Recent events surrounding the US indictment of researcher Poul Thorsen inspired me to revisit the time when he became involved in the effort to examine (and it appears, exonerate) the potential role of vaccines in Autism. An easy place to do so, and one I encourage everyone to visit, is the Put Children First website. It clearly documents the events that took place leading us to where we are today.
While navigating the site, I came across an old email written by Dr. Ruth Etzel that I had forgotten about. (See pdf of email here) It seems more appropriate than ever to share it now, as it accurately and eerily predicts what has happened to the public's confidence in the vaccine program. But to put it in the proper context, let's remind everybody about what was happening right before it was shared.
The FDA issued a directive called the FDA Modernization Act of 1997 to assess all mercury in food and drugs. This included vaccines, and in December of 1998 and April of 1999, vaccine manufacturers had no choice but to respond to their request for more information. Panic set in as it became obvious there was a serious oversight problem, (even though Merck knew back in 1991 there was a problem) and behind the scenes members of the different agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services, such as the FDA and CDC, joined forces with organizations like the AAP and Public Heath Service to come up with a plan. Collectively, however, they couldn't agree. To begin with, there were no specific guidelines for the safety for ethyl mercury (the kind used in vaccines). And as for coordinating a message to calm the American public? Well, there wasn't much agreement there either.
Think about it. They had to admit they had no idea what the definition of safety was for injected ethyl mercury exposure in children; that they had no idea how much of it was going into children anyway; that they had no idea what health consequences their oversight could have caused; and they had to find a way to still save the immunization program (as if any of them had any right to be in charge of it anymore anyway). Not exactly an easy task. And like I said, there was a lot of debate over how to do it.
As such, the AAP grew impatient, and on July 7, 1999 at 4:15 PM, a summer Friday afternoon when they hoped no one would be watching television or paying attention, a joint health statement between themselves and the Public Health Service was issued. In confusing and calming language that tried to be reassuring, they admitted to a potential problem that no one should worry about. Mercury was bad, but it wasn't. They forgot to assess the health risk, but it was fine. They would take precaution but not make a recall. You should be concerned, but not really. It was a mixed message to say the least, and not everyone behind the scenes thought it was a good idea. One of them was a doctor named Dr. Ruth Etzel.
On July 2, 1999 at 10:36 AM, she wrote these words to her colleagues:
"The Committee on Environmental Health and the Committee on Infectious Diseases may want to look at the way Johnson and Johnson handled the poisoned Tylenol affair in 1982. It followed three basic rules:
1. act quickly to recall the affected product
2. be open with consumers about what went wrong
3. show contrition
Seventeen years ago, when an extortionist tried to wring money out of Johnson & Johnson by lacing capsules of Tylenol with cyanide, 7 people died. While the government was still considering what to do (sound familiar?), and before the media had time to put the company on the defensive, Johnson & Johnson recalled all Tylenol products. That cost about $100-million and it lost short term sales. But it emerged from the episode with consumer confidence at a higher level than ever, and quickly regained its leadership of the painkiller market.
The AAP should be dedicated to promptly providing truthful information about this situation to pediatricians. We must follow the three basic rules:
1. Act quickly to inform pediatricians that the products have more mercury than we realized
2. Be open with consumers about why we didn't catch this earlier
3. Show contrition
As you know, the Public Health Service informed us yesterday that they were planning to conduct business as usual, and would probably indicate no preference for either product. While the Public Health Service may think that their "product" is immunizations, I think their "product" is their recommendations. If the public loses faith in the PHS recommendations, then the immunization battle will falter. To keep faith, we must be open and honest now and move forward quickly to replace these products. Short term shortages may occur.
AAP should assure pediatricians that we are committed to making sure that all children will be vaccinated, although some may be delayed due to shortages. This is what American parents want to hear from their pediatricians. Anything less may cause them to lose faith in our recommendations."
To borrow from the web-site, It is breath-taking to read this email, absolutely breath-taking. For starters, at no point did she express any moral outrage over the insanely inhuman idea of continuing to inject infants with ethyl mercury in alarming amounts with no safety guidelines or existing science to properly identify or treat the negative health outcomes it could cause for them! Rather, her priority was clear: making sure all children would still be vaccinated and the AAP would be trusted in spite of their egregious mistake. That's right. Even at the risk of poisoning babies, their mission to save their own ass and vaccinate children remained more important. I have no words.
Moreover, this doctor, and presumably many, many others in a position of trusted leadership, knew full well what was going to happen if the course of action the PHS wanted to take was pursued instead of the one recommended here. They did it anyway. And exactly what she predicted would happen has happened. The faith in the vaccine program and the "product" of the AAP, their recommendation, has definitely dwindled.
Although in some respects, Dr. Etzel was wrong. For the media did not come after the AAP or the CDC or the pharmaceutical industry, putting them on the defensive as she feared. Rather, it was parents of poisoned children who did, and shockingly, it was then the parents who were put on the defensive because of it. Parents have remained there ever since, and today, have been fully demonized as the responsible party for the collapse of faith in the vaccine program instead. (Them and a GI doctor from the UK who suggested, hey, maybe these vaccines are a problem for some kids. Let's look into it.) It's like a bad dream.
To emphasize the surreal nature of this tragedy, let's reiterate the facts.
The triangle of US medical leadership (government agencies, the AAP, and the pharmaceutical industry) admitted that they had completely failed to assess the risk of injecting a man-made, synthetic form of mercury into a decade's worth of infants in alarming amounts, a form of mercury they had no safety guidelines for. An internal memo revealed officials at Merck actually knew the amount of mercury was dangerously high in 1991...and did nothing. The CDC and the AAP worked behind the scenes with the PHS with one clear priority: save themselves and the vaccine program. As for the kids who could get poisoned or already were? Oh well.
And from there, the rest is history. Turns out, they did nothing wrong. It was all a big misunderstanding. That stupid FDA threw them in a panic over nothing. All that mercury kids got? It was perfectly harmless. All those symptoms exploding in children that mimic mercury poisoning exactly? Speech delay? ADHD? Asthma? Autism? All coincidence. Better diagnosis. All those parents screaming that the problems in their children began right after their kids were vaccinated? Desperate lunatics looking for something to blame their bad genes on.
And how do we know this? Because the same triangle of leadership that created this PR plan also got to investigate themselves to see if they actually did do anything wrong. And how did they do this? They created studies, and hired researchers, and traveled the world to find the people and data bases that would help them generate the "science" they needed to prove it. First, a study from the US that initially showed kids who received the most amount of mercury possible were 7.45 times more likely to get Autism, but in it's published form said, well, we have no idea if it's a problem or not. Sorry that took us four years. But hey, we've got this other science coming to us from Denmark...and check this out! Turns out, the less mercury kids get, the MORE likely they are to get Autism! Wow! We actually should have kept that mercury in those shots after all! Good thing we didn't issue a recall or ever stop using it! We're geniuses!
And to top this nightmare sundae off with whipped cream and a cherry, we now have a vaccine patent holder who has made millions from, gosh, MERCK of all places, to convince the world all of this is true. Doctors are geniuses! Injecting kids with hundreds of times the amount of mercury ever deemed safe was fine! It was good for them! It still is! Even for pregnant women!
And that researcher who showed us it was, that Poul Thorsen guy, hired by the CDC? Well, he's just been indicted by the US Department of Justice for fraud. Turns out, he's allegedly been taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the CDC funds granted to him to do this "good" science, and turns out, he may not have acted alone. Still, nothing to worry about, they tell us. Just another unfortunate coincidence in the long line of them we call Autism.
So get on with it already you crazy, desperate parents of kids who only look like they're poisoned! It never happened! We proved it! Move on! And all these outbreaks of measles and whooping cough that are re-surging because you doubt our morality and expertise? That's your fault!
Or is it? Someone ought to find Dr. Ruth, and see if she begs to differ. Seems she had some very different insight into who the real culprits would be for this disaster over ten years ago. And on at least that much, she was right.
Julie Obradovic is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.