Today I finished Evidence of Harm. You know how sometimes you read a book or watch a documentary, and all you can say is, "Wow. Read/watch this, and then you'll definitely agree with me." It's hard to try to summarize, because it's so chock-full of facts. I mean, it's a 400-page book, and not at all a beach read.
For those who don't know, it's a book about thimerosal (mercury) in vaccines and its possible link to autism. I hadn't actually had an opinion on this subject before. People keep assuming this is the reason we don't vaccinate, and it actually isn't. I'm well aware that thimerosal has mostly been phased out of vaccines. I'm just not sure about all the other ingredients, such as squalene, aluminum, and formadehyde, and I am aware that side effects and reactions do happen. For me it's a matter of risk management: the shot has a risk, the disease has a risk, and I try to choose the smallest based on our unique circumstances. Also, John is adamantly anti-vaccine, and considering I make pretty much every other decision regarding the kids, it seemed fair to let his opinions have equal weight there.
Anyway, after reading this book I'm pretty much convinced that autism is triggered by mercury exposure. The theory supported by many of the studies discussed in the book is that autistic children have a genetic inability to eliminate mercury normally, and so exposure to mercury has much more serious effects on them than it has on other children. Mercury is known to cause brain damage, specifically in those areas of the brain that are damaged in autism. So it's pretty credible.
The book is a saga of the parents of autistic children, trying to find a cause and a cure for what has happened to their kids. Along the way, we find out not only their personal stories, but the story of the developing science of autism, and a lot of politics.
I'm not sure what was more shocking to me. First, I was astounded by how much evidence there is for a link between mercury and autism. I thought it was just an idea people had had, but in fact there is a TON of scientific evidence supporting this claim. It's been established that mercury is toxic to the brain, and there are lots and lots of studies to establish this. You can look at symptoms of other instances of mercury poisoning, from mad hatters' disease to pink disease, and see that the symptoms are similar to those of autism. It's been demonstrated that ethylmercury (the type in thimerosal) does cross into the brain and remain there. It's also commonly known that the amount of mercury a child might receive on one day from vaccines, following the recommended vaccine schedule during the 1990's, exceeded the official "safe limit" by orders of ten or even one hundred.
The parents in the book, when they test their children for mercury, discover lots of it. They try chelation (a treatment for heavy metals which binds to toxins and carries them out of the body) and are astounded by the quantities of mercury that pour out of their children. Even more astonishing is the improvement immediately seen in the kids. Some children even have their diagnosis of full-blown, severe autism reversed or replaced by a more minor diagnosis, like ADD.
Later in the book, we actually read of a researcher who managed to induce symptoms of autism in mice by injecting genetically sensitive mice with doses of thimerosal mimicking the amount in the vaccine schedule. Statistical studies, rather than lab results, have been more mixed because of the wide array of confounding factors. It really depends on which way you slice the data. Some studies have supported the link and others haven't. All studies are funded by someone, so as you might expect, the results here tended to be what the people funding them wanted them to be. Certainly what I had heard before -- that thimerosal's safety has been established by lots and lots of scientific studies, while any evidence for a link to autism is circumstantial and unscientific -- is not true. There are many published, peer-reviewed studies which do in fact suggest a link.
So that leads me to the second really shocking part of the book: the political part. Needless to say, this whole affair has been a political nightmare. No one wants to scare parents out of getting vaccines for their children. And apparently no one in any position of power in this country wants to remove the "profit motive" for drug companies to make vaccines. (Incidentally, vaccine manufacturers are doing very well. VERY well. Considering they have a monopoly and everyone is forced to buy their product, it's not surprising.) To preserve this "profit motive," vaccine manufacturers cannot be sued. The CDC, which is supposed to oversee all the vaccine companies, has the same problem I've noticed before in the FDA and USDA -- the same people switch back and forth from heading corporations to holding government positions. The deeper the parents dig, the more they get shut down. The main study used to "prove" that thimerosal isn't linked to vaccines ended up being redone five times. The first time, which was quickly hidden away, showed a strong link. So some individuals were thrown out of the study and the data re-analyzed some more, and the next versions showed a weak link. By the last version of the study, it appeared that thimerosal actually must be protecting kids from autism. Having written this study, the author left the CDC and was hired by GlaxoSmithKline.
This statistical study was based on information in a database called the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD). The information in this database was only available to CDC researchers, and not outside researches. Under pressure, the CDC supposedly allowed access -- but a scientist trying to obtain it would have to undergo years of waiting and so many restrictions as to make research virtually impossible. But any time a scientist would try to publish statistical surveys that suggested a link to autism, the CDC would say, "But you don't have the VSD data, so your study isn't as good as ours." Scientists working on thimerosal-autism studies often got quite promising results. When they tried to publish, initially the response from medical journals would be positive. Then suddenly the paper would be sent back with a brief note saying they'd reconsidered and after all they would not publish. Any "well-respected" journal refused to publish any studies that didn't echo what the CDC wanted. And any journal that did publish such things ... well, it couldn't possibly be well-respected, could it?
I felt like bashing my head against the wall, reading this stuff. But it isn't really surprising. We've seen similar tactics when anyone tries to prove anything suggesting that GMO's aren't safe. When political and financial interests are on one side of a scientific question, it is almost impossible to prove the other side. Studies that will hurt politicians and corporations don't get funded and don't get published. It's actually rather astounding to see the large number of published, peer-reviewed studies that actually did get done here.
If you have any interest in this topic at all, I challenge you to read this book. Like I said, thimerosal has mostly been removed from vaccines (as far as I know, it is still in the flu shot), so it shouldn't keep you from vaccinating your children if you feel this is the safest choice. However, it seems important that the connection between thimerosal and autism should be further studied and established scientifically. First off, this will enable parents of autistic children to receive compensation, either from the government or from vaccine manufacturers, which will help them pay for the many treatments their children need. Second, it will allow more research to be done on treatments for autism. If the theory is correct, autism can be ameliorated, in many cases, by removing mercury from the body with chelation. Some doctors have also had good results with giving children B-12 injections. I can only imagine how the parent of an autistic child might feel, hearing their child speak for the first time or finally meet their eyes. The parents also report that their children are finally appearing happy, for the first time since the onset of their illness.
But if we can't even find a cause, how can we look for a cure?
Anyway, read this book. I can't possibly summarize all the information in it, and it's all fascinating.