The new legislation, titled the Comprehensive Comparative Study of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Populations Act of 2006, would order the National Institutes of Health to study "health outcomes, including autism," in those two groups.
In essence, the bill proposes the simplest way to exonerate vaccines as a cause of autism: If the autism rate is about the same in never-vaccinated children, vaccines are unlikely to play any role.
Yet such a straightforward and potentially decisive study has never been done on American children. In the past, public-health officials have said such an approach would be impractical due to low numbers of never-vaccinated children, but this column found tens of thousands of such children -- beginning with the Amish -- in various locations in the United States.
In our anecdotal and unscientific reporting, the rate of autism seemed strikingly lower in never-vaccinated children, although those findings cannot be considered conclusive or convincing. For that, a scientific study would be needed, as proposed in the new legislation.
The bill is being co-sponsored by Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Tom Osborne, R-Neb. It seeks to determine whether there is any correlation between the increasing number of immunizations in recent years and the rise in "chronic, unexplained diseases such as autism, learning disabilities, and other neurological disorders" over the same time period.
"Childhood immunizations greatly reduce human suffering from infectious disease, and I think it would be in the best interest of everyone if we definitively resolve parents' questions about vaccines," Maloney said in a statement.
Maloney cited particular concern about the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal, to which children were increasingly exposed beginning in the late 1980s. It was phased out starting in 1999 at the recommendation of public-health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Subsequent studies have found no association between thimerosal and autism, but critics say those studies have been inadequate and beset by conflicts of interest. Nor have they compared vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations, in part because officials say such groups are hard to find in a society where childhood immunizations are routine -- and mostly mandatory for school attendance.
"In this country we have very high levels of vaccination," CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told Age of Autism at a news conference last year. While "such studies could be done and should be done," she suggested, the obstacles might be overwhelming.
But this column identified several groups that might fit the bill -- from the Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch country to homeschooled children to patients of a Chicago family practice.
"I have not seen autism with the Amish," said Dr. Frank Noonan, a family practitioner in Lancaster County, Pa., who has treated thousands of Amish for a quarter-century.
"You'll find all the other stuff, but we don't find the autism. We're right in the heart of Amish country and seeing none, and that's just the way it is."
In Chicago, Homefirst Medical Services treats thousands of never-vaccinated children whose parents received exemptions through Illinois' relatively permissive immunization policy. Homefirst's medical director, Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, told us he is not aware of any cases of autism in never-vaccinated children; the national rate is 1 in 175, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We have a fairly large practice," Eisenstein told us. "We have about 30,000 or 35,000 children that we've taken care of over the years, and I don't think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines.
"We do have enough of a sample," Eisenstein said. "The numbers are too large to not see it. We would absolutely know. We're all family doctors. If I have a child with autism come in, there's no communication. It's frightening. You can't touch them. It's not something that anyone would miss."
Dr. Jeff Bradstreet, a Florida family practitioner with ties to families who homeschool their children for religious reasons, told Age of Autism he has proposed such a study in that group.
"I said I know I can tap into this community and find you large numbers of unvaccinated homeschooled," said Bradstreet, "and we can do simple prevalence and incidence studies in them, and my gut reaction is that you're going to see no autism in this group."
Osborne and Maloney said such examples undercut claims "there was not a big enough population to which we could compare the general vaccinated population. ... The Maloney-Osborne legislation proposes comparing vaccinated populations with unvaccinated populations such as these."
Clearly, there are children with autism who have never been vaccinated. Moreover, even a much-lower rate of autism in never-vaccinated groups would not directly implicate vaccines as a cause -- other factors could be at work. For instance, the Amish might have a genetic resistance to the disorder; children receiving alternative schooling or healthcare might have less exposure to other conceivable medical, environmental or lifestyle triggers.
But just as clearly, such a study could be done, and the Maloney-Osborne bill proposes to do it.
Maloney was co-sponsor of another bill introduced Wednesday with Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla. That bill would give responsibility for the nation's vaccine safety to an independent agency outside the CDC. Weldon was harshly critical of the government's monitoring of vaccines.
The National Autism Association called the two bills "good news from Washington. NAA applauds Congresswoman Maloney in her continuing efforts to support families affected by autism with this new legislation and co-sponsorship of Congressman Weldon's Vaccine Safety bill."
The group urged its members to ask their local representatives to support the legislation when they are back in their districts during the August congressional recess.