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Dr. Bernadine Healy talks about vaccines and autism…or does she?

Posted Sep 01 2009 3:50pm

Vaccines and autism: publicity of the topic just got a “shot in the arm” this weekend with a story on Dateline. As part of the story, Dr. Bernadine Healy was interviewed.

Dr. Healy has called for more research into the proposed vaccine-autism link. She has some good credentials (former head of the National Institutes of Health)

Take a look at what she had to say.

I really want people to actually watch her before reading my opinions. I’m very interested in what other people see, untainted by my opinion.

Did you watch? OK, go ahead.

My view: She sounds like a politician on a stump speech. She makes her “constituency” think that she made a commitment when, in fact, she never does.

“ the area of autism, and in the area of vaccines, there are many many questions that need to be answered and they need a broad base of science.”

Does she ever say, “we need to research vaccines as a cause of autism”? No. She doesn’t. She mentions autism and she mentions vaccines, but doesn’t really put them together.

Another statement, in talking about vaccine safety:

“ is about understanding if something is happening that we need to address in a small subset”

Her words are very imprecise, letting the reader interpret as he/she will.

“small subset”. Some will hear that and think, “children with autism, that’s the small subset” and the “take away” message will be, “she supports the idea of vaccines causing an epidemic of autism”. It’s possible that “small subset” means a small subset of autistics. In other words, she might be accepting the data that shows vaccines haven’t caused an epidemic of autism. It’s possible that “small subset” is the very small subset of people who are injured by vaccines, some of whom are autistic and some of whom are not. In which case, what she said isn’t controversial at all.

We just can’t tell what she meant from what she said.

And, yet, many would could come away thinking that her statement supports their side.

Perfect politician speak. Very reminiscent of the style Sentator McCain used in his comments courting the autism vote in the last U.S. presidential election.

Dr. Healy has not always been so cautious with her words. When she first appeared on the autism scene, she made accusations against the Institute of Medicine. She also made statements about young children having no risk for Hepatitis B, questioning the need for that vaccine. There are more examples, but these two serve the point: when we make specific statements, we run the risk of being wrong.

The rest of the interview was mostly “mom and apple pie” statements about good communication with parents, pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

She also talks about vaccines and how there are “questions that must be addressed”. See what I mean about how that sounds like a politician? What questions must be addressed? The listener is likely to fill in the blank and feel that Dr. Healy made a statement supporting, say, questions about vaccines potentially causing autism.

Contrast Dr. Healy’s non-statements to the statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the Dateline website.

August 2009

Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics to “Dateline”

The immunization schedule is considered the ideal schedule for healthy children. It is designed to stimulate children’s immune systems so they will not suffer illness, disability and death from vaccine-preventable diseases. The recommended immunization schedule is based on the latest scientific research. There is no scientific evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of alternative schedules. Delaying vaccines leaves babies unprotected when they are most vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases such as hepatitis B (a liver infection), rotavirus (severe diarrheal disease), whooping cough and bacterial meningitis.

Autism is a devastating, poorly understood neurodevelopmental condition. It is upsetting for families not to know what caused their child’s autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports additional research to investigate genetic and environmental factors that may affect the developing brain. While it is likely that there are many environmental factors that influence the development of autism, vaccines are not the cause of autism. We know this because many careful and repeated studies show no link between vaccines and autism. Specifically, numerous studies have refuted Andrew Wakefield’s theory that MMR vaccine is linked to bowel disorders and autism. Every aspect of Dr. Wakefield’s theory has been disproven.

The AAP wants parents to have complete, science-based information so they can make the best decision for their child about immunization. The AAP urges parents who have questions about vaccines to talk to their pediatrician. For more information, visit

See the difference between Dr. Healy’s interview and the AAP statement? The AAP said something concrete. They said that Wakefield’s theory has been disproven. They say that they support additional research into genetic and environmental factors.

Having done so, the AAP will almost certainly have their message picked apart and misinterpreted.

For example, one common attack I would expect to see is “if they don’t know what causes autism, how can they say that vaccines didn’t cause an autism epidemic?” This comes up enough that I have a handy counterexample: I, for one, feel safe in not applying research funding into the “refrigerator mother” theory, even though we don’t know what causes autism. I will go out on a limb and state that it is likely that most autism parents and autistics would agree with me on that. See, one can reject some ideas even without a complete understanding of autism.

What I really expect is for some people to jump on the “environmental factors” statement by the AAP. David Kirby, for one, has made a mini-career out of collecting such statements. Each time it is evidence of a “new” position on the possibility of environmental causes of autism by one group or another, Mr. Kirby jumps on it and adds it to his list.

I guess this hasn’t happened with this statement by the AAP because because this isn’t a new position. For example, this past May they stated, “A complex collection of variables, both genetic and environmental, have been associated with the development of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).”. This statement is a part of the FAQ (frequently asked questions) on the AAP autism website.

I was amazed then that Mr. Kirby didn’t extrapolate wildly on the “environmental” statements by the AAP.He tends to leave it implied that anyone who accepts “environmental causes” of autism is referring to events that happen to young children and not, as is most often the case in the studied environmental risk factors, prenatal events. Mr. Kirby tends to imply that anyone who agrees that there are environmental risk factors likely supports his contention that mercury causes autism.

In other words, he tends to claim support for his ideas even where there is none.

But, enough about Mr. Kirby. At least he sometimes makes definitive statements. Yes, he likes to hide behind the cloak of “what if” statements that are supposed to be “sparking a national debate”. But, he can and does occasionally make hard statements, unlike Dr. Healy in her interview.

The CDC also submitted a statement to Dateline
. It too has concrete statements:

August 26, 2009

NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
Suite 325W-1
NY, NY 10112

CDC Statement on Vaccine Safety, Thimerosal and Autism

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention we understand that autism and autism spectrum disorders place a heavy burden on many families.

Despite compelling scientific evidence against a link between vaccines and autism, some parents wonder if vaccines could have caused their children to develop autism. The suggestion that MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine could be related to autism was initially raised in a 1998 article by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues. Several subsequent studies by independent researchers, however, have not found an association. A study that included the same laboratory that was involved in Wakefield’s original studies was not able to replicate the original findings. Concerns have been raised about possible biases in the study by Wakefield, and 10 of the coauthors of the 1998 article have published a formal retraction of the article’s conclusions. A review by the Institute of Medicine in 2004 concluded that the evidence indicates that MMR vaccine does not cause autism.

In early 2000, concerns were raised that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been used in some childhood vaccines, could cause autism. Numerous studies have found no association between thimerosal exposure and autism. Since thimerosal was removed from all U.S. childhood vaccines by 2002 (with the exception of the flu vaccine), we have not seen a decline in children being identified with autism, indicating that thimerosal is unlikely to be related to autism.

The CDC supports research to better understand the causes of autism and to develop more effective treatments. Early intervention is critical and research is our best hope for understanding the causes of autism. Through collaborations with partners in government, research centers, and the public, CDC is focusing on three areas: 1) understanding the frequency and trends of autism spectrum disorders, 2) advancing research in the search for causes and 3) improving early detection and diagnosis.

CDC places a high priority on vaccine safety and the integrity and credibility of our vaccine safety research. CDC, along with other federal agencies, is committed to assuring the safety of vaccines through rigorous pre-licensure trials and post-licensure monitoring. This commitment not only stems from our scientific and medical dedication, it is also personal—for most of us who work at CDC are also parents and grandparents. We too, are concerned about the health and safety of children.

Frank Destefano, M.D., M.P.H. Edwin Trevathan, M.D., M.P.H.
Director Director

Immunization Safety Office, CDC National Center on Birth Defects
& Developmental Disabilities, CDC

Again, unlike Dr. Healy, the CDC makes definitive statements. On statement I am surprised I haven’t read people pointing out the “burden” statement.

I also am surprised I haven’t heard people jump on some other statements. Specifically, “understanding the frequency and trends of autism spectrum disorders”. That’s a perfect opening for people to claim that the CDC believes there could be a vaccine-caused epidemic of autism.

Most people tend to just equate the idea of the autism rate increasing with vaccines and or mercury. So, if anyone were to say, “so-and-so thinks the autism rate may be increasing”, they usually are trying to imply, “so-and-so thinks that vaccines cause autism”.

Well, guess what, the CDC does think it is possible that the autism rate is increasing. That’s why they are monitoring the autism rate.

But, bringing this back to Dr. Healy. I am on the one hand pleased that she didn’t make her false statements about the IOM or other unfounded comments. On the other hand, I would hope that if MSNBC thought it valuable to interview her, they would have found it valuable to get her to actually say something concrete.

It is interesting to look at the blog post on the Age of Autism blog about this. They show the video, with no commentary other than the title: “Dr. Bernadine Healy Implies Hubris on Part of Docs Who Deny Vaccine Autism Possibility”.

Even they couldn’t pull a concrete conclusion out of this interview. The strongest statement they are left with is “implies hubris”.

If AoA can’t spin this interview into a strong statement, it’s pretty clearly a fairly empty interview.

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