November 11, 2002

New York Times editor

To the editor,

Proposed title: Misleading the public about autism and vaccines.

The unfortunate use of a sensationalized title in the article published November 10, 2002 in the New York Times Magazine "The not so crackpot autism theory: reports of autism seem to be on the rise. Anxious parents have targeted vaccines as the culprit. One skeptical researcher thinks it's an issue worth investigating." absolutely misrepresents my opinion on this issue. Also, the caption under the photograph of me "Neal Halsey says that vaccinologists have no choice but to take the thimerosal threat seriously" is a not a statement that I ever made. There is no "threat" as thimerosal has been removed from vaccines used in children. The headline, the press release issued prior to publication, and the caption are inappropriate. I do not (and never did) believe that any vaccine causes autism.

I stated to the author on at least two occasions that the scientific evidence does not suggest any causal association between vaccines and autism and he reaffirmed that the article would reflect my opinion. Unfortunately, the title implies the opposite opinion. A "fact checker" employed by the New York Times asked me several questions and minor corrections were made, but I was never shown the text of the article and no questions were asked about the title that implies a belief that I do not hold. It was my expectation that the title would be about thimerosal and the difficult decisions that were made during the past three years that have resulted in the removal of thimerosal as a preservative from vaccines administered to infants and young children. Changes in the use of thimerosal were made by the Food and Drug Administration and the vaccine industry with urging by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service in a concerted effort to make vaccines as safe as possible.

The sensationalized title sets an inappropriate context for everything in the article. Readers are led to incorrectly believe that statements in the article refer to autism. I have expressed concern about subtle learning disabilities from exposure to mercury from environmental sources and possibly from thimerosal when it was used in multiple vaccines. However, this should not have been interpreted as support for theories that vaccines cause autism, a far more severe and complex disorder. The studies of children exposed to methylmercury from maternal fish and whale consumption and the preliminary studies of children exposed to different amounts of thimerosal have not revealed any increased risk of autism.

Inappropriate reporting has contributed to public misunderstandings of vaccines and other health care issues. The use of deceptive titles is one of the primary means that newspapers have misled the public. The New York Times and other newspapers need to conduct self-examinations into their role in misleading the public and modify procedures accordingly to help prevent future major misrepresentations of scientific data and opinions. Another disservice to the public comes when scientists become reluctant to talk with the media for fear of being misquoted or misrepresented. I have already spent a great deal of time correcting the misinformation in the Sunday’s NYT Magazine article. Naturally, the next reporter from the NYT who contacts me will be met with skepticism and reluctance unless changes are made to prevent recurrences of this debacle.

Apparently editors, not authors, write most titles. To avoid misinterpretations authors should propose titles and assume responsibility for making certain that titles do not misrepresent the opinions of individuals or information presented in the article. Proposed titles and subtitles should be included in the review by "fact checkers" when interviewing people whose opinions are included in the title. The best way to avoid these problems would be to permit individuals referred to in articles an opportunity to read a draft of the text before it is too late to correct mistakes or misunderstandings.

The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines should have policies requiring authors, editors and fact checkers to disclose personal associations with issues covered in articles they are involved in preparing and they should be relieved from their responsibility for articles where they have personal issues or conflicts of interest.

The general public and parents of children with autism have been misled by the title of this article and the news release. This is a disservice to the public and the value of my opinion has been diminished in the eyes of physicians, scientists, and informed members of the public. I encourage interested readers to review my scientific publications and to read objective reviews of this and other vaccine safety issues conducted by the Institute of Medicine (www.iom.edu).

 

Neal Halsey M.D.

Director,

Institute for Vaccine Safety

Johns Hopkins University

Bloomberg School of Public Health