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Don Imus Interviews Dr. Bernadine Healy

May 18, 2008

On May 13, Don Imus interviewed Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes of Health, on his radio show. What follows is an unofficial transcript of the interview:

Watch the Imus/Healy interview.
Google video ~12 minutes

IMUS: Dr. Bernadine Healy, is a cardiologist, the former head of the National Institute of Health and the American Red Cross. She is the senior writer for US News and World Report, the author of "Living Times: Faith and Fact to Transform Your Cancer Journey", which by the way is out in paperback now. Please welcome Dr. Healy

IMUS: Good morning Dr. Healy. How are you?

DR. HEALY: Fine, how are you?

IMUS: So, why, now did you decide to speak out and get involved in this thimerosal and vaccine issue?

DR. Healy: Well, I'm a columnist at US News and World Report. I've been health editor and columnist there for about six years. I've obviously watched this issue, but, I think when the Poling case came out, that is the recent case in which the parents of a child came forward and reported they had been given significant compensation by the Vaccine Court because the Court decided, this is a government, HHS related court...they decided there was a link with vaccination for their child and it might be linked, not only to the vaccines and the development of autistic illness, but, mitochondrial disease....a specific metabolic disease. So, they came forward, the Doctor is a neurologist who trained at John's, it made me look into it in depth.

Although I am a cardiologist by training, I am also very active in public health. In fact, I started the first public health school in Ohio State.

IMUS: You know, I kind of got interested in this, I don't know if you ever read him or not, David Kirby's book, "Evidence of Harm", which took a look at the link between thimerosal and autism. The title of "Evidence of Harm" came from either the CDC or IOM saying they couldn't find evidence of harm. No causal link between thimerosal and autism. Which David Kirby surmised, and, it seemed even a layman like me, that was one hundred and eighty degrees from saying these vaccines were safe....simply saying you couldn't find a causal link. So, have they ever said anything other than "They can't find a causal link?"

DR. HEALY: I think causality is very hard to prove. That is a problem for all potential environmental triggers. In some areas, like asthma, we will say, sure, second hand smoke or cats can trigger a child's asthma. But that is so obvious that it's evident. In many other cases, particularly when you're dealing with trace minerals, you're dealing with a particularly susceptible group, that is exposed to a trigger and it's a relatively lower's harder to demonstrate. That's why the Poling case, the recently described case of a young child that I mentioned, is important.

So, the issue is really almost one of ideology or religion, more than it is science. It is the sense that vaccines are critically important. The principle of "herd immunity", the principle of vaccinating everyone, so that you're not only protecting your child but you're protecting the universe of children. That drives vaccine thinking. Because of that, there is a fear on the part of some in the public health community....if the public hears that any vaccine is associated with any complications....they will stop getting the vaccines. So, I think there is that view...this is challenging something that is just too important to challenge. So....let's not do the science, let's not pursue the studies. I think most of us would be surprised to know that, as Cheryl Atkinson reported yesterday, there are over 1300 cases the Vaccine Court studied and awarded as at least potentially causal in a link between vaccines and brain injury in children. If that's the case, we need to study that.

I'm not saying that this is proven. The problem is, the science hasn't been done to determine that...but....there is a lot of provocative science that says that hypothesis should be pursued.

IMUS: You know what never made sense to me, just as a layman and not being that bright about this or anything else....if you have thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative...and...its ethlymercury, a more potent version of mercury that's found in's a neurotoxin...and you couple that with aluminum, which is also a neuro-toxin....and....formaldehyde, which is a neuro-toxin and carcinogen...and you put all that stuff in a vaccine....then you inject that into the bloodstream of an infant....and in the case where they are providing multiple vaccinations to children....they're taking .25 micrograms of thimerosal and multiply that by five or six didn't make any common sense that it wouldn't have some effect. Am I wrong to think that?

DR. HEALY: Well, I think that's right. The broader issue is Thimerosal is a preservative; it's not there for therapeutic value. It's there as a preservative. It's an important preservative. It's made it possible for vaccines to be stored at room temperature, to have multiple shots in one vial, but, we now know, we learned, that in fact if you look at all the vaccines our children are exposed to in the first year of life....cumulatively....they're getting more than EPA standards of toxic mercury exposures for an adult. So, common sense would again say, "One dose may be okay, but, where we are giving so many vaccines with mercury...was that a smart thing to do?" That led pediatricians to get together and say no more mercury in child vaccines. Mercury is still in adult vaccines, it's a very small amount, but, its still cumulatively exceeds the dose in our very vulnerable population.

It was a common sense decision. The research on this is really scant. Enough work has not been done. There is a suggestion, at least in mice...that some genetic strains of mice are more sensitive to mercury. One of the studies that was particularly important I think, was an NIH supported study in primates just a few years ago that showed that ethylmercury and methylmercury may have comparable affects. One is not safe than the other. The thinking was that ethylmercury was safer, but, in this particular primate study, ethlymercury left more mercury behind than methlymercury did in the brain....because it converts into free mercury. So, I think this has to be the way...thimerosal is in vaccines that are often given to pregnant women.

IMUS: It's still in all the flu vaccines.

DR. HEALY: Yes, it's in adult flu vaccines, not in children's.

IMUS: Well, you know.....I got more interested in this than I wanted to because I made the mistake of talking about it. Talking about children with cancer and other children with autism...we started hearing from thousands of parents and you get caught up in it. It seemed to me, the huge role the pharmaceutical companies play in this, which is one of the reasons we were stunned to see it on "Evening News" with Katie Couric, with you and Cheryl Atkinson last night. Until I realized CBS Evening News could run it because they don't have any my long-winded question is: There's always been a fear of a number of interested people, many doctors and so on, many of whom have worked for the pharmaceutical industry...that it may be like the tobacco industry...they may find the pharmaceutical industry and some of these manufacturers either knew or suspected there was some sort of link and didn't want to be found culpable by a bunch of crazy trial lawyers turned loose....and have them bring them to their knees. So that plays a role too, wouldn't you agree with that?

DR. HEALY: I think litigation is something that often confounds good science and good judgment. That's a whole separate issue. I think on this one, Don, pharmaceutical industries got out of the vaccine business after the Swine Flu problems. Years ago, the flu shot was associated with a neurological disease, Guillain-Barre, a paralytic disease in about 700 to 800 people. We're talking about millions of vaccinations. So these are very low complications.
The pharmaceutical companies were being broken. We weren't able to find companies that would make vaccines in this country. That's how the Vaccine Court came about...because there is recognition, that any medicine we take, any therapy we take, has a side-effect. I think on this one, I wouldn't be so hard on the pharmaceutical companies. I think what drives vaccines are public health concerns. That we can't have polio, and we can't have outbreaks of mumps or diphtheria. So, this is a very good and important way to protect your children. But, like anything it can have side effects. I guess there is a philosophical issue, and you're raising it....which is...even if it's a small number of children....a thousand out of a turn one's back on those thousand children....where there might be a link....and we haven't proved that because we're afraid to do the research.

IMUS: One would be enough for me.

DR. HEALY: That's right. It it's your child, one is enough.

IMUS: Have you heard from any of your colleagues now trying to characterize you as some kind of nut whose wings have come off?

DR. HEALY: Because the debate is so political, it's hard to argue it in a strictly objective and non-biased way. Because there is this philosophy, don't scare parents from getting vaccinations.

IMUS: Parents are not stupid.