Autism: The Unlikely New Campaign Issue

It's no surprise that all three presidential candidates have said the case isn't closed on whether childhood vaccines cause autism or not, according to Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: the Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Thank you, Mark. Well done. On the campaign trail, candidates are asked about, well, everything. Yesterday, we found out that the Secret Service frowns on Hillary Clinton pumping her own gas. Barack Obama says he's open to the entire question of whether we need pennies. John McCain's favorite movie is "Paths of Glory."

So, of course, they'll be asked about an issue that is vitally important to millions of Americans, the parents and relatives of the estimated one in every 150 kids affected by autism. Here's Barack Obama offering his take on the causes of the disease.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There are some people who are suspicious that it's connected to vaccines and triggers. But the science right now is inconclusive.

PESCA: All of the presidential candidates have offered some version of that statement. The problem is the major researchers and authorities don't consider the science inconclusive. Parents are understandably worried about this.

But the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, they're not as ambiguous as all the candidates would have you believe. Arthur Allen writes for the Washington Independent, and is the author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver." Thanks for joining us, Arthur.

Mr. ARTHUR ALLEN (Columnist, Washington Independent; Author, "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver"): Pleasure.

PESCA: We heard from Barack Obama there. I will read you a John McCain quote. McCain, at a Texas town hall meeting on February 29th, said the cause of autism, quote, "We go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines." Well, you're the expert. What evidence?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, the evidence is pretty strong that the preservative has nothing to do with autism. This is a preservative called thimerosal. It contains some ethyl mercury. And it was basically removed from childhood vaccines by the beginning of 2002, and the rates of autism diagnoses have continued to soar since then. And there are a number of explanations for that, but that's just one piece of data out of many studies that have shown that thimerosal has nothing to do with autism.

Which isn't to say that it's not possible that, in some rare instance, it did, or the vaccines did, and some that have caused reactions that led to autistic symptoms in some kids, but very rarely, and the idea that this whole increase that we're seeing in the numbers of diagnoses of autism has to do with vaccines is just really wrong.

PESCA: So is it irresponsible then for a politician to say it's very inconclusive? Or John McCain to bring up the idea of vaccines? And Hillary Clinton has said the same thing about, well, we don't know. We should study it. Is it irresponsible for a major political figure to play Doubting Thomas on this issue?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, I think it is irresponsible. I think you can always say, well, let's study it more. And I mean, you can understand why a politician would say, let's study this more, because their constituents, that is a lot of voters, are concerned about this. And a lot of voters have what, in my opinion, is erroneous information. But nevertheless, they still believe this. They want more study. And to a degree, I mean, politicians are there to serve their constituents.

So I can kind of understand it. I wouldn't completely slam the politicians for sort of couching it that way. But I think it is dangerous and irresponsible to suggest that there is really any strong information at this point that points in that direction because then the threat is that, you know, people are going to stop vaccinating their kids, and that can have really serious implications.

PESCA: Right, if our president or the people running for president start raising these issues about vaccines, it's not just as if, oh, they got it wrong. What if people start acting on their advice, and you were talking about, if fewer and fewer children are vaccined? That has public-health consequences. And then that would be an issue for the president to have to address, right?

Mr. ALLEN: Right. I mean, what are we going to do? I mean, in England, there was a big scare over the MMR vaccine, and the rates of vaccination against measles went down to about 80 percent. Measles is an extremely contagious disease, and so they've had outbreaks of measles in England and several people have died.

PESCA: Exactly coinciding when the vaccine stopped being taken.

Mr. ALLEN: Yes.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. And that can happen here. I mean. This year, there have been - I've heard of at least five areas around the country where there have been small measles outbreaks. Nobody's been killed. I don't know if there have even been any hospitalizations. I think there have been. But nobody's died yet. But I mean, it's only a matter of time if this sort of steamroller of people getting panicked about vaccines and then not vaccinating their kids continues.

PESCA: There are times when you said, well, you could you argue with, you know, we need more research? That's true. I mean, who wouldn't want more research? But there are times when the public hears a politician saying that and regards that as a dodge. And maybe it's not at the time the politician says it. Maybe it takes a couple years. There's a famous thing that the man who's the president of the United States now said during a debate in the year 2000.

(Soundbite of presidential debate)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Some of the scientists I believe, Mr. Vice President, haven't they been changing their opinion a little bit on global warming? I mean, look, global warming needs to be taken very seriously. But science, there's differing opinions. And before we react, I think it's best to have the full accounting, full understanding of what's taking place.

PESCA: Arthur Allen, do you see a parallel between talking about global warming as, the science is still out, with talking about autism and vaccines with the phrase, the science is still out?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, I do. I mean, the science so far is clear against any links. And, I mean, it's a little different because global warming is kind of an overwhelming thing that you have to, I mean, where there's - it either is true or it isn't, and the evidence shows that it is.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. ALLEN: With vaccines, there could be rare cases where kids have been made autistic by vaccines.

PESCA: So this gets into the proving a negative problem.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, exactly. You can't probe absolutely that it never happened. I mean, that's just impossible. Science can't do that. But the best tools that science has have been used to look into this question, and, you know, as they say in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," the Lord answered your prayers. The answer was no.

PESCA: Do you have any idea - you can't get in their heads. But do you have any idea what the politicians really know about this? Or do you think that they're just being told to say the popular thing?

Mr. ALLEN: I don't think they know very much, and I think the information is confusing because the CDC, the scientists, are very guarded because, as I said, you can't prove a negative, so they hedged a little bit when they put out the information.

And so then the other side is very well funded, very, you know, bitter, very conspiratorial, spreading a lot of information. So what's the politicians - I don't think the politicians, or their aides, for that matter, probably have a very good handle on this. It's pretty complicated stuff.

PESCA: All right, Arthur Allen, thanks for helping us make a little more sense of it.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

PESCA: Arthur Allen is a writer for the Washington Independent and the author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Life Saver."

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Stay with us. Coming up next on the show, time to get your buzz on, a look at the awesome stuff on the Internet with a man who knows awesome when he sees it, Scott Lamb from BuzzFeed. It'll be coming up next on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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