A blog possessed: How vaccine blogging has taken over

Blogging is odd and fascinating. Sometimes it leads you in directions you never anticipated or intended--and, when it does, it can do so with astonishing speed, sometimes taking you by total surprise. One day, you're blogging about one set of topics, and then a day later you suddenly find your blog dominated by a topic that you neither intended nor foresaw. For example, about one week ago, a reader sent me a link to a post on the Huffington Post that was pushing the usual anti-vaccination rhetoric I hear from activists. That e-mail led me to investigate further and find at least five posts with anti-vaccination rhetoric in the short history of the Huffington Post. Because the Ninth Skeptics' Circle was coming up and I wanted to provide my blog buddy St. Nate (the founder of the Skeptics' Circle) with some good material, I decided to write a rather lengthy post rebutting most of the fallacies in those five articles. I barely finished it in time to submit to the Circle, but finish it I did. I posted it last Wednesday and submitted it to the Skeptics' Circle just under the wire for the deadline.

And, suddenly, I'm an autism blogger.

Since then, I've ended up on an e-mail list from Neurodiversity.com, because of a link I posted to an online petition of theirs. (I don't mind; that's partially what this post is going to be about.) I've also ended up writing more about this issue, being cited by Skeptico and having my posts referenced and posted in the comments section of another anti-vaccination piece on the Huffington Post (something I should have done, but I hadn't realized that this particular article allowed comments, unlike previous ones).

We'll see what happens, but I never intended for this subject to take over Respectful Insolence the way it did. I just thought it would be an interesting piece to submit to the Skeptics' Circle on a subject I knew a bit about. I don't plan on making it a major theme of this blog, when someone like Autism Diva can do it better, but I can't resist one last entry into the fray.

One thing that came up during all this was the question: What's wrong with anti-vaccination activists pushing a link between thimerosal and autism? After all, thimerosal has been removed from all early childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine (which is not a standard vaccine that is given to all children). If the anti-vaxers were right, we'll soon see the epidemiological link over the next few years, right? Ditto if they're wrong. And it is true, as I pointed out. Indeed, Dr. Gordon and I agree on this; we just don't agree on what the following 5-10 years are likely to show with regard to the epidemiology of such a link. In the meantime, is it such a bad thing to get the mercury out of vaccines?

There's nothing wrong per se (although it probably increased the cost of vaccination for in essence no benefit and left a nice fat juicy opening for the trial lawyers to imply that the fact that the government and vaccine manufacturers have succumbed to activist pressure to remove thimerosal from vaccines proves a link), but there's a price for this removal of thimerosal that anti-vaxers don't like to acknowledge. First, postulating the link when the evidence supporting it was very weak to nonexistent frightened parents, making them unjustifiably suspicious of vaccination and therefore less likely to have their children vaccinated (or, at the very least more resistant to it). Second, suggesting such a link on very weak evidence inflamed the guilt of existing parents, who were told in effect that it was at least partially their fault for their children's autism because they vaccinated their children as advised. Third, the postulating of a probably nonexistent link between mercury and autism opened the doors to the chelation therapy quacks, who use the ineffective treatment of chelation therapy to "remove the mercury" and supposedly "cure" the child of autism, a therapy that is unfortunately spoken of approvingly by some elements of the mainstream media, such as Paul Harvey last Thursday (and that formed the basis of many of the abstracts at the Autism One quackfest in Chicago this weekend). Even if mercury is found to be a major contributor to autism as the epidemiologic evidence comes in over the next five to ten years, it is already known that chelation therapy does not improve autism.

However, there is one more consequence, as pointed out in this open letter to David Kirby, the author of the recent book favorably reporting on those postulating a link between mercury and autism, Evidence of Harm. I got this open letter from the Neurodiversity.com mailing list, and its contents shocked me. The letter tells of a coarsening of the debate through anti-vaccination zealotry, as demonstrated by the advertising campaign for Mr. Kirby's book and the dialog on the message boards on Mr. Kirby's website. An excerpt from the open letter:
I have read many online newsgroup posts (including posts to the EOH list) written by parents of autistic children who do not describe witnessing any specific reaction at the time that shots were administered to their children, but who have become convinced of the vaccine hypothesis due to the publicity efforts of vaccine litigants. These parents are now consumed with guilt that their good-faith decision to vaccinate their children might have had damaging consequences, and rage at those individuals whom they presume misled them and inflicted damage upon their children, whether that guilt and rage are warranted or not.

It is also a legal strategy undertaken with little regard for the potential long-term, stigma-perpetuating impact upon those autistic people and their family members who are not inclined to believe that all autistics are poisoned. I have observed numerous instances in which vocal proponents of the autism=poisoning hypothesis have displayed outright contempt for anyone who might have come to their own conclusions about their and their family members' lives, and I will cite many of these instances in this letter.

For example, here is a comment by Lujene Clark, responding to Kevin Leitch, a British father of an autistic child; she and other EOH list members descended en masse upon Mr. Leitch after a blog entry he had written was mentioned on the list (http://www.kevinleitch.co.uk/wp/?p=146, EOH message 1014):

"...if you remain in denial you don't have to extend yourself or take responsibility to heal your child because it is so much easier to blame 'bad genes' and accept your child's fate. Or worse, try to get your child to accept his "genetic" fate. That is a COP-OUT. Your child deserves better. Get off your lazy bum and start to heal the biomedical problems of your child!!"

When Mr. Leitch stated that he recognized autistic traits in members of his extended family, Mrs. Clark replied,

"it seems apparent from reading your reply there is a history of serious psychiatric illness in your family. My apologies, I would not have attempted to engage in rational discussion had I known you were affected."

Now, this is quite a toxic attitude to have towards disability, towards evidence of the genetic transmission of devalued characteristics, and towards parents who think for themselves.

Indeed it is, and sadly there are several other examples in the letter of nastiness engendered by Mr. Kirby's book and other sources loudly touting a mercury-autism link. It is likely that Mr. Kirby does not support such viciousness, but we don't know for sure because he does not appear to have condemned it. He may not even know of it. Hopefully, this open letter will inform him of what is going on based on his book and provide an impetus for him to condemn such attacks. In any case, this toxic rhetoric towards parents who have the burden of caring for an autistic child reminds me of some of the rhetoric that another bunch of zealots, animal rights activists, sometimes heap upon people who have benefited from animal research. Such a stigmatizing attitude would be bad enough to subject the parents of autistic children to even if the science justified a link between thimerosal and autism. It is utterly inexcusable when the science does not support such a link. Most anti-vaccination activists don't behave this way, but the hysteria engendered by them emboldens the minority who do. When one is utterly certain that one has The Answer, it then starts to make a sort of sense to conclude that parents who do not subscribe to that "answer" and therefore do not treat their children accordingly are either deluded, careless, or even bad parents doing harm to their children and that they therefore deserve contempt. Parents with autistic children have enough problems; they don't need this one added on top of the difficulties they have to deal with every day raising their children.


  1. Thank you for writing about this. The mercury/autism link has just never passed the "smell test" for me. Just linked you over at my place.

    This reminds me a little of the controversy over depleted uranium bombs. Possibly a bad analogy - one cures one kills - but the idea is that there is a nasty chemical/element involved for practical reason - mercury as a preservative, uranium because it is dense and allows bomb "shape shifting" on impact, which then gets presented as exhibit A in an indictment, regardless of the actual science involved.

    By the way, could you give a very quick explanation of why mercury has been used in vaccinations and what the benefits (as a preservative) have been? Also, is there a layman's explanation of how a child's body would process mercury safely?

    Thanks again. Love your blog.

  2. Hi Orac,

    Found your excellent blog from a comment you made on mine. Its always good to read sensible posts on matters like these.

    You probably know that a lot of parents really don't feel that our autistic kids are ill and we certainly don't feel that who they are is the result of a jab or series of them. Autism doesn't have to be a tradgedy, just a different sort of life.

    Thanks again for the fascinating blog.

  3. Autism Diva thanks you from the bottom of her tiara'd heart.

    It's the "smell test" that first attracted Autism Diva to the topic of thimerosol.

    Autism Diva
    Loves the scent of truth

  4. Meanwhile in Canada, mercury (thimerosal) was largely removed from pediatric vaccines in 1994.

    Eleven years later, Canadian parent pressure groups issue continuous alarms about the (ongoing) staggering, skyrocketing, etc, increase in autism. They declare rates of increase which, were they genuine, would shortly result in everyone being autistic.

    Mr Kirby deploys the "hidden hordes" to express his disbelief in the possibility that there is no autism epidemic. Were numbers of autistics steady over the years, he argues, America would be clogged with aging hopeless autistics gruesomely burdening society. Mr Kirby cannot find us (I'm one of his "hidden hordes") how and where he expects (doomed and confined to institutions), so he denies we exist.

    Szatmari et al (1989) suggests that Mr Kirby should look for his hordes in university records. In a follow-up of autistics diagnosed as children before 1970, 7 of 16 had university degrees (one was an MBA). But I digress.

    Canada poses a reverse "hidden hordes" problem. How could a necessarily precipitous collapse in rates of autism (resulting from the removal of thimerosal) be concealed, and by whom? And not only concealed, but perceived as an explosion of autism, a crisis which imminently threatens (any second now) to collapse the entire Canadian economy.

    Canadian streets should be full of bewildered unemployable autism professionals, seeking work waiting tables (or applying to emigrate to mercury-friendly countries). Instead, our streets are full of parents protesting against long waiting lists for evaluation and treatment for their young autistic children.

    There continues to be no credible evidence in the science for Mr Kirby's epidemic. There is evidence of deliberately broadened autism diagnostic criteria, and of dramatically increased public and professional awareness, and of intentionally improved case finding (and all of the above contributing to greatly increased demands for services). There is also evidence of gross misreading of an unrefereed California study, and of the IDEA child count statistics (Gernsbacher, Dawson & Goldsmith, in press).

    I'm not fit to bow down at the Diva's feet, but if something smells funny in the autism/mercury link, among many other arguments, you might blame Canada.

  5. Liz here, from http://lizditz.typepad.com

    I started out being just a blogger, then somehow I became an anti-quack blogger (in some respects) -- mostly because I'm debunking homeopathy all the time, and debunking quack treatments for dyslexia.

    Sheesh. This could be a full-time job. Many of the quack treatments for dyslexia are also promoted as a "cure" for autism, so I have a Google News Alert for autism.

    This bilge arrived yesterday:


    Vaccines Did & Do Cause Autism June 02, 2005 By: Evelyn Pringle

    Independent Media TV

    Material about:
    Government Lies and Deception

    On Feb 9, 2004, the National Autism Association issued a press release that reported on one of the larger studies under review based on the Center for Disease Control's Vaccine Safety Datalink. Under independent investigation, the Association reported, of the CDC's data children were found to be 27-times more likely to develop autism after exposure to three thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs), than those who receive thimerosal-free versions.

    Let that sink in. Twenty-seven times more likely to develop autism. Then consider that our government regulatory agencies had this information for years and deliberately kept it hidden from the public. This failure to warn the public was not due to negligence or laziness, it was a deliberate cover-up and it continues today.

    How do we know they had it for years? Because the staff for Rep Dan Burton (R-Ill) obtained an FDA internal e-mail written on June 29, 1999, by former FDA scientist Peter Patriarca, that offered a "pros and cons" assessment of the dishonest statement about Thimerosal in vaccines that the FDA was about to release, and described the questions that could be raised upon its release:

    (1) FDA being `asleep at the switch' for decades, by allowing a potentially hazardous compound to remain in many childhood vaccines, and not forcing manufacturers to exclude it from new products. (2) various advisory bodies aggressive recommendations for use. (3) the dose of ethyl mercury was not generated by `rocket science': conversion of the % of thimerosal to actual ug [micrograms] of mercury involves 9th grade algebra. (4) What took the FDA so long to do the calculations? (5) Why didn't CDC and the advisory bodies do these calculations while rapidly expanding the childhood immunization schedule?

    The FDA knew.

    In 1997, Congress passed the FDA Modernization Act, which required the FDA to review all drugs that contained mercury and determine their adverse effects on humans. For many years, Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, was added to childhood vaccines in multi-dose bottles, basically to increase profits for vaccine makers.

    Thimerosal is nearly 50% mercury, which is a known to be extremely harmful to fetuses, infants and children. Beginning in 1987 and throughout the 1990s, it became the main source of mercury in infants and toddlers when the number of vaccines added to the national vaccine schedule nearly tripled.

    In 2000, the FDA determined that a twelve-to-fourteen month old child, receiving vaccines required under the Immunization Schedule, often received four to six shots during one doctor visit. Consequently over time, the child would be injected with as much as 40 times the amount of mercury considered safe.

    The corresponding increase in autism is concrete evidence of the link between autism and vaccines. Twenty years ago, autism only affected one in 10,000 children. The Autism Autoimmunity Project reports that the disorder strikes 1 in 150 (or 1 in 68 families) today.

    During the 1990s, as some 40 million children were vaccinated, drug company profits soared and there's no doubt that the companies knew about the dangers of Thimerosal and put profits over the health of a whole generation of children.

    The LA Times obtained a 1991 internal memo from the drug company, Merck, that proves the company knew then that Thimerosal in vaccines posed a serious health threat. The memo noted that 6-month-old children who received their shots on schedule would get a mercury dose up to 87 times higher than guidelines for the maximum daily consumption of mercury from fish.

    As the vaccines increased, autism rates skyrocketed and the numbers don't lie. State by state statistics based on data by the Department of Education, show that the increase in the number of children aged 6-21 with autism between 1992-93 and 2003-04, is astronomical. In Ohio there were 22 cases of autism in 1992-93, and in 2003-04 there were 5146. In Illinois, there were only 5 cases in 1992-1993, while there were 6005 in 2003-04. Mississippi had no cases of autism in 1992-1993, but had 622 in 2003-04. Wisconsin had 18 cases in 1992-93 and 3259 in 2003-04.

    In addition to autism, Thimerosal has now been linked to a host of developmental disorders including Attention Deficit Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and ironically, the pharmaceutical industry is now making money hand over fist off drugs prescribed to treat children with these disorders.

    The drug companies can pay doctors, researchers and reporters to write a million articles and reports that say there is no connection between Thimerosal and autism, but that won't change the truth. Thimerosal is the culprit and a million false denial won't change that fact.

    Plenty of experts with nothing to gain say so. When asked to what degree of scientific certainty can we prove that current epidemic of autism was caused by the mercury-based preservative, Thimerosal, in childhood vaccines?

    Dr David Ayoub, MD, said 'I can state that the certainty of the science supporting mercury as a major cause of autism is probably more overpowering than the science behind any other disease process that I studied dating back to medical school.'

    In May 2003 the AAP stated, 'All routinely recommended infant vaccines currently sold in the U.S. are free of thimerosal as a preservative and have been for more than two years." Yet because the FDA maintained it did not have enough evidence to justify a recall of thimerosal vaccines distributed prior to the introduction of thimerosal-free versions and so they were allowed to remain on the market until they became outdated. That means that poisonous vaccines were still administered until November 2002.

    'Because the FDA chose not to recall thimerosal-containing vaccines in 1999,' the April 2003, House Committee on Government Reform report concludes, 'in addition to all of those already injured, 8,000 children a day continued to be placed at risk for overdose for at least an additional two years.' Parents need to know that flu vaccines currently recommended for infants and pregnant women still contain Thimerosal to this very day.

    The CDC and FDA policy decisions about matter such as approving vaccines for inclusion on the immunization schedule are made by physician advisory boards whose members very often have strong financial relationships with the very same pharmaceutical companies that they are supposed to regulate.

    For example, during a congressional hearing on potential conflicts of interests at the FDA, it was revealed that 60% of the advisory members who voted to approve the poisonous rotavirus vaccine had financial ties to the drug companies manufacturing the vaccine. The committee also found that 50% of the CDC members were tied to the rotavirus makers.

    The public needs to rise up and demand accountability from the officials in charge of all regulatory agencies involved in concealing information that could have saved many families from the devastation of these ill-administered vaccines.

    In order to enroll in public schools and day care, children must comply with mandatory vaccine schedule, which includes vaccines that have not undergone the scientific testing necessary to guarantee their safety, and have the potential to harm millions of children.

    If families are expected to trust the government's vaccine approval process, they have a right to demand that the vaccines are approved based on scientific research, without the undue influence of money passed out to politicians, scientists, and the heads of the regulatory agencies, by the pharmaceutical industry.

    The children who were affected by this cover-up will require care and support for a lifetime. The lives of many of these children are destroyed. The costs for their care, left to their families, will reportedly exceed $2 million per child.

    The drug companies and the government officials involved in this vaccine marketing scheme and the subsequent cover-up of the damage it caused need to be criminally charged and made to pay for their crimes.

    Evelyn Pringle epringle05@yahoo.com

    (Evelyn Pringle is a columnist for Independent Media TV and an investigative journalist focused on exposing corruption in government)

    © Copyright 2005 Independent Media TV Printer Friendly Version

    This sort of stuff gets picked up and reprinted by the smaller papers, and becomes part of the received truth among the anti-vaxers/security moms/VIPS, .

  6. Yep. Such stuff is typical, unfortunately.

    Kev, I like your site, too, which is why I linked to it. My sister, who happens to be a clinical psychologist specializing in autism, also liked it.

    Michelle: Nice response. (I may steal part of it, if you don't mind.) I'll also check your site and may add it to my sidebar...


Popular Posts