Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Science News II

The Columbia Journalism Review has a lengthy article about the controversy over mercury-laden childhood vaccines and their link, or lack thereof, to the incredible increase in autism nationwide.

If you haven't been following this story, here's something that may startle you:

Since the late 1980s the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased sixty-fold, from one in every 10,000 in 1987 to one in every 166 in 2003. Much of this spike overlaps with a period when, due to recommendations by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, the number of suggested immunizations on the childhood vaccination schedule more than doubled, raising the doses of mercury that some children received to levels that far surpassed federal standards for mercury exposure... Until the late 1990s, health officials were unaware of the total amount of mercury children were receiving in their vaccinations. It’s not unreasonable to ask how this went unnoticed, and unreported, for so long. The answer is simple: no one had ever done the arithmetic.
The author goes on to describe the state of the research and why the CDC's statement, that no link between mercury and autism has been found, didn't end the issue right there. Also alarming is his report on the extent to which journalists have been discouraged by groupthink from covering this story.
Some reporters who have portrayed this as an ongoing scientific controversy have been discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly “career-ending” and described butting heads with superiors who believed that the reporter’s coverage — in treating the issue as a two-sided debate — legitimized a crackpot theory and risked influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments for their autistic sons and daughters. The reporter has decided against pursuing stories on thimerosal, at least for the time being. “For some reason giving any sort of credence to the side that says there’s a legitimate question here — I don’t know how it becomes this untouchable story, I mean that’s what we do, so I don’t understand why this story is more touchy than any story I’ve ever done.”
I fail to see how covering this story could discourage parents from immunizing their children, since mercury-free vaccines now exist, and many states are now outlawing the use of mercury as a preservative in vaccines.

Read the whole thing.


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