MMR Shots Under Fire at Autism Hearing
Lawmakers Dispute Accuracy and Fairness of New Vaccine Report
[By Jeff Levine in WebMD Medical News.]
Washington -- A report that virtually cleared the
measles-mumps-rubella vaccine as a possible cause of autism came under
withering attack on Capitol Hill Wednesday, with legislators questioning the
document's accuracy and integrity. Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) of the House
Committee on Government Reform said the analysis was a "disservice to the
The study, which was published Monday, said that the universally used
preventive shot apparently doesn't cause the incurable brain disorder.
Still, the panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of
Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) couldn't completely rule out the link
between the disease and the vaccine in a small number of children. The
ambiguity of the findings infuriated Burton, who is holding two days of
hearings this week on the skyrocketing rate of autism in the United States.
"You put out a report to the people of this country, saying the [MMR
vaccine] doesn't cause autism ... and then you've got an out in the back of
the thing, and you can't tell me, the committee chairman, under oath, that
there's no causal link, because you just don't know, do you?" Burton asked
Marie McCormick, MD, ScD, of the Harvard School of Public Health and IOM
"I don't know," responded McCormick after saying earlier that the door
was still open and that the theory had not been disproved. Her brother,
incidentally, has two autistic children.
It's estimated that the number of children affected by this condition
has grown from 4 per 10,000 five years ago to one in 500 children today. The
symptoms range from violent behavior to total withdrawal.
Burton's grandson Christian reportedly developed the disease after
receiving vaccines that are routinely recommended by federal health
officials. And the public figure has adopted the vaccine safety issue as a
political and personal crusade.
The congressman was also angered that two of the report's reviewers
are believed to have had financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. The
IOM's committee on immunization safety was created as an independent body
without conflicts of interests.
Susanne Stoiber, the IOM's executive officer, said the reviewers only
offered suggestions. They didn't change the report's basic conclusion. "To
the best of our knowledge, aside from the fact that [the reviewers] may own
mutual funds that hold pharmaceutical stocks, there is no reason to believe
that there are any financial ties," she said.
Nonetheless, Burton insisted on seeing the financial records of the
vaccine committee members, as well as the reviewers. He vowed to use his
subpoena power if necessary.
Andrew Wakefield, MD, also testified at the hearing. The English
scientist has his own theory about the relationship between the shot and
autism. His studies of a small number of children suggest that a double-dose
of the vaccine could lead to a low-level measles infection. He believes the
measles virus could cause a leak from the bowel into the general system and
ultimately the brain, causing a toxic reaction, in susceptible children,
that could lead to autism.
Wakefield says the IOM panel requested information on his observations
in a closed session, but it didn't wind up in the final report. At the time,
his latest studies were still being reviewed for scientific publication, so
he couldn't present them in public. When asked at the hearing if the MMR
vaccine is as safe as it can get, he responded, "No, absolutely, not."
But Wakefield was contradicted by another English scientist, Elizabeth
Miller, MD, head of that country's Public Health Laboratory Service. Her
studies show there has not been an increase of such problems in the U.K.
since the vaccine was introduced there.
"I don't think it would be profitable to hijack the research agenda to
concentrate on answering [Wakefield's] question, which is derived basically
from speculation ... and ... unpublished evidence," she says.
Burton raised additional concerns that some of the information
clearing the vaccine in the IOM report came from Merck, the product's
During the hearing, several physicians whose children have autism told
the committee about their ordeal. One of them is Sharon Humiston, MD. A
former immunization scientist for the U.S. government, she says she doesn't
believe that the MMR vaccine was responsible for her son Quinn's disease.
But she's desperately looking for answers, particularly to one heartbreaking
"What is going to happen to Quinn after [my husband and I] die? What
are we going to do now to help?" she asked tearfully.