The Age of Autism: Zero exposure

By DAN OLMSTED, United Press International  |  July 25, 2005 at 6:32 PM
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Part 1 of 2. Perhaps we should have checked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before setting off to look into the prevalence of autism among the Amish.

Nothing about the Amish -- who seem to have low rates of both vaccinations and autism -- relates to anyone in the rest of the country, the CDC director told us last week.

Federal health officials called a news briefing July 19 to reassure the public about vaccine safety -- and to remind parents the controversial mercury-based preservative that some say caused their children's autism is no longer used in vaccines. Besides, they said, all scientific evidence weighs heavily against any connection between the preservative, called thimerosal, and what many suspect is an epidemic rise in the autism rate in the past decade.

At the briefing, we asked Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC's director, this question: "Have you looked at autism in a never-vaccinated population in the United States, and if not, why not?"

Here is her answer:

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In this country, we have very high levels of vaccination as you probably know, and I think this year we have record immunization levels among all of our children, so to (select an unvaccinated group) that on a population basis would be representative to look at incidence in that population compared to the other population would be something that could be done.

But as we're learning, just trying to look at autism in a community the size of Atlanta, it's very, very difficult to get an effective numerator and denominator to get a reliable diagnosis.

I think those kind of studies could be done and should be done. You'd have to adjust for the strong genetic component that also distinguishes, for example, people in Amish communities who may elect not to be immunized (and) also have genetic connectivity that would make them different from populations that are in other sectors of the United States. So drawing some conclusions from them would be very difficult.

I think with reference to the timing of all of this, good science does take time, and it's part of one of the messages I feel like I've learned from the feedback that we've gotten from parents groups this summer (in) struggling with developing a more robust and a faster research agenda, is let's speed this up. Let's look for the early studies that could give us at least some hypotheses to test and evaluate and get information flowing through the research pipeline as quickly as we can.

So we are committed to doing that, and as I mentioned, in terms of just measuring the frequency of autism in the population some pretty big steps have been taken. We're careful not to jump ahead of our data, but we think we will be able to provide more accurate information in the next year or so than we've been able to do up to this point. And I know that is our responsibility.

We've also benefited from some increased investments in these areas that have allowed us to do this, and so we thank Congress and we thank the administration for supporting those investments, not just at CDC but also at NIH and FDA.

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Although the briefing was open only to members of the media, listeners who cribbed the secret password code could dial in from the around the country. There was a lot of cribbing.

Afterwards, I received several comments, all to the same effect, about Gerberding's answer. Here are three, the first from an analysis of the briefing at craigwestover.blogspot.com:

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If the government's contention is correct (that thimerosal doesn't cause autism), the rate of autism among the Amish, who do not vaccinate their children, should be roughly the same 1 in 166 found in the general population. That is not the case. ...

Dr. Gerberding took the question with obvious reluctance. ... She noted that vaccination is at a high level and it's hard to find such a population that doesn't vaccinate and difficult to do an accurate -- emphasis on accurate -- study. The problem is that genetics of a group -- "like the "Amish" -- might influence the study, making a conclusion difficult. Good science takes time.

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Via e-mail:

I just thought you'd like to know that after you finished your question regarding studying unvaccinated children there was a really long pause -- 11 seconds, to be exact. And then there was something about fractions -- denominators and numerators. I thought for a moment Dr. Gerberding was going to throw in the word "terminator" -- just for a second. Gosh, I haven't heard anything that mind-numbing since I worked at a law firm.

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I read the ridiculous response to your question from Dr. Gerberding -- apparently, the genetics of Danes, Japanese and Brits are fine for vaccine studies -- but those Amish genes are nothing like anyone living in the United States. Why would anyone look at them? Can you really keep a straight face while these bureaucrats transparently dodge perfectly reasonable questions?

Maybe they study these "other" populations because these countries didn't full scale-vaccine-assault their toddlers so the damage looking at one vaccine doesn't show up.

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Whatever the merits of studying the Amish -- or of Gerberding's response -- there is another place the CDC could look to find children who were never exposed to thimerosal: its own database. One person who did look says he found something disturbing -- he called it "Generation Zero," which we'll describe in part 2.

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E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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