At least eight scientific studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism, but thousands of Americans continue to believe that the tiny quantities of ethylmercury in the vaccine preservative thimerosal cause autism. (Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines by 2001, and autism rates have not declined.) Parents skeptical of the effects of vaccines have subjected their children to expensive, sometimes dangerous quack cleansing remedies including laser therapy, sonar depuration, special diets and chelation therapy, in which a child is injected with chemicals that bind to mercury. Chelation therapy is known to have killed one child, 5-year-old Abubakar Tariq Nadama. In Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (Columbia, $24.95), Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains how the anti-vaccine movement became powerful enough to drown out the real science behind autism research.
Why did you write this book?
There are misperceptions about autism and its causes, about whether or not vaccines cause autism. Those misperceptions have done a tremendous amount of harm. Some children have not gotten vaccines that can potentially save their lives. It’s caused children to be subjected to harmful and dangerous therapies. It’s also diverted resources from studying more promising leads. That study done by the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, it was a $5.2 million study, and the seventh study to show that thimerosal doesn’t cause autism. When is it enough?
The Omnibus Autism Proceeding, in which a federal claims court is hearing arguments about vaccines and autism, hasn’t yet been ruled on. Do you have a sense of how the case will turn out?
There is no predicting lawyers. Although they are judges, they’re lawyers without an expertise in medicine, science, toxicology, vaccinology, so you could reasonably ask: is society best served when medical decisions are left in the hands of judges and juries? There’s already been a review by the Institute of Medicine and they concluded that neither MMR [the Measles-Mumps-Rubella combined vaccine] or thimerosal cause autism. Why isn’t that the ruling?
Eventually, vaccine-autism cases could wind up in front of a jury. Can juries understand science enough to make a reasoned decision in court?
No! To be clear, no! Juries have been terrible at sorting out scientific and medical evidence. I don’t think they should be charged with the task. Silicon breast implants are one example, where science clearly exonerated them as the cause of connective tissue diseases, and the juries didn’t get it right. And look at Bendectin. There were twenty-seven studies that found that it did not cause birth defects, and it was taken off the market. Jurors get it wrong all the time.