Advocacy groups that work on behalf of children with autism and their families are engaged in a legal battle in which they're asking for billions of dollars in damages due to an alleged link between thimerosal, a mercury preservative found in childhood vaccines, and autism. But at least five major medical studies have found no link between autism and childhood vaccines. As Washington Post "Fact Checker" Michael Dobbs writes, many doctors believe the so-called "link" between autism and vaccines is simply a matter of autism presenting during the same period of a child's life -- between the ages of 1 and 2 -- that most vaccines are administered. Desperate parents have thus drawn conclusions about the causes of the disease that are, at least so far, scientifically unsound.

Given those facts, the liberal blogosphere was in a tizzy several weeks ago about John McCain's statement that there is "strong evidence" connecting the rise in autism rates to vaccines. But now it seems that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have signaled some acceptance of the theory, as well. Yesterday at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, Obama stated, "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." And in response to a questionnaire distributed by the group Advocates for Children's Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning, Clinton wrote, "I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines." Oddly, Obama's answers to the questionnaire are actually more circumspect than Clinton's, despite his public comments.

Of course, just because vaccines probably aren't the cause of autism doesn't mean there aren't other environmental factors at play. As Clinton wrote on the questionnaire, "I am very concerned about the possible links between autism, the environment and other chronic diseases." Both Democratic candidates have promised to fund research on the role of heavy metals in autism. Still, it's concerning that leading politicians are promulgating the scientifically-unsound idea that routine childhood vaccinations cause a feared disease. That could dissuade parents from vaccinating their children, which would be a serious public health risk.

--Dana Goldstein

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