Neal Halsey’s life was dedicated to promoting vaccination. In June 1999, the Johns Hopkins pediatrician and scholar had completed a decade of service on the influential committees that decide which inoculations will be jabbed into the arms and thighs and buttocks of eight million American children each year. At the urging of Halsey and others, the number of vaccines mandated for children under 2 in the 90’s soared to 20, from 8. Kids were healthier for it, according to him. These simple, safe injections against hepatitis B and germs like haemophilus bacteria would help thousands grow up free of diseases like meningitis and liver cancer.
Halsey’s view, however, was not shared by a small but vocal faction of parents who questioned whether all these shots did more harm than good. While many of the childhood infections that vaccines were designed to prevent — among them diphtheria, mumps, chickenpox and polio — seemed to be either antique or innocuous, serious chronic diseases like asthma, juvenile diabetes and autism were on the rise. And on the Internet, especially, a growing number of self-styled health activists blamed vaccines for these increases.
Like all medical interventions, vaccines sometimes cause adverse reactions. But unlike pills, vaccines come packaged with high expectations, which make them particularly vulnerable to public criticism. Vaccines don’t cure people, and they are administered to healthy children, which gives them few opportunities for good press. When they work, nothing happens. When vaccinated children become ill, their parents are grief-stricken and often enraged, even if vaccines aren’t proved to be at fault. All of this puts public-health advocates like Halsey on the defensive. Most attacks on vaccines, they say, are based on hysteria, bad science and dubious politics.
Halsey, 57, has green eyes, a white beard that makes him look like a ship’s captain and an air of careful authority. As chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases from 1995 through June 1999, he often appeared in the media administering calm reassurance. ”Many of the allegations against vaccines,” Halsey said in one interview, ”are based on unproven hypotheses and causal associations with little evidence.”
And then suddenly in June 1999, during a visit to the Food and Drug Administration, a squall appeared on the horizon of Halsey’s confidence. Halsey attended a meeting to discuss thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that at the time was being used in several vaccines — including the hepatitis B shot that Halsey had fought so hard to have administered to American babies. By the time the dust kicked up in that meeting had settled, Halsey would be forced to reckon with the hypothesis that thimerosal had damaged the brains of immunized infants and may have contributed to the unexplained explosion in the number of cases of autism being diagnosed in children.
That Halsey was willing even to entertain this possibility enraged some of his fellow vaccinologists, who couldn’t fathom how a doctor who had spent so much energy dismantling the arguments of people who attacked vaccines could now be changing sides. But to Halsey’s mind, his actions were perfectly consistent: he was simply working from the data. And the numbers deeply troubled him. ”From the beginning, I saw thimerosal as something different,” he says. ”It was the first strong evidence of a causal association with neurological impairment. I was very concerned.”
The investigation into mercury vaccines was instigated in 1997 by Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat whose district includes a string of shore towns where mercury in fish is one of many environmental concerns. Pallone, who had been pressing the government to re-evaluate its overall guidelines on mercury toxicity, attached an amendment to an F.D.A. bill requiring the agency to inventory all mercury contained in licensed drugs and vaccines.
The job of adding up the amount of mercury in vaccines and assessing its risk fell to Robert Ball, an F.D.A. scientist, and two F.D.A. pediatricians, Leslie Ball, Robert’s wife, and R. Douglas Pratt. Thimerosal, which is 50 percent ethyl mercury by weight, had been used as a vaccine preservative since the 1930’s in the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis shot, known as D.T.P., and it was later added to some vaccines for hepatitis B and haemophilus bacteria, which by the early 1990’s had become routine immunizations for infants.
The F.D.A. team’s conclusions were frightening. Vaccines added under Halsey’s watch had tripled the dose of mercury that infants got in their first few months of life. As many as 30 million American children may have been exposed to mercury in excess of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines — levels of mercury that, in theory, could have killed enough brain cells to scramble thinking or hex behavior.
”My first reaction was simply disbelief, which was the reaction of almost everybody involved in vaccines,” Halsey says. ”In most vaccine containers, thimerosal is listed as a mercury derivative, a hundredth of a percent. And what I believed, and what everybody else believed, was that it was truly a trace, a biologically insignificant amount. My honest belief is that if the labels had had the mercury content in micrograms, this would have been uncovered years ago. But the fact is, no one did the calculation.”
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