Why there's no dispelling the myth that vaccines cause autism.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 2 2010 1:56 PM

True Believers

Why there's no dispelling the myth that vaccines cause autism.

(Continued from Page 1)

Then, too, the material in discussion is highly technical and specialized, and most parents aren't truly able to determine which conclusions are reasonable. So they go with their gut, or the zeitgeist message that it makes more sense to trust the "little guy"—the maverick scientist, the alt-med practitioner—than established medicine and public health. "History tells us that a lot of ground-breaking discoveries are made by mavericks who don't follow the mainstream," says Laidler. "What is often left out is that most of the mavericks are just plain wrong. They laughed at Galileo and Edison, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown and Don Knotts."

And to be sure, there was some basis for suspecting vaccines several years ago, before definitive studies had discounted a link. When the first vaccine theory was proposed in 1998, it appeared in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet and was published by an established London gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield. Two years later at a congressional hearing, Wakefield and an Irish pathologist and molecular biologist, John O'Leary, announced they had found measles viral RNA in the guts of autistic kids with severe bowel problems.

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The air of respectability fell away over the years as we learned that Wakefield had serious conflicts of interest (including a 1997 patent application on a measles vaccine to replace the potentially soon-to-be-avoided MMR shot) and that a subsequent publication on measles RNA was probably an artifact of false positives, a common problem in polymerase chain-reaction technology.

The thimerosal theory emerged in a different context. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concerned about cumulative mercury exposures in young children, asked manufacturers in 1999 to phase out thimerosal-containing vaccines. In other countries, such as Denmark and Canada, thimerosal was removed because of new vaccine combinations that either didn't require thimerosal or would be damaged by it. Nowhere was thimerosal removed because of evidence of harm.

But the first CDC study of children's exposures to thimerosal-containing vaccines was difficult to interpret. And anti-mercury activists jumped on the transcript of a 2000 meeting at which the study was scrutinized to argue that something improper was going on. The transcript shows no such thing. But the activists unleashed a public-relations campaign alleging a government and "big pharma" coverup.

That, in turn, proved to be eye candy for environmental groups already enraged by the Bush administration's enlistment of former industry officials in the squashing of environmental regulations. Anti-pollution lawyer Robert F. Kennedy zealously jumped on the thimerosal bandwagon in an "expose" published in Salon and Rolling Stone.

No surprise there. What editor or writer doesn't want to "reveal" that drugmakers and the government conspired to poison a generation of innocent kids. (Kirby's book won a 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors award.) Where's the passion in the story that some public-health bureaucrats quietly moved to blunt a danger that turned out to be nonexistent?

In the pre-Internet days, the parents of an autistic child living in a small city might have found a handful of other parents in their predicament. Now, they instantly find thousands online. The denominator—healthy children—has disappeared. This is a good thing if you're looking for answers. But the answers may not be good ones. Joined together on the Internet, these actors create a climate of opinion that functions as an echo chamber for conspiracy dittoheads. Even the women's division of the Methodist Church has gotten in on the act, presumably on the grounds that it is fighting for social justice by decrying mercury poisoning, although there was no mercury poisoning, and social justice would be better met by promoting confidence in vaccines.

Kennedy, who wrote blithely in the Huffington Post during the trial that "overwhelming science" had confirmed the link, continues to believe it. So does Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., whose circuslike hearing room aired many such claims. Neither cites any solid studies, because they do not exist.

If and when the vaccine court rules against Michelle Cedillo, the 12-year-old autistic girl at the center of these first hearings, it won't change their minds. Long ago, the famous Dr. David Livingstone interviewed a rain doctor in Botswana. When Livingstone accused the rain doctor of being irrational or a cheat, the rain doctor replied, "Well, then there is a pair of us." If it rains, I take the credit, he said, and if your patient gets better, you take the credit. In neither case do we lose faith in our professions. You see, the rain doctor said, "what we believe is always more important than what actually happens.

Arthur Allen is the author of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, Ripe, and Vaccine. He is a health writer and editor at Politico.

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