The federal government has established something called a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to collect reports of possible side effects related to immunizations. Sounds like a useful tool for epidemiological study, right? Except that, it seems,
anyone can submit a report to it, and no one actually verifies the accuracy of the report. Indeed, James Laidler once tested the system by submitting a report that the influenza virus had turned him into The Incredible Hulk. The report was accepted and duly entered into the database.
A more serious problem with the self-submitted nature of the data is that it provides a way for vaccine scares to self-amplify: lawyers pressing compensation claims make a point of submitting their clients’ case histories to the VAERS, and before long — what do you know? — the database is showing a worrying rise in reported side effect incidents, which itself feeds the litigation. Now a study in Pediatrics traces the ways in which litigation-driven reporting has distorted the contents of the VAERS database, especially as regards the purported association of the preservative thimerosal with childhood autism. Respectful Insolence explains (Feb. 6 at old site, more recently blogging at ScienceBlogs)(via MedPundit) and also ties the story in to the disgraceful performance last year in Rolling Stone by celebrity demagogue Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (Jun. 20 and Jun. 26, 2005). More: pediatrician Flea also weighs in (Feb. 22).