Sunday, April 16, 2006

Thimerosal ban fails in Kansas senate

A bill banning vaccines containing thimerosal died in committee:
Legislation that a Lawrence mother says will protect children and parents from the kind of mercury poisoning that happened to her son is sitting idle in a Senate committee.

Senate Bill 537 would lead to a state ban of vaccines that contain thimerosal, a compound that is made up of 50 percent mercury, which is a known toxin that affects the nervous system.
It's worth noting that the form of mercury in the vaccine preservative is not the one that has the toxic effects, that childhood vaccines are thimerosal-free, and that no connection between the preservative and autism has ever been documented (see Orac's many discussions of thimerosal for background). In other words, this bill banning vaccines would have no positive effect on children and no positive effect on public health. By spreading fear about vaccinations, it would reduce the number of people vaccinated against a disease like – to choose an example at random – the mumps. Has that been in the news lately?

The main place people get thimerosal is in flu shots. And flu shots are used by young and old, but especially by the old. That is, people past the possibility of developing autism, but at high risk of dying from the flu. How many grandparents should die to assuage a few parents' misplaced feelings of guilt?

On a media criticism level, Scott Rothschild's piece is disturbingly balanced, to the point of being unbalanced. I'm sure that he spoke to someone who told him that the anti-thimerosal movement is largely driven by the human desire to have someone or something to blame when things go wrong, and people with autistic children are no different. The thimerosal link makes them feel better about their unfortunate situation, which is fine. It isn't their fault this happened to their kids, and if they need a scapegoat, no problem. But if they want to take the protections of vaccines away from other people, that's a big problem.

One woman, a non-professional with no scientific support for her position, is given more space to advance her cause than the Kansas Department of Health, the Senators and the doctors who try to explain why this bill is nonsensical.

For instance, we have this passage "While scientists debate whether thimerosal is specifically the culprit for the increase in autism, she said, there is no debate that high mercury levels cause neurological disorders."

There is no paragraph after that in which a medical professional explains first that numerous large studies have found no support for her claims, and that it's wrong to treat any discussion among scientists as proof of the problem. Nor are any professionals quoted discussing the different kinds of mercury (elemental, ethyl, methyl) and their different toxicities. No one ever discussed the amount of each kind of mercury that is dangerous. No one ever has a chance to respond to her claim that the support for thimerosal is all about the money. The response to her claims about autism are shorter and less clearly presented than her claims are.

The fact is, the story isn't about this woman, though you could get confused given how prominently she's featured. It's about every mother, father, and child, and also about anyone who gets a flu shot, a travel vaccination, or who worries about epidemics. But only indirectly.

The story, in the end, is about whether thimerosal is harmful or not. And that's an assessment science can make. And no evidence has emerged showing a risk from thimerosal. The bill, therefore, is misguided, and the only person quoted supporting it is, as far as anyone knows, wrong.