On Friday a SCIAM blog discussed the latest lawsuit by parents of autistic children, who claim this time that childhood MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines are to blame. The post notes that the Institute of Medicine has found no evidence for a connection between autism and MMR and other vaccines containing thimerosal (which in turn contains mercury). The parents, of course, think that these study results showing no link are 'preordained by the federal government.' The post author responds:
Well, then. If it's a respected scientific body we're talking about, we'd best just cease all critical thinking immediately and place our faith in their perfect wisdom. Because it's not as though respected scientific consensus on heavily charged issues has ever turned out to be incorrect before, you know? That said, the post does refer to one important fact, which is that while use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines has been virtually eliminated over the past six years, autism has continued to increase.
[I]t's not entirely unreasonable to suspect the government of mischief or playing buddy to the pharmaceutical companies. But, this is a scientific consensus--one from a respected body, to boot.
Nobody knows what causes autism, which is understandably frustrating for parents of autistic kids. Alleged causes range from genes to environmental pollutants to viruses. Interestingly, the Center for the Study of Autism mentions vaccines as a possible cause, but in the context of viral exposure, not thimerosal/mercury. In other words, since exposure to certain viruses actually has been linked to the development of autism, the concern is that the live or dead viruses used in childhood vaccines might be causing it as well. The Center website doesn't mention thimerosal at all, so one might wonder if focusing on that compound (which, as respected scientific consensus tells us, doesn't cause autism) shifts scrutiny away from the real concern. Which would be a big concern, if valid: if autism really is linked to viral childhood vaccines, we'd have to rethink our entire strategy of extensive vaccination of school-age children, which has been very successful in eliminating 19th century diseases like measles and smallpox.