Thank You, Antivaxxers, and Let the Deconstructing Begin

i-108a28a5b8bfeb7c3613b981a7271c5f-2896014036_09d8f4c71d_o.gifDeconstructing David Kirby.

This is the title of one of two follow-up posts that Dr. Rahul Parikh wrote after reviewing Dr. Paul Offit's Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure and getting the usual treatment by the usual "anti-vaccine/pro-vaccine-safety/mercury militia" suspects: A smackdown by the likes of David Kirby himself, Kirby being the author of the book Evidence of Harm, whose very subtitle proclaims that mercury in vaccines has something to do with a supposed "autism epidemic," and that this is a "medical controversy." Since its publication in 2005, Kirby has become a frequent spokesperson, in the blogosphere, on Capitol Hill, and many other places, for the claim that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism.

I'm the mother of an autistic son, 11-year-old Charlie and while Kirby's adherence to the issue of vaccines, mercury, and other possible "environmental causes" of autism is notable, I very much believe that the continued preoccupation devoted to this issue in the mass media hurts autistic individuals. Not only does the vaccine-autism theory suggest that autistic children are somehow "damaged" and "injured" and full of toxic substances---mercury, various "heavy metals"---but all the writing and rhetoric about vaccines and autism takes energy and attention away from what is our first task in helping autistic individuals, providing them with high quality education and services throughout their lifespan.

"He's not just because of a shot." My husband, Jim, a historian at Fordham University, often says this about Charlie. As each day passes and we learn more about Charlie, learn about how he communicates (he is minimally verbal) and what his strengths and talents are (not reading, not anything academic---Charlie is far behind his peers in school), we see more of ourselves in Charlie. Hyper at night and happiest when in motion: That's Jim. Able (quite obsessively) to focus on one thing and liking things to be in their places: Ca, c'est moi.

Here I should say a bit more about myself.

First, to make it clear and simple, I'm an autism mother who knows a vaccine did not cause her child to become autistic. (And I'm not the only one, contrary to what many a "mercury mom" and the media might have you think.)

I'm also an autism mother who is very grateful to Dr. Offit for writing Autism's False Prophets. Lucidly and compassionately, Dr. Offit narrates the history of the past decade in autism science and treatments from the fateful February day in 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield held a press conference to announce that he'd found the cause of autism, the MMR vaccine. Charlie was born in May of 1997 and his entire life, and the time that I've known about autism are covered in Autism's False Prophets. We heard about the vaccine theory almost immediately when learning about autism; we both shook our heads because, when we looked back, we noted how Charlie had lacked joint attention, how he'd been quite content to sit all day with a bucket of baby toys.

Second, not only am I not a scientist: I'm now a Classics professor at a small Jesuit college in Jersey City, New Jersey. My methodological training (such as it is) was in literary theory and analysis, in explication de textes, using the literary-critical tools of deconstruction as developed by, yes, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Belgian-born Paul de Man, a literary scholar with a more than troubled past. I studied "Theory" in graduate school at Yale and got my doctorate in Comparative Literature thinking I'd apply what I learned to rereading classical texts. And then, in the first year of my first tenure-track job, Charlie was diagnosed with autism and before you can say "différance," I had resigned from my job and spent evenings reading books about teaching autistic children how to imitate sounds--Charlie first learned to talk via sign language---and cutting up magazines for flashcards.

I write frequently about Charlie's educational odyssey at my blog Autism Vox. To provide him with the schooling he needed, we've moved around the country, given up jobs, taken whatever jobs we could find, been lucky, been through much. I let my lit-crit books get dusty and go forgotten in old boxes. I was sorry I hadn't gone to grad school in something much more practical.

And then I started blogging, first just about Charlie, and then about autism research and treatments and then Evidence of Harm and then every press release, every website, every report in the media about vaccines and thimerosal and mercury and autism; every polemic put out by the likes of Generation Rescue and Safe Minds, by David Kirby and Dan Olmsted. And what did I find but......rhetoric. And what did I do but....... deconstruct it.

I mean, what would Derrida have done with the rhetorical posturings, the self-righteous posings, of the "mercury militia" and the text upon text they produce trumpeting that "there's an epidemic of autism!" and the "CDC is in cahoots with Big Pharma to poison our kids!" The play of the signifiers! How the antivaxxers have turned words like "autism" and "mercury" into floating signifiers that are affixed to novel meanings: Autism is said to be "mercury poisoning" and/or some kind of "disease brought on environmental pollutants," while mercury itself has become, more or less, "Public Enemy #1"--though maybe that's a term some reserve for Dr. Offit.

No surprise---for Dr. Offit in his new book lays the groundwork for a much-needed deconstruction, a critical analysis, of the mercury hypothesis and the ways, rhetorical and otherwise, that its supporters keep it alive, despite what the science says.

So thanks to the whole "mercury militia" for providing me with ample opportunities to revive my long dormant deconstruction skills, and thanks to Dr. Offit and Dr. Parikh for getting the deconstructing started, and thanks to Science Blogs for putting together this panel about an important book, Autism's False Prophets---it's way past overdue.

Let the deconstructing begin.


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Antivaxxers. Bah. Humbug. Their knowledge of history only goes back as far as their movement. If mercury in vaccines causes autism, why isn't the entire pre-Bactine generation sitting in a corner rocking back and forth from exposure to all the merthiolate (=thiomersal, AKA "that red sting=y stuff") that got slopped on us (and on our moms when they were pregnant with us) every time we got a cut or scrape?

By themadlolscien… (not verified) on 01 Oct 2008 #permalink

Also, those of us over a certain age used to take the mercury from broken thermometers and play with the stuff. I am sure that some of it got absorbed through the skin.

Anyway, from page 114: "Because everyone drinks water, everyone has small amounts fo methylmercury in their blood, urine and hair. A typical breast-fed child will ingest almost 400 micrograms of methylmercury druing the first six months of life. That's more than twice the amount of mercury than was ever contained in all vaccines combined."

@Chris H., I've found that very page useful to cite time and again when someone comments that they won't be satisfied till their child is 100%-plus "mercury free." Bah, yes, humbug!

There are recent studies about how mercury is excreted first 6 months of life.
Eur J Pediatr. 2007 Sep;166(9):935-41.
Hair mercury in breast-fed infants exposed to thimerosal-preserved vaccines.Marques RC, D�rea JG, Fonseca MF, Bastos WR, Malm O.
Funda��o Universidade Federal de Rond�nia, Porto Velho, RO, Brazil.

Because of uncertainties associated with a possible rise in neuro-developmental deficits among vaccinated children, thimerosal-preserved vaccines have not been used since 2004 in the USA (with the exception of thimerosal-containing influenza vaccines which are routinely recommended for administration to pregnant women and children), and the EU but are widely produced and used in other countries. We investigated the impact of thimerosal on the total Hg in hair of 82 breast-fed infants during the first 6 months of life. The infants received three doses of the hepatitis-B vaccine (at birth, 1 and 6 months) and three DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) doses at 2, 4 and 6 months, according to the immunization schedule recommended by the Ministry of Health of Brazil. The thimerosal in vaccines provided an ethylmercury (EtHg) exposure of 25 microgHg at birth, 30, 60 and 120 days, and 50 microgHg at 180 days. The exposure to vaccine-EtHg represents 80% of that expected from total breast milk-Hg in the first month but only 40% of the expected exposure integrated in the 6 months of breastfeeding. However, the Hg exposure corrected for body weight at the day of immunization was much higher from thimerosal- EtHg (5.7 to 11.3 microgHg/kg b.w.) than from breastfeeding (0.266 microgHg/kg b.w.). While mothers showed a relative decrease (-57%) in total hair-Hg during the 6 months lactation there was substantial increase in the infant's hair-Hg (446%). We speculate that dose and parenteral mode of thimerosal-EtHg exposure modulated the relative increase in hair-Hg of breast-fed infants at 6 months of age.

Now, it is clear that to sum up the mercury by breast feeding - in a particular chemical form- not as thimerosal for sure-that is orally supposedly ingested by 180 days period-has nothing in comparison with the dose a child could receive when vaccines had thimerosal included- up to 75 micrograms injected in a day. The media is totally different- considering the protective effect of breastfeeding- neither the managaement ( ingested vs injected) of the chemical form.

By Mar�a Luj�n (not verified) on 01 Oct 2008 #permalink


Children are born with a goodly amount of mercury. Studies have shown that they are born with quite a bit from their mothers because their newborn hair has mercury in it. How can you imply that the amount of ethyl mercury in a vaccine can compare with that exposure that started when the infant was a few cells and continued throughout it's growth? How can you compare the methyl mercury of milk and food with the ethyl mercury of vaccines that has never, ever been shown to do any harm to a child?

Why do you want to keep hammering that it just might? Breathing air just might do harm to the child. Taking a bath might do harm. Vaccinating with a vaccine containing thimerosal or not protects the child from a massive onslaught of toxins put out by bacteria and viruses. Why do you seem to believe that those are not the greatest concern? Why do you focus on thimerosal and not on the toxins that kill babies?

By Ms. Clark (not verified) on 01 Oct 2008 #permalink

Kristina, thanks for being a panelist here. I applaud you for standing up against the antivax movement with mad deconstructing skills. The two most important points I see from pro-science autism moms and dads in these threads is that the focus on vaccines and mercury is taking away funding and research that could actually go towards helping the autistic, and that that same focus sows doubt in the minds of uninformed parents who want nothing bad to happen to their children and then are torn between what they see as risking brain damage from the vaccines and risking a debilitating or deadly disease from not getting the vaccine.

Good article. I agree with your statement in the second paragraph. I can also appreciate Jim's comment you say he uses, very good one.

Many of these parents that say their child is cured have kids very young. Wait until they hit the Middle School years and let's see how their social skils are.

My boys are 15 months apart. My now 13 yr old was diagnosed 7 months before my severe child. At the time I thought the older one was moreso. He had five words at 3.3 years of age. He had years of speech therapy and went into general education in the first grade, held back to do it fully since year before he did half gen ed and half spec ed.

I have the weekly speech reports from his years of therapy and he started talking, adding more words to his vocabulary. He was not cured and did not magically start talking.

I don't understand these parents who focus so much on why or how their kid got on the spectrum. I would imagine this takes away their time from the kids. What about those who are verbal, what do they feel when they hear their parents talking about how they are damged or poisoned?

How do they get their kids to participate in these rallies? Do kids talk on playground about how they are waiting to be cured? I just don't get it.

@mandydax, I really believe that the vaccine-autism issue has taken away much too much time and energy from addressing pressing, every day issues, from education and school placements to long-term concerns about supports, housing, employment for adults. After all, if autism is "curable," then if all the children were cured or autism prevented in as yet-to-be-born children, there'd be on need to talk about autistic adults........ Sometimes (oftentimes) I feel that anti-vaccine/pro-vaccine safety arguments are like dogs chasing their tails.

@bonnie sayers, yes, aI am curious about what "recovered" children are like in middle school. One child at the Green Our Vaccines rally was no one less than McCarthy's own son....

If one wanted to be entirely mercury-free, best move to a different planet.

YAY Kristina!!! I'm likewise an autism mom who knows it's a genetic condition! GOOD FOR YOU for loving your child for who he is!!! :) I wouldn't trade my Asperger son's quirky observations about the world for ANYTHING! :) But I certainly do a lot of work persistently teaching him how to interact in a socially acceptable manner. It is teaching (and perhaps patience with a different rate of development) that the Generation Rescue folks are missing the boat on by focusing on what allegedly "harmed" their children and "gave" them autism.

Here's the thing... folks with Asperger tendencies (I know full well) can be really hard to talk out of cherished positions. I wonder how many of the Jenny McCarthy crowd have this neurological configuration themselves and just don't know it? It took me until my son was tested for me to realize that I myself am probably on the spectrum! There are high-functioning autistic adults out in the world-- sometimes where we least expect to find them!

folks with Asperger tendencies (I know full well) can be really hard to talk out of cherished positions. I wonder how many of the Jenny McCarthy crowd have this neurological configuration themselves and just don't know it?
Wow, that's an idea. It would explain a lot. :(

"folks with Asperger tendencies (I know full well) can be really hard to talk out of cherished positions. I wonder how many of the Jenny McCarthy crowd have this neurological configuration themselves and just don't know it?"

Our community's analogue to the gay community's archetype of the virulent homophobe who is as virulent as he is because deep down inside he's afraid he's a little like that himself...

By Phil Schwarz (not verified) on 04 Oct 2008 #permalink