Utah Whistleblower Hotline

Utah whistleblower suit alleges data errors and research misconduct in CDC autism prevalence reports

CDCThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) announced today that the autism rate in children in the United States is approximately 1 in 68 (1.5% of eight year olds surveyed in 2012) for those born in 2004, which was unchanged from the last reported rate for children born in 2002, according to an article from healthchoice.org.  However, a recent lawsuit filed in federal court in Utah may call into question the CDC’s autism numbers.  A Utah federal district court is gearing up to hear arguments on Defendant University of Utah’s Motion for Summary Judgment on April 4th in a whistleblower suit filed by a CDC researcher, healthchoice.org reports.

Utah Whistleblower Suit Alleges CDC Allowed Research Misconduct and Data Errors

The whistleblower suit, although aimed at primarily at the University of Utah, alleges that the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (“ADDM”) Network allowed research misconduct and persistent data errors in their autism prevalence reports.  The allegations made by the whistleblower in the Utah suit “reveal serious concerns over the legitimacy and integrity of the CDC’s management of its widely cited ADDM Network reports,” healthchoice.org has said.

In response to the University of Utah’s motion for summary judgment, former Principal Investigator for the Utah ADDM Network site, Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, has said that her various claims against her employer deserve to go to a jury.  According to the whistleblower’s response:

Dr. Zimmerman was a successful University employee until she accused [her supervisor], among others, of research misconduct and ethical misconduct. Defendants retaliated against Dr. Zimmerman for raising legal and ethical questions of employees’ impropriety, and took multiple adverse actions against Dr. Zimmerman because of her protected speech; her age; her disability; and her religion. Defendants also breached its contract with Dr. Zimmerman and denied her due process and liberty rights.

Zimmerman Reported “Uncorrected Errors” to U of U, U.S. Dept. of Health, and CDC

Zimmerman’s complaint alleges specific concerns she had over alleged uncorrected errors in the ADDM Network’s reported autism analysis for the State of Utah.  The complaint sets forth that Zimmerman “reported that [university researchers] were publishing data under people’s names who had not done the work and that the data contained uncorrected errors.”  “I think the fact that I reported data errors, research misconduct, is significant,” Zimmerman said, and that “[o]n or about December 2012, Dr. Zimmerman also reported the same concerns she had made to the University’s Privacy & Security office to the United States Department of Health and Human Services…. She reported her concerns to the CDC as well. “

The healtchoice.org article also details that deposition testimony from both Zimmerman and her colleagues reveals that the alleged data errors were significant and have the possibility to produce vast differences in reported autism rates in Utah.  For instance, the 2008 ADDM Network Report reported that Utah had the highest autism rate of any state at 1 in 47, but the CDC’s report today showed that Utah autism rates had fallen significantly (nearly 20%) to 1 in 58, while most other ADDM Network sites reported either rising or stable autism rates.

Health Choice has “Long Criticized” CDC’s ADDM Network

Healthchoice.org has said that today’s CDC report also raises concerns about the reported autism rates in Georgia and New Jersey.  Health Choice Executive Leadership Team Chairman Mark Blaxill, said, ““If the sharp increases in autism rates began in the late 1980s, why would CDC design a tracking survey beginning with the 1992 birth year?  Elsewhere, they’ve published data with very low rates from the late 1980s in New Jersey and Georgia but don’t connect the dots in the ADDM publications from today’s 1 in 68 rate back to these earlier numbers.”

Health Choice reports that it “has long criticized the design and management of CDC’s ADDM Network autism prevalence surveys.”  Blaxill represented that “[t]he CDC has been misrepresenting the alarming rise in autism rates since the late 1980s.”  “They have selected a partial and unrepresentative sample of states to track, changed the sample in a biased fashion over the years, and then take too long to report out the data. Today’s 2012 report is over a decade behind the problem, giving us autism rates for children born twelve years ago,” Blaxill said.

Why the Vast Disparity in Reported Utah Autism Rates?

The vast disparity in reported autism rates in Utah between today’s CDC report and the previous report definitely raise more questions that they answer.  How could the numbers for the rest of the country be stable or rising slightly, but Utah’s reported autism rates are down nearly 20%?  Hopefully Zimmerman’s lawsuit will shed some light on the disparity between today’s report and the CDC’s report back in 2008.  Utahwhistleblowerhotline.com will continue to follow Zimmerman’s case and will provide any updates in the case as they become available.

The case is Zimmerman v. Univ. of Utah, Civ. No. 2:13-cv-01131-JNP-BCW.

* Photo Cred.: infowars.com