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Coverage of Autism “Vaccine Court” Off to a Bad Start

Washington Post attempts to be fair to both “scientific” sides of the argument gives credibility to troubling "experts."

Very few doctors or researchers in the world believe that the one-time presence of an ethylmercury preservative in vaccines – thimerosal – is responsible for what appears to be growing rates in autism – or that the Measles Mumps and Rubella Vaccination has anything to do with autism either. The Institutes of Medicine conducted a review in 2004 of both hypotheses and did not find either supported by the epidemiological evidence, or that there was evidence to support the biologically theoretical idea that thimerosol in a vaccine could cause neurological disorders. The Cochrane Library published a thorough analysis of the MMR-autism hypothesis and found no credible evidence for a link.

Despite this, the Washington Post reported that

“Nearly 5,000 families will seek to convince a special "vaccine court" in Washington that the vaccines can cause healthy and outgoing children to withdraw into uncommunicative, autistic shells -- even though a large body of evidence and expert opinion has found no link….

…The shift from laboratory to courtroom means the outcome will hinge not on scientific standards of evidence but on a legal standard of plausibility -- what one lawyer for the families called "50 percent and a feather." That may make it easier for the plaintiffs to sway the panel of three "special masters," which is why the decision could not only change the lives of thousands of American families but also have a profound effect on the decisions of parents around the world about whether to vaccinate their children.”

As has been noted in Britain, public fears about the MMR vaccination, spurred by one newspaper’s campaign to warn of the supposed dangers of autism, quickly led to declining vaccination rates and an increase in the incidence in measles in 2006 – to the highest level in 20 years, as the BBC reported. At its severest, measles can cause brain damage and death.

Even though thimerosol is no longer used in vaccines in the United States, lawyers pleading a “plausible” connection with autism have the power to wreak vast damage to public health if the media fail to report critically on the evidence that will be presented to the court. While the Post did a mostly commendable job in reporting the story, it fell down on precisely this point when it reported that:

“Scientific advocates for the vaccine-autism theory, such as the father-and-son team of Mark and David Geier of Silver Spring, say fears about damaging public health programs have prompted scientists and the government to hide evidence of a problem. Many of the families believe that the medical establishment and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have conspired in a massive coverup.”

Perhaps out of a journalistic sense of needing to be fair to all sides in the story, especially those who claim to be scientific, the Post, allowed the Geiers to charge that there is a  “massive” federal cover-up over vaccination. Yet to say that the Geiers have little “scientific” credibility within medicine is something of an understatement.

The American Academy of Paediatrics published a 15-point critique of the Geiers 2003 study, Thimerosal in childhood vaccines, neurodevelopment disorders and heart disease in the United States (which was published in an obscure journal) noting that it contained “numerous conceptual and scientific flaws, omissions of fact, inaccuracies, and misstatements.”

As Slate’s medical examiner reported, the Geiers research and expert testimony has been rejected from numerous trial hearings on the grounds that it fails to meet the accepted courtroom standards of scientific evidence, and it cited a recent court case where it was revealed that Dr. Mark Geier failed to pass his board exam in pediatric genetics, lacked the expertise to comment on pediatric neurology, and had all his testimony excluded.

Just as troubling, the Geiers research is carried out in the name of the Maryland-based Institute for Chronic Illnesses, which appears to be something of an elusive research center, according to the blogger “neurodiversity:”

“Representatives of the Maryland Board of Physicians and MedChi (the Maryland State Medical Society, which reviews and approves names under which individual physicians may conduct business) had no knowledge of or information about the Institute.

There is no telephone listing for the Institute for Chronic Illnesses in Maryland or anywhere else in the United States.”

The “Institute” appears to share the same address as Dr. Mark Geier’s home. Moreover, the Institute’s Institutional Review Board – which is required by law to protect human subjects in medical experiments from abuse – doesn’t have enough independent members to approve the research that the Geiers are conducting. In fact, the Geiers are themselves members of their Review Board, which means they are – in a spectacular conflict of interest – responsible for overseeing the safety of the subjects in their own research.

Alarm bells, anyone?

As Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam noted, the case facing the vaccine court “will involve a staggering amount of complicated epidemiology and biochemistry.” Indeed it will; but it might be useful for the Post to investigate the Geiers’ Institute (which is, after all, only up the road from the paper in Silver Spring) before it begins balancing comments from the Institutes of Medicine with comments from the Institute of Chronic Illnesses as if they are of equal weight – or, for that matter, repeating without question the Geiers’ belief in a massive federal cover up over vaccination.

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