Institute of Medicine Report Denies Childhood Vaccine Link to Autism
An Institute of Medicine panel said Tuesday that there is "no credible evidence" that vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal or the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine cause autism, the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, the 81-page report prepared by the 14-member panel of physicians, neuroscientists, epidemiologists, statisticians and a nurse "address[es] the doubts raised by a small but vocal group of parents who question the safety of childhood vaccines" (Brown, Washington Post, 5/19). The IOM's Immunization Safety Review Committee, which was formed by CDC and NIH to investigate the claims linking vaccines and health problems, "fueled the debate" in 2001 when it released its first report saying that there was not enough proof to disprove a vaccine-autism link, the Boston Globe reports. The report said that mercury was a "biologically plausible" cause (Allen, Boston Globe, 5/19). According to the Wall Street Journal, the committee's final report issued Tuesday "sought to end" the debate (Pierceall, Wall Street Journal, 5/19). The panel said that during the past three years, "new studies have been published to confidently reject both theories," the Post reports (Washington Post, 5/19). Dr. Marie McCormick, a Harvard School of Public Health professor and the chair of the committee, said in a statement, "The overwhelming evidence from several well-designed studies indicates that childhood vaccines are not associated with autism" (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 5/19). The panel cited five studies in Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the United States that consistently provided no evidence of a link between vaccines containing mercury and autism (Washington Post, 5/19). In addition, 14 epidemiological studies have shown that there is no evidence of an association between autism and the MMR vaccine (Blakeslee, New York Times, 5/19). The panel said that studies that purported to establish a link between the vaccines and autism "either were seriously flawed or inconclusive," the Courant reports (Hartford Courant, 5/19).
According to the New York Times, the panel also looked at a variety of biological mechanisms to explain how autism might be caused by the vaccines, but it found that "all were theoretical and that there was not sufficient proof" (New York Times, 5/19). The committee encouraged researchers to stop thinking of the vaccines as a cause of autism and to begin to consider other possible causes, including prenatal infections and genetic links (Wall Street Journal, 5/19). McCormick said, "Further research to find the cause of autism should be directed toward other lines of inquiry that are supported by current knowledge and evidence and offer more promise for providing any answer" (Howard Price, Washington Times, 5/19). The IOM committee has produced eight reports on vaccine safety, and this report will be its last, according to the Post. The panel will now disband (Washington Post, 5/19). However, the debate over the vaccines is "unlikely to be quelled" by the IOM's report, the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 5/19).
Some specialists who care for autistic children supported the report's findings, saying that it may allow resources to be focused on more productive research on genetic abnormalities and neonatal exposure to chemicals, which they believe might be the causes of autism, the Globe reports (Boston Globe, 5/19). Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said that the issue has received "a terrific amount of research" and that the report settles the debate for most scientists, adding, "It says ... we need not divert energy and financial and scientific resources to go further down what is a scientific blind alley" (Neergaard, AP/Long Island Newsday, 5/18). Dr. Louis Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, said, "I think we should congratulate this committee for working very hard. ... It seems to me they left no stone unturned." CDC spokesperson Curtis Allen said that the report "was consistent with past scientific findings," adding that the agency welcomed the report "as a helpful contribution to the complex scientific and policy decision-making which is on-going in regard to the issue of vaccines and autism" (Hartford Courant, 5/19). Lowell Weiner, a spokesperson for Wyeth, a leading manufacturer of children's vaccines, said that the report "strongly confirms that there is no evidence linking thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, a conclusion previously reported by numerous U.S. and European scientists and public health officials" (Wall Street Journal, 5/19).
Some parents of autistic children "immediately protested" the findings, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 5/19). Many parent advocacy groups charged that the CDC, NIH, FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are covering up evidence of the vaccines' potential danger (Maugh, Los Angeles Times, 5/19). Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds and a parent of an autistic child, said, "This committee and its report clearly chose to ignore groundbreaking scientific research on the mercury-autism link and instead the IOM has issued a flawed, incomplete report that continues to put America's children at risk" (Hartford Courant, 5/19). Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician by training and an advocate for parents of autistic children, said that the report was "based on preliminary, incomplete information and may ultimately be repudiated," adding that the report will not "put to rest the concerns of parents who believe their children were harmed" by the vaccines (New York Times, 5/19). Mark Blaxill, a director of Safe Minds, said that he hopes scientists will ignore the IOM's report, which he says might "suppress important scientific research" into autism's causes (Washington Times, 5/19). According to the Globe, some advocates said that they anticipate that eventually their concerns with the vaccines will be vindicated. Lara Bono, chair of the National Autism Society, said, "The IOM took over 10 years to acknowledge Gulf War Syndrome and over 20 years to acknowledge Agent Orange poisoning" (Boston Globe, 5/19).
"Kudos to the IOM" for bringing "science back into the emotional debate over vaccines," says a Wall Street Journal editorial. According to the editorial, the panel's "definitive report disavowing any link between childhood shots and autism will provide welcome reassurance to millions of parents, and should also head off a growing liability mess." The Journal notes that Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) "successfully yanked vaccine liability protection out of legislation more than a year ago, saying the autism issue deserved more debate." The Journal concludes, "The IOM has now given them what they wanted," adding, "Senators, how about living up to your side of the bargain and giving liability protection a chance so millions of children can be immunized against disease?" (Wall Street Journal, 5/19).
CBS' "Evening News" on Tuesday reported on the IOM report. The segment includes comments from Dr. Steve Cochi of CDC's immunization program and Weldon (Attkisson, "Evening News," CBS, 5/18). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. In addition, NBC's "Nightly News" on Tuesday reported on the findings. The segment includes comments from McCormick (Bazell, "Nightly News," NBC, 5/18). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.