Denver's Rocky Mountain News says it's time to get over fears that a mercury-based preservative in flu vaccines could harm children or pregnant women. Its editorial on Sunday perfectly capsulates one side of what has become an increasingly heated debate.
"We'd rather get our medical advice from doctors than from legislators, if it is all the same to you," the editorial began. "But legislators may not only offer medical advice, they may compel the entire state of Colorado to follow it, in the form of a misguided and unnecessary bill that would ban, except in emergencies, the use of vaccines containing more than a trace amount of mercury for children younger than three and pregnant women."
Say what you want about putting mercury in shots for kids and pregnant moms -- and we've said before it seems like an odd choice -- there's another question surfacing as more states debate a ban on the preservative, called thimerosal.
That question is simple: Who runs this joint?
Explicit in the paper's position is that legislators should not be in the business of offering medical advice. Implicit is the idea that the experts are invariably right and that meddlers who question them -- the "you" in "if it's all the same to you" -- need to butt out.
Know-nothing politicos are an easy target. But here's the deal: The people elect representatives to enact their will -- that's why they're called "Representative so-and-so."
So "legislators" are not just some special-interest group that can be airily dismissed. When you tell legislators to put a sock in it, you're telling citizens to back off and let the experts run things.
But the experts aren't in charge, friends, and every so often the people decide to remind them of it. The experts are a collection of public and private individuals and organizations who inevitably have competing interests -- interests that the editorial fails to acknowledge. The doctors, and their American Academy of Pediatrics, give and promote the shots in question.
The health bureaucracies at the state and national levels have a mission -- prevent infectious disease by increasing vaccination coverage and adding more vaccines to the mandatory childhood schedule. Preventing infectious disease is a vital mission, but one that conceivably could run counter to grueling self-examination.
The pharmaceutical companies have a stake; the insurance companies have a stake; the researchers have a stake, since many of them are funded by some of these same parties to the debate.
Of course they're all entitled to a respectful hearing. But why are we genuflecting before them and brushing off thousands of parents who claim that thimerosal made their child autistic? Because "anecdotes" don't count, according to the experts; only their studies do.
Putting that dubious view aside, it's worth noting that the studies are vulnerable to their own criticisms. And where is the data that shows giving thimerosal to pregnant women and young children is safe?
As we pointed out recently, even the experts acknowledge uncertainty about that -- in a paper titled, "Vaccine Safety Controversies and the Future of Vaccination Programs," in the November 2005 issue of The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. The authors include experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- which sets the childhood immunization schedule -- and the World Health Organization -- which vaccinates tens of millions nationwide.
"Thimerosal has been used for (more than) 60 years in infant vaccines and in other applications and has not been associated with adverse health effects in the general population ...
But they add: "It should also be borne in mind that the risks of thimerosal-containing vaccines to the fetus, premature infant and low-weight infant have insufficiently been studied."
The Rocky Mountain News editorial finesses such concerns with this statement: "Remember that when scientists say evidence is 'inconclusive' they aren't saying they, personally, are unsure; they're merely being cautious and precise." Scientific certainty despite inconclusive evidence ... that's a good thing?
You also have to wonder about the experts' concern about all things mercury -- except the ethyl mercury in thimerosal. Pediatricians and nurses groups are up in arms over what they consider the Bush Administration's failure to tighten regulations on power plant emissions that send mercury into the atmosphere as a byproduct.
"Many young children exposed to mercury before birth will suffer subtle but irreversible brain damage. Preventing this tragedy, which affects not only families but entire communities, should be a national priority," said Barbara A. Blakeney, president of the American Nurses Association. Just not ethyl mercury, just not in vaccinations.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower raised a relevant issue in his farewell address in 1961. The context then was what he called the military-industrial complex, but the implications are wide-ranging.
"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded," he said.
"Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." The only remedy, he said, was "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry."
We like Ike, if it's all the same to you.