Autism's False Prophets

Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure

Paul A. Offit
Copyright Date: 2008
DOI: 10.7312/offi14636
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/offi14636
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  • Book Info
    Autism's False Prophets
    Book Description:

    A London researcher was the first to assert that the combination measles-mumps-rubella vaccine known as MMR caused autism in children. Following this "discovery," a handful of parents declared that a mercury-containing preservative in several vaccines was responsible for the disease. If mercury caused autism, they reasoned, eliminating it from a child's system should treat the disorder. Consequently, a number of untested alternative therapies arose, and, most tragically, in one such treatment, a doctor injected a five-year-old autistic boy with a chemical in an effort to cleanse him of mercury, which stopped his heart instead.

    Children with autism have been placed on stringent diets, subjected to high-temperature saunas, bathed in magnetic clay, asked to swallow digestive enzymes and activated charcoal, and injected with various combinations of vitamins, minerals, and acids. Instead of helping, these therapies can hurt those who are most vulnerable, and particularly in the case of autism, they undermine childhood vaccination programs that have saved millions of lives. An overwhelming body of scientific evidence clearly shows that childhood vaccines are safe and does not cause autism. Yet widespread fear of vaccines on the part of parents persists.

    In this book, Paul A. Offit, a national expert on vaccines, challenges the modern-day false prophets who have so egregiously misled the public and exposes the opportunism of the lawyers, journalists, celebrities, and politicians who support them. Offit recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots. He considers the manipulation of science in the popular media and the courtroom, and he explores why society is susceptible to the bad science and risky therapies put forward by many antivaccination activists.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51796-6
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Biological Sciences, General Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION
    (pp. xv-xx)
    Paul A. Offit
  4. PROLOGUE
    (pp. xxi-xxviii)

    I get a lot of hate mail.

    Every week people send letters and e-mails calling me “stupid,” “callous,” an “SOB,” or “a prostitute.” People ask, “How in the world can you put money before the health of someone’s baby?” or “How can you sleep at night?” or “Why did you sell your soul to the devil?” They say I “don’t have a conscience,” am “directly responsible for the death and damage of hundreds of children,” and “have blood on [my] hands.” They “pray that the love of Christ will one day flood [my] darkened heart.” They warn that my “day...

  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xxix-xxxiv)

    In 1916, polio became an American disease. In New York City alone, in one summer the virus paralyzed 10,000 people and killed 2,000. No one knew what was causing it. People blamed fish, fleas, rats, cats, horses, mosquitoes, chickens, shark vapors, pasteurized milk, wireless electricity, radio waves, tobacco smoke, automobile exhaust, doctors’ beards, organ-grinders’ monkeys, and toxic gases from Europe. They blamed parents for tickling their children. They blamed tarantulas for injecting poisons into bananas. Isolated, frightened, and desperate for a cure, New Yorkers tried everything. They swallowed catnip, skullcap, lady’s slipper, earthworm oil, blackberry brandy, sassafras, and alcohol. Following...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Tinderbox
    (pp. 1-17)

    In 1938, Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist working at Johns Hopkins Hospital, saw a five-year-old boy with symptoms he had never seen before; then he saw ten more children just like him. Five years later, Kanner published his observations in an article titled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” He introduced his paper with a plea: “There has come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far, that each case merits—and I hope will eventually receive—a detailed consideration of its fascinating peculiarities.”

    Kanner found that autistic children didn’t...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Lighting the Fuse
    (pp. 18-36)

    On February 28, 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a surgeon working at London’s Royal Free Hospital, held a press conference. He believed he had found the cause of autism. His findings would be published later that day in the Lancet, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious medical journal.

    Wakefield was an intriguing character. Tall, square-jawed, and soft-spoken, with intense blue eyes and the physique of a rugby player, he had once been a golden boy in the medical world. The son of two doctors—his mother a general practitioner, his father a neurologist—Wakefield had trained in Toronto before returning to the Royal...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Implosion
    (pp. 37-59)

    On February 18, 2004—six years after Andrew Wakefield had published his paper in the Lancet—Brian Deer, an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, called Richard Horton, the Lancet’s editor-in-chief. Deer said he had some shocking news about Andrew Wakefield. Horton gathered several other editors into the Lancet’s editorial office and waited; he had no idea what he was about to hear. The meeting lasted five hours. “The allegations made by Deer, as I saw them,” recalled Horton, “were devastating.”

    Deer claimed that Wakefield’s Lancet paper contained several errors. For one, Wakefield had written that his “investigations...

  9. CHAPTER 4 A Precautionary Tale
    (pp. 60-80)

    Many parents had been persuaded by the MMR controversy that vaccines caused autism. When studies exonerated MMR, they reasoned it must be something else in vaccines causing the problem. It wouldn’t be long before they believed they had found it.

    Frank Pallone is a congressman who represents New Jersey’s Sixth District. First elected in 1988, he has been a passionate supporter of Native Americans, working to protect the sovereignty of tribal governments. He’s also an environmentalist. Because Pallone lives in a district that includes a string of towns on the Jersey shore, he’s particularly worried about contamination of fish with...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Mercury Rising
    (pp. 81-105)

    Lyn Redwood is a nurse practitioner who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. By the time her third child, Will, was born, she had been a medical professional for twenty years. “My son Will weighed in at close to nine pounds at birth,” she said. “He was a happy baby who ate and slept well, smiled, cooed, walked, and talked all by one year of age.” But after his first birthday, Will began to change. “He lost speech, eye contact, and suffered intermittent bouts of diarrhea, [then he was] diagnosed with pervasive developmental delay, a form of autism.” When the AAP issued...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Mercury Falling
    (pp. 106-129)

    Walter Orenstein had been the first to propose a study evaluating the risk of thimerosal. But because the preliminary results of the study were horribly flawed—as discussed by the conferees at Simpsonwood—it hung under a cloud. Lyn Redwood, Sallie Bernard, Mark and David Geier, Boyd Haley, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., David Kirby, and everyone else wedded to the thimerosal-causes-autism hypothesis roundly dismissed the study’s final conclusions. But Orenstein’s suggested study wasn’t the only one to examine whether thimerosal caused harm. Eight more followed.

    In August 2003, Paul Stehr-Green published a paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine....

  12. CHAPTER 7 Behind the Mercury Curtain
    (pp. 130-155)

    Kathleen Seidel lives on the edge of a cow pasture in rural New Hampshire, in a small, yellow raised ranch house stuffed with books and music. Her ready kindness, joyous laugh, and instinctive warmth belie a relentless, unsympathetic determination to expose the doctors, scientists, journalists, and politicians who have promoted the notion that vaccines cause autism. “I have a big fraud button,” she says. “And it gets pushed every now and then.”

    Seidel was raised in Anaheim, California. Her father was a chemical engineer, her mother a music and special education teacher who worked with severely impaired children. In 1973,...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Science in Court
    (pp. 156-175)

    In the summer of 2007, parents of children with autism took their case to court. Called the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, it was an unusual lawsuit. Parents weren’t suing the company that made thimerosal (Eli Lilly) or the company that made MMR (Merck) or the companies that made vaccines containing thimerosal (Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth, Sanofi Pasteur, and Novartis). They were suing the federal government in a federal court. This wasn’t their preference. They would much rather have argued their cases in state courts in front of juries. In federal court they would have to convince a panel of three judges. But...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Science and the Media
    (pp. 176-195)

    When parents became concerned that vaccines had caused their children’s autism, scientists responded by performing a series of epidemiological studies. All showed the same thing: vaccines weren’t at fault. But despite the singular, consistent, reproducible, and clear results of these studies—and consequent reassurances from national and international health groups—many parents remain fearful. Why? Why has there been such a deep and persistent rift between the science that exonerated vaccines and the public’s understanding of that science? Indeed, when people hear the word vaccines, one of the first things they think of is autism.

    The public learns about science...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Science and Society
    (pp. 196-217)

    Science is influenced by society. In the fourth century b.c. two Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, believed the earth was the center of the universe (geocentrism). By the Middle Ages, everyone believed it. Further support for the theory of geocentricism came from Christian biblical references, such as “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Chronicles 16:30) and “[The Lord] set the earth on its foundations” (Psalm 104:5). As a consequence, geocentrism assumed the power of religious dogma.

    In 1543, however, Copernicus, a Polish mathematician, challenged the notion of geocentrism by claiming the earth...

  16. CHAPTER 11 A Place for Autism
    (pp. 218-234)

    The first clue to the cause of autism is that it’s genetic. (Genes contained in chromosomes in the nuclei of cells provide a blueprint for cell function.) Researchers have shown that autism is genetic by studying twins. They found that when one identical twin had autism spectrum disorder, the risk to the second twin was greater than 90 percent; in contrast, when one fraternal twin had autism, the risk to the second twin was less than 10 percent. Because identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins don’t, these studies proved that autism was in large part genetic.

    When...

  17. EPILOGUE: “NEXT, ON OPRAH”
    (pp. 235-248)

    On September 18, 2007, Oprah Winfrey interviewed actress Jenny McCarthy on her nationally televised daytime show. Few women are more respected than Oprah Winfrey; her philanthropy, goodwill, and common sense have made her one of the most trusted and powerful people in America. McCarthy came to Oprah to talk about her new book, Louder than Words, the story of how she had cured her son’s autism. For authors, an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show is as good as it gets; Oprah’s Book Club has launched a generation of readers.

    Oprah: So what do you think triggered the autism?

    McCarthy:...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 249-282)
  19. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 283-284)
  20. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 285-286)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 287-298)