A PSA to journalists writing about vaccines: Thimerosal was never used in the MMR vaccine

The shameless and lamentable decision on the part of ABC to hire Jenny McCarthy as one of its co-hosts for the daytime talk show The View has, once again, brought the topic of vaccines and autism into the news. Fortunately, the spineless “on the one hand, on the other hand” reporting that characterized this debate for so many years has, for the most part, been replaced by an almost universal acknowledgment that vaccines are a safe, life-saving public health intervention — and that there is not now and never has been the smallest shred of evidence showing a causal link between any vaccine and autism.

As someone who’s been reporting on and writing about this issue for five years, I know how confusing it all can be — and anti-vaccine activists (like McCarthy or RFK Jr.) take advantage of this confusion by moving the goalposts, throwing up smokescreens, and generally doing whatever they can to obfuscate the reality of the situation. (When there aren’t any facts on your side, your only hope is to create enough distractions so that the public forgets what the real issue was in the first place.)

Which is why I get a little nuts when I see well-meaning journalists who are attempting to grapple seriously with the issue make basic mistakes. Take this Los Angeles Times story^ titled “Jenny McCarthy on ‘View’: A new forum for discredited autism theories.” After running through the sorry history of charlatan/opportunist Andrew Wakefield’s efforts to scare people into thinking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism, the author writes (the emphasis, obviously, is mine):

Subsequent efforts to replicate Wakefield’s findings failed. But vaccination rates began a steep decline anyway, and a new generation of parent activists — skeptics of the biomedical industry’s claim on their children — was born. Meanwhile, the findings spurred additional research, which suggested that the specific culprit in the MMR vaccine was the widely used preservative thimerosol.

I’ll say this as clearly as I can: The MMR vaccine does not and never did contained thimerosal. (This mistake is made so often that the FDA has included it as one of it’s FAQ’s about thimerosal.) It’s a small, niggling point in this larger debate — but when the anti-vaccine movement’s entire tactic is to blur reality, it’s crucially important that those of us dedicated to uncovering and reporting the truth make sure we get every last detail right.

^ July 19: Earlier today, the Times changed the wording in their story and appended a correction which read, “For the Record, 9:08 a.m. PDT, July 19: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had contained the preservative thimerosal. It did not.” Kudos to them for making the change. I’m not sure why it took them more than 80 hours to do so, but better late than never…

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Creative Commons License
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

This entry was posted in Journalism, Vaccines and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to A PSA to journalists writing about vaccines: Thimerosal was never used in the MMR vaccine

  1. Todd W. says:

    Such a basic, basic mistake, and so easy to avoid. I think it largely stems from the combined ignorance of vaccines (e.g., that MMR is a live virus vaccine) and preservatives (thimerosal would kill the viruses in the MMR, rendering it useless) and conflating two separate manufactroveries: the erroneous claim that MMR causes autism (from England) and the equally erroneous claim that thimerosal causes autism (from the U.S.).

  2. An interesting, and irrefutable, counterpoint to Ms. McCarthy’s dangerous and off-the-wall world view would be to show a few bar-charts overlaid country by country and disease by disease on a world map showing the decline in childhood mortality (and injury for those not killed outright) over time with the introduction(s) of vaccines.

    Anyone know where one can find this data?

    • Ed says:

      http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/G/impact-of-vaccines.pdf
      David- the link above presents annualized data from 20th century comparing it to case numbers of vaccine preventable diseases that were recorded in 2010. That was just a quick search. I’m wondering if the WHO would have a country by country breakdown that was a bit more appealing visually & consequently more impactful . Best.

    • Ed says:

      PS. No idea what that “awaiting moderation” bit is doing there.

    • Twyla says:

      David, I don’t think that Jenny McCarthy argues vaccines don’t prevent disease. She does not tell people to stop vaccinating. What she is saying is that our vaccine program sometimes has unintended consequences which need to be better understood, such as the very real link between vaccines and autism.

      She is not “anti-vaccine”. She is a vaccine safety advocate. She does believe that we are giving too many too soon. That doesn’t mean she’s totally against all vaccines.

      Regardless of whether the vaccine program as a whole is preventing some communicable diseases, if some babies are being injured in this war on germs those injuries need to be better understood instead of being summarily declared “coincidence” and swept under the rug.

      Again, it’s not a matter for-or-against vaccines. It’s a matter of acknowledging product safety issues.

  3. Christine says:

    Not sure about country-by-country, but here’s a historical one for the U.S.:

    http://theskepticaldad.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/hooray-for-vaccines/

  4. Chris says:

    I was almost kicked off a listserv for my son’s disability over ten years ago because I made this simple comment to someone who brought up the MMR vaccine when the discussion was on thimerosal: “To clarify, the MMR vaccine has never contained thimerosal.”

    One of the Mercury Moms emailed the moderator to kick me off because my unscientific message. So I told I emailed them an early version of the FAQ page that said it never contained thimerosal, and they were welcome to boot me off when they came up with evidence to the contrary.

    Some other errors I have noted from every so often include that vaccines are injected into the bloodstream (no), and that the MMR only came into use in 1988, again, no. It was introduced in the USA in 1971, and was the preferred vaccine for the 1978 Measles Elimination Program.

  5. Patrick Conroy says:

    I have a son with Autism and I have my undergrad degree in the biological sciences. I do not think that there is a demonstrable link between vaccines and my son’s Autism. I’ve read Wakefield and had the opportunity to meet him and listen to him speak in a small group. I’ve also read Kirby’s book and found it quite thought provoking.

    There – hopefully that’s clear.

    I came to your site Mr. Mnookin, after watching the CNN piece, interested in reading your book.

    Bluntly sir – your first sentence, “shameless and lamentable decision” indicates that you’ve lost your objectivity w/ Ms. McCarty. It’s become personal with you, Mr. Mnookin.

    That’s too bad.

    Should I read your book, I’ll read it with the same viewpoint I held when reading Mr. Wakefield’s.

    I doubt that’s what you intended.

    • Chris says:

      Mr. Conroy: “I’ve also read Kirby’s book and found it quite thought provoking.”

      Interesting. Even though Mr. Kirby had absolutely no background other than being a freelance travel writer (he only sold stories to the New York times, he was not a reporter there), and was essentially hired by SafeMinds to write that book:
      http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2007/07/05/safe-minds-and-david-kirby/

      I also own the book, and have read quite a bit of it. I am not impressed. The premise was flaky when I first heard about it over a decade ago, and has since been shown to be completely wrong. Which is why I was able to pick it up or fifty cents at a sale where the public library gets rid of books that are no longer circulated.

      “I’ve read Wakefield and had the opportunity to meet him and listen to him speak in a small group. ”

      Well I am glad you called him “Mr. Wakefield” considering he cannot practice medicine in the UK due to both fraud and questionable ethics on getting invasive tests on children for no medical reason.

      You should read Mr. Mnookin’s book. Since you were able to read the books of the other two, you should not be put off by his honest opinion about Ms. McCarthy being given a platform to spread her assertions without evidence. I would also suggest you read Dr. Offit’s book Autism False Prophets on the activities of Kirby and Wakefield. (Deadly Choices has more on Barbara Loe Fisher and Jenny McCarthy, plus the legal court cases in the UK and USA)

      By the way, at the same library sale I got a copy of Mother Warriors. I just flipped open the book and staring at me are these less than elegant words by Ms. McCarthy after she proposes several medical procedures with evidence:

      We need the American Academy of Pediatrics to get off its butt and focus on alleviating the fears and concerns we the parents in this country have. Stop trying to prove us wrong and just listen to us!

      Oh, yes. The fears she herself was promoting, without a shred of data and after changing the story about her son. Don’t get me wrong, my son had several seizures, and his development was impacted. I understand that, but not her making up stories and thinking she has the equivalent education as my son’s neurologists.

      • Twyla says:

        “Evidence of Harm” is an excellent book. David Kirby writes with clarity and intelligence about complex medical and political topics.

  6. Patrick Conroy says:

    Chris – you seem to have had an epiphany that authors have a bias. Yes. they sure do. So do fathers, pastors, pilots, chefs and journalists. It’s human nature. It’s difficult to write objectively. Very, very difficult.

    But we do expect that journalists have some spate of sustained objectivity. Well, at least I do. But perhaps that simply makes me old.

    Perhaps you missed my point. I don’t defend Kirby. I don’t defend Wakefield. Offit has a bias perhaps only outdistanced by the CDC’s agenda.

    The point of my post to Mr. Mnookin was that his bias was displayed loud and clear at the start of this blog. This is his page, he’s paying for the electrons; he’s entitled to promote his agenda.

    Just like Fox or NPR.

    If I understand the point of the blog is that there’s some fear that Ms. McCarty will use her new gig as a modern Bully Pulpit. She might be the next Father Coughlin – but I doubt it and I’m not all that worried about it. Even McCart_h_y got sorted out in the end.

    Funny thing about getting older. All of those lessons learned as a young student, all of those theroms dressed as facts. I sat thru them all. Biochem 501 was a beaut. I dutifully regurgitated what I was taught. A model student!

    A little mileage on the body adds some perspective. Opens the minds. Maybe they didn’t know it all.

    You might now paint me as a Mercury Mom, err, Dad.
    Nope. My kids get vaccinated. Ethylmercury and all. I had enough Organic to understand the impact of adding an extra carbon atom.

    I was hoping to find some objectivity.
    You know – to have a *discussion*.

    An exchange of ideas from like minded individuals striving to blunt the autism epidemic.

    Open minded individuals.

    I’m still looking.

    • Chris says:

      “Chris – you seem to have had an epiphany that authors have a bias.”

      Hello, straw man.

      Actually, read the book. You seem to have judged without reading it. Mr. Mnooking actually started without knowing which way to think about the issue, and then let the evidence speak for itself. He was objective. Obviously you are not.

      “If I understand the point of the blog is that there’s some fear that Ms. McCarty will use her new gig as a modern Bully Pulpit. She might be the next Father Coughlin – but I doubt it and I’m not all that worried about it. Even McCart_h_y got sorted out in the end.”

      I never even mentioned how you spelled her name. Typos happen, and only a pedantic hypocrite would care. And it is not a “fear”, it is a warning based on her past performance.

      Seriously, why do you care that we do not like her message or how she presents herself? Or that ABC is trying to drum up viewers by deliberately promoting controversy that has no scientific support?

      And still, again, the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal. The one beef I have with Mr. Mnookin’s CNN appearance is that he mentioned that getting thimerosal out of vaccines would be dangerous. Actually that is inaccurate: it is done by packaging the vaccines in more expensive single doses. Each vaccine on the American pediatric schedule has had a thimerosal-free version available for over a decade. That should not be an issue in the USA.

      The issue with storage and safety are programs that provide vaccines in developing countries where economics do not allow single dose vaccines. They are also places where it is difficult to maintain the cold chain. And I doubt anyone in India, Pakistan or Tanzania really cares about what Ms. McCarthy thinks.

      • Chris says:

        I just noticed: ” Mr. Mnooking”

        Aargh. Sometimes I just live in the land of typos!

        Believe me, that’s nothing compared to some of the misspellings I’ve seen…
        – Seth

  7. jre says:

    For me the most interesting part of The Panic Virus was the chapter on Jenny McCarthy, because it forced me to think about the information model.
    The way we evaluate information from celebrities cannot help being influenced by the information we receive about celebrities, and that influence can cut both ways. Every public figure is heavily layered over with media history which creates a vivid image, for good or ill, in our minds. That image might be positive and trustworthy, in which case we are inclined to believe the message (and possibly be bamboozled). Or it might be negative and untrustworthy, leading us to reject something which might be true. There is no easy way to forget what we have heard about any well-known person, so I think the best course is to consider any celebrity’s statements in the light of his or her reputation, the probable accuracy of that reputation, and its relevance to the message.

    In the case of Jenny McCarthy, that reputation is of an absolutely shameless publicity hound. At every stage of her career, there has been no opportunity for self-promotion that she was not willing to jump on and flog down the track until it dropped. Given that history, it is only reasonable to view her statements on vaccines with skepticism. Would she need to lie about her son’s condition? No; in the words of George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Jenny McCarthy is perfectly suited by her temperament, background and position to create and promote a dramatic life-narrative. The more shocking and attention-getting that narrative, the better it worked for her. The story has changed for convenience over time, but it has always been tailored to the talk-show appetite. Is Jenny McCarthy’s personal history relevant to the truth or falsity of the vaccine-autism hypothesis she promotes? Yes, I think so — because the words of someone who has always said anything to get attention deserve to be discounted heavily.

  8. Pingback: Links 7/20/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  9. Pingback: Conspiracy Theories! | Jenny McCarthy’s disturbing views on autism: Editorial – NJ.com

  10. Pingback: Jenny McCarthy’s disturbing views on autism: Editorial | Today Health Channel

  11. Twyla says:

    It truly is amazing how many professionals who profess to be experts on these topics don’t know that the MMR has never contained thimerosal, such as here:

    starting at about 4:40 on this video:
    http://www.wwltv.com/on-tv/wupl/Debate-on-effects-of-vaccine-on-autism-216206471.html

    starting at about 3:00 on this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sp5YWZVnpeI

    So, good point, Seth!

  12. lilady says:

    Jenny McCarthy, who brags she has a degree from Google U., has “difficulty” remembering the sequence of events between her child’s MMR vaccine and the onset of her child’s seizures.

    Here, in her own words, during one interview for PBS’ “Frontline”, is the perfect example of Jenny’s inability to keep her story straight:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/vaccines/interviews/mccarthy.html

    “….Describe his behavior before he started having seizures.

    Looking at milestones, he hit pretty much every milestone. It wasn’t until after the MMR [measles, mumps and rubella vaccine] he started showing some regression — meaning not talking as much as he used to. In playgroup, he was more by himself. Kids would steal toys from him, and he didn’t even know they stole the toy. And I would think I just had the most polite little boy in the world who didn’t mind people that stole toys from him. Really, those were the first kind of behaviors that I look back now noticing.

    Then he started to develop blue circles under his eyes, bloated belly, gas, constipation, eczema, yeast. And these are all — now I know — comorbid conditions that go with autism. But at the time I just didn’t know why Evan was becoming so sick all of a sudden. What was going on? I was feeding him healthy foods. And that’s when the first seizure happened….”

    (Don’t you just love how Dr. McCarthy describes the (nonexistent) “comorbid conditions that go with autism”?)

    Then, Jenny does an about face immediately after blaming the MMR vaccine for her son’s developmental disability:

    “…How long after the MMR was that first seizure?

    You know, a lot of people think, and probably from me saying in some interviews, that it was after the MMR I noticed changes.

    I don’t think it was just the MMR shot that caused any kind of trigger with autism. I think it was a compilation of so many shots to a kid that obviously had some autoimmune disorders. So I would say maybe a couple of months, a month or so after the MMR, I started to notice some physical ailments such as constipation, rashes, eczema. That was like the first little sign. And then the train just kind of descended from there….”

    Twyla, which vaccine(s), caused your child’s autism?

    • Twyla says:

      There’s no “about face” there, lilady. Both interviews are consistent. After the MMR she saw certain conditions and behaviors begin. But she believes it wasn’t just the MMR, but the accumulated effects of multiple vaccines culminating in the MMR.

  13. lilady says:

    Twyla: What about Jenny’s claim that her son had those mythical “comorbid” conditions associated with autism? What “autoimmune disorders” did Dr. McCarthy diagnose in her child…she claims he “so obviously (had them)”?

    Yeah, it must be the MMR vaccine and perhaps the other *nasty* vaccines that caused Evan’s seizures, in spite of his healthy diet, according to Dr. McCarthy.

    “…there’s no about face…”. Those statements by Jenny, rate a double face-palm.

    • Twyla says:

      There’s nothing mythical about comorbid conditions.

      • Chris says:

        So, how exactly did vaccines cause my son’s obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

        Just because he had a seizure disorder does not mean it has anything to do with the abnormal heart anatomy? Nor does it have to do with the vaccines, which he had not had prior to his first set of seizures.

        And still, Evan’s seizures were several months after his MMR. My son’s last set of seizures were just a couple of weeks after his MMR. Except, it turns out the most likely cause was the now vaccine preventable disease he caught the week after the vaccine. And it was not measles.

  14. lilady says:

    Care to link to an article published in a first-tier, peer-reviewed medical journal that describes Dr. McCarthy’s mythical autistic comorbid conditions, that she diagnosed in her child, Twyla:

    “Then he started to develop blue circles under his eyes, bloated belly, gas, constipation, eczema, yeast. And these are all — now I know — comorbid conditions that go with autism….”

    Which vaccine(s) do you claim caused your child’s autism?

  15. Melissa says:

    First off…. I can tell you first hand that vaccines CAN CAUSE autism! My best friend took her daughter in for a round of shots..later that night ended up in the ER with her….and about a month later, her daughter was diagnosed with autism! Now.. I am NOT SAYING that ALL cases of autism are caused by vaccines. And to be honest.. I am SICK AND TIRED of people arguing over this! I would like to think that we are ALL in this together…are we not? We ALL want what is best for our kids. I get that people have different opinions, and that is great. But why get so damn pissy about the whole situation! I also have a friend who’s daughter is 28. She has never had a shot one….and has never been really sick. Of course the occasional colds and stuff.

    Anyway.. I just had to make a comment on this. And also.. get off of Jenny’s ass…I mean seriously! What she says about detoxing her son, and implementing vitamins, is a very good thing. So what that in HER opinion, she believes shots cause autism. EVERYONE is entitled to THEIR opinion. I know..people think she is persuading people to NOT vaccinate their kids. You know what…if those people are THAT naive….then that is their own fault! Most parents do research before believing an opinion..do they not? And if they do their own research, they will get both sides of the story. Then, they can make their own educated decision. But talking down about her, and her opinions..is childish! Period! I am just sick of ALL the rude comments…period! We are all adults and it is about time that everyone starts acting like it!

    • Chris says:

      “First off…. I can tell you first hand that vaccines CAN CAUSE autism!”

      Citation needed. And that does mean anecdotes, because correlation is not causation.

      “What she says about detoxing her son, and implementing vitamins, is a very good thing. So what that in HER opinion, she believes shots cause autism.”

      She is entitled to her opinions, but not to her own facts. The fact is that her son has a seizure disorder, which is why he gets real medical care.

      She is not a medical expert, and her opinions should be ignored.

  16. Jabez Pirum says:

    The sad thing about the Mnookin vs. McCarthy debate is that if questioning the MMR shot is “panic” then this is a case of “panic” vs. “reactionary extremism”. Mnookin takes strong, scientifically supported positions in his writing, but he is shedding zero light on the problem at hand.

    Therapy clinics and schools around the developed world are bursting at the seams with children who have REGRESSIVE developmental delays. My son was one of those people. He had extreme, inflammatory reactions to 3 different vaccines. His clear speech became slurred over just two months. His very normal gate turned into falling spells and abnormal tiptoe walking in a palsy-like state. His eye contact went from direct to non-existent. Who is studying these kids? No one willing to challenge the one-size-fits-all shot schedule that is driven by our pharmaceutical industry and the CDC. Who would dare? It may be that we need to conduct a test on kids before deciding which shot schedule they should follow. Plenty of reasonable parents in the Autism community accept this. Are certain kids predisposed to having autoimmune, encephalitic reactions to a battery of shots based on a hereditary predisposition to severe inflammation? It is possible.
    After all, we do these shots because diseases like Polio used to wipe out large portions of the population, especially children.

    Therapy clinics who work on speech, social interaction, OT and PT with children like my son have become to Autism and Autism Spectrum parents, the equivalent of “night clubs” for singles. It’s where we gather with roughly an hour per day to discuss our children’s respective conditions and how they got there. For those children who have regressed into the need for developmental support relating to delays, social challenges, etc., I have yet to meet a parent in 6 years whose child didn’t have a severe reaction. Of those same parents, 100% of their pediatricians had no answer, no protocol and no explanation, other than “it wasn’t the shots” because “research” has proven it.

    In reality, the CDC publishes its death records from vaccines. Death records! See the book Vaccine Epidemic written by scientists. The reactions, if you read them in detail are not dissimilar to those reactions that parents observe whose children survive, but are permanently altered.

    • Chris says:

      “My son was one of those people. He had extreme, inflammatory reactions to 3 different vaccines. His clear speech became slurred over just two months. His very normal gate turned into falling spells and abnormal tiptoe walking in a palsy-like state. His eye contact went from direct to non-existent. ”

      Did you submit a report to VAERS? Did you contact the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program? By the way, the latter would be the ones getting statistics on vaccine injuries.

  17. lilady says:

    You claim that your son had “had extreme, inflammatory reactions to 3 different vaccines. His clear speech became slurred over just two months. His very normal gate turned into falling spells and abnormal tiptoe walking in a palsy-like state. His eye contact went from direct to non-existent. Who is studying these kids?”

    Which three vaccines, do you claim, caused those reactions?

    Have you made a claim for those vaccine “reactions” on your son’s behalf at the United States Court of Federal Claims (Vaccine Court)?

    What type of testing do you suggest infants and children undergo, before they receive vaccines? Doctors and nurses already screen young patients for certain medical conditions or reactions to a prior vaccine, to ascertain if there is a valid medical contraindication to receiving vaccine(s).

    You state….

    “Are certain kids predisposed to having autoimmune, encephalitic reactions to a battery of shots based on a hereditary predisposition to severe inflammation?”

    Did your son have an encephalitic reaction to a vaccine? Did you take your child immediately to a physician or hospital emergency room for an evaluation of that potentially life threatening encephalitic reaction?

    “It is possible. After all, we do these shots because diseases like Polio used to wipe out large portions of the population, especially children.”

    Care to explain that jumbled statement?

    Nice that you and other credulous parents who have children diagnosed with ASDs, have a meetup place which you refer to as “a nightclub”, when you take your children for therapies.

    How about this gem…

    “I have yet to meet a parent in 6 years whose child didn’t have a severe reaction. Of those same parents, 100% of their pediatricians had no answer, no protocol and no explanation, other than “it wasn’t the shots” because “research” has proven it.”

    Might I suggest to you that you get a new set of friends, who don’t hang out on anti-vaccine blogs and anti-vaccine social media sites?

    And this gem….

    “In reality, the CDC publishes its death records from vaccines. Death records! See the book Vaccine Epidemic written by scientists. The reactions, if you read them in detail are not dissimilar to those reactions that parents observe whose children survive, but are permanently altered.”

    Where can I find the CDC “death records from vaccines” that you mention?

    The “Vaccine Epidemic” book is “written by scientists”? I don’t think so:

    “http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2011/02/18/ethics-and-the-promotion-of-antivaccine-book/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>