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It's time to fight back against anti-vaccine crackpots.

By 1.17.08

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Grant the anti-childhood vaccine fanatics this, they are dogged. No amount of data, no number of studies from any array of sources will sway them from their assertions that thimerosal, a mercury-containing vaccine preservative once used in many such injections, is causing the so-called "autism epidemic."

A devastating California Department of Public Health study in the current Archives of General Psychiatry hasn't swayed them either. Lynne Redwood, co-founder of one anti-vaccine website, warned the Baltimore Sun, "Our children are still getting exposed to mercury." She cautioned against "clos[ing] the books on thimerosal," even though the study has slammed them shut.

But, for the rest of us there are two valuable lessons here. First, the lack of a thimerosal connection to the developmental disorder has once again been proved. Second, anti-vaccine activists are truly fanatical. As a British Medical Journal book reviewer rightly said, they live in an "angry and paranoid universe."

Anti-vaccinators like Redwood operate over 150 websites. Many of these sites claim not only a thimerosal-vaccine connection but a Massive World Wide Conspiracy to cover up the alleged link. The paranoiacs have sent death threats to Public Health Service officials who subsequently quit their jobs in fear.

In the face of such fears, thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines as of March 2001 (except flu shots, which contain a trace amount). This allowed a before and after comparison. The angry paranoids and those who make a living catering to them confidently declared that soon the data would show a dramatic drop in diagnoses.

Indeed they quickly asserted that the data had done so, as did former New York Times writer David Kirby, author of the influential 2005 book Evidence of Harm -- Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.

Never mind that this alleged peak, in 2002, came far too early to have reflected cessation of thimerosal use.

Later the father-son team of Drs. Mark and David Geier published a study they claimed showed a dramatic 35 percent drop, also beginning in 2002.

The Geiers make their living as expert witnesses and consultants for lawyers making vaccine harm claims against the government's National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Big surprise.

NOW THAT THERE has been enough time for serious study, the news is good for parents and bad for the fearmongers. The Archives study evaluated autistic children referred to the state's Developmental Services System and covered the years 1995 to March of 2007. Children as young as age 3 were evaluated. If thimerosal-preserved vaccines cause autism, the researchers said, diagnoses should have started falling in 2004 -- not 2002.

But there has been no plummet, no decline, no leveling. There hasn't been the least bit of decrease in the increasing number of cases of autism.

"We are reassured that we found no link between routine childhood vaccination and increases in childhood autism in the data," study lead author and California DPH Medical Officer Robert Schechter, a physician, told the medical e-zine WebMD.

Nor are these findings anomalous. As the Archives paper noted, "Our findings are in concordance with the rigorous 2004 review of at least 12 previous published and unpublished studies by the IOM Immunization Safety Committee, which concluded that the body of evidence rejected a causal relationship between [thimerosal containing vaccines] and autism."

Included in the IOM review were three studies looking at the entire populations of Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. In all three countries thimerosal-containing vaccines were discontinued in the late 1990s and in all three, as with California, autism rates climbed at the same pace as before.

None of which has done the least to dampen the ardor or arrogance of the anti-vaccinationists, who in fairness aren't all nuts. Some of them are just opportunists.

Included in the opportunistic category are environmentalists such as the Environmental Working Group and individuals like environmental crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Scaring parents over thimerosal in vaccines is intended to buttress their campaign against coal-fired power plants.

The farcical relationship here is that thimerosal comprises about 50 percent ethyl mercury, while the stuff from power plants that gets into fish that pregnant women are warned about eating is called methyl mercury.

Despite the difference of merely one letter (you know, like "cat" and "rat"), scientists say there is a drastic difference in how each is metabolized and thus their potential for harm. That said, the Maternal Nutrition Group, a coalition of nutrition groups and experts including several federal agencies, last October concluded a review of studies by recommending that pregnant women eat far more fatty fish than they do, citing in part a low risk even from methyl mercury.

But the driving force against sound medicine remains that angry paranoid universe that effectively opposes all vaccinations. Critics also fiercely target the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella), insisting it, too, causes autism -- though MMR never contained thimerosal.

The most recent "expert" to weigh in on that is former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who demonstrated her 38-C IQ in claims on Oprah and in her best-selling book. She's part of the bizarre segment of our society that sees childhood vaccines as some sort of black magic and have latched onto the unquestionable rise in autism rates to make the point.

Indeed, the single group most affiliated with this branch of thinking, that published the Geier paper in its online journal, is the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Inc. It has its roots in the old anti-fluoridation far right which really did consider fluoridation as Communist plot.

Yet the evidence has long pointed to genetics as being the overwhelming causation factor in autism, evidence strengthened by three studies published in the January 10 American Journal of Human Genetics.

As to the indisputably large increase in autism diagnoses, the so-called "autism epidemic," "diagnoses" appears to be the key word. Over the years, the definition of the disorder been expanded. The increase in autism diagnoses in kids has paralleled a decrease in mental retardation diagnoses. Growing awareness of the problem has also led to identification and labeling of cases that once were missed.

One shouldn't have to add that increased identification and proper diagnosis of a problem is a good thing.

ANTI-VACCINE ADVOCATES have scared parents throughout not only the U.S. but many other countries into refusing to vaccinate their children. These parents become free riders, relying on those parents who do vaccinate to keep diseases at bay through "herd immunity." That means that immunization rates in the wider population are high enough (for example, 85 percent for diphtheria) to protect those not immunized.

But if enough people free ride, then herd immunity is lost and what follows is the return of childhood diseases we hardly think about anymore. Diseases like pertussis have made comebacks in countries as diverse as the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Japan, and Sweden after vaccination scares. Better known as "whooping cough," pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing. (Listen to it here.) Pertussis cases went from fewer than 8,000 in the U.S. in 2001 to over 25,000 in 2005.

Vaccine fearmongers won't acknowledge any of this. Many even claim vaccines never brought these diseases under control in the first place and therefore play no role in keeping them in check.

Appealing to such people is impossible, but the damage can be limited by appeals to those susceptible to their vicious and false propaganda. The Public Health Service needs to start a public interest campaign to fight back. If only they could find a spokesperson with a 39-D IQ...

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About the Author

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a nationally syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.