A Link Between Autism and Vaccines?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says transcripts obtained through FOIA request exposed a massive CDC cover-up in 2000

October 1, 2007

Did the Centers for Disease Control conspire with drug companies to hide a definitive study proving Thimerosal, a mercury-based ingredient found in vaccines, causes autism?  

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made this allegation in an article published in Rolling Stone in 2005. The story was based on transcripts from a 2000 CDC meeting that were retrieved under a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

Kennedy is an environmental attorney and a former New York City prosecutor. His father, the Robert F. Kennedy, Sr., was shot dead in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California Democratic presidential primary in 1968.

Despite those compelling credentials, most media outlets largely ignored the article. For its part, the CDC has never identified Thimerosal as being hazardous. The FDA has likewise refused to issue a ban, although the compound's presence in vaccines began tapering off a few years ago.

Patented by Ely Lilly in the 1930s, Thimerosal's use as a preservative for vaccines coincided with the first known reports of autism in the United States.  Today more than a half million Americans are stricken with the disorder.  Although numerous studies dating back to the 1940s had established a cause-effect relationship between mercury and a variety of neurological disorders, the CDC has stalwartly defended its vaccine program, claiming there’s no proof of a link. Yet in 2000, the FDA quietly began asking drugmakers to voluntarily remove the compound from their products.  According to Kennedy, some did, but not everyone.

The episode began in June of that year, when the CDC invited 50 health officials and drug company representatives to a meeting in rural Georgia to discuss a new research study.  A CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten informed the gathering that he’d analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical records of 100,000 children.  He concluded that the compound could be statistically linked to a dramatic increase in autism in kids.

Remarkably, instead of calling for an immediate recall of Thimerosal nationwide and overhauling its vaccine protocols, CDC administrators spent the rest of meeting conspiring with drug makers to cover their tracks.   The representatives from GlaxoSmithKline, Merck (which makes the new cervical vaccine) Aventis Pasteur, and Wyeth (maker of Premarin and Prempro, hormone replacement drugs tied to breast and endometrial cancer) were told they could continue distributing their mercury-laced stockpiles until the supplies ran out.  

All data presented during the meeting was “embargoed”, meaning no one could speak to the press.  Verstraeten agreed to postpone releasing his study, though it was scheduled for immediate publication.  Kennedy says the public health officials also decided to transfer the medical records database to a private company, thereby blocking other researchers from gaining access to the same information that Verstraeten found so worrisome.

“By the time Verstraeten finally published his study in 2003,” Kennedy wrote, “he had gone to work for GlaxoSmithKline and reworked his data to bury the link between Thimerosal and autism.”

The CDC also undertook the task of commissioning new research that would find Thimerosal safe.  "Four current studies are taking place to rule out the proposed link between autism and thimerosal," Dr. Gordon Douglas, then director of strategic planning for vaccine research at the federally funded National Institutes of Health told a Princeton gathering in May 2001. Douglas is the former head of the vaccination division at Merck.

Even the World Health Organization agreed to join the cover-up, producing its own report that refuted concerns about vaccines being given to millions of children in developing countries. 

However, the CDC couldn't entirely keep a lid on its explosive findings. Convinced the federal government was lying to them, many parents of children with autism filed lawsuits. Drugmakers turned to Congress at that mpoint, and in one of the more extreme examples of special interest lobbying, then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist inserted a rider into a homeland security bill in 2002 that sought to immunize at least one of the companies from potential litigation.  Known as the "Eli Lilly Protection Act", the legislation was initially passed. (The following month, Eli Lilly contributed $10,000 to Frist's campaign fund.) However, the liability waiver was repealed by Congress in 2003 and Frist resigned from the Senate in 2006, awash in allegations of stock fraud.

 Other revelations in the article:

  * Since 1991, when the CDC and the FDA recommended that three additional vaccines laced with the preservative be given to extremely young infants -- in one case, within hours of birth -- the estimated number of cases of autism increased fifteenfold, from one in every 2,500 children to one in 166 children.

 * In April, 2000, UPI reporter Dan Olmsted surveyed Amish children of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where parents typically refuse immunization for their infants. Based on the national rate, Olmsted calculated that there should be 130 autistics within the community, but found only four cases.  Of these, one child had apparently been exposed to high levels of mercury from a power plant, while the other three received the vaccines.

 * In China, where the disease was virtually unknown prior to the introduction of Thimerosal there in 1999, news reports indicate that there are now more than 1.8 million individuals diagnosed with autism. 

 * To help companies liquidate their stock of Thimerosal vaccines, the FDA agreed to buy huge quantities, which it then shipped overseas to developing countries.

According to a follow-up piece Kennedy wrote for the Huffington Post in March, 2006, CDC spokesman Roger Bernier has continued to defend Thimerosal before state legislatures around the country who are considering a ban on the compound. California and Iowa currently prohibit its use, but elsewhere Thimerosal continues to be included in the annual flu vaccine administered to both children and adults.

Here's a link to an article by Kennedy that appeared in Rolling Stone in 2009. (The 2005 article appears to have been removed.) :


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See also our story about Jenny McCarthy and autism.


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