Wesley Sykes is in a rage. Dinner was late. His cup held water, not soda. Strangers had stolen his mother’s attention all afternoon. It is too much for the 9-year-old autistic child to bear. He begins to flap his arms and shriek, working himself into murderous screams that shatter his suburban home and all hope of a normal life.
His mother, the Rev. Lisa Sykes, has her own rage, against the demon she blames for Wesley’s condition. It is thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative she received in a shot during pregnancy and which he received in childhood vaccines.
To the Richmond, Va., pastor, this is a crusade. To most scientists, it’s a leap of faith. The levels of mercury in vaccines — now and in the past — do not cause autism, they repeatedly have declared.
But not everyone is convinced. Seven years after it began, the debate over vaccines and autism just won’t die.
In fact, it appears to be finding new life. Several churches have started a grass-roots movement to rid vaccines of mercury. A new book on the issue is getting attention. A Kennedy has entered the fray.
“I think this issue has persisted, despite a boatload of scientific evidence … because there are no answers for parents of children with autism,” said Dr. Sharon Humiston, a University of Rochester pediatrician with a foot in both worlds. She once worked for the government’s National Immunization Program, and she has a son whose autism she refuses to blame on vaccines.
Medical controversies flourish when science is lacking. In this case, both sides have limited science and each criticizes the other.
Vested interests make it tough to know who to believe. Many parents have filed lawsuits. Many scientists have ties to vaccine makers or are selling their expertise in court cases. Government officials don’t want people to turn away from vaccines, which have clearly benefited public health.
Both sides also have credibility problems. Opponents initially accused the measles vaccine, which never contained the preservative, of causing autism. The government defended a troubled pertussis vaccine for more than a decade before switching to a safer version.