The committee also notes that other factors such as “parental age and exposure to infections, toxins, and other biological agents may confer environmental risk” and need to be researched. And it highlights the fact that many members of the public feel that “limited autism research funds” would be better spent exploring other avenues of causality and/or treatments, services, and support for those with autism. So MacNeil is guilty of an error of omission, but he’s also guilty of an error of commission.
The second big problem with his statements about that committee’s recommendations is that he makes them seem like a new development. They are not. The committee has been making basically the same statements about the need for some vaccine-autism research focused on subgroups in strategic plans going back at least to 2008, when a report from the Institute of Medicine—an independent, nonprofit organization that is part of the National Academies—recommended designing studies that could identify small subpopulations at risk from environmental exposures. Acting like something has changed in order to create an artificial news hook is misleading and irresponsible.
Journalist David Kirby—who has long urged the medical community not to ignore vaccines—used the same ploy last month in a column for The Huffington Post, alleging that the interagency committee “has signaled a shift in research priorities into the causes of autism, moving away from genetic studies in favor of investigating the interaction between genes and environmental factors, which it said could include toxins, biological agents and vaccines.” This is disingenuous. Yes, there are new studies coming up, but research priorities have been slowly “shifting” toward epigenetics for years.
Kirby’s post, though, is primarily about a February report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that outlines five-year research needs, where “neurodevelopmental disorders, including spectrum disorder” is one of thirty immunization safety topics. There is little sense of where it ranks, priority-wise, among all the others (though a reporter could ask).
Recommendations that the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) gave to the CDC in 2009 advised that researchers focus on those with “regressive autism, wherein children achieve normal developmental milestones in language and social skill until 18-24 months of age, and subsequently lose those milestones or experience a plateau in terms of development.” The advisory committee further noted that several studies have estimated that that group comprises about 15 percent of all cases of autism spectrum disorder [ASD] and that “the temporal occurrence of this regression and the vaccination schedule is not evidence of a causal relationship, but regressive autism does fit the recommendations of the [Institute of Medicine] committee for further research in rigorously defined subsets of ASD.”
The NewsHour should have include at least some of this background. Unfortunately, MacNeil’s reporting failed to provide any context about the federal research guidelines that he considered so revelatory. He also fails to provide context about sources. At one point in Part One, his daughter Allison talks about her son, who received three standard vaccinations at fifteen months and then says:
People say to me, Alison, it’s a coincidence. Alison, how do you know this happened? Well, it’s impossible for me to know. But what I will say is this: It was not a coincidence that my child was diagnosed with autism at the same time that his whole system shut down. Something happened to my child.
Alison’s advocacy came up only in a follow-up Q&A with Sreenivasan, MacNeil’s colleague at PBS. “All right,” the latter said. “Now, since you also brought your family into it, it kind of opened up another line of criticism that we saw in some of the comments regarding your daughter, her opinions on autism and how that did or didn’t influence you.” To which MacNeil replied:
I wasn’t promoting anything. I was trying to be a reporter. The fact that my daughter believes what she believes about vaccines is her belief. I love her.
I think differently. I’ve tried to bring to bear a lot of habits learned over many years as a journalist and look at the whole thing objectively. So, when she says in the first program that’s what she thought, I say immediately, yes, but medical science says that there is no evidence of such a connection. All the epidemiological studies do not prove a connection.