On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will release the contents of a foreboding letter sent last week to ABC/Disney executives, demanding they cancel the January 31 premiere of a new legal drama series, Eli Stone, because it features a family attorney who successfully argues in court that mercury-containing flu vaccine caused autism in one child.
The letter, signed by AAP President Renee Jenkins, borders on near-hysteria over a fictional television entertainment. It ominously warns that ABC "will bear responsibility for the needless suffering and potential deaths of children from parents' decisions not to immunize based on the content of the episode."
Dr. Jenkins calls on ABC to cancel the episode but, anticipating a refusal, urges executives to run a disclaimer that "no scientific link exists between vaccines and autism," if the offending network "persists" in airing the show.
I share the AAP's concern that parents should not be driven away from protecting their children from dangerous, even deadly diseases. But parents are far too smart to base such an important decision as immunization on the "content of the episode" of a single drama on broadcast television.
In fact, if I were Dr. Jenkins, I would be far more concerned about real news happening in the real world -- events that not only suggest the possibility of some sort of link between mercury, vaccines and autism, but might alarm parents more than any fictional account written for ratings-grabbing mass entertainment.
If I were Dr. Jenkins, instead of fretting over a fake family engaged in a mock trial held in a make-believe court on some LA soundstage, I would be up at night wondering why the Federal Government recently conceded a real vaccine-autism lawsuit in a real court and will soon pay a real (taxpayer-funded) settlement to a real American family and a very real child with autism.
I would want to know why the Department of Justice agreed that mercury-containing vaccines "severely aggravated" the autism symptoms in at least one child, and I would wonder if research into what triggered that severe aggravation might provide at least some clues into the perpetual mysteries of the disorder and its causes.
And, if I were Dr. Jenkins, rather than wringing my hands and trying to censor a TV-show verdict, I would truly worry about what will happen when parents realize that the Federal Government's concession has been sealed -- preventing the public (and future plaintiffs) from viewing what could only be described as "evidence of harm." I would be nervous that this secretive action in an actual court (itself reminiscent of science fiction) might drive parents away from vaccination far more effectively than any scripted drama.
Furthermore, if I were the top pediatrician in America, I would not be asking television networks to make sweeping statements such as, "No scientific link exists" between autism and mercury or vaccines, when highly respected publications continue to publish new (and very real) data that roundly debunk what has now become, frankly, a tired piece of misinformation.
If I were the AAP, or ABC for that matter, I would feel downright silly stating that "no scientific link exists," so soon after the Journal of Child Neurology published a study titled, "Blood Levels of Mercury Are Related to Diagnosis of Autism: A Reanalysis of an Important Data Set." I would also worry about parental reaction to learning that researchers had done due diligence and reanalyzed data from a prior, hugely influential study that (erroneously) found zero connection between mercury levels and autism.
Instead of trying to silence the fictional words of "Eli Stone" co-creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, I would pay closer attention to the real words of Journal authors M. Catherine DeSoto and Robert Hitlan, who found a major flaw in the original study that found no link. In fact, they concluded, "a significant relation does exist between the blood levels of mercury and diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder," and that "hair sample analysis results offer some support for the idea that persons with autism may be less efficient... at eliminating mercury from the blood," something that proponents of the mercury-autism hypothesis have long contended.
And, I would heed this rather wise warning from the authors: "If there is any link between autism and mercury, it is absolutely crucial that the first reports of the question are not falsely stating that no link occurs."
Another study, freshly out of Harvard, likewise shows a potential link between mercury and the autopsied brains of young people with autism. The American Journal of Biochemistry and Biotechnology reports that a marker for oxidative stress was 68.9% higher in autistic brain issue than controls (a statistically significant result), while mercury levels were 68.2% higher.
And though the mercury results did not quite reach statistical significance (probably due to the small number of autistic brains studied: 9), the authors cautioned that, "However, there was a positive correlation between (oxidative stress and mercury levels)," meaning the two might be associated.
Finally, if part of my AAP job description was to ensure that every American child is vaccinated as early and often as possible, I would be hugely apprehensive, not about a new courtroom drama, but rather about a dramatic new study soon to appear in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
In the article, "Delay in DPT vaccination is associated with a reduced risk of childhood asthma," Anita Kozyrskyj, an asthma researcher at the University of Manitoba, and other scientists combed the medical records of 14,000 children born in Manitoba in 1995 (when many Canadian shots still contained mercury, by the way).
They found that children who received the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine at two months of age were 2.63 times more likely to develop asthma (at a rate of 13.9%) than children who were not given the shot until after four months of age (5.9%). "We're thinking that maybe if you delay this allergic response until a bit later, the child's immune system is more developed and maybe you're not seeing this effect," Kozyrskyj told the Winnipeg Free Press, which just broke the story.
No one wants infant children to go unprotected from whooping cough (or pertussis, the "P" in DPT). But what if delaying that vaccine could have prevented more than half of the asthma cases in the United States? With millions of children currently suffering from the disease, at the cost of billions of dollars a year, would waiting another two months improve the risk-benefit ratio for society (save for the companies that market those asthma medications)?
Even more importantly, if too-early vaccination causes asthma in some kids, could the practice cause other disorders? There is absolutely nothing to link this vaccine study to autism, of course. But consider the following:
1) Many asthma cases have been linked to autoimmunity. The same with autism.
2) Childhood asthma has been dramatically increasing for two decades. The same with autism.
3) Most of the children with asthma in the vaccine study were boys. The same with autism.
Any way you look at it, this study is hardly reassuring news to parents who are about to vaccinate their kids (though think how comforting it would be to allow them to delay this shot by two months). Medicine and the media constantly tell us that all vaccines are safe for all children. When parents try to jive that information with studies that imply the opposite, their faith and trust in public health and the immunization program begin to take a nosedive, along with vaccination rates.
It's not just the broadcast of fiction out of ABC that might drive parents away from immunization. It is the negation of fact out of the AAP as well. And if unvaccinated children get sick, will the esteemed Academy also "bear responsibility," or just heap it all upon the network?
ABC executives could cave in and cancel the broadcast, but I don't think they will. And even if America's pediatricians manage to successfully censor fiction and crush artistic freedom, they will never be able to stifle the facts.