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APRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer
Paul Offit, director of the vaccine center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says vaccines are not tied to autism-related disorders.
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Expert sees no link between vaccines and autism

They liken him to a prostitute. Someone with blood on his hands, who doesn't care about the health of children.

Those are among the insults that Paul Offit gets by e-mail each week at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

He should probably expect to start getting a lot more.

Offit, 57, has been defending the safety of vaccines for years, in response to beliefs that they are tied to autism-related disorders. He continues in the same vein with his new book - Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure - which is already generating heat.

Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's and a leading expert on infectious diseases, is among many physicians who defend vaccines. The mainstream scientific and medical communities overwhelmingly agree there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, though the topic continues to receive study.

But Offit is arguably the issue's most public face. After spending much of his career on vaccine research - a choice that proved unexpectedly lucrative - he now devotes most of his time to teaching and writing on vaccines.

Offit doesn't think any of his critics mean him real harm, though he was rattled once when a caller knew his children's names and where they went to school.

"We put a new security system on our house as a way of celebrating the launch of this book," Offit said during an interview in his office. "Which I think most authors don't do. Maybe Salman Rushdie."

Like global warming and stem-cell research, the topic of vaccines and autism is one that straddles the realms of science and politics.

Diagnoses of autism and related neurological conditions have been increasing for years, to a rate of 1 in 150 children. Some forms can exact a terrible toll on families.

The symptoms arise in early childhood. The timing coincides with the administration of vaccines, so some parents and advocates see a causal link. Some have blamed thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was used in small amounts in some vaccines; others blame the vaccines themselves.

Yet thimerosal was removed from all vaccines except some that protect against the flu, and autism rates continued to rise - one of the points Offit makes.

One outspoken critic is an Oregon resident, J.B. Handley, a parent of an autistic child and cofounder of Generation Rescue, a nonprofit group devoted to autism.

Asked about Offit, Handley called him "morally reprehensible" and a "pseudo-scientist."

So why does Offit do it?

Chiefly, he worries that some parents will choose not to inoculate their children, allowing for the resurgence of long-forgotten diseases. Indeed, the government reported 131 cases of measles for the first seven months of this year, the highest number for that period since 1996. Nearly half of the patients had not been vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons. Moreover, Offit doesn't want the study of an unlikely vaccine-autism link to siphon funds from other research.

During the interview, the pediatrician spoke rapidly and with conviction, shifting between puzzlement and sadness when discussing the debate. One thing he is not: deterred.

"I don't need this," he said. "I do it because it's the right thing to do, and somebody should do it."

Offit and his opponents do agree on one reason that he feels so strongly about vaccines: He helped to invent one himself.

In 1979, while he was a senior resident in Pittsburgh, Offit was unable to save a nine-month-old child who died from an infection of the microbe rotavirus.

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Comments
Posted by Kevleitch 04:09 AM, 09/17/2008
Before the inevitable descent of the antivax brigade, I'd like to personally thank Dr Offit. Those of us in the genuine autism community - as oppose to the loud minority that think vaccines cause autism - realise that we need to draw a line under the whole affair now that children are dying of vaccine preventable diseases in my country and being hospitalised in yours. We also need to turn attention back from this hysteria to actual useful research directions - education, accommodation for adults, employment opportunities, valid therapies - that have been virtually ignored over the last 10 years. Dr Offit's new book will help with that so this parent of a severely autistic child thanks him.
Posted by strik009 07:46 AM, 09/17/2008
Still so many parents who claim there child's disorder took on directly after a large series of vaccines, cant all be wrong, without a doubt more research needs to be done, but in the mean time parents must know that its more dangerous for there child and other children if you dont use current vaccines. just try to make sure your DR spreads them out over time.
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