Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Thimerosal, Part I

Okay then. You have the link to the RFK Jr. Rolling Stone article below.

He begins by describing a meeting in Georgia of "top government scientists and health officials," which he says was held at a Methodist retreat center "to ensure complete secrecy." Oh yeah, there were representatives of vaccine manufacturers there also. It was all "embargoed." Photocopies were prohibited. They were there to discuss a study by CDC epidemiologist Tom Verstraeten, which indicated a link between the preservative thimerosal in vaccines and autism. He supposedly cited a "staggering number of earlier studies" which had indicated a link with speech delays, Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity, and autism, and now, supposedly, he had nailed it down. Kennedy claims in this passage that since 1991, when the FDA recommended additional vaccines for young infants, the incidence (apparently -- he just says the "rate") of autism had increased by 15 times, from one in 2,500 children to one in 166. According to his account of the meeting, the participants focused exclusively on how to cover up these findings, and make sure the public never found out about them.

I haven't had time to even think about reading the transcript of this meeting, which is hundreds of pages long, but the Terrifying Brigand gives a link to a blogger who has. Anyone who is home sick can read the transcript at safe minds dot org. It turns out, according to people who have read the actual transcript, that the "embargo" was, as is the usual meaning of the term, temporary. Verstraeten's results were to be released later that month. It also turns out that the scientists weren't interested in "covering up" these sensational results -- they just doubted them. Most of them were not convinced that any link between thimerosal and autism had been established and they discussed further investigation, not deception.

Now I'm not surprised that Kennedy was able to pluck, from those 250 pages, three or four remarks from people who seemed to be interested in covering their asses or who were concerned about public reaction to the suggestion that thimerosal causes autism. But suppose that is indeed an accurate reflection of the tenor of the entire meeting. Is that in itself evidence that thimerosal causes autism? Of course not. It is merely evidence that some people at the meeting thought it might, back in 1991, and reacted in a less than admirable way. Kennedy is setting up a universe in which government scientists work on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, and are so dedicated to the welfare of the corporations that their unquestioning instinct is to lie to the public when the corporate interests are threatened.

It is true that the FDA (not the CDC, which has other problems) has been corrupted by its relationship with the drug companies. It is a classic problem in politics that regulatory agencies are often captured by the industries they regulate. It is very important for the public -- both consumers and physicians -- to understand this problem, and it is essential that we fix it. But the fact of drug company influence in the federal scientific establishment only makes the idea that the government could have downplayed the risk of thimerosal plausible; it does not make it so.

Next: The scientific record

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