BY DAN OLMSTED
One of the benefits of living around Washington, as I do, is that you hear the darnedest things – not because someone said them on C-SPAN or at a press conference, but because a neighbor chit-chatted in the produce section at Whole Foods with a senator's aide who said a little too much, or someone's wife let slip at a cocktail party something she didn't realize was that big a deal to someone who realized it was … and so on.
That's how I came across the following tidbit of hearsay – and make no mistake, that's what it is. But there is hearsay and then there is hearsay. None of it is admissible in court, but some of it simply feels more reliable, given the source and the circumstances. I think this falls in the latter category … but that is up to you, Dear Reader.
I first heard this a few months ago and put it aside. The recent Poling decision – in which a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded the first test case of the idea that mercury in vaccines can cause autism – reminded me of it. I decided it was time to say something.
So this week I had lunch with my "source" – not some bigwig sitting down with Tim Russert, but the mother of an affected child who lives nearby, and me, blogger and troublemaker extraordinaire. She is a well-respected member of the community who believes that vaccines were central to her son's regression. And I – well, everybody knows where I'm coming from and can judge accordingly.
I wanted to hear her story again and make sure I got it right and see what holes I could poke in it, playing devil's advocate. So here, over a four-cheese pizza and a salad (me) and a mozzarella-and-tomato sub and fries (she), is the tale she told:
A friend of hers is a Mormon who attends a local church that is also attended by Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services.
This friend of hers also has an affected child, and she is interested in but not totally convinced about the vaccine-autism link. For one thing, both her friend and her friend's husband have the engineering/math bent and they suspect that played a role.
So, this friend of hers runs into Secretary Leavitt in the parking lot of their church after services and she says to him: What do you think is causing all the autism, or What's going on with autism – that kind of thing, according to my friend, who freely says she's not sure of the exact formulation of the question. But she is crystal clear about how her friend says Secretary Leavitt responded:
"We know it's the mercury."
Well, alrighty then!, as Jenny McCarthy's boyfriend used to say. The man in charge of the whole enchilada says "we know" that mercury – and I can only assume that is primarily vaccine mercury, or thimerosal – is behind the autism epidemic?
The natural response from most people who read this is going to be:
Objection! Hearsay! Inadmissable.
Yes, but this is not a court of law. This is a blog that's trying to get to the heart of the autism epidemic as quickly as possible, and so the question is not what is admissible in court, the question is what degree of significance and plausibility to assign to this report.
My friend told me that her friend reported this conversation to her about two years ago, and that it had happened within the previous week; she sought out my friend to relate this conversation so quickly because she was, A., so surprised by it, and B., knew it accorded with my friend's view. Here was the secretary of HHS saying the same thing!
Incredible! Get this! Two moms chatting outside a pre-school in Northern Virginia about the darnedest thing. Around here, it happens.
It really does.
The woman who actually had the conversation is out of the country and inaccessible (how CONVENIENT, the naysayers will say), and neither of us is sure she would necessarily repeat it to me anyway.
Admittedly, my friend is very big on the idea that vaccines triggered her son's autism. As my friend says, "Her child hadn't regressed like mine. Believe me, you experience regression and you're a zealot." It could be argued that might predispose her to mishear or misremember what was said. Maybe what Secretary Leavitt actually said – if he said any such thing at all – is "Well, everybody thinks it's the mercury."
So, there are plenty of caveats here, but on the whole I would assign this report a reasonable degree of likelihood. Even so, I did not write about it – frankly, I didn't think all that much about it because it could never, ever be conclusively confirmed – until the Poling case. Because didn't HHS, at least in that case and perhaps not in so many words and with so much subsequent spin and smoke that it's all jumbled up … but didn't they say, in effect, "We know it's the mercury"? And given that, isn't it at least a little bit interesting that someone I respect and trust had already reported a conversation to me in which the Top Banana of the department said exactly that?
One thing that appears to me in a new light is the extreme solicitousness that a really top HHS official – William Raub, the science adviser to Leavitt – has shown to parents who believe in the environmental-biomedical model. Anyone who heard his introduction at the IOM workshop on the environment and autism in Washington last April knows he does not consider these folks wackos – not at all. Now, he might be just playing Mr. Nice Guy, but there's always been something about his approach that has stood out, at least for me.
So, if what I'm reporting is true, it's mostly good news in the sense that at the very top there may be an understanding that has already had an effect – Raub's approach, the Poling case – with perhaps more to come.
But there is another issue here. As best I can tell, there are three people in America who can out-and-out recall a food or drug on a moment's notice without anybody else's say so – no advisory committee, no IOM report, no kowtowing to nobody. That would be the president of the United States, the head of the FDA (remember when David Kessler impounded a whole warehouse of "fresh" orange juice because it wasn't fresh?) – and the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
There's the flu shot, loaded with mercury and given to pregnant women and infants. There are still other vaccines manufactured and/or preserved with mercury. And then there are those 100 million kids a year in the rest of the world who are getting shot full of thimerosal because our government says it's safe.
I'm going to leave it right there.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.