- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

AUTISM’S FALSE PROPHETS: BAD SCIENCE, RISKY MEDICINE AND THE SEARCH FOR A CURE
By Paul Offit, M.D.
Columbia University Press, $24.95, 328 pages
REVIEWED BY MALCOLM A. KLINE

When television personality Jenny McCarthy hits the talk-show circuit promoting the theory that autism is caused by vaccines, she does so with more perceived credibility than the average starlet of the month flogging the cause du jour. Ms. McCarthy draws on her own experience as a parent of a boy diagnosed with autism.

Additionally, she is coming to the same conclusion as an array of politicians on both the left and right. Nevertheless, studies of the suspected link between autism and vaccinations prove that all of these celebrities are wrong.

“Vaccines have been blamed for many diseases for which there is no known cause,” Paul Offit, M.D., said at the American Enterprise Institute on Oct. 10, 2008. “Autism has no known cause.”

Dr. Offit is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. At the center of the public controversy is the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and its key ingredient, at least until about 10 years ago — thimerosol.

“Ten epidemiological studies have shown MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism; six have shown thimerosol doesn’t cause autism; three have shown thimerosol doesn’t cause subtle neurological problems; a growing body of evidence now points to the genes that are linked to autism; and despite the removal of thimerosol from vaccines in 2001, the number of children with autism continues to rise,” Dr. Offit writes in his new book.

That book, “Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search for a Cure,” is published by the Columbia University Press. Dr. Offit is donating all of his royalties from “Autism’s False Prophets” to research of the condition.

“Since the late 1990s, many studies have shown that the rates of autism are the same in vaccinated and unvaccinated children,” Dr. Offit writes. “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine have all issued statements supporting these studies.”

“So the notion that vaccines cause autism isn’t a medical controversy.”

Indeed, it only became one outside of the medical profession when mercury was found in the bloodstream of autistic children.

The results of these lab tests proved to be misleading when: 1. Mercury was found in the bloodstream of children without autism; and 2. Children who were found to have mercury poisoning did not develop autism. Mercury was a key ingredient in the banned thimerosol. Beyond the science, various parties have a lot at stake in the vaccination battles.

“During a congressional hearing chaired by Indiana congressman Dan Burton to investigate the cause of autism, John Tierney, a congressman from Massachusetts, asked if I had vaccinated my own children,” Dr. Offit remembers in his book. “I said I had, stating their names and ages.”

“Never, never mention the names of your own children in front of a group like this,” one of Mr. Tierney’s aides told the doctor during a break. Menacing phone calls to Dr. Offit’s home followed.

As Dr. Offit recounts, others who have made the same case have received similar treatment. What happened is that the vaccine-scare factory has become a billion-dollar industry.

Exploiting the fears of anguished parents, plaintiff’s attorneys and questionable modern-day medicine men offering alleged autism cures have become the chief stockholders in this enterprise. Some of the proposed cures, such as cod liver oil, are relatively harmless.

Others, like draining spinal fluid, can be downright deadly. The idea behind such treatments is to reduce the level of mercury in the child and, hence, the logic goes, the incidence of autism even though, as Dr. Offit shows, the links have been shown to be nonexistent.

“The case against MMR was the first in England’s history in which the Legal Services Commission financed scientific research,” Dr. Offit wrote. “And it will probably be the last.” Great Britain was the locale of the first outbreak of alleged vaccine-induced autism.

“In retrospect, it was not effective or appropriate for [us] to fund research,” the commission concluded. “The courts are not the place to prove medical truths.”

This is an expensive lesson which Americans are still learning. As Dr. Offit shows, reports of autism made to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) emanate from personal injury lawyers.

At the same time that the no-vaccination bandwagon has evolved, children have come down with the very diseases that they would have been inoculated from. For some, exposure was fatal.

Moreover, these machinations come at a time when public health officials warn us that autism is on the uptick. It turns out that a large part of this trend can be traced to the way that autism is defined.

“Since the mid-1990s, the number of children with autism has increased dramatically,” writes Dr. Offit. “Now as many as 1 in every 150 children in the United States is diagnosed with the disorder.”

“Two phenomena likely account for the increase,” Dr. Offit suggests. “First, the definition of autism has broadened to include children with milder, more subtle symptoms.”

This writer recently heard a social worker warn the parents of autistic children to avoid certain doctor’s offices “where 90 percent of the children come out with an autism diagnosis.” What is even less widely known, though, is the degree to which the autism spectrum has expanded on the other end — the more severe cases.

Dr. Offit reminds us that “in the past, children with severe symptoms of autism were often considered mildly retarded.”

“Today, as the number of children diagnosed with severe autism has increased, the number with mental retardation has decreased.” Dr. Offit’s explanation would explain why we hardly ever hear the term “mentally retarded” anymore.

You are not likely to see as much of Dr. Offit as you will of the one-time co-host of MTV’s “Singled Out” but you will learn much more about autism from his book than you will from Jenny McCarthy.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.

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