Video: Vaccine-autism link disputed

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2005 7:38:04 PM ET 2005-07-19T23:38:04

Angela Medlin's 11-year-old son, Will, has a mild form of autism. She believes that mercury, which was once used as a preservative in some vaccines, caused her child's brain disorder.

“We are hoping to end this national tragedy,” explains Angela Medlin. “That we have overdosed, knowingly overdosed children, with a known potent neurotoxin.”

She is helping organize a march on Washington Wednesday that’s expected to attract about 700 parents of children with autism — angry because they think vaccines were the cause.

On Tuesday, officials from federal health agencies and medical societies tried to calm the fears around this emotional issue.

“We want to discover the causes of autism as well as how to prevent it and treat it,” says Dr. Eileen Ouellette of Massachusetts General Hospital. “But the evidence does not point to vaccines as one of those causes.”

Speakers at Tuesday’s event included Dr. Peter Hotez of George Washington University Medical Center, a physician and researcher who has an autistic daughter.

“I can say that autism is one of the cruelest medical conditions that could befall a child or her parents,” says Hotez. “[But] even if we could turn back the clock and do it all over again, I would say we would still give Rachel her full complement of pediatric vaccines.”

The experts point out that the mercury compound fueling the controversy, known as thimerosal, is no longer even used as a preservative in vaccines, except some types of flu shots.

One of the things that most concerns federal health officials is that, increasingly, when parents come to the pediatrician's office, they're worried about the safety of the vaccines for their children.

“Every day we have a question about vaccine safety,” says Dr. Marie Keith, a pediatrician in New York.

Experts worry that those fears will keep parents from getting the vaccines that protect against dozens of deadly diseases.

But the Medlins and other parents marching Wednesday don't care about what the establishment experts say.

“Show me the science that you are talking about,” says Angela Medlin, “because it is not true.”

They believe their children have been damaged unnecessarily and they say they deserve compensation.

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