under discussion, CDC officials repeatedly reminded the participants, was strictly 'embargoed.' There would be no making photocopies of documents, no taking papers with them when they left."

This statement is terribly misleading. Here is the actual quote from the transcript (Page 256): Dr. Bernier: "I don't think we can set a rule here because some people have gotten these documents. For example, some of the manufacturers were privileged to receive this information. It has been important for them to share it within the company with the experts there, so they can review it. Some of you may have questions. You may have been given a copy, but I think if we all just consider this embargoed information, if I can use that term, and very highly protected information, I think that was the best I can offer. If anyone else wants to make a suggestion, but I would say consider it embargoed and protected until it is made public on June 21 and 22 at the ACIP. There is a plan to do that."

There is no explicit prohibition in this passage against making copies or taking papers from the conference. Most importantly is this statement: " ... consider it embargoed and protected UNTIL IT IS MADE PUBLIC ON JUNE 21 and 22 at the ACIP. There is a plan to do that." That planned public release date was a mere two weeks after the conference. This puts the statements regarding embargoing the information in a radically different light than that implied, whereby the government was attempting to permanently conceal the study.

Article, Page 1: "But instead of taking immediate steps to alert the public and rid the vaccine supply of thimerosal, the officials and executives at Simpsonwood spent most of the next two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data." This statement is false. A reading of the transcript proves that almost the entire two days of the conference consisted of the presentation of findings, discussion of the study, and discussion of next steps to investigate the issue further. In fact, the consensus was to perform further research and investigation, not to suppress the results and terminate the line of inquiry.

I do not dispute that some unsettling comments were made at the conference, and the greatest irony is that the results that Dr. Verstraeten presents do implicate thimerosal in several childhood neurological developmental disorders -- but not autism. This is tragic, because your flagrant errors will now have the effect of neutralizing some of the very important information that is coming to light on this issue. The issue under examination is of high importance, and you have now donated ammunition to those that would discredit the anti-immunization crowd. In this case, sadly, you may well deserve discrediting.

-- Daniel Kirchheimer

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. replies:

We published the link to the Simpsonwood transcript, along with my article, so that readers could see the discussion for themselves. Mr. Kirchheimer is entitled to his interpretation. I disagree with it.

My piece didn't state that Tom Verstraeten said he'd found "statistically significant" links between autism and thimerosal exposure at Simpsonwood, but that the Simpsonwood meeting was convened to discuss his earlier research, which did find a link. Verstraeten had been studying the Vaccine Safety Datalink database (compiled by health maintenance organizations to track reports of medical complaints, illnesses and other data related to vaccinations) to see whether there was evidence of a connection between exposure to thimerosal in childhood vaccines and a range of neurological disorders, including autism. Six months prior to Simpsonwood, in December 1999, Verstraeten sent his CDC colleagues findings showing a statistically significant association between thimerosal and many of those disorders, including autism. One Verstraeten e-mail alerting his CDC colleagues to his findings contained the now-infamous subject line, "it just won't go away ..." He attached a summary of data sets showing a troubling 7.62-fold increase in the incidence of autism associated with babies' first Hep B shot. Later, in a February 2000 report, Verstraten found that at 3 months, fully vaccinated infants had received 62.5 micrograms of thimerosal, and their relative risk of autism was 2.48 -- which would be considered a statistically significant association if presented in a court of law.

As my article noted, Verstraeten continued to work on the data, pre- and post-Simpsonwood, and over time the link to autism diminished, mainly because Verstraeten added and subtracted different population groups from his study. However, in the paper he presented at Simpsonwood in June 2000, "Risk of neurological and renal impairment associated with Thimerosal-containing vaccines," he found a statistically significant association between exposure to the mercury-based preservative and a host of problems, including "unspecified developmental delay, tics, speech delay, attention-deficit disorder and neurodevelopmental delay in general." He also found a "slight, but not significant increase" in autism in infants exposed to thimerosal, but he did note at Simpsonwood -- on Page 43 of the transcript -- that the data probably understated the true problem, because many of the children considered in the study were "just not old enough to be diagnosed" (autism is typically not diagnosed until age 3 or 4).

To Mr. Kirchheimer's other points: The way I used the Clements quote did not change its meaning. I regret that two sentences of the quote were inadvertently transposed. The papers discussed at Simpsonwood were clearly embargoed - Verstraeten's paper was stamped "Do not copy or reproduce" on every page - and there's no evidence that the material was actually released two weeks later. Again, it's a matter of interpretation how much of the time spent at Simpsonwood was devoted to advancing scientific inquiry and how much to "handling" Verstraeten's troubling data. History has proven the CDC was more interested in making the data "go away" than getting to the bottom of it.

In fact, Verstraeten himself was troubled by the reaction to his work. In an e-mail to Harvard epidemiologist Phillippe Grandjean a month after the Simpsonwood meeting, he complained: "I have witnessed how many experts,looking at this thimerosal issue, do not seem bothered to compare apples to pears and insist that if nothing is happening in these studies then nothing should be feared of thimerosal. I do not wish to be the advocate of the anti-vaccine lobby and sound like being convinced that thimerosal is or was harmful, but at least I feel we should use sound scientific argumentation and not let our standards be dictated by our desire to disprove an unpleasant theory."

I'm happy that my article has contributed to greater public awareness of what transpired at Simpsonwood and afterward, and I hope the CDC will heed the public's call for more transparency.

-- Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

I want to thank Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for his article and for his courage in pointing out the "moral crisis" our country confronts in the thimerosal/vaccination debacle.

I have two grandchildren, both boys, who have been affected. One, the son of my daughter, has autism. The other, the son of my son, has Asperger's syndrome.

For the past 10 years our entire family has been involved in getting treatment for these children and, thankfully, they are progressing.

Mr. Kennedy will be derided for exposing this travesty against an entire generation. I applaud him and hold him in the highest esteem for taking this on.

Let us support him in this fight for our children and to hold those responsible accountable.

-- Donna Van Boom

I think Mr. Kennedy has neglected his studies on the subject. Have they also investigated to see whether symptoms predate vaccination? This is important because autism spectrum disorders are developmental disorders, often becoming obvious only as a child grows.

Have these folks isolated out such potential causes like genetic predispositions, environmental pollutants, and the changes in diagnostic standards for autism? No, it seems. Diagnostic criteria for this disorder have changed in the last few years as research on higher-functioning versions of the disorder like Asperger's syndrome comes to light.

Also of interest here is the ability of many with high functioning autism to blend into society, however imperfectly, meaning that undiagnosed adults are often invisible to the medical community.

This is scapegoating. It's bad science. It may soothe the hurts of some to believe that somebody's at fault, but I hardly think the one-time doses of a highly diluted toxin can have such profound effects, and not show that toxicity elsewhere among normal children.

-- Stephen Daugherty

Many people I know do not vaccinate their children and their children are healthy. Some of my clients have never been vaccinated and they grew up to be healthy, productive individuals.

My own father never received a vaccination and he has lived a very healthy and productive life. Many of my colleagues do not vaccinate and actually teach the public about the dangers and misconceptions regarding vaccines.

So I have a question. If these people are healthy and productive without vaccines (and from the article, it seems Amish people have healthy, productive children without being vaccinated), what do these so-called scientists think they are protecting children from by giving them vaccines? Are they really necessary? Not according to those who don't receive them.

I mean, if multitudes of individuals are living full, healthy lives without vaccines, what are the vaccines for? Are they even necessary anymore? If there is any danger with them, why are they still in use? What beliefs do people hold onto that makes them so afraid to eliminate this danger from our lives? What is so difficult to see about this? Are these scientists and a majority of our "healthcare professionals" so brainwashed and ignorant that they hold onto beliefs that are obviously flawed?

The vaccine industry and its practices, in my opinion, are the single greatest representation of the principle "We create what we fear." We have been conditioned to live in fear of disease and now are systematically creating disease in the children of this world via vaccines. How sad.

-- Brett V. Franson

I've had it up to here (hold hand a foot above head) with Robert Kennedy. I really do think that Salon should invest in getting a reputable scientist or two to go through his article and correct its many errors and misinterpretations.

But then again, according to him, getting a federal NIH grant somehow means that a scientist is beholden to special interests. If a federally funded mechanism such as the NIH isn't considered neutral, then God help us, the scientists, because I'm not sure how he thinks good research gets funded otherwise.

-- Connie Liu

I am writing to encourage open, evidence-based discussion on the causes of the recent rise in autism.

Thimerosal should be investigated, as well as two other possible culprits: the greatly increased survival of extremely premature infants in the 1990s and the exposure, during this period, of preterm and some fullterm infants to neurotoxic steroid drugs.

Preterm birth itself causes brain abnormalities identical to those seen in autism, schizophrenia and other serious psychiatric disorders. MRI studies show that a majority of very preterm infants (born before 33 weeks of pregnancy) have these abnormalities. Infants born before 26 weeks of pregnancy show a particularly severe pattern of brain damage that worsens as the degree of prematurity increases. Steroid drugs, given pre- and post-natally to prevent or treat lung disorders, have been shown to cause further brain damage.

Steroids have been administered to tens of thousands of preterm infants and "high-risk" full-term infants beginning in the late 1980s, despite a lack of studies to prove safety or efficacy, and despite the known toxic effects of these drugs on the developing brain.

These drugs continue to be widely used in obstetric and newborn care. By conservative estimate, fetal and neonatal exposure to steroids produces over 2500 extra cases of severe nervous system damage to children in the U.S. each year.

As a mother of a prematurely born child with autism, and as a research consultant studying the outcomes of prematurity, I have been struck by the number of preterm and steroid-exposed children now being diagnosed with autism and related psychiatric disorders. I hope researchers, legislators and the general public will look more carefully at preterm birth and steroid exposure as possible contributors, along with thimerosal, to the current autism epidemic.

-- Helen Harrison

I was ready to allow my 1-year-old son to be immunized with vaccines containing mercury. I thought that the fuss about thimerosal was like the hysteria about cancer clusters and power lines: just heartbroken, scientifically illiterate people looking for someone to blame for the sufferings of their loved ones. I trusted the CDC.

Suppose that someone tried to hit my child over the head with a baseball bat. What punishment would I want the law to inflict on that person? What would we as a nation need to do if a group of felons were clubbing hundreds of thousands of children over the head? I think we would at the very least want each of the perpetrators to go to jail for a long time, quite possibly for life. The usual punishments inflicted on white-collar crimes seem utterly inadequate. And the corporations that concealed the toxicity of their vaccines should be shut down: their crimes dwarf those of Arthur Andersen and Enron.

Memo to politicians of both parties: This immense crime has now become my central political concern. And I am sure that tens of millions of people feel the same way I do. We want you to teach the pharmaceutical industry's criminals a lesson. And we insist that the CDC open that database.

-- Matthew Greenfield

I appreciated your article by Robert Kennedy Jr. about the connection between vaccinations and neurological injuries in children. I waited until my son, born in 1993, was over a year old before I began to have him vaccinated because I wanted his immune system to be established.

Little did I know I would have been better off taking our chances with childhood diseases, as did many of our friends who chose not to vaccinate their children, because they believed there was a link between the shots and autism. They didn't know what the link was but the warnings frightened them. I instead listened to my doctor friends who assured me that the fears were groundless and I was protecting my child.

Today my 12-year-old son is undergoing chelation therapy with a medical internist turned naturopath and is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and ADD. His blood levels of mercury are 300 times higher than the 3 percent considered safe for developing brains. He has undergone countless tests, hundreds of hours of speech and occupational therapies, psychiatric visits, hearing problems and surgery as well as auditory processing problems and endures chelation infusions along with oral chelation to leech the mercury out of his brain.

We began the therapies when he was 3 years old. He had had no problems before then and the problems became noticeable after he'd had a series of immunizations prior to entering preschool. Chelation is helping and he begins neurofeedback this summer to help the depressed neurons fire and make connections that have been impossible to date.

Do I think thimerosal is the culprit? You bet I do. I've done exhaustive research on my own and found that thimerosal is nearly 50 percent ethyl mercury, a neurotoxin, and that in two separate periods in the 1990s batches of vaccines were preserved with up to 87 times the FDA guidelines for consumption of mercury from fish. Why? Because it was more cost effective for Merck to issue multidose vials of vaccine and that required more thimerosal to preserve them.

I've been asked to join others in one of the class action lawsuits against the drug companies. Until now I had demurred. However, the evidence is out that the CDC is complicit in the coverup of this crime against humanity and I am joining the thousands of other parents in the lawsuits against Merck (for one) and the CDC.

-- Beth McKinnon

By Salon Staff

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