Richard Moore [ not rkm ]
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Third in a series
For much of the past decade, as autism diagnoses have surged, there has been a broad effort by the mainstream media, the government and the scientific community to dispel any notion that autism might have some environmental connection or that childhood vaccines might trigger the disorder.
Along with an escalation of autism occurrences has come an escalation of studies and articles and pronouncements designed to disprove any environmental component, or to rationalize away any real increase. No fewer than 19 studies have brushed aside any vaccine link, for example, while the federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has expended great time and money to reassure the public that vaccines are safe.
The same for the national media. In 2008, for instance, Time Magazine ran a glowing piece on the “miracle marvel” of vaccinations and their benefits.
“CDC officials estimate that fully vaccinating all U.S. children born in a given year from birth to adolescence saves 33,000 lives, prevents 14 million infections and saves $10 billion in medical costs,” the article by Alice Park stated. “Part of the reason is that the vaccinations protect not only the kids who receive the shots but also those who can’t receive them-such as newborns and cancer patients with suppressed immune systems.”
The New York Times, too, has acted as a vocal instrument of the pharmaceutical industry, as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., pointed out last year on The Huffington Post, saying The Times acted as a “blind mouthpiece” for the government and a leading defender of vaccine safety.
Today, well into 2010, there’s no question the academic, pharmaceutical and mainstream media bias toward vaccine safety still exists, but new studies are forcing at least some professionals to look again at toxicity as a real cause of autism.
For example, a 2009 University of California study contends the rise in autism diagnoses cannot be attributed to diagnostic substitution, and that a real epidemic is underway.
UC-Davis researchers found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number of children born in California with autism since 1990 could not be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted – and the trend shows no sign of abating, the university stated in announcing the study.
Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, the study suggested shifting research resources from genetics to environmental chemicals and infectious microbes that could be the root cause of the problem.
“It’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California,” said UC-Davis lead researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of environmental and occupational health and epidemiology.
That and other studies have caused some writers, even in the New York Times, to begin to give environmental causes another look.
“Suspicions of toxins arise partly because studies have found that disproportionate shares of children develop autism after they are exposed in the womb to medications such as thalidomide (a sedative), misoprostol (ulcer medicine) and valproic acid (anticonvulsant),” wrote New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof in February. “Of children born to women who took valproic acid early in pregnancy, 11 percent were autistic. In each case, fetuses seem most vulnerable to these drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, sometimes just a few weeks after conception.”
He also pointed to a study targeting chemicals in common consumer products.
“Researchers measured the levels of suspect chemicals called phthalates in the urine of pregnant women,” he wrote. “Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior.”
Still, Kristof could only bring himself so far; he continued to rule out the toxins contained in vaccines as a possible agent of autism, and did so with scientific assurance, as if the debate was settled.
“Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism – a theory that has now been discredited – perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America,” Kristof wrote.
Who is discredited?
In fact, the debate is far from over, and giving environmental causes, in particular various compounds and chemicals, new credence should stoke it even more.
To be sure, by any objective analysis, the existing research points directly to a vaccine link, particularly when correlating data with other countries. Any objective review, had any major media conducted one, also would have exposed widespread conflicts of interest in pro-vaccine studies.
It’s not as if the research is hiding. All of the research in this particular article is in the public domain and widely circulated, but, unlike reports of vaccine safety, little of it has made the front pages of major newspapers.
As recently as March, one of the main proponents of vaccine safety has come under ethical scrutiny, to cite the latest example. A Danish scientist, Poul Thorsen, who was a key researcher in two studies demonstrating that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative and adjuvant used in vaccines, does not cause autism has been under investigation for misappropriating $2 million at Aarhus University in Denmark, allegedly using forged documents.
A 2002 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism in a review of more than a half-million children born in Denmark from 1991 through 1998. A 2003 study in Pediatrics examined Danish children diagnosed with autism from 1971 to 2000 and concluded the incidence of autism increased in Denmark after thimerosal was removed from vaccines.
In a statement in January, Aarhus University said it had uncovered a “considerable shortfall” in grant money from the CDC and for a research program that Thorsen headed.
“Unfortunately, a considerable shortfall in funding at Aarhus University associated with the CDC grant was discovered,” the university said in a statement. “In investigating the shortfalls associated with the grant, DASTI and Aarhus University became aware of two alleged CDC funding documents as well as a letter regarding funding commitments allegedly written by Randolph B. Williams of CDC’s Procurement Grants Office which was used to secure advances from Aarhus University. Upon investigation by CDC, a suspicion arose that the documents are forgeries.”
The investigation has rallied the troops of those who believe in a vaccine connection. Someone who would forge documents to steal money, if that turns out to be true, can certainly phony up data in a study, his critics say.
The CDC stands by the earlier research.
It just won’t go away
Of course, CDC researchers knew way back when, at least in the waning days of 1999, there was a thimerosal link to autism. That’s when CDC researcher Tom Verstraeten found it.
Here’s how he reported it in a Dec. 17, 1999, email to his colleagues, Robert Davis and Frank Destefano. The subject line was, “It just won’t go away…”
“I added another exposure variable (addcat) in one list that looks at the increase of mercury each month for the first three months, divided by the average bodyweight in the first, second and third month and takes the maximum value of this,” Verstraeten wrote. “This does not show much, to which I would conclude that, except for epilepsy, all the harm is done in the first month.”
The harm he was talking about was autism. That apparently was not what the CDC wanted to hear, so Verstraeten and colleagues began working on different analyses.
The organization Safe Minds has documented the chronology of those findings, each review resulting in a lower causal impact of vaccine mercury exposures on neuro-developmental disorders.
The first study, the group reported, demonstrated large and statistically significant mercury exposure effects that exceeded the findings of the later reports. However, between February 2000 and November 2003, four separate generations of an analysis were conducted. With each generation, elevated and statistically significant risks were reduced and/or eliminated, Safe Minds reported.
“Most notably, these initial analyses compared disease risk in the highest exposure population groups to disease risk in zero exposure population groups,” the group stated. “In addition, the target study population had not yet been subject to numerous exclusions and adjustments applied later, the cumulative effect of which was to reduce the reported impact of mercury exposure on chil”
What were the original findings?
Relative risks of autism, ADD, sleep disorders and speech/language delay were consistently elevated relative to other disorders, Safe Minds said Verstraeten found. In other words, there was statistically significant associations between the amount of mercury children were exposed to and a wide range of brain disorders.
Most particularly, the elevated risk of autism for the highest exposure levels at one month ranged from 7.6 to 11.4 times the zero exposure level, the group asserts.
As Safe Minds points out, the increased risk level corresponded to a tenfold increase in autism rates witnessed since vaccine mercury exposures increased starting in 1990.
In subsequent studies, fewer comparisons were based on a level of zero mercury exposure, all comparisons excluded children who did not receive two polio vaccines, thereby eliminating the children and families most likely to avoid vaccination on principle, introduced “stop dates,” potentially diverting diagnoses like autism to earlier, less severe, diagnoses such as speech and language delays, and reduced the size and diversity of the study population, Safe Minds stated.
What was problematic in these new efforts was that, by the end, Verstraeten had moved on to employment in the pharmaceutical industry, at GlaxoSmithKline, yet emails show he was involved in preparing the report despite the apparent conflict of interest.
Emails in 2008 obtained through FOIA requests by Dr. Brian Hooker show Verstraeten participating in a September 2001 conference call to discuss thimerosal, and the researcher himself acknowledged discussions on the topic after leaving the CDC, though he said he did not perform any additional analyses or instigate those discussions.
Still, the emails refer to “Tom’s” thimerosal paper, indicating he was deeply involved in the undertaking.
Here’s how Congressman Dave Weldon (R-Florida) put it in a 2003 letter to Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC.
“A review of (supporting) documents leaves me very concerned that rather than seeking to understand whether or not some children were exposed to harmful levels of mercury in childhood vaccines in the 1990s, there may have been a selective use of the data to make the associations in the earliest study disappear,” Weldon wrote. “Furthermore, the lead author of the article, Dr. Thomas Verstraeten, worked for the CDC until he left over two years ago to work in Belgium for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a vaccine manufacturer facing liability over TCVs. In violation of their own standards of conduct, Pediatrics failed to disclose that Dr. Verstraeten is employed by GSK and incorrectly identifies him as an employee of the CDC. This revelation undermines this study further.”
As CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson observed in 2007, the periodical Pediatrics did finally pick up on the conflict and criticized it, but “it got little mainstream attention.”
Declining rates in Denmark
What has also received little mainstream attention is an analysis of autism rates in Denmark that showed a decline after thimerosal was removed.
Some vaccines, such as vaccines for hepatitis B, contained as much as 12 micrograms of mercury per dose, a pretty potent punch – in the United States, lawsuits filed charged that children could receive a dose of mercury up to 100 times higher than the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommended safety guideline for a vaccination shot – and it was banned from children’s vaccines decades ago in Russia (1985), Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark (1992) and Norway.
Interestingly, an analysis of autism rates in Denmark showed a decline after thimerosal was removed. The group Safe Minds compared same-age groups and found a 2.3 times higher number of autism cases among 5-9 year olds exposed to thimerosal relative to 5-9 years old given thimerosal-free vaccines.
“Using this methodology, the incidence among the unexposed group is approximately 1 in 1,500, which is much lower than the US and UK rates,” the analysis stated. “The incidence of autism in the thimerosal group is estimated to be 1 in 500, similar to US and UK rates, and 3 times higher than the unexposed group.”
Thimerosal still around
Certainly those who dispute a vaccine connection to autism point to the fact that, as they say, in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that thimerosal be removed from childhood vaccines.
However, vaccines with thimerosal as a preservative were used at least through 2002, and, some say, after that.
Not only that, but it remains in some vaccine as a trace rather than as a preservative.
This is how the Minnesota Department of Health puts it.
“Thimerosal is still used in the early stages of manufacture of a few vaccines to ensure the production line is sterile. It is removed through a purification process, with only trace remaining (about 1/100th of the amount found in older vaccines).”
Is a trace dangerous? Here’s how chemist Mike Wagnitz answered that question in an email this week.
“Thimerosal is added at a concentration of 1:10000 (the FDA’s definition 0f ‘trace’),” Wagnitz wrote. “This is equivalent to a concentration of 100,000 parts per billion (ppb). Since thimerosal is half mercury, this puts the concentration of mercury, in the multi-dose vaccine vial at 50,000 ppb. To put this in perspective, liquid waste that exceeds 200 ppb of mercury must be disposed of in a special hazardous waste landfill. Drinking water cannot exceed 2 ppb mercury. ‘Trace’ would probably be the last word to use when describing the amount of mercury in vaccines. Is it really safe to inject infants with levels of mercury 250 times higher than hazardous waste levels?”
In April, writing in The Cap Times, Wagnitz said four vaccines were used in Wisconsin that contain that amount of mercury.
“They are vaccines administered from multi-dose flu, H1N1, meningococcal and tetanus/diphtheria booster vials,” he wrote. “The flu and H1N1 vaccine are administered to pregnant women and children 6 months of age. The tetanus is approved for children 7 years and older. The meningococcal is approved for children 12 years and older. This year’s flu and H1N1 vaccines will expire soon and have to be treated as hazardous waste. The next time your physician or nurse tells you that mercury is no longer used in vaccines (or that the quantity is small), feel free to share this information with them.”
Immune system assault
Of course it’s not all about thimerosal. Vaccines contain other toxins suspected of a link to autism, such as aluminum, which many say is the new thimerosal, and a chorus of voices is rising to protest the vaccination schedule in the United States, which, as Generation Rescue pointed out in an April 2009 paper, is the most aggressive in the world.
According to the paper, the United States has the highest number of mandated vaccines for children under five in the world (36, or double the Western world average of 18), the highest autism rate in the world (10 times or more the rate of some other Western countries), but only places 34th in the world for its children under-5 mortality rate.
“The vaccine schedule for children aged 5 and under has nearly tripled in 25 years,” the paper states. “In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control recommended 10 vaccines for this age group. Today, the recommendation is 36 vaccines. Calls by advocacy organizations for a ‘safer and leaner vaccine schedule’ have been dismissed, with health authorities implying that mortality rates from childhood diseases would materially increase.”
The paper compared vaccine schedules and under-five mortality rates for 30 countries, including the United States.
“The 29 other countries all had lower (better) under 5 mortality rates than the U.S,” the analysis found. “Additionally, autism rates were compared for certain countries with reliable, published autism prevalence data. . . . The analysis lends credibility to the relationship between vaccines and autism and challenges the public view of both the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics that more vaccines is always positive for public health,” the analysis stated.
For example, as noted, the U.S. has about a 1 in 110 rate of autism, with 36 vaccines scheduled for the under-five population, but ranks 34th in infant mortality.
By contrast, Iceland mandates only 11 vaccines, has an autism rate of 1 in 1,100 and is first in lower infant mortality. At number 2 in lowest rates of under five mortality is Sweden, which also mandates only 11 vaccines under five, and has an autism rate of 1 in 862.
Israel mandates 11, has a 1 in 1,000 autism rate and ranks 17th in under five mortality. Norway mandates 13 and has a rate of 1 in 2000.
The correlation, Generation Rescue says, points to a link to the vaccination schedule
As Jenny McCarthy, the principal spokesperson of Generation Rescue also observes, it’s telling to find out what studies have not been performed. For example, she says, only one single vaccine – MMR – has ever been looked at for its relationship to autism, and no study has ever compared vaccinated children to unvaccinated children.
One 2008 study – the only one known to compare vaccinated and unvaccinated children in any way – did compare children who received the entire 3-shot series of Hepatitis B Vaccine, and found they had a nine times higher rate of developmental disabilities than unvaccinated children.
“This study found statistically significant evidence to suggest that boys in United States who were vaccinated with the triple series Hepatitis B vaccine, during the time period in which vaccines were manufactured with thimerosal, were more susceptible to developmental disability than were unvaccinated boys,” the study concluded.
In making her vaccine case, McCarthy points to another statistic as well: a government website shows more than 1,000 claims of death and over $1.9 billion paid out in damages for vaccine injury, mostly to children.
But what about all those studies dismissing the link between vaccines and autism? Between 2003 and 2008 alone, 10 studies from Canada, Denmark, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States showed no association between thimerosal in vaccines and neuropsychological developmental disorders, including autism.
And Amanda Peet – as it turns out, those who dismiss the connection have their own celebrity voice – ramped it up even more.
“Fourteen studies have been conducted (both here in the US and abroad), and these tests are reproducible; no matter where they are administered, or who is funding them, the conclusion is the same: there is no association between autism and vaccines,” said Peet, a spokesperson for Every Child By Two’s Vaccinate Your Baby campaign, which is funded by Sanofi Pasteur, a vaccine manufacturer.
The website says Peet volunteers her time and does not receive compensation. But that hardly makes her independent, and neither are the studies she has cited, as documented by the website fourteenstudies.org.
For instance, “Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence from Danish Population-Based Data,” which has been attacked as flawed because it did not account for missing records, had two authors who were employees of Denmark’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Statens Serum Institute.
Another study, “Autism and Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines: Lack of Consistent Evidence for an Association,” involved the CDC and the Danish Statens Serum Institut, again Denmark’s largest vaccine company.
The author of “Early Thimerosal Exposure and Neuropsychological Outcomes at 7 to 10 Years” in the New England Journal of Medicine worked at one time for Merck, while a contributing author had received consulting fees from Merck, Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, and MedImmune
What about “Pervasive Developmental Disorders in Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Prevalence and Links With Immunizations?” by Dr. Eric Fombonne. Here’s the conflict statement from the study:
“In the United Kingdom, Dr Fombonne has provided advice on the epidemiology and clinical aspects of autism to scientists advising parents, to vaccine manufacturers, and to several government committees between 1998 and 2001. Since June 2004, Dr Fombonne has been an expert witness for vaccine manufacturers in US thimerosal litigation.”
Finally, while pro-vaccine advocates try to paint those who see a vaccine connection as completely anti-vaccine, McCarthy has said that’s not the case at all.
In the end, she has written, there has to be room for moderation on vaccines, for a recognition that one size does not fit all, for an honest dialogue around risks and benefits, and for a willingness to maybe delay or scale back some vaccines.
“Health authorities said autism was caused by cold mothers; parents proved them wrong,” she wrote in March in The Huffington Post. “They said kids didn’t regress into autism; parents proved them wrong. They said kids with autism weren’t more sick with gastrointestinal issues; parents proved them wrong. They said autism was genetic and this epidemic wasn’t real; parents proved them wrong. Is now the time to bet against the parents?”
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to sift through academic studies and competing claims in the media. Sometimes the best way to examine a potential vaccine connection is to look beyond the statistics and into the lives of real people with autism, using actual case histories and medical records.
That story is next.