Natural Health

John McCain Weighs In On Autism-Vaccine Debate

By: Madeline Ellis
Published: Thursday, 13 March 2008
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A comment made recently by Senator John McCain, while campaigning in Texas, has propelled him into one of the most politicized scientific issues in history. When responding to a question from the mother of a boy with autism at a town hall meeting McCain said, “It’s indisputable that autism is on the rise among children. The question is: what’s causing it? And we go back and forth, and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the issue, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

Asked whether the Arizona Senator’s statement was carefully reasoned or should be considered an offhand remark, a senior policy adviser to the McCain campaign, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, PhD. commented, "He had expressed sympathy for the woman's concern. His position is to pursue sound science. He has a broad interest in this phenomenon that isn't restricted to vaccines or preservatives."

Holtz-Eakin continued by saying, “Sen. McCain understands there have been numerous scientific studies that haven't found a link. He also recognizes there are many people who've raised concerns about a possible link. He isn't taking sides. Until we better understand the root causes for the rising number of diagnoses, all concerns won't be put to rest. He's advocating greater research.”

No one disputes the fact that autism diagnoses have increased in recent decades; it is the cause which is the dividing factor. On one side, parent activist groups, attorneys and some lawmakers assert that the preservative called thimerosal, which contains mercury, has caused the epidemic. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. suggests that public health officials conspired with drug makers to “poison a generation of American children.”

Actress Jenny McCarthy wrote a book, “Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism”, in which she shares the personal story of her son’s struggle with autism and his apparent ‘change’ after receiving vaccinations and Florida Republican and physician, Rep. Dave Weldon has been very vocal with his thimerosal concerns. Over 4,800 lawsuits have been filed against vaccine makers.

Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, applauded McCain’s remarks and said, “We completely agree with him and hope he continues talking about this subject so we can get to the bottom of what’s causing this epidemic.”

On the other side is the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), Institute of Medicine, and American Academy of Pediatrics who have concluded that there is no evidence of a link between thimerosal and autism.

Several large-scale studies have yet to find a connection between thimerosal and autism, one as recent as February, where an international team of researchers analyzed blood samples from vaccinated children. They found that blood levels of ethyl mercury “fell rapidly and had largely returned to baseline levels by Day 11 after vaccination.” The researchers concluded that since those levels fell much more rapidly, for example, than levels of the mercury absorbed by people eating fish, the injected thimerosal is less likely to build up in the blood.

Even after the preservative was removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, the occurrence of the disorder has continued to rise. Researchers argue that if thimerosal causes autism, the prevalence of the disorder should have declined.
A study published in January of California Department of Developmental Services indicated that there was “an increase in autism in California despite the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines.”

There has also been no such decline in Canada, Denmark or Sweden, where thimerosal was removed during the mid-1990’s.

Dr. Paul Offit, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said, “If Senator McCain believes there’s a link, he’s clearly misinformed.”

Dr. Offit also commented, “There is no debate within the medical community. There’s never been a single epidemiological study showing a link. To suggest otherwise is extremely irresponsible.”

Dr. Offit worries that parents could be discouraged from getting their children immunized if exposed to unfounded reports about vaccines and autism saying, “McCain may think he’s helping by reaching out to parents of autistic kids. But he does them a tremendous disservice and can unnecessarily scare the public about the safety of vaccines.”

Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama’s health plan has a section on autism. He has supported federal spending on autism research for “root causes and treatments.” In November, Senator Hillary Clinton announced she would spend $700 million a year on autism research, teacher training, and support services.