A CDC study released yesterday found no evidence to support “a causal association between early exposure to mercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines and immune globulins and deficits in neuropsychological functioning at the age of 7 to 10 years.” In other words, vaccines don’t scramble your brain.
The study didn’t examine autism as an outcome, although that is almost certainly what it was intended to get at. Instead, it looked for whether children’s exposure to thimerosal before birth or in infancy had any relationship to their later performance on 42 standardized tests which one would expect to be affected by autism. For each of the 1,047 children in the study, the researchers assessed speech and language; verbal memory; achievement (letter and word identification); fine motor coordination; visuospatial ability; attention and executive function; behavior regulation; tics; and general intellectual functioning.
CDC tried so hard. They invited one of the queen mercury moms, Sallie Bernard of “SAFEMINDs,” to participate in the planning of the study. They brought on a panel of outside advisors. The team spent at least two years administering forty-seven separate tests to each of the children and analyzing and writing up the results. They printed every piece of data generated in a companion volume to the published study.
They got kicked in the teeth, but don’t feel bad for them. They should have known better.
The autism-vaccine contingent has responded by spluttering about the study not having been large or random enough, and by accusing the researchers of being biased and of ignoring important associations in the data. It’s no news that these people don’t believe anything that comes from CDC – they’ve said as much, very clearly. But one would think that if you let the antivaxers in on the process from day one, if you were totally transparent, they couldn’t object, could they? They’d have to see the light when the results came back and say, “Well! I guess it’s not the vaccines after all!”
CDC, if you really thought that would happen, you were so, so wrong.
The appearance is that Sallie Bernard was going along with all this up until the day the results came in and – shockingly! – showed thimerosal didn’t do one bit of harm. If she’d thought from the outset, as a SAFEMINDs press release now claims, that there weren’t enough kids in the study or the sampling were biased, does anybody think this gadfly would have nodded and smiled and gone right along with it?
No, everything was fine and dandy as long as she was enjoying being fawned over as a “representative of the autism community” and a fellow-scientist instead of the commercial marketer she actually is. Here’s a clue, Sallie: If you’re going to play scientist, you have to follow the rules of science, and that means you stand by your results. You don’t get to say “heads I win, tails you lose” by waiting to see the outcome before deciding whether the study was any good.
And you really don’t get to have CDC at your beck and call, spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to do a study to your specifications, then turn around and call them liars when you don’t like how it comes out.
And you, CDC? You’re not just a victim here. Every time you say “let’s do more research” or “we are examining this issue” in order to appease the mercury moms, you increase the chances that kids will go unvaccinated because you failed to give their parents confidence in the safety of vaccines. When you say a study is reassuring and then highlight what is virtually certain to have been a chance finding (a statistical association between higher thimerosal exposure and transient tics in boys) without making it abundantly clear that some false associations were inevitable given the study design, you defeat the purpose of doing the study. People who understand statistics weren’t the ones who needed to be convinced thimerosal is safe; the antivax crowd will never be convinced no matter what. You needed to speak to the well-meaning parents who worry about the rumors they hear at playgroup, and not only did you give them something new to worry about and whiff the opportunity to show them that the likes of Sallie Bernard are all about the rhetoric – you managed to tee up for yet another round of Righteous Long-Suffering Parents vs. Heartless Government Scientists.
Haven’t you learned yet who wins that one? Or are you going to invite Sallie back for another round of research?