My item on the alleged thimerosol/autism link yesterday elicited a lot of feedback, and a majority of it was negative. Which is fine – we aims to incite debate.
I got an e-mail today from my good friend, Dr. Will Bower, a medical officer and world class expert on viral hepatitis at a prominent federal health organization (we’re not mentioning it by name because Will is not speaking in an official capacity). Will is legitimately one of the smartest people I know (which is saying something – even if you don’t think I’m all that bright, there’s no arguing the smarts of the crowd I run with), and he wrote to challenge me on the thimerasol link, saying in part:
…look at [this link], which summarizes the Institute of Medicine’s conclusion that there is just no evidence that thimerosal or vaccines in general cause autism. A statement like “thimerosal, which is being increasingly linked to the current explosion of autism cases in the US and abroad,” only feeds into this misconception. Please don’t take this as a criticism; I enjoy your brushback questions and think you should brush Frist back with a question about his backpedaling on stem cell research.
I responded with this:
I know there’s plenty of controversy on this point, and got all kinds of response on the subject. As I told them, I see lots of questions being raised by reputable folks, and while I also respect people like the scientists behind the report you’re forwarding here, it’s also true that autism is an area about which we still don’t know a whole lot. There are other factors in play, as well.
I guess the question I’d ask you is this. Do you believe that thimerosol is not related to autism, or do you believe that such a link has not been sufficiently demonstrated? In other words, if in five years we have solid evidence that it is related, will you be surprised?
To which Will responded:
Yes, I would be surprised if 5 years from now thimerosal was linked to autism. This is an area that I follow and even the theoretical biological basis for this is shaky. You are right – other factors are in play. One that people don’t talk about is that surveillance for and the definition of autism have changed over the last 20 years. That alone could account for the increase in autism cases. Look at the example of attention deficit disorder (ADD); 30 years ago kids weren’t diagnosed with ADD; now half (really closer to a quarter but I have to embellish my point) the kids I know have a diagnosis of ADD. Did ADD not exist 30 years ago? Is it increasing now because of vaccines? Of course not, it’s a combination of under-reporting 30 years ago and over-diagnosing today. Or at least that is my take on it. Again, I would be surprised if a causal link was established between thimerosal and autism.
But hey, I was also surprised no WMDs were found.
Fair enough. Will is dead-on about reporting factors, of course, but I remain curious about the China example noted by Hanchette. Further, Kennedy’s assertions call into question just about everything that the CDC and IOM are claiming, and the political link becomes the agent for whatever then gets reported. That’s the issue – not whether the scientific evidence in the public domain says it is or isn’t, but whether the evidence in play has been co-opted.
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I can easily imagine a large corp and a bigtime pol with a lot to gain or lose gaming the evidence. On the other, I know Bower well enough to be compelled by his statement that this is a subject he follows.
In any case, I suspect this one isn’t going away. Kennedy isn’t exactly a conspiracy-packing loon (although he’s probably not in the Bill Frist Fan Club, either), nor is he lacking in the resources to prosecute the campaign if he feels he’s onto something. We’ll be watching with interest.