There’s an article in the past weekend’s New York Times Magazine that’s pretty disappointing, both because of its sensationalism and because I feel it puts enough baseless doubt in the minds of parents to cause actual harm to their kids.

The article, “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory”, drags out the question of a link between neurologic damage and thimerosal, a preservative that used to be used in vaccines. This isn’t the sensationalism; there is a real question of the safety of thimerosal due to its organic mercury content. Rather, the sensationalism is represented by the baseless leap that the Times author makes between the generic notion of neurologic damage and the specific entity of autism. (To his credit, it’s the same baseless leap made by countless of people in web discussion groups, not to mention thousands of personal injury lawyers.) The idea of vaccine-related autism has only ever been raised as a consequence of one single vaccine (the MMR), and even that has been debunked with the only actual clinical data that’s been gathered on the topic. And the data supporting thimerosal-preserved vaccines as a cause of neurologic damage in infants is weak at best (many vaccinologists feel that it was the need for public confidence in vaccines and the strength of the fear of lawsuits, rather than the strength of any data, that led to its removal from all the routine childhood vaccines).

The most concerning part of this is that the article makes nothing but a single, tangential reference to the fact that thimerosal has been removed from all routine infant vaccines in the United States. Without knowing that there’s no thimerosal in routine use, parents who become concerned by what they read in the article are going to withhold vaccines from their children; that means more morbidity and mortality from H. flu meningitis and invasive pneumococcal disease, not to mention diseases like tetanus and hepatitis. The return of preventable diseases as a consequence of overt conjecture would be a real tragedy.

Comments and TrackBacks

Jason- there was commentary on NPR on Monday with essentially the same concerns, but without as much substance as you gave to the issue. It does seem like a poor choice for the Times to report as it did.

• Posted by: Gen on Nov 13, 2002, 2:21 PM

I’m with you. I think we are hard-wired to notice patterns, even when they’re not there. Given the volume of anecdotal evidence (the worst kind) and the mysteries of autism, it’s no surprise that people discern a correlation.

Going further afield, if all 6 month olds in the U.S. were required to go to a doctor and sip water from a yellow dixie cup, I’ll bet that the plaintiff’s bar would quickly argue there is a correlation between drinking from yellow dixie cups and x disease (pick a disease, any disease4 that does not manifest until the age of one or so.)

• Posted by: Steve on Nov 13, 2002, 6:03 PM

debunking the autism-vaccination link

• Pinged by anil dash's daily links on Nov 13, 2002, 7:08 PM
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