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The "Open Question" On Vaccines and Autism

Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative correspondent for CBS News.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about autism and ADD is that more than a decade into this public health crisis, our best, smartest government scientists and public health officials still say they have no idea what's causing it. Scary stuff, when parents having a child today realize there's at least an estimated 1 in 150 chance their child will have an autism disorder (1 in 90 if it's a boy).

While the government has been utterly unable to stop it, or even tell us what is causing it, they say they do know one thing: it's not vaccines. But today, in an exclusive interview with CBS News, Dr. Bernadine Healy becomes the most well-known medical voice yet to counter the government on that claim.

Healy's credentials couldn't be more "mainstream." After all, she once was a top government health official as head of the National Institutes of Health. She founded the first school of public health in Ohio, and then headed both the school of public health and the school of medicine at Ohio State University. She's an internist and cardiologist. And she's a member of the Institute of Medicine, the government advisory board that tried to put the vaccine-autism controversy to rest in 2004 by saying a link was not likely.

Click below to watch a Web-exclusive extended cut of Sharyl's interview with Dr. Healy:

According to Healy, when she began researching autism and vaccines she found credible published, peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the idea of an association. That seemed to counter what many of her colleagues had been saying for years. She dug a little deeper and was surprised to find that the government has not embarked upon some of the most basic research that could help answer the question of a link.

The more she dug, she says, the more she came to believe the government and medical establishment were intentionally avoiding the question because they were afraid of the answer.

Why? Healy says some in the government make the mistake of treating vaccines as an all-or-nothing proposition. The argument goes something like this: everybody gets vaccinated at the same time with the same vaccines or nobody will get vaccinated and long-gone deadly diseases will re-emerge. (When I asked about cases of brain damage resulting in autism that have been quietly compensated by the government in vaccine court over the years, one government official recently told me that "it's still better overall to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated.")

Healy says the argument need not be framed in those terms (vaccinate or don't vaccinate). Instead, she says, we should vaccinate, but work to do it in the safest manner possible based on what we know and what we can find out.

That's what the parents of autistic children have told me as well. If we can screen children to see which ones might be more susceptible to vaccine side effects, and vaccinate them on a more personalized schedule that is safer for them, why wouldn't we? If it's safer for all children to have their vaccinations spread out, why wouldn't we? Healy says it's called "personalized medicine" and is being done in virtually all areas of medicine today with the exception of vaccines. Yet the government continues to frame the conversation in all-or-nothing, "one-size-fits-all" terms.

Lastly, Healy says the government has a long way to go to even do basic research that could get at the heart of what she believes is an open question. For example: why in the past decade hasn't the government compared the autism/ADD rate of unvaccinated children with that of vaccinated children? If the rate is the same, it tends to point away from vaccines. If the rate is markedly lower in unvaccinated children, it tends to point toward vaccines.

The government has a dataset of unvaccinated children available. It has published more than one survey of parents of undervaccinated and unvaccinated children (to find out why the parents are choosing not to vaccinate). It would seem simple to use those same families to measure their rate of autism/ADD. Also, why hasn't the government used vaccine court as a resource to ask the autism/vaccine question. There, nearly 5,000 families have self-selected as believing their children's autism was caused by vaccines. Many have expressed willingness to let their children's medical records be released and studied; but nobody in the government has been interested.

As if that's not scary enough, look down the road a little. Millions of autistic children will - in the not-too-distant future - outgrow their parents, or their parents will no longer be able to care for them. Their only option in many cases is institutionalization. Who, but a parent or family member, can and would devote the moment-by-moment attention it takes to raise an autistic child? Our nation has not, to my knowledge, begun to build these institutions, or figure out how to pay for them.

Back to the subject at hand. If the day comes that public health officials can finally tell us with reasonable certainty what is causing all the autism and ADD, and if the cause has nothing to do with vaccines, I think most people will just be relieved to know what it is and feel that we can, then, be closer to stopping it. Until then, in the minds of many, including Healy, it remains a sad, open question.

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