01/16/2008 07:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Spins" of Omission

Ronald Regan said it best, "There you go again." Last week, while all the "experts" were predicting Barack Obama's big win in the New Hampshire primary, yet another study claiming to disprove an association between vaccines and autism graced the front pages and headline news around the country. One problem, the "experts" got it wrong...both in New Hampshire and California.

The study entitled, "Continuing increases in autism reported to California's Developmental Services System" published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (January 7,2008), used data from the California Developmental Services System (DSS) and compared autism trends with decreasing amounts of mercury (thimerosal) exposure. According to the authors, "the DDS data do not support the hypothesis that exposure to thimerosal during childhood is a primary cause of autism."

Never have I witnessed such a collective chorus of celebratory reporting by the press while at the same time proclaiming the continuation of a public health disaster. Sandwiched between back-to-back advertisements for your favorite pharmaceutical drug, each networks anchors and medical reporters enthusiastically declared the vaccine autism debate dead. You could almost hear the applause erupting down at the CDC.

No such enthusiasm or reporting was evident, however, when another study, "Blood Levels of Mercury Are Related to Diagnosis of Autism: A Reanalysis of an Important Data Set" [DeSoto et al.] was published in the November issue of the Journal of Child Neurology. This unreported study found "a significant relationship does exist between the blood levels of mercury and diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder."

The researchers also write a rarely offered criticism of another study that claimed there is "no association" between mercury exposure and autism. "Of utmost importance (which outweighs the discomfort of writing about an error made by colleagues whom we know are generally competent researchers) is that potential researchers who are trying to understand what is and is not behind the rise in autism are not misled by even the slightest misinformation. It is imperative that researchers, medical professionals, and the public at large have the full set of information."

Two studies, two conflicting conclusions.

Protecting children is the most important issue to me. Toxic chemicals, drugs, poor nutrition, abusive environments can all be harmful to our children. But there are other ways children can be harmed. Equally as dangerous is the dissemination of misleading or inaccurate information that give parents a false sense of security on which they base medical decisions.

As a person who follows the science, I get a little perturbed when I see studies like the one from California generate erroneous headlines while other studies, like the blood mercury study, totally ignored.

When industry and the government make a big mistake involving public health their instinctive reaction is to deny there is a problem. The Tuskegee experiment, thalidomide, the1976 swine flu vaccine, Gulf war syndrome, Vioxx and the latest health disaster, the toxic exposures affecting the 9/11 first responders.

Since 1999, when the whole vaccine/autism controversy came to light, the CDC's primary concern has been protecting the immunization program and denying there was a problem. Protecting the kids seems to be a secondary consideration. To this end, the agency has funded and assisted in numerous epidemiological studies that found "no association" between mercury-containing vaccines. All of them seriously flawed authored by researchers with serious conflicts of interest.

When it comes to vaccinations, the mainstream media and the CDC share the same agenda. Protect "the program." You are not going to find critical analysis from the press on this issue. And you are not going to see public health officials telling the truth about vaccine safety studies. Doing so could be a career killer.

Dr. David Graham, the FDA epidemiologist that came forward to be the Vioxx whistleblower, understands this mentality. He told USA Today, "When you live in a climate of fear, retaliation and intimidation, no decision that one makes is entirely voluntary." In the same article, Dr. Graham also said those who have vaccine safety concerns, are "reluctant to come forward. They are absolutely afraid for their jobs".

This is the climate in which research is conducted today...a climate of fear. In a way, the media has become "enablers" of the dissemination of information aimed at promoting and protecting vaccines. Accuracy, skepticism and just plain common sense don't quite fit into the overall business strategy of the press or public health agencies. (Reuters/Glaxo)

When it comes to protecting children's health there are no sacred cows as far as I am concerned. Kids today are just too sick not to take seriously concerns about toxins in vaccines or any other product. Children have been ill served by the media's "cherry picking" of vaccine studies and their failure to maintain a skeptical view of the conflicts of interest of the parties involved.

Like the other epidemiological studies finding "no link" between vaccines and autism, there are apparent conflicts of interest with the California study; the authors work for the department of health's immunization division. Talk about trusting the fox to keep inventory over the hen house. Aside from the obvious, this study is fundamentally flawed because it failed to take into account a key aspect in its methodology. The decreasing amounts of mercury on which the authors based their conclusion didn't actually decrease. Just a small detail that might be a factor in the final analysis and one that you would think any medical reporter with any integrity would point out.

In assessing the removal of thimerosal from children's vaccines in California, the authors incorrectly state, "By 2000, new lots of all Hib and hepatitis B virus vaccines in the United States contained at most trace amounts of thimerosal. By March 2001, all vaccines in the recommended infant immunization schedule for the United States became available with at most trace amounts of thimerosal."

This is very clever words-man-ship, perhaps clever enough to fool the average medical reporter but not so clever to fool your average mom.

"Available" does not mean administered. Existing stocks of mercury-containing vaccines were not recalled and they remained on clinic shelves. In response to a letter from congress, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirms many mercury-containing vaccines were still available with late 2002 expiration dates. The letter also states, "Thimerosal-containing presentations are all still licensed in the U.S."

In May 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending the influenza vaccine for infants and pregnant woman. This recommendation reintroduced significant amounts of mercury exposure in utero and again at 6 and 7 months of age.

Like lead, there is no safe level of mercury. It is particularly toxic to the developing fetus, infants and young children. Numerous studies have found even very small amounts of mercury to be a potent developmental neurotoxin. Research has shown that at very low levels, 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury, far lower than the amount found in even one mercury-containing vaccine, thimerosal kills human neuroblastoma cells. (Parran et al. Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

One adult influenza vaccine administered to a pregnant woman contains 25 micrograms of thimerosal (50,000 ppb mercury). Each of the infant influenza vaccines contained 12.5 micrograms each. In addition, "trace" amounts of thimerosal remain in several routine vaccines injected into children adding to the overall body burden. According to the FDA, "trace" amounts can be as much as 2,000 ppb mercury, and shown to be highly toxic. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers anything exceeding 200 ppb mercury liquid hazardous waste.

A 2001 study found Neurite membrane structure destroyed at 20 ppb (Leong et al.,Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37).

The 2004 California law that would ban the use of mercury-containing vaccines for pregnant women and children under the age of three did not go into effect until December of 2006. It is clear that pregnant women and infants continued to receive mercury-containing vaccines until this time.

Lost in this debate is the fact that no one knows precisely how much mercury really remains in children's vaccines today. Neither the FDA nor the CDC performs any oversight testing to confirm the amount of mercury in vaccines. We rely on the vaccine manufacturers to report the amount of mercury in vaccines but there is no independent confirmation of those amounts. Again, talk about asking the fox to keep watch over the hen house.

In response to the California study, a man who knows quite a bit about toxicology in general and mercury specifically, Dr. Boyd Haley, Professor of Chemistry, University of Kentucky, wrote a critical analysis of the author's findings. "The alarming concern is that these authors seem more involved in providing material saying thimerosal is safe than they are concerned with the obvious facts, openly presented in their own data on autism rates, which strongly indicate that increased rates of autism started with the CDC mandated vaccine program...Most [scientists] agree that a genetic predisposition is likely (like those that lead to low glutathione levels), but that a toxic exposure is absolutely needed...that this increased toxic exposure would have had to occur in all 50 states at about the same time as all states have reported similar increases in autism rates. Only something like the government recommended vaccine program fits this need for a time dependent, uniform exposure of a toxin throughout all the states."

The mainstream media are not the only enablers in this debate. Some people have even created a business out of the autism epidemic but even some autism advocacy organizations have not been willing to aggressively pursue the role of environmental factors, including mercury-containing vaccines, and confront this area of research head on, even though they pledged to do so. They talk about it, but so far, no action.

Using millions of dollars raised from parents desperately waiting for answers and support, large corporate organizations with big payrolls, big offices and big jets fly around the world from one gala event to another. They have created a business out of the autism epidemic and have profited very well from it. While their leaders may privately embrace the notion that vaccines play a role in autism with their own families, they are unwilling to share this belief with other parents so that they can help or protect other children. Their advisors often appear siding with individuals working against the interest of children with autism. By maintaining their distance and silence, they are failing the community they claim to represent, thus putting more children at risk of irreparable harm. For this, they assume some measure of responsibility.

These groups are more part of the problem than the solution and should be viewed with skepticism.

In spite of all these criticisms the California study confirms the nation is in the midst of a public health crisis for which we have been given no credible explanation.

Arthur Schopenauer, a world famous philosopher once said, "All truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident".

The bottom line remains, the California study does not change the fact that thimerosal is mercury and, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated, "Mercury in all its forms is toxic." No amount of epidemiological bookkeeping can replace sound clinical and toxicological research, with one exception; a comprehensive study on vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated populations.

Again quoting Dr. Haley, "Common sense would lead most to attack finding the cause of autism instead of trying to prove something besides thimerosal is causal. The major question is 'are our vaccines causing autism' -only comparing the non-vaccinated to the vaccinated will answer this question."

Public health officials are rapidly losing the public's trust. The California study will not bring it back. An independent study, by authors with no ties to industry or public health activities is the only way to settle the debate.