<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Here's an update on a topic featured in this space before: the alarming exponential increase in young children with autism. You may have missed it, but late in June both houses of the New York State Legislature passed an act that, beginning in mid-2008, would prohibit further sale or use of the mercury compound thimerosal in vaccines for children younger than 3, and for inoculating pregnant women. The office of Gov. George Pataki has said he's still pondering whether to sign the legislation into law.

If he does, it would make New York the fourth state to establish such a law -- California, Iowa and Missouri are the others. Similar legislation -- most of it with quicker effective dates -- has been introduced in Florida, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Tennessee and Rhode Island. A federal bill to ban thimerosal from all childhood vaccines in the United States is sponsored by Rep. David Weldon, a Florida Republican who is also a physician. He says in the 1990s a baby who got all the recommended shots could be exposed to mercury levels significantly higher than those considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thimerosal, which contains a neurotoxin mercury compound, has been used for more than half a century as a preservative to prevent bacterial contamination in vaccines. Just a decade ago, most Americans would have to be "Jeopardy" champions just to identify the substance, but parents today are more and more aware of it because many medical researchers believe it is linked to the astounding increase in autism. If you're in your 20s, you had a 1 in 10,000 chance of ending up autistic. Today, that chance in the United States is about 1 in 166 births, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The change in these numbers is statistically incredible, and indicates a health problem of epidemic proportions.

As almost every concerned parent now knows, autistic children -- many of them once normal infants and toddlers -- display heartbreaking social withdrawal, loss of speech, reduced eye contact, temper tantrums, repetitive hand-flapping, seizures, constant sleep disturbance, aversion to eye contact, a seemingly weakened immune system, and odd repetitive behaviors such as walking on their toes. The symptoms of infant mercury poisoning are almost exactly the same.

As more and more inoculations became required for infants and toddlers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, big pharmaceutical firms manufacturing vaccines started combining the shots in multi-dose vials.

They were cheaper to produce, easier to store, and kept parents from making too many trips to the doctor. The thimerosal also gave them longer shelf-life. During this period, the number of vaccines containing thimerosal that were added to the immunization schedule almost doubled. Kids sometimes got three such injections in a single day, and usually nine thimerosal-containing shots during their first half-year of life, when the immune system is still developing and vulnerable.

It was during this period the astonishing rate of increase in autistic children started zooming upward.

While pediatricians gave mothers tut-tut reassurances that the vaccinations were totally safe, recently revealed documents show some government and drug industry researchers had started wondering. The Los Angeles Times earlier this year dug up a 1991 memo circulated within the internal offices of pharmaceutical giant Merck. It showed real concern among senior executives over the significant level of mercury in many children's vaccines. It wasn't until the summer of 1999 that the influential American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Public Health Service issued a joint statement urging the pharmaceutical firms to remove thimerosal from their infant vaccines.

They did, sort of.

Much of the thimerosal-containing vaccine was shipped overseas to developing nations and countries like China, where autism rates have since rocketed. Some was dispatched to free health clinics in the United States. The mercury substance still appears here in some flu shots and booster inoculations for tetanus and diphtheria. (Russia, often described in the American media as abysmally backward in scientific matters, banned thimerosal from vaccines 20 years ago. So have Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Denmark and Japan.)

The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization continued to insist thimerosal was safe, and in May of last year -- funded by the CDC -- the Institute of Medicine in Washington weighed in by stating scientific evidence in more than 200 studies "favors rejection of a causal relationship" and that "all well-designed epidemiological studies provide evidence of no association between thimerosal and autism."

Case closed? Hardly.

The childhood health controversy has morphed into a growing fight in the political arena. A recent catalyst is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 51 -- the son of assassinated New York senator, presidential candidate and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's younger brother. The current younger Kennedy, a lawyer and environmentalist, in June wrote an explosive article in "Rolling Stone" magazine that described a secret June 2000 summit-like meeting of doctors, drug company execs, federal health officials and other vaccine experts called together by the CDC specifically "to discuss a disturbing new study that raised alarming questions about the safety of a host of common childhood vaccines administered to infants and young children." Kennedy, who does not have an autistic child, said he began his research thinking he would prove vaccines were not involved in the autism increase.

Instead, from documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and an anonymous source who was present, Kennedy learned a CDC epidemiologist at the meeting had declared that 100,000 medical records of children in the CDC medical database had showed thimerosal was "directly related to the dramatic rise" in the autism epidemic.

Instead of triggering further studies or promulgating this to the federal scientific community, the CDC embargoed the information -- even from government medical researchers -- but showed the data to select members of the private drug industry. Typical federal behavior.

ABC News got onto the buzz about Kennedy's assertions and prepared a special report that would have indicated credence, but network executives canceled it the night before airing. The content was rewritten in a fashion that discredited Kennedy and his discoveries. The rebroadcast was sandwiched between expensive advertisements by big pharmaceutical companies.

Kennedy upped the ante with an opinion piece last week in USA Today, in which he claimed the "once sterling reputations" of the CDC, the IOM and the Food and Drug Administration have all been tarnished "by the release of transcripts of secret meetings that show government officials conspiring with the pharmaceutical industry to hide the damning results of data showing dramatic increases in neurological disorders among children exposed to thimerosal."

Kennedy scored the CDC for claiming "to have lost the original data" and for its "defiance of federal laws and congressional requests requiring it to allow independent scientists or the public to review federal vaccine safety data."

He further accused the CDC of rigging studies finding thimerosal safe by relying on principal authors who "have close ties to the pharmaceutical industry" and not disclosing those connections, even though the federal health agency was aware of them, and was similarly aware the studies contained "deceptive data" which made the studies "catastrophically flawed."

For instance, the CDC and other thimerosal defenders keep pointing to one of the studies that allegedly shows a big increase in autistic children in Denmark after that country disallowed use of the substance in its vaccines. Wouldn't that show conclusively that thimerosal is not to blame for autism increases?

One would think so, until one learns from Kennedy that Denmark -- before banning thimerosal -- was used to registering in its studies only autistics who were hospitalized. That number represented only 20 percent of those truly afflicted. After banning thimerosal, Denmark began also counting out-patient children who showed autistic symptoms, four-fifths of the total autistic population. Apples and oranges, not scientific parallels. Of course, it appeared like the numbers spiked following the ban. A whole new category was being counted. The clever CDC, of course, never mentions this.

The CDC, Kennedy further charged, "has selectively ignored hundreds of biological, toxicological and epidemiological studies linking thimerosal to a wide range of neurological disorders, relying instead on its reputation and its faith that journalists are too busy to read the science."

The slopping over of the controversy into political circles is even affecting occupants of the White House -- the current one and a possible future resident of the executive mansion.

Last September, when George W. Bush was campaigning for re-election, vaccine safety advocates asked Bush to state his position on thimerosal. Dubya responded: "I support the removal of thimerosal from vaccines" for children." He also pledged to fund autism research.

A parental group called Unlocking Autism last month unleashed a lobbying and advertising campaign accusing Dubya of flip-flopping on the issue and doing nothing. Members say they got the cold shoulder when they tried to convince White House officials and the Department of Health and Human Services thimerosal is still a problem.

The possible future president in the middle of the controversy is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and powerful Tennessee Republican who is notoriously protecting big pharmaceutical firms from private lawsuits and who has feverishly (and successfully) tried to deny researchers access to the federal government's sophisticated database of vaccine reaction documents.

Frist, you may recall, is the slick politico who after 9/11 snuck a provision into the Homeland Security Act that shielded the big pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly -- developer of thimerosal -- from even being subpoenaed in connection to vaccine lawsuits. He claimed he was just trying to protect future research that would protect against bioterrorism. Yeah, sure.

Shortly thereafter, Eli Lilly donated $10,000 to Frist's campaign fund and bought 5,000 copies of the senator's book on bioterrorism. The clause protecting the big drug firm from legal action was repealed in 2003, but Frist was not deterred. Early this year, he attached another section to another anti-terrorism bill which denies compensation to children with vaccine-related brain damage. His office states vaccine-damage lawsuits "are of such magnitude that they could put vaccine producers out of business and limit our capacity to deal with a biological attack by terrorists."

Riiiight. Maybe this is why over the years pharmaceutical companies have donated a total of almost $900,000 to Frist's campaign funds. Frist is going to run for president in 2008. And he's going to get some tough questions on this subject. Parents everywhere should hope young Kennedy keeps asking them.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 12 2005