“The Autism Vaccine Hoax”

January 9th, 2011 → 1:40 pm @ // No Comments

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has, over the years, been refreshingly outspoken on the subject of vaccines and autism. On December 29, 2003, it published a piece titled “The Politics of Autism” that took an unusually definitive stand on an issue about which most of the media was presenting as an “on the one hand, on the other hand” debate:

This is a story of politics and lawyers trumping science and medicine. It concerns thimerosal, a preservative that was used in vaccines for 60 years and has never been credibly linked to any health problems. Nonetheless, a small but vocal group of parents have taken to claiming that thimerosal causes autism, a brain disorder that impairs normal social interaction. The result has been an ugly legal and political spat that has spilled into Congress and is frightening some parents from vaccinating their children against such deadly diseases as tetanus and whooping cough. …

But their understandable passion shouldn’t be allowed to trump undeniable evidence and damage childhood immunizations that are essential to public health. Vaccine makers stopped using thimerosal a few years ago, but the autism lawsuits threaten those companies with enough damage that their ability to supply vaccines is in jeopardy.

That editorial resulted in such an outpouring of threats and vitriol that the paper responded with another piece, which proved to be sadly prescient, several months later:

Autism is a terrible diagnosis, and we hope science soon gives parents the chance at a cure. But the best way to achieve that goal is through open and honest inquiry that shouldn’t be stopped because of the clamoring of an intolerant few. …

As writers for an independent newspaper, we aren’t about to shut up. But what worries us is that these activists are using the same tactics in an attempt to silence others with crucial roles in public health and scientific research. The campaign to silence or discredit them has already had damaging consequences. …

Yesterday, the Journal used the most recent evidence undermining Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper to take on the issue again. The editorial, titled “The Autism Vaccine Hoax,” is not available online. Here are some excerpts:

Twelve years late, the media and medical community may finally be digging a grave for one of the more damaging medical scares in history. We’re speaking of the vaccines-cause-autism panic, the burial of which cannot come too soon. …

Despite broad evidence even in the 1990s that these claims were unfounded, the medical community was slow to push back. Nervous public-health groups inspired a panic by rushing to get thimerosal out of vaccines. The Lancet stuck by its article, the media sensationalized the story, and Congress joined the cause celebre. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins went so far as to kill a vaccine liability provision so that parents could bring thimerosal suits. Indiana Republican Dan Burton was especially irresponsible in raising public fears. …

Researchers have all the while continued to churn out studies disproving the vaccine-autism link. Vaccine courts have struck down thimerosal claims. Yet it is only recently that professional journals and media have rediscovered a responsibility gene. …

This is a start, but the health community and media have a long way to go to restore public trust in immunizations. They also bear some responsibility for the dollars that have been diverted from research into finding the real causes of the terrible affliction that is autism. Let’s hope they now broadcast the vaccine truth as much as they encouraged the vaccine panic.


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