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Video: Doctor challenges autism, vaccine link

TODAY books
updated 10/30/2008 9:27:58 AM ET 2008-10-30T13:27:58

In his book, “Autism's False Prophets,” Paul A. Offit, a national expert on vaccines, recounts the history of autism and challenges the idea that vaccines lead to autism. An excerpt.

From the prologue:
Although most of my hate mail mentions my work with Merck on a rotavirus vaccine, that alone  doesn’t explain why some people hate me. A lot of people work with pharmaceutical companies and don’t get hate mail. I suspect that if I had simply continued my career in research and stayed out of the public’s view, I would have escaped notice. But a series of events at our hospital in the early 1990s led to what some perceive as my second crime.

In 1991, a measles epidemic swept through Philadelphia. The outbreak centered on a religious group in the city that chose not to vaccinate its children. Seven children in that group died of measles, three in our hospital. Then the virus spread to the surrounding community, killing two more children, both of whom were too young to have gotten the measles vaccine. Because modern medicine is often incapable of preventing diseases, it’s enormously frustrating. But the measles vaccine has been around for more than thirty years. It works and it’s safe. Still, these parents had chosen not to protect their children.

During the next ten years, I saw several children come into our hospital with pneumonia caused by whooping cough, or severe skin infections caused by chickenpox, or meningitis caused by the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), because their parents had chosen not to vaccinate them. When I asked why they had made that choice, they said vaccines were too dangerous: the whooping cough vaccine caused brain damage, the chickenpox vaccine caused paralysis, and the Hib vaccine caused diabetes. They had gotten their information from reports on television or the radio, from articles in newspapers and magazines, or, most commonly, from the Internet. So, in October 2000, we started the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, hoping to counter this misinformation. Within a couple of years, I was frequently quoted by the media trying to reassure parents that their concerns about vaccines were often ill-founded or had been disproved.

Although I received some hate mail for these efforts at reassurance, nothing matched what happened after the media started to carry the story that vaccines caused autism. Since the late 1990s, many studies have shown that the rates of autism are the same in vaccinated and unvaccinated children. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Institute of Medicine have all issued statements supporting these studies. So the notion that vaccines cause autism isn’t a medical controversy. But when I appeared on television and was quoted in newspaper and magazine articles saying that vaccines didn’t cause autism, my life changed.

During a congressional hearing chaired by Indiana congressman Dan Burton to investigate the cause of autism, John Tierney, a congressman from Massachusetts, asked if I had vaccinated my own children. I said I had, stating their names and ages. At the next break, a member of Tierney’s staff came up to me, grabbed my arm, and pulled me aside. “Never,” he said, breathlessly, “never mention the names of your own children in front of a group like this.”

After I appeared on MSNBC, an extreme anti-vaccine activist called our home; later, our eleven-year-old daughter asked whether I thought anyone would ever hurt me. While I was on a federal advisory committee to the  CDC — one that had made recommendations about the use of the  mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines — I got a death threat. A man from Seattle wrote, “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead!” I called the CDC, which sent the e-mail to the Department of Justice, which sent it to the FBI. The threat was deemed credible, and for the next few years an armed guard was placed at the back of advisory committee meetings; for the first few months, he followed me to and from lunch, a gun hanging at his side. The mail room at my hospital regularly checks my mail for suspicious letters and packages. In June 2006, I had to walk through a rally by anti-vaccine protesters at the CDC. People shouted at me. One put a megaphone in my ear, calling me the devil. Another carried a placard with the word Terrorist in big red letters under a picture of me. Just before I emerged from the crowd, a man dressed in a prisoner’s uniform grabbed my jacket and pulled me toward him. I don’t think he wanted to hurt me; he was just excited to be close to the personification of such evil. I put my hands up in the air and asked him to please let go of my coat, which he did.

It got worse. While sitting in my office, I got a phone call from a man who said that he and I shared the same concerns. We both wanted what was best for our children. He wanted what was best for his son, giving his name and age. And he presumed I wanted what was best for my children, giving their names and ages and where they went to school. His implication was clear. He knew where my children went to school. Then he hung up.

Some people who believe vaccines cause autism hate me because they think I’m in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, that I say vaccines are safe because I am paid to do it. To them, it is logical that I would spend  twenty-five years working on a rotavirus vaccine — a vaccine that has the chance of saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year — so that I could lie about vaccine safety and hurt children. But the reason I say vaccines don’t cause autism is that they don’t. I say this because the false alarm about vaccines and autism continues to harm a lot of children — harm from not getting needed vaccines, harm from potentially dangerous treatments to eliminate mercury, and harm from therapies as absurd as testosterone ablation and electric shock. I say this because the feared vaccine–autism link, which has now been disproved, diverts research dollars from more promising leads. I say this because I care about children with autism.

I’m not alone in this. Many parents of autistic children are angry that the media and Congress rarely talk about autism without blaming vaccines. And although I am certainly a target of some parents’ anger, I simply represent the other side. A special kind of venom is reserved for parents of autistic children who don’t believe that vaccines are at fault and actively, vigorously, and relentlessly oppose those who do. You will come to know some of these  parents — the real heroes of this story — in the pages that follow.

Excerpted from “Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure” by Paul A. Offit.  Copyright (c) 2008. reprinted with permission from Columbia University Press.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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