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.

CONTACT

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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Comments

notmercury

John Best:Anonimouse, I tested for genetics. That wasn't it. The only other known cause is mercury.

Wow. It's like certain keywords trigger a macro to execute and the nearly verbatim phrase is typed by John's computer.

John, mercury IS NOT a known cause of autism.

We can't even say that autism is a result of either genetics or environment because it is almost certainly a combination of the two. Roughly 50% of autism can be linked to a genetic variation but that doesn't mean half is purely genetic. It only means we haven't discovered other contributing genes yet.

You make it sound like there is mail order test you can send out to rule out 'genetics'

So which genetic conditions did you test for?
Your resistance to transition and propensity for repetitive behavior makes a pretty strong case for genetics, IMO.

John Best

NM, It doesn't matter how many ways you and your ilk try to deny the truth. The truth is always the same.
I don't see you providing a rational explanation for why my son keeps improving by removing the mercury. And, of course, you will never find that explanation that will allow you to deny what is incredibly obvious to those of us who are not defending the drug companies.

anonimouse

So you tested for genetics but didn't the extra few bucks to test for mercury exposure BEFORE you started chelating him?

Right...

Kev

JOhn, It doesn't matter how many ways you and your ilk try to deny the truth. The truth is always the same.
I don't see you providing a rational explanation for why my daughter keeps improving without any form of mercury removal. And, of course, you will never find that explanation that will allow you to deny what is incredibly obvious to those of us who are not defending the quacks.

John Best

Kev, I explained this to you once. The estrogen is probably getting rid of the mercury gradually. If it were genetic, she would not be improving at all.

Kev

John, I explained this to you once. Your son is probably developing gradually. If it isn't partly genetic, he would not be developing at all.

John Best

Kev, Thanks for flattering me.

livsparents

Mr Best, being on 'your side' I am dismayed by your single mindedness in the pursuit of the 'cure'. Autism is a complex disorder and cannot be blamed on one thing, nor 'cured' by one thing. There are a miriad of therapies and each child should be evaluated for what might work best for them. If you beleive that children are damaged by outside insults, treating them internally is only a small piece of the puzzle. The major thrust should be to work with who they are and what can be for them behaviorly so that they can be the best that they are capable of. Saying all is black and white as far as causes and 'cures' only deflects away what each child's issues and possible paths to recovery could be.
Bill

John Best

Bill, Not all kids can be cured so I just concern myself with the most obvious cause. Mercury is responsible for about 90% of autism. I'll leave the other 10% to the scientists if they ever decide to deal with autism honestly.
In the meantime, I think it's important to help that 90% who may benefit from treatment.

livsparents

But if you feel damage has occurred, is it just, if not more important to rehabilitate from the injury? There are many many children seeing remarkable improvements from Speech, OT, ABA, Physical Therapies that are in my mind critical to the 'rehabilitation' and betterment of the child.

I won't argue as to cause, other than to say there is much much more work to be done before we can come to any kind of broad-based conclusions...

John Best

Arthur, I read your For the Good of the Herd article. Did you know that the 36,000 who die each year still includes the victims from 1918 to make the numbers scarier? Why don't you dig up how many died in the last 9 years instead of the last 89 to get a more up to date and honest number?

_Arthur

"Mercury is responsible for about 90% of autism."

Can you point me to the scientific paper that established that "90%" number you mention, Mr. Best ?

Kev

_Arthur - John used to claim *all* autism was mercury poisoning as a result of thiomersal in vaccines. You've got no chance of trying to wheedle anything approaching sense out of him. I'm frankly amazed (and amused) to see him back down over even this '10%'.

_Arhur

Come on Kev, surely Art Best would not be so disohnest as to pull figures out of thin air to bolster his argument(s) ?

Kev

Sorry Art - here's a direct quote from John's blog:

"Autism was invented in 1931 by Eli Lilly"

One of the sponsors of your recent debate was Generation Rescue I believe? John is a Generation rescue 'Rescue Angel'.

Heh.

_Arhur

Eli Lily started environmental mercury ?
At their mercury thermometers manufacturing facility?

Now he lost me.

John Best

Arthur, Eli Lilly began putting mercury in vaccines in 1931. I can't find Deth's paper. He claimed 80% would improve with methyl B-12. Neubrander proved he underestimated that number when he showed that over 90% improve with methyl B-12. That is important because Deth showed that mercury prevented methylation so that those affected by mercury could not produce any methyl-B-12. Without MB-12, it is impossible for anyone to pay attention to anything and that describes autism perfectly. So, the fact that anyone improves by adding the methyl B-12 shows that mercury caused the problem. Do you understand?

livsparents

Actually, improvers on MB12 just means they're poor methylators. Could be metals, could be genetic...

John Best

Livsparents, The reason they are poor methylators is because mercury is preventing methylation. Have you read Deth's work?

livsparents

It's not only mercury preventing methylation, I think even Deth will admit that. Genetics can play a big role with issues in the methylation pathway...

John Best

If it was just genetics, we'd have 76 year old autistics at the rate of 1 in 166.

livsparents

If it were just mercury we wouldn't have ANY people with autism who were not vaccinated; we do. I'm not saying all autism is genetic; are you saying all autism is mercury?

_Arhur

JB is trying to have it both ways, or even three ways, claiming it is either thimerosal in vaccines, or vaccines alone, or environmental mercury alone.
He doesn't have the honesty to admit he doesn't have a clue.

None of those hunches is supported by scientific research. If mercury does play a role, it is at best a weak cofactor, a cofactor so weak that no one has managed to find any correlation between mercury exposure and autism.

And now John Best tells us that in his considered opinion, Autism is caused at 90% by mercury, and at 10% by other causes he cannot be bothered to assess.

anonimouse

Arthur,

I think calling John Best's opinion "considered" is far too kind.

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