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Notes From the Big "Anti-Vaccine" Conference

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Last weekend, the Autism One organization held its annual conference in Chicago, attended by thousands of parents, doctors, educators and others, to discuss a wide array of autism-related issues. The New York Times labeled it an "anti-vaccine" conference and the Chicago Tribune portrayed it as a freak-show spectacle straight off the island of Dr. Moreau.

Yes, there was some discussion of vaccines - and some admittedly unconventional, and controversial, autism therapies. But there was so much more than that. Out of nearly 150 presentations, only a few dealt directly with vaccines at all. Most of the days were filled with topics such as "Creating Theater with Autism Spectrum Youth," "Epilepsy in Autism: An Overview," and "Perspectives from cell biology and autism risk factors and treatments," a fascinating talk by the forward-thinking Dr. Mark Noble, Professor of Genetics and Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Rochester.

My own remarks dealt with vaccines, and so much more as well, including environmental mercury, wild-type viruses, tainted food, air pollution, pesticides, arsenic, antimony, formaldehyde in household products, even pet shampoo.

I believe that most ASD cases have environmental triggers (probably more than one) that activate certain genetic predispositions (again, probably more than one) and create some of the symptoms that we call "autism." I also believe that vaccines may have played a role in triggering some - though certainly not all - cases of regressive autism. Even if that number is a small minority, it seems sensible to me to study the mechanism of action, in hopes of finding clues to the development of autism in all those other children.

Because my own interest in the cause of autism extends well beyond thimerosal, MMR vaccine, or the immunization program itself, I chose to speak about three potential factors in autism - metals, myelin (which coats the brain and nerve cells) and mitochondria - that could possibly trigger the disorder, with or without the involvement of vaccines or vaccine components.

I believe that the study of environmental triggers - other than vaccines - can provide some sorely needed middle ground in what has turned out to be one of the most contentious and vitriolic issues of our day. That doesn't mean that research into genes - or vaccines - should or would stop. But it might provide for a way forward from here.

Most reasonable people agree that autism has an environmental component. Recent analyses from California show that widening diagnostic criteria are not responsible for the explosive growth in autism cases in that state.

And stay tuned for new numbers coming out of the US Military that will shatter the current national estimate of 1-in-150 kids - which, by the way, was calculated in 2002, by analyzing children born in 1994. That's right, our most current CDC autism statistics are seven years old, and describe people who are now at least 15 years of age. The CDC cannot even tell us when it might finish analyzing its 2004 data - on children born in 1996 - though it knows exactly how many H1N1 cases are in, say, California today.

As I said in my remarks, these are just my own personal musings, spoken out loud. I offer proof of nothing, and answers to no questions. I draw no conclusions. My only point is that, if we are going to find the actual environmental triggers to autism, we had better get busy. Heavy metals, damage to myelin, and the role of mitochondria are just three of the many, many areas where I believe that Federal research dollars should be targeted.

I am sure that this modest proposal will spark the usual hew and cry from the usual gallery of reactionaries - one of whom just wrote at Daily Kos that, even if all autism cases were caused by vaccines, there would be no reason to alter or even examine the immunization program.

People who ask questions about vaccine safety are now being called "pro-disease." Some are supporting censorship of any talk about vaccines and autism. Yet many of these same voices balk and squawk at the very idea of researching potential factors like mercury from coal, live viruses, pesticides, aluminum, formaldehyde, jet fuel and many other toxins.

That mystifies me. If science could pinpoint the exact triggers that produce autism - and they had nothing do with vaccines - this debate would end, as far as I am concerned, and happily so.

METALS, MYELIN & MITOCHONDRIA - PATHWAYS TO AUTISM? -- Remarks by David Kirby, Autism One, Chicago, May 2009

I first want to say that this conference was described by The New York Times as "an anti-vaccine conference." And, you know, when I read that I actually laughed out loud. And I thought, "What would you even do at an anti-vaccine conference, anyway?" And I know there are some people in this audience who are anti-vaccine, and they have that right. I just don't happen to be one of those people.

The reason I get upset at being called "anti-vaccine" is that, A), it's untrue, and B), I do think vaccines are important. And I think we can vaccinate more safely than we do in this country. But the label is used as a weapon. It is used as a tool against people like me. And even though it's a lie, it is so much easier to dismiss somebody if you think that they're anti-vaccine. "He's a kook. He's a nut. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

And now we're into the rhetoric that has gotten so heated that people like me are called "pro-disease." It's like Karl Rove is writing the playbook for these people. Because it's gotten that political, it's gotten that nasty. So, I'm going to fight back against that label.

This is not an "anti-vaccine conference." There's a discussion tonight about athletics in autism, and one on relationships in autism.

And we are here to talk about a lot more than vaccines. And that's sort of the theme of my speech, too. Because for quite a while now, I have believed there are many, many different ways to get to what we call "autism." And I think we really need to step back from vaccines, we need to step back from Thimerosal, we need to step back from MMR and other specific vaccine components. We need to work backwards and look at the world in its entirety. We need to look at food, air, water, and medicine. And by medicine, yes, that would include vaccines.

Now, the Obama administration just announced they're going to have a national meeting on toxins; and how toxins affect people. And that's exactly where I think this conversation should go. I'm ready for a little middle ground. I'm really tired of the screaming back and forth, you know. We need to find out what's making these kids sick. And I think there's more consensus now that something in the environment or some things in the environment are contributing to that.

So let's look at those things in a more general sense. And that's where - I think - it gets really, really interesting, and where we may find some common ground in science - that there are things in nature that are triggers for autism. I truly believe there are things in the environment that can trigger autism that have nothing to do with vaccines.

I am just a journalist, I'm a layperson, so I view things in a slightly different way than scientists. And I have the luxury of doing that because I get to, you know, play around with theories a little bit, ask different kinds of questions and try to see connections between different things.

And when I look at the situation, I think we've moved way past thimerosal as the one and only cause of autism. And I've just picked three possible routes - Metals, Myelin & Mitochondria - that we'll be talking about tonight. Now, you could make up a very, very long list of potential pathways to autism. But what's so interesting about these three pathways -- and remember, this is all just theory, this is just me, kind of musing out loud -- is that they're found in the natural environmental, or the man-made environment, and they're also found in vaccines.

The other thing that's interesting about these three things is they're interactive. So you might have metals as a contributing factor to autism, but you can't separate that entirely from the fact that metals can also destroy myelin. Metals can destroy mitochondria. They're all interrelated. And I think that we should look at ALL metals. And I think one reason that we haven't looked at all metals is because two of those metals happen to be aluminum and mercury, and those metals also happen to appear in childhood vaccines. If there never was mercury in vaccines, I can pretty much state that we would be much further along at this point in researching heavy metals in autism.

The same with live viruses. Measles virus can affect myelin as a matter of fact. Well, there is live measles virus in the MMR vaccine. Maybe that's one reason why there's been some reluctance to look more carefully into how viruses might be triggers of autism.

And the same is true of mitochondrial dysfunction and overstimulation of the immune system - all sorts of things can happen in that situation. And it does happen in nature - a lot. But talk with Jon and Teri Poling, and you'll find out it can also happen when you give a child nine vaccines in one day.

So maybe what it might take to try to find some middle ground and move research forward is to just put - even for a day - vaccines aside. And let's just look at metals. And let's just look at myelin damage - what can damage myelin. And let's look at mitochondria - and many, many other things.

But I am here to discuss these three things. And, I am not here to give you any answers. I don't have any answers. My job is to ask the questions. I also draw no conclusions. But my message to you is this: If I were running the show, and if I were dishing out the research dollars, these are some of the areas that I would be pursuing, posthaste. And if I were a scientist, these are some of the things that I would be wanting to study with federal money, including some money coming into the NIH right now.

The rest of the transcript, with slides, has been posted here: