Autism and vaccines

Vaccinations stop kids from getting sick, right? So more vaccines means more healthy kids, right? Maybe not. As the number of vaccines mandated for American children before age two climbs and climbs and climbs, we may well be playing a very dangerous game. As reported in the New York Times Magazine (The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory), even some influential vaccinologists are starting to worry about the effect of piling on multiple vaccines, in particular those that use a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal. This leads to a fascinating, subtle, and often barely civil debate on public health policy. Vaccines are most beneficial to a population when they are widely applied. So it’s important to prevent any hysterical minority from using voodoo science to frighten the masses into shunning vaccines. Authoritative government-sanctioned doctors get very good, in the public relations sense, at pooh-poohing people who question the value of vaccines. And yet…

And yet sometimes there are problems with vaccines worth calling into question. But doctors, like generals and stock brokers, are loathe to back down in public, since they realize how critical is the projection of total confidence to the success of their enterprise. When a doctor like Neal Halsey, who is profiled in the NY Times piece, publicly questions the safety of certain vaccines, he can be treated like a heretic. The word “science” is easily abused in a debate like this, but good science is hard to come by, hard even to define when the stakes are high and facts are needed quickly. Battle lines get drawn and sclerosis of reasoning sets in. It is a rare person who can move across a smoky battlefield and acknowledge that new information can lead to new conclusions. Dr. Halsey appears to be such a person. Here is an excerpt.

By the time the dust kicked up in that meeting had settled, Halsey would be forced to reckon with the hypothesis that thimerosal had damaged the brains of immunized infants and may have contributed to the unexplained explosion in the number of cases of autism being diagnosed in children. That Halsey was willing even to entertain this possibility enraged some of his fellow vaccinologists, who couldn’t fathom how a doctor who had spent so much energy dismantling the arguments of people who attacked vaccines could now be changing sides. But to Halsey’s mind, his actions were perfectly consistent: he was simply working from the data. And the numbers deeply troubled him.