Week 12 Luke Yiannatji

November 20, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kerr and Offit

In, The Autism Spectrum Disorders/Vaccine Link Debate, Kerr begins his introduction by pointing out the fact that the hypothesis claiming vaccinations may cause ASD has been refuted by very highly regarded institutions including the US Federal Government, Institute of Medicine, and American Academy of Pediatrics. These groups repeatedly defend their stance despite efforts from Safeminds, Generation Rescue, Moms Against Mercury, who have taken this hypothesis in the political realm forcing many serious political discussions. Kerr’s research is done in an attempt to “answer the question of how and why activists continue to mobilize around the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines triggers and/or causes ASD. He refers to organizations such as these as HSM’s (health social movements) and says that “uncertainty alone can be sufficient to generate a HSM.” He revolves his concluding thoughts around “the influence of uncertainty” and claims this debate falls under five different types of uncertainty: diagnostic, etiological, dose-response relationship, synergistic effects, and past body exposure. He also claims these “HSM” movements have an advantage in that they can make bolder claims whereas the government in their refutation is forced to use language that sounds less powerful such as “evidence supports a rejection of the causal hypothesis.” Also, by using simple and direct messages, activists can get around the uncertainty while still being influential. Therefore, parents who are “hungry for answers” jump on board with the activists and since their claims are based on personal experience, they are given credibility. His final thoughts on the matter show an attempt to add a bit of sympathy and empathy for the affected families as he defends their rejection of research’s rejection of a causative link, saying this will help the families continue to hope for a cure. His epilogue further portrays an interesting viewpoint as he adds a thoughtful suggestion to mainstream medicine involved in this debate, stating, “…rather than framing the movement as fringe or radical, attempt to reach out and offer support and understanding and, most importantly, hope.”

Paul Offit, in chapter 8 of Autism’s False Prophets, presents an in-depth, though slightly biased, analysis of the “Omnibus Autism Proceeding” where parents of children with autism took their case to court in 2007. He starts by pointing out the setting of the case: “They were suing the federal government in a federal court.” Obviously, this was not a historical first, but Offit is right in pointing out this was not ideal for the plaintiffs. After discussing the terms of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act and Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, he points out that none of the three judges had a professional background in science or medicine, and that “although scientists had already rendered a verdict on whether MMR or thimerosal caused autism, these judges would be the final arbiters of scientific truth.” Offit then portrays the lawyers for the plaintiffs as some fat cat lawyers with an agenda make money off of the twelve year old, Michelle, who suffers from autism. Offit then presents the story provided by the parents of Michelle on how their daughter’s autism came about. Then the plaintiffs used experts to provide an explanation for her autism. However, after the defense questioned the expertise of Aposhian, Bryers, and Kinsbourne, and after all of the claims related to the study from Wakefield were thrown out of the window by an expert of the highest credentials, molecular biologist Stephen Bustin, the prosecution was very weakened. In short, the Court ruled that the combination of MMR and thimerosal didn’t cause autism. Offit claims they “sided with science”.

Although both Offit and Kerr both agree with the scientific conclusion that refutes the hypothesis made by the activists, Kerr seems to be more sympathetic to the parents of autistic children who pushed this issue onto the federal court. From the beginning of the discussion on whether autism could be caused by vaccines or mercury, Offit seemed to take a defensive, albeit convincing, approach to dealing with those under this belief. Much of his chapter reviewing the court hearings and final decision was filled with preconceived notions that those from the activist groups did not have the credentials to make such claims and that their arguments were weak and invalid. He also spent a good portion of this chapter questioning the motives of the lawyers involved in addition to the qualifications of the judges to make a important decision on a scientific matter. This leads me to question how it is possible to stay “objective” when discussing this matter since people clearly will have a preconceived viewpoint one way or the other.

While Offit is clearly biased when judging the parents of those with ASD, Kerr, on the other hand, at the very least attempted to remain objective in presenting his piece regarding how and why such HSM movements form. By illustrating his thoughts as to why he believes these groups form, he appears to show empathy for the parents. He sees them as organizing around shared experiences in hopes of finding a solution, rather than organizing for the purposes of pure compensation like Offit frequently claims. He further believes that mainstream medicine attacks these people too much, and should instead provide support, understanding, and hope.

Is the formation of groups such as Safeminds, Generation Rescue, Moms Against Mercury helpful, harmful, or neutral in finding a solution to autism?

Is it possible to disagree with some of the beliefs of these groups while simultaneously providing “support, understanding, and hope”?

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