If you think it’s just about mercury in vaccines, you’re wrong

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These posts will be interspersed with occasional fresh material. This post originally appeared on July 20, 2005.

Today in Washington, there will be a march, called (with unintentional irony) the Power of Truth march. Its organizers claim that it will be to “protest the use of mercury in vaccines” (never mind that the mercury was taken out of nearly all vaccines in the U.S. by early 2003 and in Denmark and Canada in the 1990’s) and about raising awareness of the claimed link between mercury in childhood vaccines and autism. (In actuality, I suspect the real purpose of this march is to try to get legislation passed to allow lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies by parents of “mercury-damaged” children, but that’s just my suspicion.) One thing the mercury-autism crowd goes out of its way to claim is that it’s not “anti-vaccine.” Speakers at this rally, such as David Kirby and Boyd Haley go out of their way to claim that they are not “anti-vaccination.” Perhaps they even believe it. However, their rhetoric on the issue of mercury as a suspected cause of autism belies that claim, as does their association with others whose rhetoric is even more heated, calling autism a “silent Holocaust” and those who consider the evidence being touted as “proof” of a link between mercury in vaccines in autism “autism holocaust deniers.” Even at best, their overheated hype of very weak to nonexistent evidence for mercury in childhood vaccines as an etiological agent resulting in autism encourages the real anti-vaccination crowd, making the anti-thimerosal activists in some cases “useful idiots” to the true cause of eliminating vaccines. At their worst, they encourage quackery and the peddling of bogus “cures” for autism like chelation therapy to desperate parents.

These thoughts came to mind when I came across this discussion on the James Randi Educational Foundation forums, where I discovered just how pervasive antivaccination attitudes are on some discussion boards. I had known this from my past involvement in debunking quackery on Usenet on newsgroups such as misc.health.alternative and on altie websites like Whale.to and CureZone, but I hadn’t encountered it on this sort of forum before. For instance, on the parenting forum Mothering.com, there was this disturbing challenge about vaccines posted by someone using the ‘nym Jen123 who was identified as a “Senior Member” (registration required if you want to see the actual forum):

Mercury seems to be getting tons of coverage. When that deal is settled and we win, we need to go after another ingredient. We’ll dismantle the vaccine industry ingredient by stupid ingredient if we have to.

Who is with me?

Although this was written in a semi-facetious tone, subsequent discussion demonstrated that this woman was serious. To her, it’s not just about mercury. It’s about vaccines. Here is a sampling of the depressing replies:

Actually I believe that the chickenpox vax does have fetal tissues in it.**

Eh, every time we win on one though, they’ll just throw another creepy ingredient in.

Yeah, what about aluminum? Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic. It boggles my mind that some people are ONLY worried about mercury when even without mercury they still contain carcinogenics and nuero/blood toxins (oh and antibiotics in some.) Yummy.

In another 50 years or so, they’ll make the connecting b/w vaxxes and alzheimers, soon teenagers will be getting it with all the aluminium they are being injected with. I really believe our life span is going to be decreasing- everyone will have some sort of cancer, and will be dieing at a younger age. But no one agrees with me irl

This is the sort of the sort of antivaccination rhetoric that the mercury-thimerosal group doesn’t want you to see. They claim they are not “anti-vaccination,” and probably most of them believe that they aren’t. However, right beneath the surface of all their attacks on mercury, just out of sight to the casual observer, full-blown antivaccination paranoia and conspiracy theories lurk, and certainly their “anti-mercury” advocacy provides aid and comfort to those who have more global problems with vaccination. Worse, the mercury-autism activists are willing to use their own autistic children as pawns, parading a 5-year-old “recovered” autistic as a speaker or putting T-shirts on children saying things like “poisoned by immunizations” or “Warning: Contains mercury,” the while implying that parents of autistic children who don’t buy into the mercury-thimerosal line are “big pharma shills” or even “child abusers.”

These days, vaccination is a victim of its own success. In this country, diseases that once killed or crippled thousands are now vanishingly rare. Since these diseases are now so uncommon, thanks to vaccination, people have forgotten how horrible they were and now only see the very uncommon complications of vaccination and complications for which the evidence is dubious at best. Unfortunately, we know what can happen when vaccination rates fall; diseases once thought conquered can return. Remember that as you watch or read news accounts of this “Power of Truth” rally.

The problem is, this issue has become more about ideology and a need to find a scapegoat than about science. Scientifically, the question of whether mercury causes autism or not is very close to being settled once and for all in the negative. Indeed, if there is no dramatic decrease in the number of new cases of autism and ASDs over the next five years or so (as there has not been in Canada or Denmark), given that thimerosal has been removed from nearly all childhood vaccines, that would pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of the hypothesis that mercury causes autism–scientifically speaking. Unfortunately, I’d bet money that it won’t put the issue to rest among activists. I’ve come out and said that, should there be a dramatic decrease in the number of new autism cases over the next five years, I would eat crow and admit that I was wrong. I wonder if David Kirby (who has recently misread fresh California statistics as showing a decrease in autism rates when the figures show nothing of the sort) or J. B. Handley (who states bluntly that “autism is a misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning”) will make the converse promise. If autism rates don’t fall dramatically in the next five years, will they admit that they were wrong and that autism isn’t caused by mercury, at least not in the vast majority of children and then work on getting money and research dollars directed to more valid and promising areas?

Don’t count on it.

**There are no fetal tissues in vaccines. The viruses used to make certain vaccines are cultured and maintained in human cell lines that were derived from a fetus. One of these cell lines has been around since the early 1960’s. Big difference.