Well Being

The Curious Reports of Vaccines and Autism on CBS

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This week my summer school class on Psychology and Literature read Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. On Thursday morning the students had a quiz in which they had to “diagnose” Christopher, the novel's main character, with autism or Asperger Syndrome, based on the DSM criteria. We also talked about the book in terms of development (looking at Erik Erikson‘s stages) and also in regard to theories of social psychology, such as moral exclusion and dehumanization; its concrete, visual language; its plot that's set into motion when Christopher finds Wellington, a neighbor's black dog, impaled with a gardening stake and determines to find out whodunnit and so starts (as he says) “detecting.”

In his detecting, Christopher makes careful observations of possible “suspects” and (precisely what his father admonishes him not to do) asks too many questions—–kind of what I feel I do all day to figure out Charlie's mostly wordless (but rich) communication. Detecting also is the general modus operandi of anyone interested in figuring out what causes and how to “treat” autism; autism's said to be a mystery (and so represented by the puzzle piece). Yesterday I took a bit of an X-Files “the truth is out there” angle on this; today—well, I'll start by quoting the end of a July 25th post by Sharyl Attkisson.

As the former head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy has said: perhaps some answers to the autism/ADD mystery are waiting, but you have to go looking to find them.

Attkisson's piece is entitled the Debate over Vaccines and Autism/ADD and is about the case of Hannah Poling, the Georgia girl whose “pre-existing mitochondrial disorder…. was ‘aggravated’ by her shots,” as was conceded in March by the government in the Court of Federal Claims. According to Attkisson, after the decision in Hannah Poling's case was announced, “those who reject any possible link between vaccines and autism/ADD went on the offensive. As an example, she cites Dr. Steven Novella's recent blog post on this “false controversy,” and the response by Hannah's father, Dr. Jon Poling: “‘Regarding your entry on Hannah’s case, your blog entry unfortunately propagates several of the mistakes from the media.'” Why in the world, Attkisson's post implies, would a scientist—a medical doctor—not want to investigate this “mystery”—be afraid of something?

Dr. Poling, and other staunch advocates of a link between vaccines and autism are not afraid, it is suggested, and Attkisson's post was followed up later on that day (July 25th) with an investigate CBS News report, How Independent Are Vaccine Defenders?, in which a number of “conflicts of interest” were detected out between scientists, vaccine researchers (like Dr. Paul Offit, frequent target of anti-pro-vaccine safety supporters) and health organizations (the American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child By Two) and (get ready to gasp), drug companies:

But CBS News has found these three have something more in common – strong financial ties to the industry whose products they promote and defend.

The vaccine industry gives millions to the Academy of Pediatrics for conferences, grants, medical education classes and even helped build their headquarters. The totals are kept secret, but public documents reveal bits and pieces.

A $342,000 payment from Wyeth, maker of the pneumococcal vaccine – which makes $2 billion a year in sales.

A $433,000 contribution from Merck, the same year the academy endorsed Merck's HPV vaccine – which made $1.5 billion a year in sales.

Another top donor: Sanofi Aventis, maker of 17 vaccines and a new five-in-one combo shot just added to the childhood vaccine schedule last month.

As has been pointed out, the big story that CBS News is unearthing here is that (says Autism News Beat): evidence that people are paid for work.

(Certainly good news to me, in the midst of what's been very much a working summer.)

The mystery is nothing mysterious, but an ordinary common place. (Left Brain/Right Brain and Orac, and I Speak of Dreams, and Orac again, have more to say on other “conflicts of interests.”) In other words, the vaccine part of this blog post should end here and I should be getting back to what my students had to say about The Curious Incident, what I said last Monday in a lecture I gave on “Myth, Ancient and Modern, and Autism.”

But no. The plot thickens:

Concerned about the misinformation cast by Attkisson's report, Voices for Vaccines, which is “administratively housed within the Task Force for Child Survival and Development, an Atlanta-based 501(c)(3) organization” and which was “formed to speak for those who value the vital protection provided by vaccines and want accurate communication of their safety profile,” sent a letter to the senior producer at CBS News responsible for the aforementioned report. You can read the letter here. Mike Stanton at Action for Autism writes that this letter was published on the Age of Autism website on July 31st after “someone at CBS leaked a fax from Voices for Vaccines”; Age of Autism then published the letter under the misleading byline “Vaccine Industry Group Calls on Couric and Attkisson for CBS Retraction.”

In other words, a letter meant for the senior produce at CBS News was “leaked” and then somehow ended up appearing on a website that believes that there is a link between vaccines and autism, and that, from time to time, posts correspondence, documents, et alia, from those who it sees as promoting views contrary to its own, and with robust declaration of the Freedom of Information Act.

Figuring out the cause of autism is indeed like trying to solve a “murder-mystery,” which is just the task Christopher in The Curious Incident assigns himself. Who, he wants to know, killed the dog Wellington?

(Sort of like the question, what or who made my child become autistic?.)

Christopher figures out “whodunnit,” though not in the way he (a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories) had thought. And perhaps, too, those who see the story of autism as a great “who dun, what dun, made my child autistic” will have that mystery solved for them by other means than they think.

Because isn't that the satisfying thing about mysteries: They get solved, though not in the way you had been thinking they would.