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The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away

Posted Feb 11 2011 2:51pm

Who said it was? Backstory: “” is a recent blog post by David Kirby at the Huffington Post. Yes, he’s come back to talk about autism and vaccines.

I say again: who says the debate is going away? The scientific debate on the main issues: thimerosal and the MMR is over. That scientific debate has been over for some time. The rising autism “rate” wasn’t caused by mercury. It wasn’t caused by MMR. Autism isn’t a “novel” form of mercury poisoning. These facts don’t stop activist groups and online discussions, or the debate elsewhere for that matter.

The debate has morphed, however. Do a search on Mr. Kirby’s latest blog post. Search for the word “mercury”. That’s right. It isn’t there. David Kirby main contribution to the discussion was his book: Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. Mr. Kirby has been a major proponent of the mercury hypothesis since he started on that book, fed by research garnered by SafeMinds founder Lyn Redwood.

The debate isn’t going away, but it is getting weaker. And it’s just moving a few goalposts: Let’s play down mercury. Let’s play down MMR. It’s the “Autism-vaccine” debate, not “Mercury in vaccines and the autism epidemic”.

Mr. Kirby does in this blog post what he has done so well for the past few years. He puts the current talking points out there, nicely packaged. Here’s a good example, where he even manages to include a plug for the latest pseudo-research. It’s amazing, really:

That’s because evidence of a vaccine-autism link did not come to them via a 12-year-old study published in a British medical journal, nor from Hollywood celebrities: Not very many had heard of Wakefield until recently.

Some of these parents actually keep up with the science, including a new review of autism studies in the Journal of Immunotoxicology which concludes: “Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis following vaccination.”

Simply amazing. People haven’t heard of Wakefield, but they know about a paper that just came out yesterday in a relatively obscure medical journal? It’s product placement. Very slick. Mr. Kirby plugs this paper as though it is as natural as all the judges on “American Idol” drinking from great big red Coca Cola cups.

He also gets in the “the discussion isn’t all about Wakefield” theme that is in the current responses to the disclosure of fraud in Mr. Wakefield’s research. “Not many people had heard of Wakefield until recently.” As a side note, the obscure Mr. Wakefield appears on 30 pages of Mr. Kirby’s book, Evidence of Harm.

Let’s check whether people have heard about Mr. Wakefield. According to a recent Harris poll (one that Mr. Kirby cites, by the way):

In the new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll, 69 percent of respondents said they had heard about the autism-vaccination theory—but only half (47 percent) knew that the original Lancet study had been retracted, and that some of that research is now alleged to be fraudulent.

The question “Are you aware that the medical journal that published the paper linking vaccines to autism has now withdrawn the paper, and a published account describes the research as fraudulent?” 47% of people asked said yes.

That’s a pretty big number of people who not only (a) knew about Mr. Wakefield’s paper but also (b) knew it had been retracted and described as fraudulent. What other research paper would the public know about in such great numbers, 12 years after publication?

To state the obvious, yes, Mr. Wakefield and his research was known. Well known. It has been a big piece of the vaccines-cause-autism debate.

Here’s the table from that Harris poll question , showing that 47% of people had heard about the retraction and fraud. Even more important, take note of the fact that people who are informed about the retraction and the fraud are much less likely to believe that vaccines cause autism (click image to make big):

Yep, 65% of people who have heard about the retraction and fraud say that the vaccines-cause-autism idea is “not true”. Mr. Wakefield’s work was known and important to the vaccines-cause-autism cause.

Mr. Kirby then goes into the standard talking points of the day: only two vaccines (MMR) and one ingredient (thimerosal) have been explored for relationship to autism, followed closely by a denial that any of those studies were of any value because they are performed by people who have a “vested interest”.

Of course, “vested interests” in those promoting the vaccine hypothesis, both professional and financial (of which Andrew Wakefield is only the most prominent example) are ignored. As we quickly see as Mr. Kirby warns us that the expected SafeMinds response is on the way to the recent paper showing no link between thimerosal exposure and autism.

Mr. Kirby finishes with “The CDC estimates that there are about 760,000 Americans under 21 with an ASD. Even if just 1 percent of those cases was linked to vaccines (though I believe it is higher), that would mean 7,600 young Americans with a vaccine-associated ASD. ”

Yes, Mr. Kirby is adapting. Adapting in much the way that I have said the vaccine-causation community needs to adapt in order to stay alive. They need to abandon the “epidemic” rhetoric. Claim that if there are people with vaccine-induced autism, the number is very small, too small to be picked up by epidemiology.

Rather than really adapt, Mr. Kirby wants to play both sides of this. He wants to say, “what if the number is really small” and say that the data available show that the rise in autism prevalence is correlated with vaccines.

At the risk of being accused of “product placement” myself, I can’t help but bring up an incident discussed in the book “ The Panic Virus “. I don’t have the book handy, so I apologize if I get this not 100% accurate. Seth Mnookin tells of talking to Dr. Jon Poling, father of Hannah Poling, during an AutismOne conference. While Dr. Poling is telling Mr. Mnookin that, yes, the concession in the vaccine court isn’t about causation, David Kirby is giving his talk saying exactly the opposite.

One question I know I will face soon is: why do I bring up David Kirby again? Why not move on from the vaccine debate. In the end it is because of statements like this:

In my opinion, many children with autism are toxic.

After over five years as a self-described member of the autism community, David Kirby still uses damaging language. Children are not “toxic”. Even children who have demonstrated heavy metal poisoning (which autism is not) are not “toxic”. If you touch them, you don’t get poisoned. They are “intoxicated”. But, that doesn’t read well, does it? I’ll say it again, autism is not a form of mercury poisoning. I really don’t need my kid labeled “toxic”.

I don’t know if David Kirby is “anti vaccine” or not. If you notice, I rarely use the term. I don’t care if David Kirby is anti vaccine. It isn’t the label “anti-vaccine” that matters. David Kirby is intellectually dishonest and his actions are irresponsible. On a more personal note, he puts forth an image of autism that is damaging to my kid.

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