Autism and thimerosal: The beat goes on

August 1, 2005

Did you think that this battle had been won-what with the 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine's Immunization Safety Review Committee that found no evidence for a connection between thimerosal and autism (

Did you think that this battle had been won-what with the 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine's Immunization Safety Review Committee that found no evidence for a connection between thimerosal and autism ( http://www.iom.edu/reports/)? You're wrong. In fact, partisans of an autism-thimerosal connection are having a resurgence-the heavy weight of scientific opinion to the contrary notwithstanding. Do not be surprised if parents start turning up in your waiting room refusing to have their child immunized because, as the National Autism Association and allied organizations put it, "mercury hurts."

The antithimerosal movement is fueled by the angst of parents whose children have been given a diagnosis of autism. On June 25, the New York Times published an extensive article on the ways in which these parents have organized to become "a potent national force" on "one of the most fractious and divisive [issues] in pediatric medicine." The Times describes how parent groups have taken to harassing researchers at the National Immunization Program and soliciting (and finding) support from political figures, including Representatives Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Dave Weldon (R- Fla.), Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Parent groups have filed 4,800 lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, taken out full-page ads in major newspapers, and pushed for state and federal legislation banning thimerosal. (This, despite the fact that, since 2001, routinely recommended vaccines for infants and children, except for some influenza vaccines, have contained no more than a trace amount of thimerosal.) In July, the groups staged a "Power of Truth Rally" in front of the US Capitol to protest what they always refer to as "the use of mercury" in vaccines. Harvey V. Fineberg, MD, PhD, president of the IOM, found it necessary to issue a public statement defending the bona fides of the members of the Immunization Safety Review Committee against the attacks of these groups; Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently held a joint press conference with the head of the National Institute on Child Health and Development and acting deputy commissioner for international and special programs at the Food and Drug Administration to try to counteract the movement. In reiterating the position that childhood vaccines save lives and have no proven link to autism, these officials at the same time acknowledged parents' concerns and pointed with pride to the quadrupling of funding for autism research by the National Institutes of Health.