Who is better equipped to solve a major medical mystery, a handful American lawmakers or thousands of highly trained scientists worldwide? Unfortunately for Americans, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided that it was the former. The committee held a hearing billed as a conversation with experts on the growing rates of autism, but it was rife with anti-vaccination diatribes and conspiracy theories from members of Congress and their carefully chosen anti-vaccination witnesses. One congressman, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, let loose a rant filled with misinformation and conjecture about the safety of vaccines and their ability to harm children and adults. He told those at the hearing,
Vaccinations have an important place in our society. One of the best health regiments in the history of mankind: people live longer and live better and have less disease because we have vaccinations. What we have always opposed is putting toxic chemicals and metals in the vaccinations. Thimerosal contains mercury. When I was a boy, we used to have mercury in thermometers. They said if you break that thermometer and the mercury gets on your hands, that’s toxic.
But thimerosal has not been present in vaccines (save a few influenza shots) since 2001. Burton went on to discuss the dangers of a chemical that haven’t been used in vaccines in more than a decade. Thimerosal is not the same chemical found in thermometers, and the conjecture by Burton on its safety was an uninformed and dangerous attempt at understanding science that has already been settled by qualified professionals at the CDC and elsewhere. Burton went on about thimerosal, stating,
Ever since 1929, it [thimerosal] has not been completed tested. They continue to use it in vaccinations. It wasn’t so bad when a child got one vaccination or two or three. But when they get as many as 28 or 29 before they go into the first grade, it really hurts them. It creates a cumulative effect. The brain tissues do not chelate it. It stays in there and it causes severe, severe problems.
If Burton had taken the time to visit the CDC website instead of cherry-picking experts (whom he later discusses) he would have discovered how thimerosal works in the body:
Thimerosal does not stay in the body a long time so it does not build up and reach harmful levels. When thimerosal enters the body, it breaks down, to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate, which are easily eliminated.
The rest of his diatribe can be as easily broken down by the FAQ section on the CDC website as well. The question-and-answer portion of the hearing was equally cringe-inducing. Forbes’s Steven Salzberg has an excellent post on the hearing, explaining its danger to public health:
Congress has every right to conduct oversight into medical research at the NIH and the CDC. But when Dan Burton, Bob Posey, and others decide in advance what the science says, and abuse their power to demand “answers” that validate their badly mistaken beliefs, people can be harmed. Over the past decade, the anti-vaccine movement has successfully convinced millions of parents to leave their kids unvaccinated, and the result has been serious outbreaks of whooping cough, haemophilus, measles, chicken pox, and mumps around the U.S. and Europe.
Some anti-vax parents claim that these childhood illnesses aren’t so bad. I wish they would talk to the parents of young children who have died in recent whooping cough outbreaks. These illnesses can be deadly.
When Americans elect representatives to Congress, they are looking for lawmakers, not pseudoscientists. Fortunately, Burton is retiring at the end of this term; unfortunately, however, this hearing lent legitimacy to a movement of anti-vaccination activists who constitute a considerable danger to public health both nationally and internationally.