Autism in children can be difficult and bewildering for parents. Besides the pain, questions linger about how it happened. Is autism a genetic accident? To what extent is it shaped by environmental factors and parental decisions?
Even more so than cancer (mentioned below), autism eludes unambiguous scientific explanation. (“Where is your wisdom? Where is your understanding?” a rabbi challenges the famous King Solomon. [bShab 30a] The wise may not always have the answers.) With its complex delayed etiology and dispersion in the population, it’s hard to identify any causal agents for the spectrum of autism diagnoses. One hypothesis is that vaccines that contain mercury (thimerosal) may trigger autism.
An article in Salon and Rolling Stone by Robert F. Kennedy is stoking the makhloqet – i.e., controversy – over vaccines and autism. Kennedy makes two overarching claims: (1) researchers found that “mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands” of children; and (2) top U.S. government officials and politicians worked with the pharmaceutical/vaccine industry to cover-up the link between autism and mercury in vaccines.
For criticism of the claimed link between autism and mercury (thimerosal) in vaccines, you might read a skeptical medical blogger (Respectful Insolence) and an analytical and savvy liberal (Majikthise). For intellectual reinforcement to the Salon article, start with Dwight Meredith, a parent who blogs on autism. While the scientific debate continues, note that thimerosal has been phased out of vaccines in the U.S. (But thimerosal reportedly remains in overseas vaccines by the same manufacturers!  The vaccine industry includes Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur.)
Since our reading of the Talmud here is hermercurial (see glossary), not oracular, we won't be combing the daf yomi text for an answer to Kennedy’s first claim. Yet, at times, the Talmud does offer parallels to Kennedy's second critique, the corruption of political leadership and economic interests. For instance, R. Shimon b. Yohai denounces Roman commerce (bShab 33b) and the Sages view "wealth" as simple material contentment (bShab 25b). [Let's post on these themes later...]
Kennedy alleges that politicians and drug companies were secretive and corrupt in dealing with the mercury (thimerosal) vaccine studies. He need not frame this as conspiracy, since he is describing Washington’s toxicality business as usual. Corporate influence is not unique to the Bush administration, though it may be inordinately heavy now. Bill Frist exemplifies the susceptibility of politicians to corporate influence-peddling. Kennedy writes:
The drug companies are also getting help from powerful lawmakers in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, has been working to immunize vaccine makers from liability in 4,200 lawsuits that have been filed by the parents of injured children. On five separate occasions, Frist has tried to seal all of the government's vaccine-related documents -- including the Simpsonwood transcripts -- and shield Eli Lilly, the developer of thimerosal, from subpoenas. In 2002, the day after Frist quietly slipped a rider known as the "Eli Lilly Protection Act" into a homeland security bill, the company contributed $10,000 to his campaign and bought 5,000 copies of his book on bioterrorism. Congress repealed the measure in 2003 -- but earlier this year, Frist slipped another provision into an anti-terrorism bill that would deny compensation to children suffering from vaccine-related brain disorders. "The lawsuits are of such magnitude that they could put vaccine producers out of business and limit our capacity to deal with a biological attack by terrorists," says Andy Olsen, a legislative assistant to Frist. (Salon and Rolling Stone, June 16, 2005)
Where Kennedy sees collusion to conceal and mislead, another blogger describes a less deliberate convergence of interests:
“there is a strong desire to deny the link [between thimerosal and autism], let the current moratorium take effect, and hope that treatments are developed that minimize the economic impact of those children who are affected. If the problem somehow will work itself out anyway, why make a spectacle? This would not be the type of conspiracy crafted behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms but rather a tacit bias among a number of people smart enough to see that they're facing a cataclysm.” (Heretics almanac)
In the next post, hopefully, this Quicksilver blog will turn to another health problem with mercury: coal burning utilities. Again, we will see political judgments distorted by mercurial, commercial interests. While the Jewish community is making significant headway in supporting autistic children, I sense it could act more vigorously to delink commercial interests and science-based policymaking.
 Kennedy writes: "Even more alarming, the government continues to ship vaccines preserved with thimerosal to developing countries -- some of which are now experiencing a sudden explosion in autism rates. In China, where the disease was virtually unknown prior to the introduction of thimerosal by U.S. drug manufacturers in 1999, news reports indicate that there are now more than 1.8 million autistics. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, autistic disorders also appear to be soaring in India, Argentina, Nicaragua and other developing countries that are now using thimerosal-laced vaccines. The World Health Organization continues to insist thimerosal is safe, but it promises to keep the possibility that it is linked to neurological disorders 'under review.'"
Cannot vouch for this book: Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy by David Kirby (ISBN: 0312326440)
Addendum: Read about the recent New York Times article.