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The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Anything But Over

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Memo to those who wanted the autism-vaccine contretemps to just go away: You lost.

Exactly five years ago, I began research for my book Evidence of Harm, which looked into the possible link between mercury, vaccines and the tsunami of autism that now overwhelms our education system.

Along the way, I have encountered many people -- in the government, in medical circles, in the media, on the Internet - who are furious at my attempts to shed light on this controversy, and utterly contemptuous of parents, doctors and anyone else who supports research into the hypothesized link between autism and vaccines.

Many of these people, incredibly, still insist that autism is purely a genetic disorder with no known "cause" and probably no cure. They blithely claim that autism has always been with us, in the same epidemic numbers we see today, (If you're the parent of a young boy in New Jersey, by the way, you now face 1-in-60 odds of a diagnosis), we just never noticed, or else counted those kids as "quirky," or possibly retarded.

Even officials at the CDC, who traced an e-coli outbreak to a single patch of California spinach within months, cannot say if autism is actually on the increase or not.

Some experts, however, are beginning to understand that autism is clearly on the rise and, thus, must have an environmental component, coupled with a genetic underpinning. But they insist that vaccines or their ingredients (ie, mercury, live measles virus, aluminum) have nothing to do with the epidemic.

They really, really want this vexing vaccine chatter to cease. But it won't.

Buried beneath the usual tumultuous headlines of recent days were three tidbits of news that clearly underscore why this raging, sometimes vitriolic debate is not ending any time soon. In fact, all three reveal significant cracks in the federal government's hitherto impenetrable fortress of denial of any vaccine-autism link whatsoever:

1) The CDC granted nearly $6 million for investigators at five major research centers to study 2,700 children over the next five years, in what the Contra Costa Times called "the largest-ever U.S. study aimed at solving one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern times: the cause of autism."

Lisa Croen, the study's principal investigator in California, told the paper that, "What's become very clear is that autism results from a combination of having a genetic predisposition or genetic susceptibility, plus the added extra exposures from environmental factors or other kinds of lifestyle factors."

Among the "factors" to be studied are family history, events during pregnancy, maternal medications, parental occupation, ambient pollution around the house, and "a child's vaccination history," the paper reported.

Oddly, the study will not look at the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. According to the FDA and the Institute of Medicine, the last batches of thimerosal containing vaccines for infants and immune-globulin given to pregnant women expired in late 2003 (except for the flu shot, which is still given to infants and pregnant women).

The new study will only study children born from September 2003 to August, 2005.
But the question remains, and I think it's legitimate: If an association between vaccines and autism has been completely "ruled out," then why are we spending taxpayer dollars to study autistic children's vaccination history?

2) The Department of Health and Human Services announced the formation of a new federal panel, the "Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee," which will help set public and private research priorities into the cause and treatment of autism, as mandated by the recently passed Combating Autism Act.

Among those named to the panel by HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt were Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds (and chief protagonist in my book), and a leading advocate of the mercury-vaccine-autism connection, and Lee Grossman, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, another staunch supporter of the hypothesis.

Which again begs the question: If the debate over vaccines and autism is over, then why did the Feds appoint two people to this important new panel who will relentlessly push for more taxpayer dollars going into research of vaccines and autism?

3) Lawyers for the US Justice Department and HHS are conceding an autism case that was to be tried in the so-called federal "Vaccine Court," (officially known as the Autism Omnibus Proceedings of the US Court of Federal Claims), according to papers filed on the court's on-line docket.

Nearly 5,000 autism cases are pending in Vaccine Court, though a small number of "test cases" are being tried, in which attorneys for the families attempt to link the symptoms of autism to thimerosal and/or the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (or MMR, which never contained mercury). It was a pending test case that the government conceded.

According to my source, however, the government is NOT conceding that mercury or vaccines cause autism. "In this case, the DOJ conceded that vaccines significantly aggravated a child's pre-existing autistic symptoms," my source said, "but the autism itself was caused by a congenital mitochondrial disorder that is entirely genetic."

And, the source noted, "By conceding 'significant aggravation,' I think DOJ is trying to avoid ever having this case go to hearing on the underlying causation issue."

In other words, this was likely going to be a slam-dunk, and the Feds knew it. Rather than risk having the case become a "test" for thousands of other claims, it looks like the DOJ opted to fold and pay out damages to the family, without actually admitting that vaccines can cause autism.

This entirely unreported event raises several interesting questions, I think. To begin with, if the federal government has conceded that vaccines can cause "significant aggravation" to the (even preexisting) autism symptoms of even just one child, shouldn't the public be notified?

And if the government has conceded that this child would be better off today had he or she not been vaccinated -- in other words, that vaccines made the symptoms of autism go from bad to worse - couldn't it be possible that vaccines might also, say, make symptoms go from mild to bad?

And if the government concedes that vaccines aggravated the symptoms of autism in at least one child, shouldn't parents of children with the disorder be informed of this, and shouldn't they be allowed to opt out of future vaccinations, on medical grounds, if they wish?

And if the government concedes that vaccines can aggravate the symptoms of autism, then shouldn't that same government also earmark funds to research how and why that occurs?

And of course, why on earth would parents concede that there is "no evidence of an association between vaccines and autism," when the government has just conceded that there was an (albeit not causal) association?

Finally, to all those who are going to post comments about the autism rates in California not coming down, following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines: You are right. The most likely explanation is that thimerosal was not responsible for the autism epidemic. But that does not mean that it never harmed a single child.

And keep in mind that, of the record 1000+ additional autism cases recorded in California last quarter, some 75% of them were children who were six years of age or older, and thus born well within the "thimerosal generation." There is evidence that many factors could conceivably be keeping the California numbers higher than the national average, including aggressive early intervention and outreach to low-income families, increased immigration from countries that still use thimerosal (and immigrant children who are routinely re-immunized upon arrival) and migration of families from less progressive U.S. states eager for California's relative public largesse.

And remember that the CDC, wisely, does not conduct autism prevalence studies on children until they reach the age of 8, to account for any late stragglers entering the database. If thimerosal did not come out of vaccines entirely until 2003, then it won't be until 2011 before kids in that birth cohort are studied by the CDC, so vindicating thimerosal entirely might still be a tad premature.

All that said, thimerosal may well not be a factor in a single case of autism. But what if one day, we discovered it had caused, say, one percent of all cases? With estimates of autism as high as 1.5 million in the country, that would mean 15,000 Americans who were ravaged by thimerosal (not to mention everyone overseas).

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn't we throw some research dollars into studying them?

You can answer that, no, we shouldn't, because the vaccine-autism debate is over.

But I am willing to wager that it has only just begun.

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