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CDC Under Siege

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When American scholar Warren Bennis said, "Bureaucracies are beautiful mechanisms for the evasion of responsibilities and guilt," he might well have been speaking of the current state of affairs inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Once revered around the world, hardly a month passes without another news report questioning the credibility, scientific independence, and integrity of the nation's premier health agency.

Over the past four years headlines frequently chronicle a disturbing litany of allegations charging top CDC officials with wasting money on questionable research priorities, public relations stunts, distorting or ignoring health concerns raised by their own scientists, and retaliation against those who object to the censorship of scientific findings.

The past three years have been particularly unpleasant for CDC Director, Dr. Julie Gerberding, but apparently not as bad as she and her managers are making it for many CDC scientists.

In 2005, alarmed at the rapid decline in morale and concerned for the credibility of the agency, five former CDC directors sent Dr. Gerberding a letter complaining that the agency's politicization was jeopardizing its national and international reputation.

You would think criticisms like this would result in a re-evaluation by top CDC officials, but apparently not. The frustration of long time officials was raised again in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) article, "Exodus, Morale Shake CDC" (Sept. 10, 2006). The article quotes Dr. Stephen Cochi, an advisor in the CDC's Global Immunization Division, who said, "The capacity of the CDC to [tackle public health problems] has seriously eroded in a very short time...The American people need to be concerned."

As troubling and often embarrassing revelations continued to plague the CDC, some believed the agency is simply an example of bureaucratic incompetence. Others, inside and out, suggest something far worse. Accusations about manipulation of research data, suppression of safety information, even suggestions of scientific fraud has created a "crisis in confidence" among CDC officials, resulting in scientists leveling harsh criticisms regarding the agency's priorities and asking if its actions, or inactions, are actually putting the public's health at risk.

Chief among the complaints from scientists and citizen's groups has been the way the agency continually disputes, downplays or ignores scientific findings, often from some of their own researchers, and fails to draw any conclusions, or "links," between environmental/industrial pollution and chronic diseases affecting the American public, particularly children.

These criticisms have been voiced for several decades. An example of how the agency can design a study so that it fails to link disease and pollution can be found in the way the CDC investigated the cancer clusters in Fallon, Nevada and Sierra Vista, Arizona. In a 2006 article published in The Tucson Weekly, the CDC's "foot-dragging" and unscientific methods used to investigate the clusters raised serious questions about the study's integrity and the agency's credibility and commitment to protecting the public's health. In describing the CDC's slow reaction to the life and death situations, it is not difficult to see how many would level accusations of "cover-up" to describe the "faulty manner" in which the agency responded to the cluster investigations.

The CDC itself admits the agency repeatedly fails to identify, or connect, environmental chemicals to these clusters. Quoting from the CDC website, "From 1961 to 1982, CDC investigated 108 reported cancer clusters in 29 states and 5 foreign countries...The studies were begun in hopes of identifying a viral cause of cancer clusters. During these investigations, however no clear cause was determined for any of the reported clusters."

Two of the latest in a long list of reported controversies dogging the beleaguered agency involves the delayed disclosure of a 400-page study conducted in the Great Lakes region and the demotion of the study's chief scientist, Christopher De Rosa, a director of the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) since 1992.

Released in early February by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization, the study found exposures to PCB's, lead, mercury, dioxin, pesticides and other toxins may have caused "low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer and lung cancer."

In an article accompanying the study, "Great Lakes Danger Zone," reporter Sheila Kaplan, interviewed Canadian biologist Dr. Michael Gilbertson, one of the study's reviewers. Dr. Gilbertson explained, "The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word 'injury.' If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages...The governments, frankly, in both countries [US and Canada] are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there."

In response to the CDC's handling of the report, Michigan Representatives John Dingell, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupack, Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee launched a congressional investigation charging the agency with a "Cover-Up." In a statement released on February 28th 2008, Chairman Dingell wrote, "If the administration has willfully withheld a report from the public, it raises questions about whether they are putting the public health at risk and about the scientific integrity of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

The release of the Great Lakes study comes on the heels of new accusations charging top CDC officials with down playing cancer risks posed by formaldehyde exposure found in the 144,000 trailers purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In a February 8, 2008 article in the AJC, "CDC under investigation over Katrina cancer risk," investigative journalist Alison Young reported the House Committee on Science and Technology has begun investigating "disturbing allegations" of improper suppression of "critical information" and "also looking into whether the Atlanta scientist who sought to make the risks public has been the subject of retaliation by the agency." This individual would be the same CDC scientist leading the Great Lakes study, Dr. Christopher De Rosa.

The article cites a letter sent to Director Gerberding from the Committee's chairman and two other subcommittee chairmen stating, "The agency's conduct has called into question its ability to investigate public health hazards accurately and appropriately in the future." Again, suggestions that liability, rather than the health of the people living in the trailers, seemed to be the primary concern of FEMA and CDC officials.

Cleaning up toxic chemicals in the environment can cost businesses a great deal of money. Liability for the diseases caused by these chemicals can cost business even more money. Today's political climate, inside the CDC and out, is not interested in holding corporations accountable for anything, even allowing toxic pollutants to poison our children. This would explain why we have a nation of sick kids and why only a few in government seem interested in doing anything about it.

And if the suppression of safety data and intimidation of agency scientists raising health concerns were not bad enough, the CDC also stands accused of hyping certain health threats and terrifying the public in the hope of benefiting from the "fear" campaigns. Sandwiched between the Great Lakes and FEMA trailer "cover-up" reports, another article by the AJC asks "Did CDC hype TB case as a fund-raising ploy?" (March 13, 2008).

The article chronicles the hysteria created over 31-year-old Atlanta attorney, Andrew Speaker, a man CDC officials diagnosed with XDR TB five months after an agency "strategy" session focused on obtaining more funding for the rare and deadly form of TB.

According to the article, "The handling of the Speaker case was so unusual that it has raised questions among other TB experts, including whether CDC publicized Speaker's case in a quest for more money."

While the CDC's Media Relations Director Glen Nowak maintains "the agency's actions were justified," the agency "has refused for nearly seven months to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) about any role the agency's XDR TB funding strategy played in its handling of the Speaker case." As it turns out, Speaker didn't even have the deadly XDR TB. All that hype and the young man had a different, "more treatable" form of TB all along.

It's a little disturbing that the world's leading health agency would misdiagnose the type of tuberculosis this man has. Makes you wonder how often situations like this are sensationalized way out of proportion and sending the public into a panic. Anyone remember monkeypox? When was the last time you heard about that? And what has become of that deadly bird flu that dominated the news for about a year? Ever notice how the urgent predictions of impending disaster disappear after the CDC gets a big boost in funding from congress to combat these diseases?

We know every year the CDC and health officials claim 36,000 people die from influenza. This little piece of propaganda is spread annually by medical reporters on all the morning and nightly news programs. But does anyone ever ask these so-called "experts" to prove this statistic? No...talk show hosts and medical reporters just regurgitate the "talking points" with no interest in accuracy.

For anyone interested, investigative journalist Kelly O'Meara actually did ask "how does the CDC arrive at its numbers of deaths related to influenza?" In an article for the Washington Times Insight Magazine, CDC spokesman Curtis Allen admited the 36,000 deaths "are not 'real' numbers" and are actually nothing more that a computer generated guess. "There are a couple problems with determining the number of deaths related to the flu because most people don't die from the influenza...We don't know exactly how many people get the flu each year because it's not a reportable disease and most physicians don't do the test [nasal swab] to indicate whether it's influenza."

In a follow up article "A Shot In the Dark - Part I," using the CDC's own data, O'Meara found "The greatest number of actual inluenza deaths recorded since 1979 were 3,006 in 1981."

I found both these stories with a simple Google search, something medical reporters and their interviewers might want to try. (Flu Secrets You Should Know 2/3/04).

Although never held accountable for these misrepresentations, top CDC officials have consistently shown themselves to be quite creative at exploiting certain health threats, like TB, influenza and bird flu, when it suits their purposes, and ignoring other health threats, like childhood cancer and autism, when it doesn't. How do they keep getting away with this stuff?

No where has the CDC's credibility suffered more than in the way it has responded to questions about vaccine safety, and if vaccines are associated with increased rates of autism. When you study the way the CDC has responded to the autism epidemic you will see a very similar pattern of behavior as what occurs when the CDC investigates cancer clusters. Their studies never find a "link" or an "association" because that is what they are designed to do.

For years thousands of parents have maintained their healthy, normally developing children regressed into autism following vaccinations. And for years the CDC has vehemently denied any evidence of an association. The debate has been the subject of thousands of news stories with neither side backing away from their steadfast positions.

On March 6, however, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution carried a front-page headline: FIRST AUTISM-VACCINE LINK: HOW HANNAH MADE HISTORY.

The article details an admission by the federal government, that Hannah Poling, a nine-year-old Georgia girl, was harmed by the nine vaccines she received at 19 months, after which Hannah became autistic. The leaked landmark concession was actually filed last November 9th but the decision remains sealed even though Hannah Poling's parents have asked that the documents be made public. There's that secrecy thing again.

The government's concession was deemed so significant that CNN made it a lead story throughout the day. Predictably, CDC Director Gerberding rushed to the microphones to reiterate the agency's standard talking points in response to the Poling bombshell. "The government has made absolutely no statement indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism," said Gerberding. Apparently, this is the CDC's story and they are sticking to it. Meanwhile there are nearly 5,000 other claims filed on behalf of children diagnosed with autism awaiting review in vaccine court.

By the end of the day, news of the concession made headlines around the world and was one of the lead stories on every nightly news program. In a report for the CBS Evening News, reporter Sharyl Attkisson uncovered nine additional cases where the government awarded compensation to vaccine-injured children who developed autism.

There has been a lot of parsing of words and the expected "spin" about this decision from the usual sources. But none of these "opinions" changes the facts. Individuals can continue to argue whether or not vaccines cause autism, but there is no arguing that the government -- not a court or a judge -- the government's medical experts conceded this case having determined that vaccines DID harm little Hannah. Hannah Poling did not have autism before she received nine vaccines in one day, but soon after Hannah was diagnosed with autism. And the government's medical experts -- not a judge -- said this little girl should be compensated.

Of interest is the leaking of a second decision involving Hannah Poling filed on February 21st carried in a March 19th AJC op-ed by journalist/author David Kirby. The second concession states, "The cause for (autistic) encephalopathy in Hannah at age 19 months was underlying mitochondrial dysfunction, exacerbated by vaccine-induced fever and immune stimulation that exceeded metabolic reserves."

Kirby clarifies several misconceptions being reported in other news reports and makes several very good points.

1. Instead of health officials expressing concern for other children who may have experienced the same reaction as Hannah, parents are "met with stonewalling, denial, and misinformation.

2. Hannah's underlying condition was not a "rare" or "inherited" disease. Hannah was asymptomatic prior to receiving her vaccines and by all accounts developing normally.

3. The government still hasn't released either decision.

The conflicts of interest between CDC officials and the vaccine industry are vast, appalling and were detailed by UPI in 2003. "The Vaccine Conflict" is a must read for anyone concerned about industry influence on government agencies. The article provides shocking details about how the CDC collaborates with the vaccine industry. Following a four-month investigation, UPI found:

In two cases in the past four years, vaccines endorsed by the CDC were pulled off the market after a number of infants and adults appeared to have suffered devastating side effects, and some died.

Members of the CDC's Vaccine Advisory Committee get money from vaccine manufacturers. Relationships have included: sharing a vaccine patent; owning stock in a vaccine company; payments for research; getting money to monitor manufacturer vaccine tests; and funding academic departments.

The CDC is in the vaccine business. Under a 1980 law, the CDC currently has 28 licensing agreements with companies and one university for vaccines or vaccine-related products. It has eight ongoing projects to collaborate on new vaccines.

Those are some very serious conflicts. So when Dr. Gerberding or any official rushes to the microphones to tell us vaccines don't cause autism we should consider the source and the implication for the agency if shown to be wrong.

If the CDC were capable of suppressing and minimizing the health risks associated in formaldehyde trailers or pollutants in the Great Lakes, why wouldn't they do the same with vaccines and their association with autism? Why should we trust an agency to tell us the truth about a public health disaster that they may have created?

Make no mistake; I am sure there are thousands of dedicated good people of conscience and science working inside the walls of the CDC. It is regrettable that the credibility of the entire agency is being tarnished.

The bottom line is this...we cannot have a public health system that suppresses health information and deceives the public. Period! Whether it is about chemical pollution, air quality in trailers, or immunizations. This is totally unacceptable both morally and ethically. There should be a zero tolerance policy for any government official who knowingly deceives the public about the safety of products we use and give our children.

America deserves better and it is time we start to demand better as if our lives, and our children's lives depend on it. Because the truth is...they do.

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