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.