The Age of Autism: Pox -- Part 6

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Science Writer  |  May 17, 2006 at 1:33 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- In 1942 a 12-month-old child named Richard M. got a live-virus smallpox vaccination that triggered a fever and diarrhea from which he recovered "in somewhat less than a week."

We know about Richard because he is Case 3 in psychiatrist Leo Kanner's landmark study, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," which alerted the world to a condition that differed "markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far."


Kanner's paper appeared in 1943 in the quaintly named journal The Nervous Child. Kanner believed autism was "inborn," present from birth. But if any of his detailed case histories suggest otherwise, it is Richard M.

There is no mention of "going backward" by the parents of the other 10 children, making Richard the first plausibly regressive case of autism ever described in medical literature.

Thirty-eight years later, in 1976, an article appeared in a German medical journal under the title "Autistiches Syndrom (Kanner) und Pockenschutzimpfung." Translation: Autistic Syndrome (Kanner) and Vaccination against Smallpox.

The English abstract reads:

"3-4 weeks following an otherwise uncomplicated first vaccination against smallpox a boy, then aged 15 months ... gradually developed a complete Kanner syndrome. The question whether vaccination and early infantile autism might be connected is being discussed. A causal relationship is considered extremely unlikely. But vaccination is recognized as having a starter function for the onset of autism."

U.S. health authorities emphatically reject the idea of any such "starter function" -- they cite multiple studies that have found no cause-and-effect relationship whatsoever between immunizations and autism.

But as outlined in earlier articles in this series, several parents of children 6 and under in the Washington state capital of Olympia are concerned about just such a connection. They point to an association between unusual chickenpox histories in families clustered in one Olympia neighborhood; close timing of their child's live-virus chickenpox and measles-mumps-rubella shots, and the onset of regressive autism.

Two of the children were in clinical trials of Merck & Co. vaccines that involved investigational chickenpox formulations. One of those vaccines, ProQuad, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last September. A combined chickenpox-MMR immunization, it contains about 10 times more chickenpox vaccine than the standalone Merck chickenpox shot, Varivax.

Several of the autistic Olympia children, coincidentally or not, got physically sick soon after those vaccinations, pointing to possible problems with their immune system's handling of the attenuated (weakened) live viruses.

A striking case in point is Ryan Boe, who at age 18 months got four shots at one office visit including Varivax. (Ryan got his MMR shot two months earlier.)

Ryan's mother, Lisa Boe, had an unusual case of chickenpox as a child, with only one "pock" appearing rather than the typical chickenpox pattern. But she definitely has had it, because she now tests immune.

Ryan's father, Eric, has a sister who was diagnosed with shingles when she was 19. Shingles, the reactivated form of the chickenpox virus, painfully inflames nerve endings under the skin. It typically affects older people and those with weakened immune systems.

Like Richard M. 63 years earlier, Ryan got sick right after his shots. Like the "pockenschutzimpfung" child in Germany 30 years ago, Ryan's behavior began changing within the month.

"Before we could leave the office he had an allergic reaction where he broke out in hives on his legs where they'd given him the shots," Ryan's mother recalls about that day -- Nov. 3, 2003. "And then I think it was about two or three hours later after leaving the doctor's office that he started running a fever.

"It went up to 105 and it lasted for five days. We were giving him Tylenol and Motrin, and as soon as those two things would run out he would spike right back up. He was very lethargic.

"Within a month after that is when you could look at pictures and start seeing him have no expression," Lisa said. "We got pictures of going to look at Christmas trees and we had them developed right at Christmastime and my mom said, 'There's no expression.'

"I remember we went down for Christmas and I started saying to my mom, 'Wow, he's just different.'"

On Christmas morning, the only toy that interested Ryan was a Thomas the Train windmill. "He picked it up and just spun it. That was all he wanted to do. We have all these pictures and he's just staring at the windmill."

"At the end of that vacation, Christmas break, my mom said, 'You need to go back to the doctor, something's really wrong here.' And people who hadn't seen him since that summer said, 'Whoa, he was just the happiest baby, and so much expression.

"'And look at him -- he looks so, just, lost.'"

Because autism is usually first noticed in the second year of life, it's easy to mistakenly connect it to childhood immunizations given at that age, health authorities say.

The American Academy of Pediatrics refers those with such concerns to the National Network for Immunization Information, which it helps fund. Under "Vaccine Safety: Cause or Coincidence," the NNII Web site ( states:

"Many vaccines are given to children at the ages when developmental and other problems are being recognized for the first time. Because something happened at about the same time that a vaccine was given does not mean that the vaccine caused the problem. ...

"Although vaccines have saved millions of lives around the world, some have blamed them for causing conditions that are not completely understood despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence that the vaccines caused the condition -- for example, asthma, autism, diabetes type 1, multiple sclerosis, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) among others."

Parents are also told that signs usually were present from birth but that they missed them.

Lisa Boe said the idea that something was even subtly wrong with Ryan in his first year of life is nonsense, as confirmed by the observations of other family members and friends. After Ryan's diagnosis, experts began telling her that subtle clues probably had been there all along, "and you get used to how your child is now, and so you think OK, well maybe he has been like this.

"But then I start putting away toys and I think no, he used to play with this, appropriately," Lisa said. "He was riding his horsy around.

"And so I started finding out more about autism and the shots, and looking back at when we started seeing the problems, and I was like, well, those are the shots that he had, and that's when we started seeing the problem.

"After the shots, he was gone."


This series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes reader comment. The entire series can be accessed at E-mail:

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