The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is responding to a charge from one of its own senior scientists that it omitted key data in a 2004 study that would have revealed a link between autism and a commonly-required childhood vaccine, MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella).
The allegation was made by CDC epidemiologist William Thompson in a statement this week issued through his attorney. It states: “I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism.”
It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a sitting CDC senior scientist to blow the whistle on alleged scientific misconduct involving a study article that he co-authored. In this instance, the impact of the charge is magnified by more than a decade of allegations from autism advocates who say the federal government and pharmaceutical interests have worked to downplay or hide associations between vaccines and autism.
A spokesman for the journal Pediatrics today said the publication stands by the study despite the news. “There’s a standard process that journals follow when an article is questioned,” said the spokesman. “Those discussions took place between the editors of Pediatrics and the authors of this study, and the editors concluded the research was appropriately conducted.” Pediatrics is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which accepts vaccine industry funding.
The Director of the CDC Immunization Safety Office, Dr. Frank DeStefano, is a co-author of the now-questioned study which has been widely-cited to dispel an MMR-autism link. DeStefano is frequently quoted as an expert who debunks vaccine-autism ties.
“I stand by the research and the conclusions in our 2004 paper, and I’ll reiterate that the evidence, thus far, the weight of the evidence, is against a causal association between vaccines and autism,” DeStefano told me in a telephone interview this week.
“Lowest Point in my Career”
Thompson is a PhD who works in the National Immunization Program at the CDC where he has been employed for 16 years. His revelations were first made public after he reportedly made wide-ranging claims and confessions in a series of telephone conversations with autism advocate and researcher Brian Hooker of Focus Autism. Hooker, also a PhD, is an assistant professor of biology and the parent of an autistic teenager. Because of the significance of Thompson’s allegations, Hooker began recording some of the conversations without Thompson’s knowledge.
“It’s the lowest point in my career that I went along with that paper,” Thompson tells Hooker in a recording played on the online Autism Media Channel. “I went along with this, we didn’t report significant findings.”
The CDC’s DeStefano acknowledges that he and his study co-authors changed their study analysis plan midstream, which resulted in reducing the statistical vaccine-autism link among black boys. But he says they did so for good scientific reason.
“[Vaccine] exposure around [three years of age] is just not biologically plausible to have a causal association with autism,” DeStefano says. “I mean autism would’ve already started by then…it probably starts in the womb. So I think from a biological argument, it’s implausible this was a causal association.”
The issue is highly-charged for several reasons: public health officials fear that the public will panic and stop vaccinating if they believe there are links between vaccines and autism. That could lead to resurgence in serious infectious diseases.
Also, vaccination is a multi-billion dollar global industry that employs law firms and public relations agents to engage in a variety of high-powered PR efforts. These efforts include: lobbying members of Congress to prevent hearings exploring vaccine safety, holding private meetings with news executives to discourage reporting on vaccines and autism, and financing nonprofits which take favorable positions on vaccine safety issues. Because pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines spend millions of dollars each year buying advertising on television, print and online, critics argue they may be given undue influence over content of the reporting media.
Pharmaceutical interests and their surrogates routinely falsely portray scientists and journalists who investigate vaccine safety as “anti-vaccine.” In his statement, Thompson emphasizes his safety concerns do not reflect an “anti-vaccine” mentality.
“I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives,” Thompson states. “I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.
“My concern has been the decision to omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub group for a particular vaccine. There have always been recognized risks for vaccination and I believe it is the responsibility of the CDC to properly convey the risks associated with receipt of those vaccines.”
Former National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Bernadine Healy broke ranks with her Institute of Medicine colleagues in 2008 in saying that public health officials have intentionally avoided researching whether subsets of children are “susceptible” to vaccine side effects because they are afraid that the answer will scare the public.
“What we’re seeing in the bulk of the population: vaccines are safe,” said Healy. “But there may be this susceptible group. The fact that there is concern, that you don’t want to know that susceptible group is a real disappointment to me. If you know that susceptible group, you can save those children. If you turn your back on the notion that there is a susceptible group… what can I say?”
“You’re saying that public health officials have turned their back on a viable area of research largely because they’re afraid of what might be found?” I asked Healy, at the time.
Healy answered, “There is a completely expressed concern that they don’t want to pursue a hypothesis because that hypothesis could be damaging to the public health community at large by scaring people. “First of all,” Healy said, “I think the public’s smarter than that. The public values vaccines. But more importantly, I don’t think you should ever turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you’re afraid of what it might show.”
To date, the only vaccine that carries an explicit autism warning under “Adverse Reactions” on its label is Tripedia’s DTaP (Diphtheria and Tetanus Toxoids and Acellular Pertussis Vaccine Adsorbed) vaccine. The label states that “autism” is included, along with SIDS, encephalopathy (brain damage) among other adverse events “because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting.” The label states, “Because these events are reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequencies or to establish a causal relationship to components of Tripedia vaccine.”
The CDC’s MMR vaccine information page cites the following “very rare” severe problems: “deafness, long-term seizures, coma, or lowered consciousness and permanent brain damage.”
This week, in response to a query, the CDC stated that it is not currently investigating the relation between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). “Further, CDC does not have any planned research addressing vaccines and autism,” said a CDC spokesman.
“CDC believes that this topic has been thoroughly studied and no causal links have been found. Current CDC ASD related research focuses on determining how many people have ASD and understanding risk factors and causes for ASD.”–CDC spokesman
In his statement, Thompson says that his colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since his allegations became public. “In fact, I received a performance-based award” after the news came out, he says.
Further responding to Thompson’s allegations, the CDC says, “Additional studies and a more recent rigorous review by the Institute of Medicine have found that MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.”
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