What the Autism Studies Show Isn't Reflected in What the Candidates Say

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Two leading presidential candidates have now wandered into an exceptionally emotional medical debate in which they have no known scientific expertise. Several advocacy groups and families of children with autism are embroiled in a long-running court case seeking billions of dollars in damages because of alleged links between autism and a preservative in vaccines given to children at a young age. While some doctors have testified that there is a link, the medical establishment in the form of the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dismissed the allegations as scientifically unfounded.


The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has set aside $2.5 billion to compensate children suffering from autism and a number of other illnesses if it can be demonstrated that their condition is caused by vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, usually administered between ages 1 and 2. The fund is financed through a 75 percent tax on vaccine doses. In November, the court agreed to compensate a 9-year-old Georgia girl, Hannah Poling, after concluding her underlying illness may have been aggravated by the vaccines, predisposing her to autism-like symptoms.

Whatever the outcome of the court case, the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that there is no proven link between autism and the vaccines, which include a preservative known as thimerosal that contains mercury. Edwin Trevathan, a senior CDC official, told reporters in March that the Poling case did not demonstrate any link between vaccines and autism.

At least five major studies have found no link between autism and thimerosal. A study released by the California Department of Public Health in January found that the autism rate in children continued to rise even after vaccine manufacturers stopped using thimerosal in childhood vaccines after 2001.

According to the CDC, "there's no convincing scientific evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site." Similar conclusions have been reached by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration.

According to Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the connection between vaccines and autism is nothing more than a sad coincidence. Offit told CNN in March that 20 percent of children with autism "regress between their first and second birthday," at more or less the same time that they receive their vaccine shots.

"Statistically, it will have to happen where some children will get a vaccine. They will have been fine. They will get the vaccine, and they will not be fine anymore. And I think parents can reasonably ask the question, 'Is it the vaccine that did this?' "


The alleged link between thimerosal and autism has spawned numerous investigations, including a sensational Rolling Stone article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. asserting that the government was engaged in a medical coverup. The scientific debate will continue, but the body of evidence assembled so far suggests no proven link. Both McCain and Obama are wrong to suggest that the scientific verdict is still hanging in the balance.

ONE PINOCCHIO: Some shading of the facts; TWO PINOCCHIOS: Significant omissions or exaggerations; THREE PINOCCHIOS: Significant factual errors; FOUR PINOCCHIOS: Real whoppers; THE GEPPETTO CHECK MARK: Statements and claims contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company