cover image Evidence of Harm

Evidence of Harm

David Kirby. St. Martin's Press, $26.95 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-312-32644-9

The first serious journalistic account of a highly controversial topic, Kirby's book addresses the front-page question: has a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal, commonly used in children's vaccines, caused a national epidemic of juvenile autism? Following the development of the debate through the eyes of a handful of impassioned parents who formed the political action group, Safe Minds, Kirby, an experienced writer for the New York Times, crafts an engrossing David and Goliath story from this controversy, one in which the giant is an amalgamation of big government bureaucrats and corporate pharmaceutical lobbyists. Whether the association between thimerosal and autism is real remains to be seen, as Kirby points out. The evidence, presented here in excruciating detail but clouded by the parents' editorializing, is inconclusive but suggestive. Readers inclined to believe the parents' case will be convinced that there has been a big conspiracy; readers inclined to be skeptical will likely view the parents as self-serving proselytizers who spin each piece of evidence to suit their forgone conclusions. Walking the middle line, Kirby acknowledges that ""each side accuses the other of being irrational, overzealous, blind to evidence they find inconvenient, and subject to professional, financial, or emotional conflicts of interest that cloud their judgment."" And though Kirby clearly sympathizes with the parents' tragic experience of autism in their families and their inherent desire for justice, and though he occasionally demonstrates a lack of understanding about the politics of scientific publication and the wording of scientific articles, his book remains one of the most thoroughly researched accounts of the thimerosal controversy thus far. This is the book for medical professionals and concerned parents to read. It's accessible in its handling of medical topics and compelling in its recounting of the parents' fight to advance their agenda in the face of both political and scientific roadblocks.