By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Thursday 16 June 2005
A Salon/Rolling Stone joint investigation.
When a study revealed that mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids, the government
rushed to conceal the data - and to prevent parents from suing drug companies for their role in the epidemic.
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In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated
Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Ga. Convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting
was held at this Methodist retreat center, nestled in wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River, to ensure
complete secrecy. The agency had issued no public announcement of the session - only private invitations to 52
attendees. There were high-level officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, the top vaccine specialist
from the World Health Organization in Geneva, and representatives of every major vaccine manufacturer, including
GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur. All of the scientific data under discussion, CDC officials repeatedly
reminded the participants, was strictly "embargoed." There would be no making photocopies of documents, no taking papers
with them when they left.
The federal officials and industry representatives had assembled to discuss a disturbing new study that raised alarming
questions about the safety of a host of common childhood vaccines administered to infants and young children. According
to a CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten, who had analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical
records of 100,000 children, a mercury-based preservative in the vaccines - thimerosal - appeared to be responsible for
a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children. "I was actually stunned by what
I saw," Verstraeten told those assembled at Simpsonwood, citing the staggering number of earlier studies that indicate a
link between thimerosal and speech delays, attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity and autism. Since 1991, when the
CDC and the FDA had recommended that three additional vaccines laced with the preservative be given to extremely young
infants - in one case, within hours of birth - the estimated number of cases of autism had increased fifteenfold, from
one in every 2,500 children to one in 166 children.
Even for scientists and doctors accustomed to confronting issues of life and death, the findings were frightening. "You
can play with this all you want," Dr. Bill Weil, a consultant for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the group.
The results "are statistically significant." Dr. Richard Johnston, an immunologist and pediatrician from the University
of Colorado whose grandson had been born early on the morning of the meeting's first day, was even more alarmed. "My gut
feeling?" he said. "Forgive this personal comment - I do not want my grandson to get a thimerosal-containing vaccine
until we know better what is going on."
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