I’ve written a couple of times about “Denialism,” the book by Michael Specter that devotes a badly mistaken chapter to brutally dismissing any link between vaccines and autism – along with anyone who disagrees with that conclusion. (See Specter Plagiarizes Offit Massacres Facts and Tell Jon Stewart the Truth About Michael Specter.) But before letting the book pass into the obscurity for which it is destined, I wanted to call attention to something useful – the fact that Specter quotes a top NIH official spouting the same line.
“How many studies are enough?” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, asks rhetorically. “The Institute of Medicine did all it could do. But the real problem here is that no politician can afford to appear as if he or she is brushing off the agonizing concerns of a parent with an autistic child. So none would say what needed to be said.”
What needed to be said, Fauci makes clear, is, “Folks, come on. We’re going to put fifty million dollars into autism research and look at what the real causes might be.” That, of course, is what the IOM said – scarce research dollars should go to more promising research, not vaccines. Fauci does talk about “this rare event when a vaccine might precipitate an underlying genetic defect that might just as well have been set off by something else, like the flu.”
This, of course, is the mainstream’s response to the Hannah Poling ruling – that she already had an underlying mitochondrial disorder (an evidence-free assertion) that could just as easily have been provoked by a vaccine-preventable illness (ditto).
So clearly, Fauci is coming down on the vaccines-aren’t-related-to-the-autism-epidemic side of the debate, let’s all move along now, former NIH director Bernadine Healy and thousands of parents be damned. Politicians might be too cowardly to “brush off” the vaccine connections observed by parents with an autistic child, but Fauci is brave enough to step up and do exactly that – at least in a cozy chitchat with a sympathetic writer.
I may be wrong, but this is the first time I’ve seen Fauci quoted decisively on this issue. The most salient comment I can find is one he made some time back to U.S. News – “If we can show that individuals of a certain genetic profile have a greater propensity for developing adverse events, we might want to screen everyone prior to vaccination (for) undetectable diseases like a subclinical mitochondrial disorder.”
You can see how the worm has turned – from musing about testing everyone for an undetectable disorder that could prevent vaccine-induced autism without jeopardizing public health, to brushing off the whole thing as rare and unavoidable and not worth pursuing.
What is going on here? My hunch is that the vaccine court rulings this year – the three that found no link and brushed off parents as deluded and badly used by money-grubbing lawyers and quacks -- has emboldened fence-sitters like Fauci to climb down on what they think is the winning side. Fauci is a particularly disappointing case of this phenomenon. He’s been at NIH a long time and, as recounted by Randy Shilts in “And the Band Played On,” tried hard to save early AIDS patients with aggressive and novel treatments. So, give him that.
But perhaps there’s precedent in Fauci’s career. Shilts also notes Fauci was part of one of the more unfortunate moments in the history of AIDS in America. On May 6, 1983, the American Medjcal Association issued a news release headlined, “Evidence Suggests Household Contact May Transmit AIDS.” The story began: “Chicago – Evidence suggesting that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) can be transmitted by routine household contact is presented in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.”
This was obviously terrifying, and the AP picked up on the release with a story headlined, “AIDS Disease Could Endanger General Population.” It began: “CHICAGO (AP) – A study showing children may catch the deadly immune deficiency disease AIDS from their families could mean the general population is at greater risk from the illness than previously believed, a medical journal reported today. If ‘routine’ personal contact among family members in a household is enough to spread the illness, ‘then AIDS takes on an entirely new dimension,’” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.”
Shilts quotes the author of another AIDS paper in the same journal issue as “astounded that Anthony Fauci could so much as imply that household contact might have anything to do with spreading AIDS.”
“What was Fauci’s problem?” asks Shilts. As it turned out, Fauci had read only the paper’s conclusions, not the entire text. “Fauci quickly cast blame on a hysterical media for taking is comments ‘out of context,’” Shilts writes. After all, he had said only that the POSSIBILITY of household transmission MIGHT raise all these scientific implications. The lay public did not understand the language of science, he pleaded. Science always dealt with hypotheticals; this did not mean he WAS saying that AIDS actually was spread the contact.” And, Fauci correctly noted, the AMA had sensationalized the entire article.
Still, Fauci spoke without judging the actual science himself -- the besetting sin of the “experts” who are now piling on what they believe to be proven conclusions that vaccines have been exonerated as a cause of the autism epidemic. Partly, this is sheer arrogance – the belief that an MD entitles one to weigh in with impunity based on the reassurances of other MD’s that “those people” – people like autism parents – can’t possibly know what they’re talking about. A comment by writer Evelyn Pringle on one of my Specter posts makes this point eloquently. She’s talking about Specter but her words, I’m afraid, could apply to Anthony Fauci, Tom Insel, Amy Wallace and all the others who seem to be jumping so gleefully into the dustbin of history, just before the door snaps shut:
“I readily knew that the topic was extremely complex and it would take forever to get enough understanding to write about it accurately – there could be no scanning of a few publications. I realized I would make a fool of myself if I tried to take short cuts and started writing before I knew what I was writing about.”
You know the saying: Government public health experts and high-profile writers – I’m sorry, I mean fools -- rush in where angels fear to tread.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism