Warning shot

Posted: Oct 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Sometimes even a mistake can have a positive outcome.

 Back in August, the state of New York passed a law that will ban the use of the thimerosal in children’s vaccines. Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative added to vaccines so that a vial can be used to store more than one shot. Some parents think thimerosal triggered the outbreak of autism we’ve seen since 1990. The CDC estimates as many as one child in every 166 has some autistic symptoms.

New York’s law doesn’t take effect until 2009, but it’s a mistake from day one. The law is just another example of a government meddling in medical decisions. For far too long, doctors have been outsourcing their decisions to the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends that children get some 20 inoculations in their first 18 months.

Still, New York’s mistake was useful, because it highlights the fact that neither lawmakers in Albany nor bureaucrats in Atlanta should be deciding what medical treatment our children will receive. Medical decisions about what shots to get, and when, should be made by parents and doctors.

Or, maybe, just parents.

In a letter this summer to its members, the New York chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged doctors to “CONTACT GOVERNOR IMMEDIATELY AND URGE HIM TO VETO THE THIMEROSAL BILL.” Why? “Despite the headlines in the media, there is no evidence that thimerosal is harmful,” the letter said.

Well, that’s interesting. In July 2001, the AAP issued a report that found, “In children, significant [mercury] exposure to the central nervous system can result in effects ranging from learning disabilities to devastating neurologic problems including mental retardation, blindness and spasticity.”

Hmm. Those symptoms sound suspiciously like autism. Perhaps that’s why, as the report went on to say, “The AAP has also joined with the Public Health Service to reduce the use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, from vaccines.”

Even today, the AAP is supporting a lawsuit against the EPA over how much mercury is acceptable in the air. “Infants and young children are at highest risk of injury from a mercury-contaminated environment because their brains are still rapidly developing,” Dr. Katherine Shea of the AAP said in a news release.

So, mercury in the air is dangerous, but these doctors now claim that, despite their earlier findings, there is “no evidence” that injecting it directly into 10-pound infants is? The AAP ought to go back and study results from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

VAERS was set up so doctors could provide feedback to the CDC if children got sick after their shots. Dan Olmsted, a columnist for UPI who’s written extensively about autism, studied reports filed before 1999 and found 83 cases where autism followed a vaccination.

In 1994, one doctor reported “there are currently 10 cases of autism in children who received DPT/OPV/MMR at 15-18 months.” Other doctors reported previously healthy patients suddenly losing their speech and being diagnosed autistic shortly after their shots.

None of this is proof that thimerosal or vaccinations cause autism. But it’s certainly evidence that doctors ought to be concerned about. And we can remove thimerosal simply by selling all vaccines in single-use containers. There’s no need for the preservative, and thus no need to legislate against it.

It’s also worth wondering if children should be getting so many shots against so many diseases at such young ages. Sadly, many doctors seem reluctant to question the CDC, because they’re committed to practicing medicine for the “greater good” instead of doing what’s best for each individual patient. In the most recent example, a recent study from Boston Children’s Hospital recommends that three- and four-year-olds receive flu vaccines -- not because the children are at risk, but because they tend to spread the disease to others.

“If we’re trying to prevent an influenza epidemic and potentially a serious influenza epidemic, one public health approach is going to be to try to not just vaccinate the people who are most vulnerable, but to vaccinate the spreaders of the disease,” Dr. Kenneth Mandl told CNN Oct. 6.

To his credit, Mandl noted, “this is something that a parent really should discuss with a pediatrician. And again, right now there is no recommendation to vaccinate three- and  four-year-olds” against the flu. Which is good, since the flu vaccine still contains thimerosal.

New York’s law is an error that might actually do some good, if it forces pediatricians to change their approach and go back to treating each individual patient instead of following a government-written schedule that’s supposed to serve the “greater good.” The AAP is meeting in Washington this week. Maybe that should be on their agenda.