Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2004 / 6 Shevat, 5764

On Capitol Hill, hearing to examine connection between autism and vaccinations | (KRT) Testimony next month in the nation's capital will revisit the controversial issue of whether childhood vaccinations have anything to do with the calamity of autism.

The hearing will come amid fears that the testimony either will drive parents away from vital protections or short-circuit important research.

Critics accuse the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, of attempting to reach premature conclusions in vital research.

Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., a physician by trade, has pushed to have the hearing postponed, arguing that "it does not appear to be a serious effort to examine these critical issues."

"The national vaccine program has saved millions of lives and millions of kids from disability," he said. "When we have questions raised, it's very important to get them thoroughly evaluated and not just try to sweep them under the rug."

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The one-day hearing on Feb. 9 in Washington will tackle two questions:

_Could thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in many vaccines in the 1990s before manufacturers voluntarily phased it out, have triggered autism in genetically susceptible children?

_Could the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which has never contained thimerosal, trigger autism?

The controversy takes place as the number of autistic children nationwide rises dramatically, and many in the medical community worry that unfounded fears could cause parents to shun vaccinations for their children, leaving them vulnerable to deadly diseases.

England has suffered a drop in its vaccination rate because of the controversy.

Autism has no known cause and no cure.

Researchers around the country are exploring possibilities besides vaccines, from a genetic link to environmental factors such as pesticides, PCBs, flame retardants and chemicals used in industrial processes.

Weldon recently sent a letter to Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging her to postpone the meeting until at least the end of this year or early 2005, after additional research is completed.

The Institute of Medicine is conducting the hearing at the CDC's request.

As of Friday afternoon, Weldon had received no response.

Safe Minds, a New Jersey-based group that seeks to reduce mercury exposure in children, also sent a letter voicing similar concerns.

"Currently numerous investigations are under way that would offer much additional science to the debate," wrote Safe Minds President Lyn Redwood. " Holding a hearing at this time, with little new data, is a waste of taxpayer dollars."

CDC spokesman Von Roebuck said the meeting will proceed as planned and should shed light on an important topic.

"This is an opportunity to gather a lot of information," he said.

The Institute of Medicine's Immunization Safety Review Committee typically holds a hearing on a question, analyzes the available studies and scientific literature and then releases a report with its findings and recommendations a few months later, said spokeswoman Christine Stencel.

The Institute is a private organization created by the federal government to serve as an independent adviser on health-related issues.

Critics question the meeting's timing, speculating that the goal may be to have the Institute come out with a report rejecting the possibility of a vaccine-autism link as class-action lawsuits wind through the courts.

"I'm very suspicious of that," Weldon said. " What better way to try to head this all off at the pass than to get the Institute of Medicine to issue a report (rejecting an autism-vaccine link?)"

Weldon added that if the Institute rushes to judgment, "they could end up with egg on their face three or four years from now. Ultimately, the research will come out."

The lawsuits center on thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in several vaccines until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers in 1999 to voluntarily phase it out of children's shots.

Thimerosal can still be found in children's vaccines outside of the United States.

The Institute of Medicine weighed in on the autism-vaccine controversy in 2001 by concluding there was no evidence of a connection between MMR and the disorder.

Questions about a link between MMR and autism first surfaced in 1998 when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield noted that eight autistic children developed an unusual inflammation in their intestines and appeared to regress shortly after receiving the MMR vaccine.

The Institute of Medicine, in a second report released in 2001, called for additional studies on thimerosal.

The Institute concluded that it is "biologically plausible" that vaccines containing thimerosal could cause neurodevelopmental disorders in children." It said there is no evidence this has occurred, but there also was not enough evidence to rule it out.

Since those reports, several high-profile studies have cast doubt on an autism-vaccine link, including a look at 500,000 children born in Denmark between 1991 and 1998. That study found no difference in the level of autism among children vaccinated with MMR and those who were not.

Last year, a CDC study published in Pediatrics concluded that "parents should be reassured that quantities of mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde contained in vaccines are likely to be harmless on the basis of exposure studies in humans or experimental studies in animals."

But critics have taken aim at both studies and researchers around the country have other analyses underway.

The controversy heightened when Safe Minds, after obtaining documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed that a CDC researcher initially found a statistically significant association between exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines and developmental delays, then revised his methodology and found none in his final report issued in 2000.

Safe Minds also noted that a short time later the researcher, Thomas Verstraeten, went to work for vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline in Belgium.

Weldon argues that much of the research is being driven by the CDC's National Immunization Program office, which has a vested interest in the outcome. "These people are essentially investigating themselves," he said.

Weldon stressed that he remains a vaccine supporter. He administered many vaccinations while practicing medicine and his 5-year-old son received all of the recommended shots.

But Weldon said it is important that an outside entity, with no connection to the CDC, oversee studies on vaccines and autism.

"My desire is to get at the truth and maintain public confidence in the vaccine program. In my honest opinion, we have gotten very little research done on these questions."

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© 2004, Contra Costa Times Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services