Issue Number 554            September 30, 2005


  1. The Cutter Incident, by Paul A. Offit, MD, traces the enduring effects of a 1955 vaccine manufacturing accident
  2. Editorial urges media, scientific community, and parents to strongly counter the myth that thimerosal causes autism


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September 30, 2005

A book recently released by Yale University Press gives readers an understanding of the connection between a tragic manufacturing accident of fifty years ago and today's challenging vaccine development and manufacturing environment. The book, The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, was written by Paul A. Offit, MD. Dr. Offit is chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Henle Professor of Immunologic and Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The following description is excerpted from the website of Yale University Press. The book is available from the website and at bookstores nationwide.


Vaccines have saved more lives than any other single medical advance. Yet today only four companies make vaccines, and there is a growing crisis in vaccine availability. Why has this happened? This remarkable book recounts for the first time a devastating episode in 1955 at Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, that has led many pharmaceutical companies to abandon vaccine manufacture.

Drawing on interviews with public health officials, pharmaceutical company executives, attorneys, Cutter employees, and victims of the vaccine, as well as on previously unavailable archives, Dr. Paul Offit offers a full account of the Cutter disaster. He describes the nation's relief when the polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk in 1955, the production of the vaccine at industrial facilities such as the one operated by Cutter, and the tragedy that occurred when 200,000 people were inadvertently injected with live virulent polio virus: 70,000 became ill, 200 were permanently paralyzed, and 10 died. Dr. Offit also explores how, as a consequence of the tragedy, one jury's verdict set in motion events that eventually suppressed the production of vaccines already licensed and deterred the development of new vaccines that hold the promise of preventing other fatal diseases.


For further information about the book, including reviews written by the late Maurice Hilleman and other vaccine experts, go to the website of Yale University Press at

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September 30, 2005

Excerpts from an editorial by Paul A. Offit, MD, were recently published in several U.S. newspapers. Following is the complete text of Dr. Offit's editorial, reprinted with his kind permission.


On the morning of August 23, 2005, Marwa Nadama brought her five-year-old son, Abubakar, to the Advanced Integrative Medicine Center in Portersville, Pennsylvania. There she met Dr. Roy Eugene Kerry, a board-certified physician and surgeon. Abubakar was autistic. Dr. Kerry was certain that he could help.

For years Marwa had struggled to help her son. But to no avail: Abubakar remained distant and uncommunicative, unable to return her affection. Then--a ray of hope. Parent testimonials on the Internet claimed that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative in some vaccines, had caused autism. Although thimerosal had been taken out of most vaccines by 2001, Marwa believed that its toxic effects hadn't been taken out of her son's body.

At around 10:00AM, under the direction of Dr. Kerry, Abubakar's arm was cleaned with alcohol and EDTA [ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid] was injected directly into his bloodstream. At 10:50AM, Abubakar Nadama was dead--of a heart attack.

At the time that Dr. Kerry injected Abubakar with EDTA, epidemiologic studies performed on three continents by four separate research groups found that mercury in vaccines didn't cause autism. The findings were clear, consistent, and reproducible. Also, the signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning are different from those of autism. And, most importantly, the toxic effects of heavy metal poisoning are irreversible; even if mercury were to blame, ridding Abubakar of mercury in his body couldn't possibly have lessened his symptoms of autism.

So, if mercury in vaccines doesn't cause autism, why did more than 10,000 autistic children in the United States this year receive medication to rid them of mercury?

THE MEDIA. The notion that vaccines might cause autism contains all of the elements of a great story: greedy pharmaceutical companies, government cover-up, uncaring doctors, and parents fighting against all odds for their children. It isn't easy to promote this story. On the one hand, you have every major medical organization including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) stating that mercury doesn't cause autism. On the other, you have a few marginal scientists and clinicians who, in the absence of any solid, reproducible data, say that it does. The media solved the problem by giving equal time to both sides. This is called "balanced" reporting. And it makes for great radio, television, newspaper, and magazine stories. Bad information--but great stories.

SCIENTISTS, DOCTORS, AND PUBLIC-HEALTH AGENCIES. Although scientific studies have answered the question of whether vaccines cause autism, scientists have done little to explain these studies to the public. On July 19, 2005, Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the CDC, called a press conference to explain the science that refutes the notion that vaccines cause autism. Dr. Gerberding is an excellent communicator. And her message was clear and compelling. But that was it. One conference, one day. A tiny bell ringing against the constant, deafening drumbeat of weekly stories in the media that suggested otherwise.

PARENTS. Parents of autistic children desperately want to find something--anything--that works. So they're susceptible to fad therapies. Several years ago it was the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine that caused autism. Before that, secretin, a small protein secreted by the intestine, was proposed as a cure; many parents traveled hundreds of miles and spent thousands of dollars for secretin injections. Parents felt just as strongly about secretin and MMR then as they do about mercury today.

DR. ROY EUGENE KERRY. The phenomenon of Dr. Kerry isn't new. During the polio epidemic in New York City in 1916, Dr. George Retan ignored warnings from his colleagues and drained large quantities of spinal fluid from the backs of polio victims at the same time that he infused a salt solution into their veins. The procedure killed more people than it saved. But like autism today, in 1916 no one knew what caused polio or how to treat it. And George Retan offered hope. He cared.

Because we are all responsible for the death of Abubakar Nadama, none of us will be held accountable. We're off the hook. But, if we are to effectively prevent the next tragedy, then we must equal the passion of those who firmly believe that mercury in vaccines caused autism. We must show that we are not just doctors and researchers standing behind the one-way mirror of science, but that we are also parents who don't want to see another child sacrificed at the altar of bad information. Otherwise, the death of Abubakar Nadama won't be the end of this.

Paul A. Offit, MD, is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.


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Editorial Information

  • Editor-in-Chief
    Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH
  • Managing Editor
    John D. Grabenstein, RPh, PhD
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    Sharon G. Humiston, MD, MPH
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    Taryn Chapman, MS
    Courtnay Londo, MA
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