As someone who has come under, shall we say, "sniper fire" for refusing to concede that there is no link between vaccines and autism, I now have a semi tongue-in-cheek response to my once and future critics: "Go tell it to Dr. Healy."
Tonight on CBS News, Sharyl Attkisson, (another reporter who questions the government's dismissal of any vaccine-autism link) conducted an extraordinary interview with "a powerful medical voice," who is "breaking ranks with her colleagues" on the autism contretemps: Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health.
She was interviewed on the first day of the first test-case hearing in so-called Vaccine Court, on whether the mercury-based preservative thimerosal can cause autism.
"I think public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as 'irrational,' without sufficient studies of causation... without studying the population that got sick," Dr. Healy told Attkisson. "I have not seen major studies that focus on 300 kids who got autistic symptoms within a period of a few weeks of the vaccines."
This is exactly what I, and many other government critics have been saying for years: Large population studies are not enough to disprove a link. One must look at the kids who actually regressed into autism, and determine what factor or factors might have contributed to their regression.
This is especially true if there is a subset of children who are particularly susceptible to such environmental triggers. "Populations do not test causality," Dr. Healy said, "they test associations."
And she noted, "We do have the opportunity to understand whether or not there are susceptible children -- perhaps medically, perhaps they have a metabolic issue, mitochondrial disorder, medical issue -- that makes them more susceptible to vaccines, plural, or to one particular vaccine, or to a component of vaccines, like mercury."
The problem is, prestigious groups such at the Institute of Medicine have concluded there is no link, based almost solely on large population studies, without giving enough consideration to data culled from children who actually developed the disorder.
Dr. Healy is a member of the IOM: "I love Institute of Medicine," she said, "but a report from 2004 basically said, 'Do not pursue susceptibility groups. Don't look for those children who may be vulnerable.' I really take issue with that conclusion."
The reason why officials didn't want to look for those groups? "Because they were afraid that, if they found them, however big or small they were, that would scare the public away," Dr. Healy explained. "They don't want to pursue this hypothesis because it could be damaging to the public health community at large by scaring people. I don't believe the truth ever scares people."
Dr. Healy is hardly "anti-vaccine," and neither am I. In fact, I agree completely that, "if we identified a particular risk factor for vaccines, or if we found out that they should be spread out a little longer, I do not believe that the public would lose faith in vaccines. I think the public is smarter than that. You should never turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you are afraid of what it might show."
What it "might show" is precisely what attorneys are arguing this month in vaccine court: According to research from the University of Washington, primates exposed to thimerosal had an accumulation of mercury in their brains. Similar accumulation has been shown to activate certain brain cells, producing "neuro-inflammation" and brain swelling. Autopsies on deceased people with autism also show chronic neuro-inflammation and activation of the same brain cells, known as glial cells.
Like many people reading this post, Dr. Healy at first considered the vaccine-autism link to be "silly." But, she said, "the more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that has been done in animals, if you look at some of the individual cases, and if you look at the evidence that there is no link, what I come away with is, the question has not been answered."
Thank you, Dr. Healy. On behalf of open minded journalists, researchers, parents, politicians (including all three presidential candidates) and Huffington Post readers, your candor is a welcome addition to this debate. You have placed a much-needed wake up call to your esteemed colleagues: Some will attack you; but the majority will listen.
NOTE: CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson has posted her own blog on this subject.
CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta also interviewed Dr. Healy and wrote about it on his blog.