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The Age of Autism: Critics have their say

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor   |   Oct. 3, 2005 at 1:41 PM

In recent columns, we have explored reports by parents linking the onset of their child's autism to vaccinations. These parents strongly suspect a mercury-containing preservative in vaccines -- and in some cases, the vaccines themselves -- were responsible.

That theory has been dismissed by most mainstream medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Science.

Several readers have taken us to task for continuing to highlight what they consider unsupported beliefs that might scare parents away from life-saving vaccinations for their children. They also note the mercury preservative, called thimerosal, was phased out of childhood immunizations in the Unites States starting in 1999.

Here are comments that summarize that viewpoint. One of the letters cites earlier columns about the mostly unvaccinated Amish, among whom we could find little anecdotal evidence of autism. The letter also mentions chelation, a controversial treatment based on the idea that autism is mercury poisoning by another name; in chelation, drugs are administered to pull mercury from an autistic child's body.

The final comments are from an article by Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Offit, a staunch advocate of the safety and importance of childhood immunizations, was responding to the recent death of a 5-year-old autistic child undergoing chelation in Pennsylvania.

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As an employee of a Global Immunization Program, I feel compelled to respond to your series of dramatic vignettes, which evoke understandable sympathy, but fail to convey the drastic overall public health improvement that vaccines have given us.

When reading these comments made by the parents of autistic children, I am saddened to learn about the strife that vaccines have caused them. However, would they not be as saddened if their child had come down with an equally devastating (if not more so) case of measles, mumps, rubella, or polio?

When confronting the issue of vaccines and their very weak correlation with autism, it is important to keep an objective mindframe, and not allow emotion to override the immense public health benefit vaccines have bestowed all over the world.

Respectfully, Drew Callison

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I am the parent of a son with autism, and we have corresponded before. I am concerned that your series, The Age of Autism, focusing as it does on the alleged mercury-autism vaccination connection, is doing considerable harm to the autistic community by spreading erroneous implications.

The continuing pursuit of this dead issue is not inquiry, it is persuasion; it is not based on any desire to develop scientific information useful to those on the spectrum, but on hopes of obtaining large junk-science awards for hopeful litigants, their "expert" witnesses, and their lawyers.

Massive epidemiological studies on three continents repeatedly have not shown any thimerosal-autism connection. Moreover, the ethyl-mercury-based preservative thimerosal, which had been in vaccines for 60 years, has no longer been used for several years (a decision based not on science but on public relations).

Every dollar being thrown away on this dead issue is a dollar that would be better used for research that could help people like my son.

You cite Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Dave Weldon, and the organization SafeMinds, a sorry lot scientifically. Kennedy's notorious article, recently circulated by Salon.com, ignores the mass research consensus and focuses on paranoia (secrecy, conspiracy theory). SafeMinds has an agenda that supersedes reliable information, and the cited officials were not elected for their scientific sophistication.

About the Amish: Eccentric sects rarely publicize information about themselves. Instances have been uncovered where such sects have hidden their disabled individuals from public inspection. Information about vaccination and the incidence of diseases prevented by vaccination may not be reliable.

A study of the Amish would be difficult to accurately accomplish, and why bother? Many reliable studies have already been done on entire populations, and all with the same result.

Finally, any initiative that results, without reason, in a lower vaccination rate is socially irresponsible: It will weaken society's herd immunity and put us all at risk of epidemics of diseases that haven't been factors for years. Sorry to say, there are indications that this is beginning to happen.

Sincerely, Dr. Marvin J. Schissel

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You probably know now that on the day your most recent column ran, it was announced that Arizona State University is indeed launching research into both nutritional supplements and chelation for children with autism. The latter study is being run by a pediatrician who's a chelation skeptic. Apparently he didn't get the memo that he's supposed to be suppressing this stuff.

I'm looking forward to hearing the results of these studies -- and while I'm a skeptic, too, I absolutely hope they find that the biomed treatments are effective. It would give a lot of fresh hope and direction to a lot of families, mine included.

I also hope that whatever the results, people on all sides of this issue will be willing to accept them. Based on the rancor I've seen over the past year or so, though, I'm not terribly optimistic.

(Name withheld by request)

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Epidemiologic studies performed in three continents by four separate groups had found that vaccines don't cause autism.

The findings were clear, consistent and reproducible. Also, the signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning are different from those of autism. If mercury in vaccines didn't cause autism, then why did more than 10,000 autistic children this year receive the same chelation therapy (that caused the 5-year-old's death)?

One answer is the media concentration on scare stories linking thimerosal to autism.

The notion that vaccines might cause autism contains all of the elements of a great story: greedy pharmaceutical companies, government cover-up, uncaring doctors, and parents fighting against all odds for their children. But it isn't easy to promote this story.

On the one hand, you have every major medical organization including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine stating that there was no link. On the other, you had a few marginal scientists and clinicians who, in the absence of any solid, reproducible data said that it did.

(From an article by Dr. Paul Offit. The entire article is available at sgvtribune.com/portlet/article/html/fragments/print_article.jsp?article=3043584)

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This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes reader comment. E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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