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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- As rich a lode as the Bush administration is for governmental inadequacies and reportorial complaints during this presidential election homestretch, one aspect of federal idiocy concerning health care has gone mostly unmentioned.

For more than a decade, federal health authorities have maintained a highly touted and expensive Vaccine Safety Datalink to catalog bad reactions to various childhood vaccines and measure the efficiency and safety of the many inoculations children receive these days. The huge electronic database is paid for by taxpayers.

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The Vaccine Safety Datalink has compiled a mountain of infant and toddler vaccine records obtained from HMOs, private doctors and other health insurers. In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and other federal health agencies have repeatedly cited collected material to support their official federal contention that there is no causal link between some vaccines and chronic brain and immune system dysfunction, especially the rapidly increasing occurrence of autism across the nation.

Many parents and medical researchers believe mercury preservatives in some vaccines trigger the onset of autism in recipient children. So what's the problem? What do the statistics show?

The problem is that, for the last two years, independent medical researchers who want to use the numbers have been repeatedly denied access by stubborn CDC officials to the publicly funded Vaccine Safety Datalink for the purpose of replicating and possibly validating the CDC's analysis -- which is the way credible science is supposed to work.

"The hallmark of good science is replication, and the hallmark of good government is transparency," says Kathi Williams, who, along with Barbara Loe Fisher, founded the National Vaccine Information Center, a privately funded clearinghouse for information concerning the increasingly controversial childhood shots.

The NVIC is the largest and most effective of several such groups, and the CDC, Food and Drug Administration, and Health and Human Services Department consider it a huge thorn in their sides.

Two weeks ago, at a Washington meeting of the federal Institute of Medicine and National Academies of Sciences, parents of autistic children who claimed their infants and toddlers were injured by vaccines protested that the Vaccine Safety Datalink -- instead of providing material to be used in scientific studies as intended -- was actually "being used by federal health officials to cover up vaccine risks associated with mercury preservatives in vaccines."

The National Vaccine Information Center called for full public disclosure of all government-held vaccine risk data in the VSD, and announced a national online "Show Us the Vaccine Data" petition to force the federal government's hand.

You may access more about the issue at www.NVIC.org and more about the petition at www.thepetitionsite.com.

A worthy effort, but lots of luck.

The Bush administration has already demonstrated its affinity for climbing into bed with the huge pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines during its shameless misrepresentation of costs and benefits associated with the recent legislation that gave us discount drug cards for seniors.

Not only is that program numbingly complicated and costly with questionable benefits, it robs Medicaid of the one fiscally pleasing thing it had going for it -- the ability to use its mammoth bureaucratic size to negotiate lower drug prices.

Not many Northerners seem aware of the work of famous and honored Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones, a student of the master Frank Lloyd Wright.

Jones, 83, died last week in his Fayetteville, Ark., home of lung and heart failure. He had long suffered Parkinson's disease. Jones had designed homes for many important Arkansas figures, ranging from master merchant Sam Walton to notorious governor Orval Faubus. Jones was prolific. His houses dotted Arkansas and other Southern venues.

Bill Clinton lived in one of his houses when he returned from Yale in 1973 to teach law at the University of Arkansas. Hillary Rodham, the future president's future wife, moved into another Jones house when she traveled to Arkansas soon after to be near her boyfriend.

But the most famous structure Jones ever designed remains probably the most beautiful structure I have yet entered -- the small glass, wood and fieldstone Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs, Ark.

Jones liked to blend his buildings into the surrounding landscape, and Thorncrown is nestled in the limestone outcroppings and verdant woods of the Ozark foothills.

There are 425 windows in this modest little structure, but the natural light is amazingly discreet as it filters through crisscrossing beams and latticed framework in a manner that vaults the mind skyward.

It is nearly impossible to sit inside Thorncrown for more than a few seconds and not come closer to belief in a just and understanding God. The design -- which Jones completed 24 years ago -- is inspiringly simple, yet incredibly moving, and it underscores how important architecture is in an emotional sense.

Thorncrown was voted Design of the Decade in the 1980s by the American Institute of Architecture -- beating out the more famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan. Not too shabby. In 2000, Thorncrown and Jones achieved even higher honors when the chapel was voted the fourth best building of the 20th century, behind Wright's Fallingwater house and New York City's Chrysler Building and Seagram Building.

E. Fay Jones was one of those individuals I always intended to interview, especially during my years in Little Rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I never got around to it. And I tell my students to seize the moment.

If you are traveling anywhere in the deep central South, a side trip to Arkansas and the Thorncrown Chapel is well worth the extra time.


John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 7 2004