Evidence of Harm: What Caused the Autism Epidemic?

by Polly Morrice

In November 2002, when David Kirby started researching Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical ControversyEvidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, he couldn’t have known that publication would occur in the midst of an "autism boom." In the past few months, television news segments, a magazine cover story and many newspaper articles have discussed its symptoms, treatments, effects on families and, its apparently soaring incidence. The latest estimates are that one child in 166 has some form of the disorder.

Kirby, who has contributed to various sections of The New York Times, personalizes his book by introducing us to a collection of parents who began to suspect that genetic tendencies might not have induced their children’s autism. Brought together by the Internet, this group soon focused on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines.

One family, Lyn and Tommy Redwood, struggled to obtain a diagnosis for their son Will, who at 17 months started to lose his language and withdraw socially. When Will turned four, his doctor suggested, ‘’Why don’t you just take him fishing?’’ Like the Redwoods, the other parents in Kirby’s book watched their children develop normally until the second year of life. After receiving the MMR vaccine, these kids regressed, developing both symptoms of autism and severe gastrointestinal problems.

Initially, the parents wrote off the rumors of a thimerosal-autism connection. The United States Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics had concluded that while babies received cumulative doses of ethyl mercury (in thimerosal) that exceeded a federal safety limit for methyl mercury, its more toxic chemical cousin, there was no ‘’evidence of harm.’’

After reading the joint statement issued in July 1999, Lyn Redwood toted up Will’s cumulative dose of mercury for his first six months. She realized that the government had averaged the mercury exposure on a per-day basis, rather than acknowledging that infants got potentially more toxic ‘’bolus’’ doses — large amounts at one time. Lyn joined with other parents whose kids showed similar issues to form the Coalition for Safe Minds, whose mission is to research the similarities between mercury poisoning and autism. They found a striking parallel to "pink disease," a 1930’s ailment that occurred in some children exposed to mercury in lotions and teething powders.

From here on, Kirby follows the tug of war between the governmental agencies and the parents. At a succession of hearings, the "Mercury Moms" presented their research on pink disease and thimerosal, and Boyd Haley described how tiny amounts of thimerosal trigger brain-cell death. The federal agencies, in turn, cited seemingly conclusive studies, including the Vaccine Safety Datalink thimerosal study. Based on data collected from HMOs, this project, financed by the Centers for Disease Control, sought to determine whether there was a correlation between the timing and amounts of thimerosal infants received in vaccines and the emergence of neuro-developmental disorders, including speech delay, attention- deficit disorder and autism.

The Safe Minds parents went home and picked apart the government’s studies. Safe Minds’ statisticians contended that the government analyses were flawed in a way that obscured or eliminated the original findings of statistically significant risks. Despite the parents’ prodigious efforts, in May 2004 a committee from the Institute of Medicine found no "causal relationship’’ between thimerosal-containing vaccines, or the MMR vaccine, and autism.

Kirby does an admirable job of clarifying the abbreviations, statistics and scientific background in Evidence of Harm, including an explanation of the complex biochemical process of methylation, which plays a central role in Safe Minds’ arguments. In simple terms, in susceptible people, thimerosal blocks the ability of cells to regulate their functions. Thus, these individuals cannot shed mercury, or other toxins or heavy metals, from their bodies.

Kirby makes the unassailable point that American health agencies lagged in calculating the amount of mercury being injected into babies. He quotes Rick Rollens, a founder of the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, who thinks answers to the thimerosal-autism question may come from California, which has the country’s most reliable system of tracking new cases. The decline in infants’ exposure to thimerosal, Rollens estimates, began in 2001; he predicts the effects "should start showing up in our system in 2005" — in other words, any day now.

As for Will Redwood, his parents have tried applied behavioral analysis, vitamin B-12, folinic acid and chelation. Will entered a mainstream private school in third grade, and at the age of 10 he was becoming interested in girls. If one certain conclusion can be drawn from Evidence of Harm, it’s that Will’s parents made the right decision about going fishing.

[Article from The New York Times, reprinted by permission in New Developments: Volume 10, Number 3 - Spring, 2005]

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