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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Debate Flares Over Vaccines and Autism

Activist Groups Spar With CDC Over Claims of Link Between Autism and Thimerosal
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 7, 2006 -- Debate over a possible tie between mercury-containing vaccines and autism flared up this week as activist groups launched a campaign accusing federal health agencies and prominent researchers of manipulating scientific findings on the link.

Some parents of autistic children have long blamed vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal for an alarming rise in the disorder. Thimerosal contains a type of mercury. A series of reports by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) ending in 2004 concluded no evidence could be found linking the vaccines to neurological diseases, including autism.

But groups this week mounted a campaign to publicize previously undisclosed transcripts and emails that they say point to efforts by the CDC to manipulate the IOM's scientific conclusions on the safety of vaccines containing thimerosal. The groups accuse the CDC of trying to defend a long-held policy promoting childhood vaccinations.

"In the interest of protecting the immunization program, they forgot about child safety. They are continuing that pattern of behavior and denial that thimerosal causes harm," Bobbie Manning, vice president of Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury, tells WebMD.

According to the CDC, all vaccines recommended for children are available in thimerosal-free versions. But some parents say millions of previous exposures helped caused a spike in autism cases since the 1980s.

The CDC contracted with the IOM in 2001 to generate a series of reports on possible links between vaccines and a variety of health problems. An IOM committee of outside experts, led by Harvard researcher Marie McCormick, MD, found no evidence of a link and concluded that proposed biological explanations for a mercury-autism relationship were "theoretical."

Allegations of Bias

Activist groups released transcripts of closed-door conversations in 2001 between McCormick and Kathleen Stratton, the study director. Groups say the conversation suggests that the committee would fashion its findings to meet the CDC's desires to play down a link between thimerosal and autism.

"[The CDC] wants us to declare, well, these things are pretty safe on a population basis," McCormick said to Stratton, according to the transcript, posted on a web site called Putchildrenfirst.com.

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