This week, actress Amanda Peet called parents who don't vaccinate their kids "parasites," and then essentially went on to lie when she announced that scientists have concluded there is "no association between autism and vaccines."
Peet saw fit to blast "the media and journalists" and "a few fringe medical groups and parent advocacy groups" for "presenting vaccine safety as a controversy." She thinks the debate, save for a few dangerous holdouts, is over.
I thought that Ms. Peet (and her ill-advised advisors such as Dr. Paul Offit) might want to see from whence these parasitic, fringey parents and doctors have been getting their cues of late.
Here are just a few recent examples:
July 15, 2008 - A workgroup report of the IACC (the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which includes HHS, CDC, NIH and others) says that some members want "specific objectives on vaccine research" included in the new, multimillion-dollar national autism research program, as mandated by Congress in the Combatting Autism Act.
Notes from the meeting indicate that workgroup members want federal researchers to consider "shortfalls" in epidemiological studies cited as proof against a vaccine-autism association (by Offit, Peet, et al); as well as a specific plan "for researching vaccines as a potential cause of autism." The workgroup also says that the final research agenda should "state that the issue is open."
July 14, 2008 - Rep. Brad Miller (R-NC), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, (Committe on Science and Technology) writes to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt to complain that current federal autism research "shows a strong preference to fund genetic-based studies," even though there is, "growing evidence that suggests a wide range of conditions or environmental exposures may play a role" in autism. He cites a recent study on vaccines and monkeys, presented as a poster (unreviewed) at the International Society for Autism Research, which, "suggests that research on primates is about to emerge that will provide additional evidence of environmental contributions to ASD."
Rep. Miller specifically cites the case of Hannah Poling as "just one example that is suggestive of very important lines of inquiry," and he recommends some "very suggestive writings along these lines," such as the April 5, 2008 letter from Terry Poling, (Hannah's mother, an attorney and former nurse) to The New York Times titled, "Vaccines, Autism and Our Daughter, Hannah."
Finally, Rep Miller writes that HHS "has lost much of the public's trust," and urges Mr. Leavitt to form a Secretarial-level Autism Advisory Board to provide public feedback, liaise with parents groups, and "assist in reestablishing the public trust" that Ms. Peet herself said was lagging. Miller recommends tapping groups such as Safe Minds, Generation Rescue, Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Institute for their, "experience evaluating research' and an "in-depth knowledge of the current body of ASD research." All four groups support vaccine-autism research, and thus presumably fall within the rubric of what Ms. Peet terms as "fringe."
May 12, 2008 - Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the NIH and the American Red Cross and current Health Editor of US News & World Report tells CBS News that, "Officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational," and says they "don't want to pursue a hypothesis because that hypothesis could be damaging to the public health community at large by scaring people."
But, unlike Amanda Peet, Dr. Healy believes that, "the public's smarter than that. The public values vaccines. But more importantly, I don't think you should ever turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you're afraid of what it might show."
April 21, 2008 - Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama, speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania, answers a question about autism by saying: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."
April 11, 2008 - The HHS Vaccine Safety Working Group (comprised of the nation's leading vaccine experts) meets to review the CDC's draft research proposal for vaccine safety issues. Among the top vaccine questions that CDC wants answered: "Are neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, clinical outcomes of vaccine injury?" And, "Is immunization associated with increased risk for neurological deterioration in children with mitochondrial dysfunction?"
March 29, 2008 - Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the CDC, speaking about the Hannah Poling case on CNN says: "If a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines, and was pre-disposed with the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage (including) symptoms that have characteristics of autism." And she adds: "I think we have to have an open mind about this." Meanwhile, the CDC website lists autism studies it currently funds on thimerosal and the MMR vaccine.
March 11, 2008 - The CISA Network (Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment), headed by the CDC, receives a report from top researchers at Johns Hopkins University that 30 typically developing children with mitochondrial dysfunction all regressed into autism between 12 and 24 months of life. At least two of them (6%) showed brain damage within one week of receiving simultaneous multiple vaccinations.
Included in this vaccine safety network is the US health insurance industry - which is now being forced by many states to cover autism treatments, and wants to know what possible role vaccines are playing in the neurodevelopmental health of children. A month later, the CISA network announces it has "formed a working group to study methods related to mitochondrial disorders and immunization."
February 25, 2008 - Presidential Candidate Sen. John McCain says at a rally in Texas that "It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates that it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines." McCain notes that there's "divided scientific opinion" on the matter, with "many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that's not the cause of it."
February 22, 2008 - Medical Personnel at HHS concede an autism case filed by the family of Hannah Poling in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, before the claim can go to trial as a "test case" of the theory that thimerosal causes autism. Though portrayed by some (ie, Dr. Offit) as a legal decision, it is in fact a medical decision. HHS doctors admit that the "cause" of Hannah's "autistic encephalopathy" was "vaccine-induced fever and immune stimulation that exceeded metabolic reserves," which exacerbated her underlying mitochondrial dysfunction. At 19 months of age, Hannah was given 5 injections containing nine vaccines.
January, 2008 - Presidential Candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, responding to a questionnaire, says that autism is "epidemic," and that she is, "committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines." When asked if she will support an autism study of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated children, she replies: "Yes. We don't know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism - but we should find out."
So there you have it. Since the beginning of the year, we have heard from:
1) Three United States Senators
2) The next President (and possibly Vice President) of the country
3) The Director of the CDC (and her "open mind")
4) The former head of the NIH and the American Red Cross
5) The Chairman of a House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight
6) A respected Pediatric Neurologist and Resident at Johns Hopkins University Medical School (Dr. Jon Poling)
7) The HHS Vaccine Safety Working Group
8) The CDC's Vaccine Safety Research Agenda authors
9) Medical personnel at the HHS Vaccine Injury Compensation Program
10) The Strategic Planning Workgroup of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee
11) The Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment Network
12) Leading autism researchers at Johns Hopkins University Medical School
13) America's health insurance companies
Virtually all of the above advocate, or have at least considered, exploring the possible links between vaccines and autism.
I am not a parent, and I am not anti-vaccine. But if I were going to listen to experts on this subject, I would be more likely to consult some of these people, rather than a well-meaning but grossly misinformed actress who is guided by a doctor who will likely make money from his own work helping to develop a childhood vaccine.
Ms. Peet apologized for calling parents "parasites," and that's nice. But it is her continued use of the "fringe" label, I believe, that will ultimately come back to bite her the hardest.
The vaccine-autism debate may be over in the firmly closed minds of Peet and Offit, but for serious, rational thinkers such as those listed above, this debate (and the real work that lies ahead) has only just begun.