By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In 2005, Lisa and J. B. Handley founded Generation Rescue, an organization that claims autism is caused by environmental factors and can be cured. Jenny McCarthy became the spokesperson and said on The Oprah Winfrey Show that diet and chelation had cured her son. The Handleys' organization paid for ads in The New York Times: "Are we poisoning our kids in the name of protecting their health?" As the evidence against vaccines grew, so did the list of shots recommended by the CDC—to 36 by 2008. Some 5,000 families sued vaccine makers in a special federal vaccine court, claiming that shots had made their children autistic.
Through it all, most physicians remained skeptical of the autism-vaccine link. But a handful of doctors, including Mayer Eisenstein in Chicago, found the evidence convincing. "We have approximately 35,000 children in our practice, and we have virtually no autism," he says. "The majority of patients don't vaccinate."
The first major cracks in the autism-vaccine hypotheses appeared in 2004. An investigation by Brian Deer, a British journalist who had helped exonerate DPT, revealed that Andrew Wakefield had taken money for research from a personal-injury lawyer who wanted to sue vaccine makers. Five of the eight children Wakefield had examined were the attorney's clients. These were serious conflicts of interest; 10 of Wakefield's 12 co-authors retracted the work.
Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence debunked the claims that vaccines caused autism. Scientists in Finland, Britain, and at Boston University found no difference in the rates of autism in children who had received the MMR vaccine and those who had not. A 2004 examination of the medical records of 14,000 children in England found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the more thimerosal children had been exposed to, the less likely they were to have neurological problems. The American Institute of Medicine reviewed more than 200 studies and soundly rejected the autism-vaccine connection.
The same conclusion was reached by a panel of three judges that convened to review the evidence in federal vaccine court. In 2004, the claims of some 5,000 families were combined into three test cases. Michelle Cedillo, a 12-year-old girl from Yuma, Arizona, would represent the theory that both thimerosal and MMR caused autism. The trial promised a courtroom drama of competing scientific testimony, but the evidence was overwhelmingly against Cedillo. On February 12, 2009, the vaccine court ruled that the autism-vaccine theories had absolutely no scientific basis.
After a decade of controversy, the verdict was in. But for many parents, the fight wasn't over. "Parents aren't going to believe that there's no concern until somebody does a large unvaccinated control group study," says Dr. Robert Sears, a California pediatrician and author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. "No matter how much a doctor tries to reassure them, or the majority of the research shows them that there's not a problem, there's still going to be a fear until we have that large unvaccinated research."
ON A BRIGHT APRIL MORNING in Washington, D.C., Brendalee Flint awoke early in her hotel room. It was going to be a big day, and she'd had trouble sleeping. She tousled her red hair and rimmed the edges of her green eyes with dark liner.
Flint went downstairs for breakfast while her fiancé, Jeff Metcalf, slept in. Afterward, Flint dressed Julieanna in the lace-edged purple princess dress she'd purchased for this day. She buckled the two-year-old's white patent-leather shoes, and pulled her hair into two neat ponytails.
Flint, Metcalf, and their daughter hopped in a taxi—they didn't want to mess up their fancy clothes by walking. The cab drove them a few blocks, past the Capitol to the Rayburn House Office Building, where congressional staffers awaited. The family sat down to a lunch of sandwiches and fruit. Julieanna and Metcalf ate, while Flint picked at her portions.
Flint listened with rapt attention to the speakers. The first was Amy Pisani, executive director of Every Child By Two, the organization that had flown Flint's family out. Founded by Rosalynn Carter and Betty Bumpers, the former first lady of Arkansas, the nonprofit holds periodic congressional briefings on vaccines, and had invited Flint to speak.
After Pisani spoke, Malinda Warden of the CDC talked about the swine flu, and Mark Sawyer, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist from the University of California, San Diego, described the measles outbreak in San Diego in 2008.
Next it was Flint's turn to walk to the podium. Faces gazed politely back at her. Flint told the audience about Julieanna's ordeal and how much it had affected their family. She talked about how she was terrified that it all might happen again.
"Parents need to understand that when they choose not to vaccinate, they are making a decision for other people's children as well," Flint said. "Somebody else chose Julieanna's path. I still see the scar every day."
The audience members nodded back at Flint, shaking their heads with sympathy. After her speech, a few people came up to Flint to shake her hand and ask questions. She felt relief to share her story. It didn't seem fair that someone like Jenny McCarthy could reach so many people while her little girl had no voice.