Vaccination has greatly diminished death, illness and suffering in the world. But no other medical technology has been so dogged with controversy. The book chronicles the development of the key lifesaving vaccines since the 18th century. It tells the stories of great scientists and their discoveries, of the protests and pain along the stumbling path of progress. This is the first book to tell the whole story of vaccination for a general audience. In light of controversies about flu vaccine and autism, it will be of particular interest to parents, pediatricians, public health workers and anyone fascinated by medical history. Read More>>

Also Available: Table of Contents and Index

Arthur Allen is a Washington DC-based journalist who has written on vaccine issues in The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Salon and Slate.

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A story with legs

On Jan. 13 in San Diego, I debated author David Kirby over his hypothesis that a mercury-containing vaccine preservative had caused an epidemic of autism. David insists that he isn't wedded to his narrative--that indifferent drug companies and careless government officials poisoned a generation of children by putting mercury in their vaccines until courageous citizen moms and doctors stood up and blew the whistle. But he certainly does his damnedest to push the thesis in the face of opposing evidence.

DK has sold the rights to his book to Participant Productions, makers of "Syriana" and other marquee films, and I presume that if the hypothesis doesn't fly, neither does the movie. A film that handled the thimerosal story as a fabulously marketed but eventually discarded scientific hypothesis would probably be more interesting than, say, "A Civil Action," but I doubt it would get financing.

I feel a certain investment in this issue because my November 2002 article, "The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory" first brought the idea to broad public attention, and for all I know may have convinced David to do his book. At the time I was working on my piece, Lyn Redwood, one of the mothers of autistic children featured in DK's book, had a proposal for a first-person book that she told me was being considered by Judith Regan and other publishers. Some time after the Times article appeared, Redwood told me that they'd found a professional writer to tell the story. That was David, obviously. How the meeting of minds came about I can't say. Perhaps David got interested in the project independently.

The scientific community, with a few exceptions, has moved on from the thimerosal hypothesis. The Institute of Medicine pooh-poohed it 2 1/2 years ago, and since then the negative evidence has continued to pile up--new studies from Canada and the United States that show no link to autism, studies from Minnesota and elsewhere that demonstrate how diagnostic changes have swollen the rates of autism. And then there's the continued flood, into the California developmental services programs, of unvaccinated-with-thimerosal-containing-vaccines-yet-still-autistic-children. In fact, there are increasingly convincing voices stating that there isn't an epidemic of autism, as I discussed recently in a review of Roy Richard Grinker's book here.

The day before our debate David and I appeared on a morning TV news show in San Diego. I mentioned the new California data, along with a survey of several hundred medical offices conducted by the CDC in February 2002 that showed that of the three pediatric vaccines that contained thimerosal in the 1990s, only 2 percent continued to contain the preservative by then. In other words, the data present a pretty clear schematic: thimerosal goes from 100 percent to 2 percent in two cohorts of children. Autism cases, meanwhile, increase by 60 percent in the two cohorts. For me, this is killer evidence, open and shut--the thimerosal thesis doesn't fly.

David is a clever guy. The next morning, in our debate, he'd already come up with a series of explanations for the California data. First, he tried to ridicule the CDC numbers by describing them as a "convenience sample"--meaning, I presume, that no scientific methodology had gone into the data collection. The audience was 95 percent sympathetc to the mercury hypothesis and many of them chuckled at his dismissal of the CDC figures. David had no data of his own that would contradict the CDC numbers, but he had something else--a handful of fabulous new explanations for why California's figures were so hard to conform to his hypothesis.

The explanations went like this:
1) California has lots of HMOs. Because HMOs buy large lots of vaccine, they probably keep around some of the old stuff.

1) A gigantic plume of coal smoke from Chinese power plants has settled on California, depositing lots of mercury and therefore causing the autism numbers in the state to continue to grow.

2) Bad forest fires have put tons of mercury into the air, depositing lots of mercury etc...

3) Cremations (!). The burning of dead bodies with mercury amalgam in their mouths has added even more mercury to the air.

In most forums, I like to think that listeners would have brushed aside these points as creative, but completly unfounded twaddle. But the audience for the mercury message is different. These parents are convinced that mercury is behind a substantial part of their children's problems. Some of them feel that chelation, which removes mercury and other heavy metals, has helped their children, ergo that their problems have to do with mercury and heavy metals.

Many of the scientists who have glommed onto the thimerosal thesis are people whose hypotheses about the neurological damage caused by mercury amalgams in teeth have long since been rejected by their colleagues. But just as the drug companies now sell their drugs directly to the public, skirting the skeptical discretion of doctors, people peddling untested theories and therapies can go round their colleagues and straight to the public, using Internet marketing.

This story has legs because tens of thousands of parents of autistic children continue to believe that vaccines gave their children autism. In June, the federal vaccine court is going to review the evidence in a trial of several weeks. If the court finds in favor of the 5,000 petitioners whose cases are pending there, it will bankrupt the vaccine compensation program and could severely undermine the vaccine program. If the petitioners lose, some of them will take their cases to civil courts. Their chances there will be damaged by the vaccine court loss, but the whole mess will probably drag on for years.

And no matter how much evidence piles up against the thimerosal theory, it will die hard. It's a story with legs.

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Well, it's finally been posted, video of the debate between Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver and mercury militia vaccine fearmonger David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and arguably one of the... [Read More]

Comments

Joseph

"In most forums, I like to think that listeners would have brushed aside these points as creative, but completly unfounded twaddle. But the audience for the mercury message is different."

You're absolutely right, Mr. Allen. In the EOHarm mailing list they were saying how great these new hypotheses were. Forest fires and crematoriums cause autism?! The lengths to which people will go to continue believing in their conspiracy theory are simply unbelievable.

C. Clark

A story with legs, not unlike the one that says that governments put fluoride in water because it makes people docile and obedient, or something like that...

Crazy stuff.

Kev

So Kirby's book, whos strapline is "MERCURY IN VACCINES AND THE AUTISM EPIDEMIC: A MEDICAL CONTROVERSY" and who was booked for the debate on vaccines and autism, is now blaming forest fires, China and dead bodies?

I take it this is a clear admission that the vaccine hypothesis is dead? I don't see how else it could be interpreted.

abfh

I think it's about time to load up the hearse and take the vaccine hypothesis off to the crematorium...

Anne

And its about time to concentrate on figuring out how best to deal with the real day in and day out educational, employment, and other issues of autistic people.

666sigma

The word on the street is that you took a good old fashion beatin' and that you have no evidence behind your claims. Where is the data? Anyone can talk, but where is the data?

mike stanton

"The word on the street is that you took a good old fashion beatin' and that you have no evidence behind your claims. Where is the data? Anyone can talk, but where is the data?"

666sigma, I think you are on the wrong blog. Shouldn't you be asking Kirby that question?

Heraldblog

Which street is he talking about?

Anonymous

Wow, a hero to the ND's. You must be proud, Mr. Allen. To Joseph, crematoriums and forest fires don't cause autism but mercury likely does. Good luck to you all with your "genetics only" theory.

Joseph

I think Mike is right that 666sigma must have been referring to Kirby's claims about crematoriums and forest fires. Where's the data that they can cause autism? What about years without forest fires?

If not, what are the claims you're referring to 666sigma? Maybe we can help you out.

Joseph

"To Joseph, crematoriums and forest fires don't cause autism but mercury likely does."

You're contradicting Kirby. In fact, Kirby is relying on forest fires and crematoriums causing autism to support the idea that thimerosal causes autism. That's the only way he's found to get around the failure of the hypothesis. What's more, he must think forest fires, crematoriums and pollution from China started exactly in the 1999-2002 period, but not before. It's evidently a screwed up way to shift goalposts.

Kev

"The word on the street is that you took a good old fashion beatin' and that you have no evidence behind your claims. Where is the data? Anyone can talk, but where is the data?"

Which claim would you like to see the data for?

"Good luck to you all with your "genetics only" theory."

Who's said that and where Anon?

Anonymous

My point to Joseph was that you need to specify when you throw out the words forest fires and crematoriums in regards to autism. It's the mercury produced by these things which could be a problem. By not specifying that Joseph could confuse the masses of people who don't understand the controversy.

Kev

So do you too agree that the thiomersal hypothesis is dead Anon?

Maurine

I think the movie will open the public to the truth and will be highly supported. Mr Allen, you will be on the losing end of this battle, I promise. The truth will prevail. See you in court.

Anonymous

"So do you too agree that the thiomersal hypothesis is dead Anon"?

Ah, no... It seems that there is only one side here (mine) which is continuing to look at the environmental/biological aspect to autism. You and your buddies are overly concerned about who said what and when and if it's backpedalling or not? Stop being so hung up on that game.

Kev

What truth is that Maurine? Are you seriously citing a *movie* as the best support you can get? What happened to the irrefutable science?

Smokey the Lawyering Bear

"See you in court."

Hahahaha! You must be thinking of Judge Judy. $50 for the plaintiff with the hurt feelings and no data!

Anon- the only person getting confused about your invented controversy is you.

Kev

"Ah, no... It seems that there is only one side here (mine) which is continuing to look at the environmental/biological aspect to autism"

Really? I don't recall asking about the environmental aspect to autism. I'm asking about the 'mercury in vaccines: a medical controversy' aspect. Surely that's not too difficult to understand is it?

TheProbe

Anne said:

And its about time to concentrate on figuring out how best to deal with the real day in and day out educational, employment, and other issues of autistic people.


Full agreement there. However, this would mean that the mercury morons would have to accept their "broken children" for who they are and then stop their efforts in having them repaired/chelated/chemically castrated, etc.

Ain't gonna happen unless these parents get therapy. They are hooked into blaming instead of accepting. Their kids know it.

Anonymous

"I'm asking about the 'mercury in vaccines: a medical controversy' aspect. Surely that's not too difficult to understand is it"?

Difficult to understand? No, it's not difficult to understand. It was outrageous to inject babies with mercury without even knowing how much you were injecting and then try to pretend it never happened. What part of that don't you understand. I'm glad that you seem to think it's no longer controversial. Best wishes with that.

mike stanton

Anonymous
you said
You and your buddies are overly concerned about who said what and when and if it's backpedalling or not?

Do you mean taking a hypothesis and testing it? The hypothesis inKirby's book was that thiomersal causes autism. The evidence was an alleged epidemic that was based on the administrative data from California DDS. Kirby said that if the thiomersal hypothesis was true we should see an absolute decline in the numbers of young children entering the DDS with autism by 2007. Instead the number have continued to rise.
If the numbers had gone down in line with Kirby's prediction the whole of the mercury movement would have been using "who said what and when" to prove your point. I look forward to reading how Kirby addresses this point when a transcript of the debate is published.

Joseph

"My point to Joseph was that you need to specify when you throw out the words forest fires and crematoriums in regards to autism. It's the mercury produced by these things which could be a problem. By not specifying that Joseph could confuse the masses of people who don't understand the controversy."

The mechanism of delivery is critical. For example, to test the hypothesis in epidemiology they would have to look at number of forest fires per year and autism incidence changes. Mercury doesn't even come into the picture. Again, that's important because there are years with no forest fires, which pretty much shows how useless Kirby's latest fabrication is.

Arthur Allen

The point of my blog entry, for those who missed the point, is that by introducing forest fires, cremations and Chinese smoke plumes as extenuating circumstances for the failure of autism rates to decline, David has simply injected a new set of virtually untestable hypotheses into the discussion. There are plenty of bright people in the so-called "mercury militia," and they are perfectly capable of keeping this debate going for ever with such arguments. Once somebody takes the time to investigate David's "smoke" hypothesis they'll probably find lots of inconsistencies in it. But once the "smoke" clears, I don't doubt that David or someone else will introduce a whole new set of hypotheses to take its place. The mercury side seems to have an endless supply of untestable hypotheses because the causation theory is so plastic. It's not just the thimerosal, they said, it's the rhogam. Well, the data show that vaccines and rhogam aren't the cause. So now, it's not just the vaccines and the rhogam, it's these bad things in combination with mercury from smoke. And then there's the testosterone, the glutathione. Waiting in the wings is aluminum--which Boyd Haley claims adds to the detrimental effects of mercury--and who knows what other causes. Birth control pills? PCBs? Phthalates? Etc. Etc. ad nauseum. All working in combination with the mercury, no doubt.

These are arguments that are impossible to dispute because they are untestable. It's impossible to debate a hypothesis when the hypothesis keeps shifting. And that's all any of this is--hypothesis.

Wendy

Well when all is said and done you can't get around the fact that if you inject kids with some of them most toxic chemicals on the planet like mercury,aluminun and half dead virus you are going to get damaged kids. Vaccines are not vitamin shots.
Check out the ingredients one day and then please tell us how they are helpful to a child's developing immune system that no one truly knows the workings of.

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