Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Compound Tragedy

First, apologies for missing a couple of days . . . I was in the country and away from your Internets, which is, from time to time, a good thing. If you really miss me, you can always check out the other blogs I contribute to, Iraq Today, and Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Meanwhile, back at Stayin' Alive, I came across this today from anonymous ink spillers at the NYT News Service. The mishegos about the vaccine preservative thimerosal being the cause of autism has caused even more damage, estrangement between Bob and Suzanne Wright, the founders of the charity Autism Speaks, which is funding legitimate scientific research, and their daughter Katie, mother of an autistic child, who is convinced that thimerosal caused her family's tragedy. Oprah, to her shame, gave Katie a platform for this claim, leading to a public rift which has damaged the charity.

Reading the description of Katie's faith-based commitment to her lost cause is heartbreaking. She is convinced that her son Christian's condition is due to thimerosal because he developed the symptoms of autism after he had been vaccinated. I shouldn't have to comment on the logic of this position. She could equally well blame solid food, toilet training, or El NiƱo. In fact, the thousands of parents who are absolutely convinced that thimerosal made their children autistic base their unshakable faith on this foundation.

The link between thimerosal and autism has not only not been confirmed by any studies, it has been about as convincingly refuted as any proposition can be. People like Robert Kennedy Jr. who promote this slander are motivated by lust for personal fame and fortune.

Parents like Katie are victims, of course. While I am always careful to avoid blaming victims, in many cases we do make ourselves vulnerable because of our ordinary weaknesses. When people see something absolutely devastating happen to a child, their emotional response inevitably contains an element of anger, and anger needs an object. It may not exactly be comforting to have somebody to blame, but it does meet a need. It helps to make sense of something inexplicable, it creates a path that seems to have some purpose. And, of course, the cynical will note that these parents are engaged in a lawsuit that they hope will win them a whole lot of money. They will say their motive is purely about justice, not greed, but it's kind of hard to separate the two under the circumstances.

If the vaccine court awards them a nickel, that will represent a dereliction of duty and a major miscarriage of justice. I doubt it will happen. And then Katie and her fellow crusaders will feel betrayed once again. They will continue to nurse their anger and now it will extend to the federal government, the judges, the mass media, and the entire scientific community. They will see themselves as double and triple victims of an indifferent and dishonest society.

Of course nothing is further from the truth. People in general care deeply about developmentally disabled children and the families who struggle to nurture them. The National Institutes of Health and private foundations fund autism research, tens of if not hundreds of thousands of people donate to research and family services, hundreds of scientists dedicate their lives to understanding the disorder -- or I should say, disorders, because there is likely more than one etiology behind the autism spectrum -- and many tens of thousands of people work hard for low pay to educate, treat and help care for autistic children and adults. But none of that matters to people who need somebody to blame. It is indescribably sad.

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