How the Institute of Medicine Helped Suppress Questions About Vaccine Safety

The Institute of Medicine (IOM)—now called the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—is a private, nonprofit entity that has had a mandate since 1970 to provide the U.S. government with “independent, objective analysis” on matters of health. The IOM produces reports specifically requested and paid for by federal agencies—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The IOM develops its scope of work “in collaboration with the study’s sponsor” and then carries out its deliberations behind closed doors.

The IOM has authored dozens of influential reports on vaccines. However, the organization’s independence on this topic is open to question, because it draws its members from the ranks of the very same government agencies, schools of medicine, schools of public health, hospitals and private foundations that have uncritically supported existing vaccine policies for decades.

Early IOM Reports

In September 2000, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) commissioned an IOM committee to research and write a series of eight specific “immunization safety reviews,” with a scope closely dictated by the CDC. The IOM published the first two reports in 2001, focusing on thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, respectively.

In the first of the two reports, the IOM authors endorsed the biological plausibility of the hypothesis that “exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines could be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders.” Their conclusion was that they could neither accept nor reject a causal relationship. They called, therefore, for removal of thimerosal from all vaccines given to infants, children and pregnant women as a precautionary step and recommended more basic science, clinical and epidemiological research. Not only have these recommendations remained largely unheeded to this day, but the CDC began aggressively promoting thimerosal-containing influenza vaccines (and, later, tetanus-diphtheria [Td] vaccines) for pregnant women and children beginning in the mid-2000s, well after the report’s publication.

The second IOM report came out against a population-level causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. Yet it, too, stated that it could not disprove “the proposed biological models” in individual children and reiterated the need for further research.

The Fix Is In, and Biological Plausibility Is Out

Although the IOM meetings took place behind closed doors, an insider leaked transcripts of the 2001 meetings. The transcripts suggest that, at its core, the committee writing the reports was little better than a “kangaroo court”—in the words of an advocacy organization representing parents, “the fix was in” from the start. For example, well before any evidence had even been reviewed, the Committee Chairman, Dr. Marie McCormick, stated, “CDC…wants us to declare…these things are pretty safe on a population basis” (p. 33). She later added, “we are not ever going to come down that [autism] is a true side effect [of a vaccine]” (p. 97). The Committee Study Director, Dr. Kathleen Stratton, likewise clarified the following:

“[T]he line we will not cross in public policy is pull the vaccine, change the schedule. …We wouldn’t say compensate, we wouldn’t say pull the vaccine, we wouldn’t say stop the program” (p. 74).

Thus, by the time the IOM committee wrote its 2004 report, the group “managed to produce the outcome CDC was looking for.” Written in what Congressman Dave Weldon characterized as an “atmosphere of intimidation” driven by “a desire to sweep these issues under the rug,” the 2004 report reexamined the hypothesis that vaccines—specifically the MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines—might be associated with autism. This time, however—using tactics such as “changing their charter, avoiding case reports, and disregarding biological evidence”—the IOM categorically rejected both hypothesized relationships. Leaving behind its own 2001 position of “biological plausibility,” the IOM used its 2004 report to dismiss “potential biological mechanisms for vaccine-induced autism” as “only theoretical.”…


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