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Neal Halsey's interview on NPR's Morning Edition

November 14, 2002

Listen to the interview online

An article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine is getting a lot of attention from parents who worry that vaccines may be causing autism. These parents long had felt that their fears had been dismissed by mainstream scientists, but this article is titled The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory, and it tells how a prominent vaccine researcher became concerned about the safety of some childhood inoculations. That researcher, though, says his views on a link with autism have been misrepresented. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

Hamilton: The story began creating a stir among parents even before it hit the newsstands. Daniel Moore is a physician in Dallas. His son John (who is six) has autism. Moore said that on Sunday, he spent quite a while searching for a bookstore that still had a copy of the article.
Moore: I suspect that the reason there are no copies of The New York Times on the newsstands around my house today is because of parents of children with autism.
Hamilton: Moore says the article is certain to generate impassioned discussions among parents of autistic children. One reason is that its title suggests they aren't crazy to blame their children's autism on vaccines.
Moore: I like the title very much. I thought that the title was very appropriate. I think that too often, parents and, actually, opponents to vaccination have been viewed simply as crackpots without needing to be taken seriously.
Hamilton: But Dr. Neal Halsey, the vaccine researcher featured in the piece, says the title is misleading.
Halsey I do not believe that vaccines in any way have contributed to autism.
Hamilton: Halsey says he has been concerned about vaccines, but never for that reason. A couple of years ago, he says, health officials learned that some vaccines contained more mercury than the government considers safe. Those vaccines use a preservative called thimerosal, which contains mercury. This was disturbing, because there's evidence that children exposed to high levels of mercury before birth are more likely to develop subtle learning disabilities. But Halsey says these problems are quite different from those of autistic children.
Halsey: The important thing is that this is not autism. Autism has not been linked to the methylmercury exposure, and so we really don't believe that that is the issue here, and in fact, the limited scientific data in the United States show that the thimerosal was not associated with an increased risk of autism.
Hamilton: Or anything else. Even so, it's being phased out. Halsey points out that despite its headline, the article makes clear that there's no scientific evidence vaccines cause autism. Even so, he and other scientists are afraid it will alarm parents unnecessarily.
Dr. Paul Offit is a member of a group that advises the government about vaccinations.
Offit: So to publish an article like that I think does harm. It does harm because someone who casually reads that article will assume that maybe there's something to it when there's not, and worse, they may assume that maybe they shouldn't be getting vaccines when they should.
Hamilton: Halsey says that's especially likely in a climate in which vaccines are being blamed for a wide range of childhood problems.
Halsey: What has happened over the past decade is a half a dozen different theories have arisen that vaccines cause this or cause that, and then there's an immediate expectation, or a demand, to prove the negative.
Hamilton: That can take years and millions of dollars. Several big studies have already found no connection between autism and vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. Halsey says it's time for the media and the public to demand more evidence from people who still question the safety of vaccines.

Jon Hamilton. NPR News, Washington.


This page was last updated on October 18, 2017

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