Julie Delegal: Autism, vaccines, science and doubt

Just when I thought I had reached inner peace about vaccines and autism, the specter of a link has reared its ugly head again — on Twitter, on Facebook, on CNN’s user-generated “iReport” website.

It’s hard enough sorting through autism science. But parents like me, whose children are affected by the potentially devastating neuro-developmental condition, also have to deal with the profound emotions that get triggered by the new allegations.

Years ago, I stayed away from other parents who pursued vaccine-injury litigation on behalf of their autistic children not because I didn’t believe there was a link — at that time, I did.

I stayed away because the very thought of a vaccine-autism link spawned a vicious anger that threatened to engulf me. It took my energy. Energy I needed to help my child.

Last Friday’s headline, posted on CNN’s iReport website, reads, “CDC Autism Whistleblower Admits Vaccine Study Fraud.” As Snopes.com noted, readers see the big, red, CNN logo, and often miss the smaller, black and white caveat: “not verified by CNN.”

Here’s the gist of the CNN iReport piece: Dr. William Thompson is a CDC researcher who authored a landmark study on mercury-containing vaccines like the DTap (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) in 2007. Thompson has apparently told Dr. Brian Hooker, a vocal believer in a different vaccine link, the suspected MMR-autism connection, that the CDC excluded certain data in order to manipulate study results to support the “no correlation” conclusion.

Both the MMR link and the mercury preservative link have been disproven by studies.

But now, Dr. Thompson’s phone calls and emails to Dr. Hooker have many in the autism community questioning the integrity of a 2004 CDC study. That study, which appeared in the journal Pediatrics, largely absolved the MMR from any correlation to autism.

Dr. Hooker posted audio recordings of his interview of Dr. Thompson in a video called “CDC Whistleblower Revealed” on the “Autism Media Channel.”

The video, expertly scored with haunting violin and piano music, is compelling. It invokes images of the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which black men were injected with syphilis by researchers, without the men’s knowledge or consent, so that the researchers could observe the effects of the disease as it progressed.  Like so many horrors in America, Tuskegee occurred because of researchers’ racism.

And race has become part of the “CDC whistleblower” story, too. The video implies that Dr. Thompson was asked to exclude certain data regarding African-American boys with autism. While that snippet of conversation does not appear in the “whistleblower” video, CDC documents do. The narrator, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, concludes that the excluded data would have confirmed his own findings connecting the MMR to autism.

Dr. Wakefield’s study was published in the Lancet in 1998, but was discredited and retracted following a 2010 tribunal of Britain’s General Medical Council. The council found that allegations regarding Dr. Wakefield’s credibility and conflicts of interest had been proved.

Some in the autism community believe that the tribunal’s findings merely evidenced physicians’ attempts to “cover up,” in order to maintain public confidence in immunization programs.

Essentially, Dr. Wakefield’s finding, which he says is confirmed by Dr. Thompson, is that the correlation between the MMR and autism is dependent on the age of the child at the time of vaccination.  For whatever reason, Dr. Wakefield says in the video, some African-American boys are showing a much higher risk for what he believes is MMR-related autism.

The Internet truth-ferret, Snopes.com, rates the Hooker-Wakefield-CDC-autism-whistleblower story as “probably false.”

On Thursday, Dr. Thompson’s attorney issued a release saying that Dr. Thompson denies giving Dr. Hooker permission to record their telephone conversations. The statement says that Dr. Thompson strongly supports public immunization programs, but, “My concern has been the decision to omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub­ group for a particular  vaccine.”

For many parents of children with autism, the question about whether vaccines cause autism is far from settled.

As a writer, I like to cite research-based sources.  I know that including or excluding data can affect a study’s results, which, in turn, can determine what other studies get done in the future.

At the same time, I don’t appreciate heavy-handed videos like “CDC Whistleblower Revealed,” which are aimed at manipulating viewers’ emotions.  There’s a word for these videos: propaganda. And when I feel I’m being proselytized, I tend to doubt the messenger’s credibility.

I would appreciate even less, however, learning that my government and the medical establishment have been lying to the American people about autism and vaccines. So while I still don’t believe the CDC-autism-whistleblower story, memories of that old monster — anger at the medical establishment — are nevertheless resurfacing.

The re-emergence of a possible vaccine link to autism hits us parents in our guts. We can’t help but wonder whether it’s true.  And if it is true, how much time have we lost? How much science have we forsaken? Would our children’s lives look different now if researchers had traveled the scientific road not taken?

We parents need science we can rely on. We need answers.

What we don’t need is CNN sponsoring yet-to-be-validated claims about a CDC whistle-blower. At least not without a much bigger, much more visible, website disclaimer. Not to mention some very thorough follow up from the organization’s investigative journalists.

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Julie Delegal


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