This was the year Big Media pitted parents against experts over whether vaccines cause autism -- and decided the experts are right. But they may have forgotten to ask an embarrassingly obvious question.
In its new issue on medicine in 2005, Time weighs in: "The idea that childhood vaccinations might lead to autism has gained currency among some concerned parents, fueled by unsubstantiated reports on the Internet. ... Most scientists are convinced that the shots are safe."
There you have it -- a more telling summary perhaps than Time intended. This was the year of "Parents vs. Research," as the equally estimable New York Times put it in a front-page headline in June.
But beneath this seemingly intractable fault line, the earth has been shifting. One major temblor: The April book "Evidence of Harm" by David Kirby, which painted those parents as armed not just with eyewitness accounts but their own critique of the experts' conflicts and flaws.
In our last column we summarized our take on the issue this way: If you're going to tell those parents it's time to shut up and leave the science to the scientists, where is the simple, straightforward study of autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children?
Given the sheer certitude of federal health authorities and mainstream medical groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, we were surprised we couldn't find comparisons between real-live American kids who've gotten vaccines, and those who haven't. Officials say such a study would be hard to do, in part because so many kids are vaccinated that you couldn't find a "control group" of kids who aren't.
We found tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands.
Our search started among the mostly unvaccinated Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana; moved on to homeschooling families who choose not to vaccinate for religious religions, and wound up in Chicago, where we reported on a medical practice with thousands of unvaccinated children.
We didn't find much autism.
That "finding" -- we use quotes because we know it's not scientific -- has fallen on deaf ears, at least as far as the rest of the media is concerned. Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post -- no major newspaper or magazine has so much as paused to wonder whether never-vaccinated Americans have autism at anywhere near the rate of the rest of the population.
Two exceptions: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in an article in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com, cited the Amish. And Daniel Schulman, in a groundbreaking piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, did the same thing while portraying the media as perhaps too willing to treat what the "experts" say as revealed truth.
While most journalists seem oblivious to the issue, it continues to resonate with those who suspect vaccines -- perhaps via the mercury-based preservative thimerosal -- triggered an autism epidemic:
-- "Those of you who have been following me over the years know that my mantra has always been that there are almost no vaccine safety or efficacy studies using never vaccinated children as controls," wrote Sandy Mintz at vaccinationnews.com. "It has long been my hope that I would somehow be able to make that point to the right person or persons, to appeal to someone who might have the ability to seriously address the problem."
Mintz got her chance at a congressional hearing in 2002.
"Hi. My name is Sandy Mintz. I am from Anchorage, Alaska. I am lucky enough not to have a child who has been injured by a vaccine. My question is, is NIH (National Institutes of Health) ever planning on doing a study using the only proper control group, that is, never vaccinated children?"
Dr. Steve Foote of NIH responded: "I am not aware of -- but note carefully what I said, that I am not aware of -- a proposed study to use a suitably constructed group of never vaccinated children. Now CDC would be more likely perhaps to be aware of such an opportunity."
Responded Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC: "The difficulty with doing such a study in the United States, of course, is that a very small portion of children have never received any vaccines, and these children probably differ in other ways from vaccinated children. So performing such a study would, in fact, be quite difficult."
In her Web posting, Mintz disagreed:
"1) There are more than enough never vaccinated children in the states which allow philosophical exemptions to conduct a proper study.
"2) If children who have not been vaccinated are different in ways that prevent them from getting autism, wouldn't we want to know that?
"Well, wouldn't we?"
-- "There have never been any large, prospective, long-term studies comparing the long-term health of highly vaccinated individuals versus those who have never been vaccinated at all," Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center wrote in Mothering Magazine last year.
"Therefore, the background rates for ADHD, learning disabilities, autism, seizure disorders, asthma, diabetes, intestinal bowel disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and other brain and immune-system dysfunction in a genetically diverse unvaccinated population remains unknown."
-- "Why hasn't the most obvious research been done -- that is, assess the incidence of autism in unvaccinated children?" wrote Illinois autism activist Dr. David Ayoub this fall.
-- Kennedy, in a white paper called "Tobacco Science and the Thimerosal Scandal," quotes University of Kentucky chemistry professor Boyd Haley as saying, "If the CDC were really interested in uncovering the truth, it would commission epidemiological studies of cohorts who escaped vaccination, most obviously the children of Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists or the Amish."
Instead, Kennedy said, the CDC has "worked furiously to quash such studies" and prevent access to its own vaccine safety database -- a charge the CDC denies. Kennedy said he asked an official at the Institute of Medicine -- which last year rejected a vaccines-autism link -- why it didn't encourage those studies rather than recommend research money be redirected.
"That's a great idea, no one has ever suggested it before," Kennedy quoted the official as saying. Kennedy commented: "That statement is incredible. ... The idea of finding an uncontaminated U.S. cohort is Science 101. ... In fact, Dr. Boyd Haley has repeatedly urged IOM and CDC to conduct such a study, including at two public and tape-recorded meetings."
All these people are saying the same thing: Given the stakes, where's the study? This winter the government wants all pregnant women and 6-to-23-month-olds to get flu shots, most of which contain thimerosal.
What's more, as we pointed out in our last column, tens of millions of children worldwide are being injected with thimerosal-containing vaccines every year, largely due to the reassurances of U.S. public health authorities and allied experts like the IOM.
Maybe 2006 will be the year journalists ask them about the autism rate in never-vaccinated American kids. That would be the question of the year.