The Age of Autism: A new environment

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor  |  Jan. 9, 2007 at 4:43 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- We are all environmentalists now.

At least that's the impression you get from reading the discussion surrounding the Combating Autism Act that President Bush recently signed into law.

Much attention -- and properly so -- has gone toward what the bill does not do. It does not, after the House got through amending it, set aside a specific amount of money to look into environmental causes of autism. And it does not specifically mention research into whether vaccines are involved in the ten-fold rise in diagnoses in recent years.

But here's what it does do: It says the director of the National Institutes of Health will coordinate research into "the cause (including possible environmental causes) ... and treatment of autism spectrum disorder."

Those might be the most important parentheses in recent American history. What's afoot is nothing short of revolutionary -- a fresh attempt to find what's causing autism without taking anything off the table.

Taking things off the table -- sweeping them under the rug, in the view of many -- has been tried before. People familiar with this issue know about the 2004 Institute of Medicine report that not only exonerated vaccines as a factor in autism, but suggested it was time to stop funding research into the possibility.

The question now is whether government researchers will take their cue from Congress or the Institute of Medicine, and considering who writes the checks in this town, the former is far more likely.

Plus, there are the comments by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the man who held up the bill until it was amended to his liking. Here's what he said in a statement on the House floor:

"With respect to possible environmental or external causes of autism, some have suggested a link exists between autism and childhood vaccines. In the past several years, several major epidemiological studies have been conducted to look into the question of whether vaccines cause autism.

"Examining the published studies, the non-partisan Institute of Medicine has concluded that the weight of the available evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between vaccines and autism.

"However, I recognize that there is much that we do not know about the biological pathways and origins of this disorder, and that further investigation into all possible causes of autism is needed."

That means, Do it.

In the Senate, several members went on record to make the same point.

"I want to be clear that, for the purposes of biomedical research, no research avenue should be eliminated, including biomedical research examining potential links between vaccines, vaccine components, and autism spectrum disorder," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

"Thus, I hope that the National Institutes of Health will consider broad research avenues into this critical area, within the Autism Centers of Excellence as well as the Centers of Excellence for Environmental Health and Autism.

"No stone should remain unturned in trying to learn more about this baffling disorder, especially given how little we know."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., followed up with this:

"In our search for the cause of this growing developmental disability, we should close no doors on promising avenues of research. Through the Combating Autism Act, all biomedical research opportunities on ASD can be pursued, and they include environmental research examining potential links between vaccines, vaccine components and ASD."

So what the Combating Autism Act has already accomplished is pretty impressive: putting some powerful members of Congress on record that "no research avenue should be eliminated."

That's part of the new dynamic that I said in my last column makes me think 2007 will be a very good year for the truth. Another reason: An expert panel requested by Congress and convened by NIH recently raised disturbing questions about one of those "major epidemiological studies" that found no link between thimerosal and autism.

"I think there's more work to be done," chairwoman Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, told me last month.

"It's an 'open question' whether anything about vaccines -- timing, dose, preservative -- is related to the rise in diagnoses," she said.

Believe it or not, this is all that those concerned about an environmental risk for autism have ever asked -- an open mind. This looks like the year they'll get it.

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