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Tilting at Windmills

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January 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THIMEROSAL AND AUTISM....Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and thousands of distraught parents to the contrary, the evidence linking thimerosal to autism has never been very strong. Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used in many childhood vaccines, and its connection to autism was always based primarily on a coincidence: most children get vaccinated when they're about two years old and most autism gets diagnosed between the ages of 2-4. That, along with the fact that mercury has well-known effects on infant brain development, made thimerosal seem like a plausible culprit for what's often been referred to as an "epidemic" of autism over the past decade.

However, despite the equivocal (at best) scientific evidence linking thimerosal to autism, conspiracy theories abounded and the issue deeply split the autism community. Firm evidence in one direction or the other, though, had to wait until now. Thimerosal was ordered removed from most childhood vaccines in 1999, and by the early 2000s children had stopped receiving virtually all thimerosal-based vaccines. If autism rates then decreased, it would be good evidence that thimerosal really had been to blame.

But that didn't happen. Interim studies have shown no decrease in autism rates, and a study released today puts the nail in the coffin of the thimerosal story. It tracks children born in California and includes enough years of data to show pretty definitively that autism diagnoses continued to rise even after thimerosal was removed. From Science Daily:

"The estimated prevalence of autism for children at each year of age from 3 to 12 years increased throughout the study period," the authors write....."The prevalence at ages 3 to 5 years has increased monotonically for each birth year since 1999, during which period exposure to thimerosal has been reduced," they continue.

....In addition to analyzing the prevalence of autism by birth year, the researchers also examined the rate among children age 3 to 5 based on quarterly reports issued by the Department of Developmental Services. Prevalence increased each quarter from January 1995 (0.6 per 1,000 live births) through March 2007 (4.1 per 1,000 live births), including after 2004, when the researchers estimate that exposure to thimerosal during infancy and early childhood declined.

As this LA Times story shows, many autism advocates still aren't convinced. I'm not surprised. I suspect that the emotional investment in thimerosal as a cause of autism, especially in the continuing absence of any other convincing theories, will keep many parents from accepting these results, and whenever I read these stories my heart almost breaks for them. They desperately want to know what caused their children's autism, and without thimerosal they've got nothing. They just don't know.

But that's where we are: we just don't know, and thimerosal isn't the answer. It's time to accept this and move on.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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Comments

It was time to move on from this about five years ago. This is just ANOTHER study to show entirely the entire lack of link between mercury and autism.

Now on to the Morgellon's conspiracy theorists...

Posted by: Pup, MD on January 8, 2008 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

What does emotional investment have to do with good science?

Posted by: corpus juris on January 8, 2008 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

Kev, you're missing the boat here- the anti-vaxxers are just gonna move the goal posts and claim that the vaccines themselves are causing the autism. This is the new argument.

Posted by: Pinko Punko on January 8, 2008 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for setting the record straight on this. For some extremely thorough debunking of antivaccination arguments, see Respectful insolence:

http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/medicine/antivaccination_lunacy/

Posted by: dave munger on January 8, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

I know Gregg Easterbrook is rather persona non grata in the netroots, and often for good reason. But I think his argument about the possible link between TV and autism, for instance in this Slate article, is interesting, if far from convincing.

Posted by: David Samuels on January 8, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

There's a whole segment of the population that embraces public health conspiracy theories. One of my favorites is, "Cancer researchers are deliberately witholding a cure so they can keep their research jobs." The autism/vaccination conspiracy buffs have, IMHO, exploited the legitimate desperation of parents.

One thing we do know: Early diagnosis and treatment make a huge difference in the lives of kids with autism spectrum disorders. Every dollar that's spent on yet another thimerosal study is a dollar that isn't available for early intervention.

Posted by: Snarkworth on January 8, 2008 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

I'll always have some sympathy for the anti-vaccination folks over this issue. Putting a mercury compound into children's bodies just doesn't seem smart whether it turned them autistic or not.

As for the cause of the rise in autism, I think it's a combination of increased awareness, decreased stigmatism, and something environmental. I have some odd uncles in my family who never left the farm, and I'm sure many others do too. Probably never saw a doctor in their life, much less a psychologist.

Biggest cause of the rise in autism: people are looking for it.

Posted by: jon on January 8, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Biggest cause of the rise in autism: people are looking for it.

Bingo!

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 8, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

I am one of those parents of an autistic child who was given thimerosol in his early immunizations. While I am and have always been open to other arguments, I don't consider myself a tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy theorist for thinking putting a bunch of mercury into my kid might have had an effect. Add in the fact that the Bush admin lent a hand to make sure the pharmaceutical industries did not have to provide research data on thimerosol sure made for, if not a smoking gun, a kettle of something that stinks like fish. The Bush admin specifically said they should not have to release this info because of lawsuits.

I would also like to say to those who are mocking parents like me today that we've seen plenty of stuff from the Bushies that used to be the province only of paranoids wearing said tin foil hats. Secret prisons, renditions, widespread surveillance on the american people, and more. In that environment I think some suspicion was more than warranted.

If this is conclusive, and I'm reading it now, I'm willing to listen to new research. But is that research really getting done? SOMETHING is causing much higher rates of autism. Each family this happens to is a tragedy. Mockery is most unwelcome.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

I do know enough about the studies about autism to know the above posters are wrong about the higher numbers being in any way because diagnosis numbers have increased due to increased awareness. The increases are far too high to attribute to this and has been discarded as an explanation. So nice try, those of you flippantly writing stuff you don't know much about. jon mentions something environmental, and I'll bet that's the case.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I blogged about this last night.

One thing you didn't note is that there's plenty of alt-med autism conspiracy theorists who don't want to lose the gold mine they have from preying on the minds of hurting parents.

As in politics, follow the money.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 8, 2008 at 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

David Samuels -- I remember noting when Easterbrook wrote that piece that it was interesting, but that he only in passing noted that the only thing established, so far at least, was a statistical, not a causal, correlation.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 8, 2008 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

Probably the worst thing pediatricians did was to actually remove the thimerosal from vaccines, as many parents and advocates saw it as a tacit admission of guilt.

The science was never, ever convincing; a more principled stand 10 years ago may have mitigated some of the current misinformation. Or not.

Posted by: Ped Lurker on January 8, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly, I don't see anyone making "a gold mine" from thimerosol scares. I will admit every damn autistic group in the country seems to be based around giving them money rather than any sort of outreach. I contacted several for information and never received one bit of info; only fund-raising requests ever resulted. So perhaps that has kept me out of that community.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Ped, you think they should have kept thimerosol in the immunizations? We should have kept putting mercury at higher than federal standards into our kids to just "show" those parents that they were deluded fools? Correct me please, because I'm rather irritated with you right now.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Parent of an high-functioning ASD kid here. Have never seen enough support for the thimerosal hypothesis to buy it. In our family's case, we're pretty sure we know the cause - when my son was diagnosed, a pretty large proportion of the symptoms seemed perfectly normal to me, so I suspect I'm undiagnosed ASD and passed on the relevant genes. As I read or heard the doctors talk, I kept thinking "Really? That's unusual? There's another way to see that?" Apparently my wife is a very tolerant (or patient) woman.

Given my own history, I'm obviously inclined to believe a significant piece of the increase in ASD diagnosis is better awareness - the kids that were tagged asocial loners or just odd a generation or two ago are id'ed as Asbergers or ASD now. And get help, which is effective and important. We need to know what's driving the rest of the increase, but it seems increasingly unlikely it's going to turn out to be the vaccines.

Posted by: stuck in 200s on January 8, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Ahhhh, the Democratic War on Science. Somebody should write a book. Paging Chris Mooney!

Posted by: Al on January 8, 2008 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Ped, you think they should have kept thimerosol in the immunizations? We should have kept putting mercury at higher than federal standards into our kids to just "show" those parents that they were deluded fools? Correct me please, because I'm rather irritated with you right now.

Barring any evidence that thimerosal was harmful, yes they should have left it in. I'm sorry, Eclectic, but you're gut feeling does not trump objective reality. Just because you don't understand the science doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Posted by: Cain on January 8, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly, I don't see anyone making "a gold mine" from thimerosol scares.

Really? Have you never heard of DAN doctors or personal injury attorneys?

Posted by: Cain on January 8, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Again, stuck, while high functioning aspergers patients might have been misdiagnosed in the past, the research shows that the numbers are far too high to be caused by a lack of awareness in diagnosis. In addition, the cases of severe autism, like my son, were too severe to be just undiagnosed. Misdianosed in the past, yes, but again the numbers do not add up.

At best your point is a small factor in explaining the high numbers of severe autism we see today.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Cain, please cite any big awards against someone over thimerosol. I know of zero cases where someone won an award, especially a large one against a pharmaceutical company over thimerosol.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Again, stuck, while high functioning aspergers patients might have been misdiagnosed in the past, the research shows that the numbers are far too high to be caused by a lack of awareness in diagnosis.

Do you have some sort of cite for this? How do you know that misdiagnosis is not good enough? Or is this just your gut feeling again?

Posted by: Cain on January 8, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

I dont understand the science? Cain, you're an arrogant boob. We know that the thimerosol resulted in higher levels of mercury than federal standards allowed. Even if thimerosol had nothing to do with autism, it was absolutely the right thing to do to take it out, and if you don't agree with me I'm just glad you weren't making decisions for the rest of us.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

Also a parent of an ASD kid. Also agree with the science that T-merisol is unlikely a culprit. And totally sympathize with those who feel a need to find some kind of explanation or cause...

But like the poster upthread, I nevertheless feel betrayed by the Bush administration's retro-active immunity from lawsuits for the pharma companies, that was packaged, I think, in the Homeland Security bill (could have been Patriot Act). If the science is clear, then why did these pharma companies need protection from discovery? It seems likely that tri-merisol isn't to blame, but the desire to avoid scrutiny often bespeaks a guilty conscience.

Also, for whatever it's worth, almost all focus and attention is on spotting ASD early and responding to it aggressively, which is of course key. But a bit of attention on aiding those who need significant help -- with living, working, etc. -- would be welcome. A fair number of those with more serious conditions will need a lifetime of help, and I fear that my wife's and my current plan -- which is to live forever and/or win the lottery -- may not pan out...

Posted by: Jim Pharo on January 8, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

Excellent post, Kevin.

Posted by: ex-liberal on January 8, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Eclectic is right. I'm the parent of a child with autism and also trained in the scientific method. I understand perfectly well the difference between evidence of absence and absence of evidence. I likewise understand that correlation in time does not demonstrate causation. Not every substance causes every malady, and the dose makes the poison.

Nevertheless, many parents observed the first signs of autism in their kids immediately after vaccinations, and in some cases immediately after a vaccination that caused a negative effect (high fever, etc). That was the case with my son. It's neither surprising nor gullible for such parents to conclude that there might be a link between an injected neurotoxin and a disorder that affects brain function. Disagree with the weight of the scientific evidence if you are inclined. Everybody, including parents of autistic kids, can handle a debate about the merits of the scientific debate. But there's no reason for extending that to personal attacks on parents who plausibly suspected or suspect a link between mercury and autism. As Eclectic notes, there are plenty of documented facts about today's government and modern corporate conduct to justify a healthy bit of skepticism about the conclusiveness of the science. Additionally, of course, there is a divergence of interests between the public health authorities and individual parents with regard to vaccination. Vaccinating everybody, despite a few negative reactions thereto (autism or otherwise) is in the greater public good, although a tragedy for the affected children. and no, I'm raiasing it because I oppose vaccinations (I've vaccinated all my kids), but just to point out that the government's interests are not fully aligned with those of individual parents. It's perfectly understandable for those with different interests to reach different opinions about the conclusiveness of the evidence on any issue.

Posted by: CDT on January 8, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Cain, this is my last reply to you. NOTHING I've said comes from a "gut feeling". If you think mercury should be in our immunizations, your kids will be just fine with high mercury levels I'm sure. Just don't try to put mercury into the rest of our kids, please. That seems like a pretty reasonable statement. The numbers don't add up, I saw this on a 2 hour special dealing with the possible causes of autism, where it seemed pretty damned unassailable on the show; even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. didn't argue that point. He was of course arguing for thimerosol on that show, and I came away from the show with an open mind about the possible causes, but I never came away with "sure it's just mercury half by weight lets put it into our kids" as an answer. That you do shows I'm wasting my time with you. Please don't reply, your writing just makes me angry and I'm already dealing with an autistic kid; I have enough stress. Have a terrible day.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Have you not heard of the Autism Omnibus trial, Eclectic, with its 7000+ litigants? Sure, they haven't won yet, but the profit motivation is still there.

How about Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who was funded by plaintiff's attorneys to create a (now-discredited) study linking the MMR vaccine to autism?

I notice you don't contest the preying of DAN doctors and chelationists on parents of the autistic.

Posted by: Cain on January 8, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

In response to Cain and SocraticGadly, vaccine manufacturers have a statutory immunity against personal injury lawsuits for damange caused by their vaccines. Regular suits are prohibited. There is a special vaccine court that administraively handles claims. I recall some of the thimerosol claims are being handled now. Tehre have been sporadic attempts to file mercury claims in court against parties in the chain of the vaccine arguably not covered by the immunity, but I'm aware of no large awards. In short, the thimerosol controversy is not a lucrative enough area, given the constraints on litigation, to generate big interest in the plaintiffs' bar. There is plenty of other lower-hanging fruit out there for pi lawyers.

Posted by: CDT on January 8, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Some apparently think the worse of us parents of autistic people, and instantly think we're shills for some unsavory people or something. I think this comes from a person who is just winging it on the web. I said zero awards, apparently there are zero awards. This makes me suspect to a person who has shown little class or authority and has just proven to be an annoying ass. I hope he'll go away or go pester some right wingers.

Posted by: Eclectic on January 8, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps fathers are having children at an older age. A study was recently published that showed there is a correlation between father's age and risk of autism. Children of fathers who were 15 to 29 years of age had a risk of about six in 10,000 of developing autism. Children of fathers in their thirties had a risk of nine in 10,000. Children of fathers in their forties had a risk of 32 in 10,000, and children of fathers who were older than 50 had a risk of 52 in 10,000.

Posted by: afferent input on January 8, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

"But there's no reason for extending that to personal attacks on parents who plausibly suspected or suspect a link between mercury and autism."

Fair enough, but I'm not sure who's doing that here. Kevin says "whenever I read these stories my heart almost breaks for [the parents]," snarkworth mentions their "legitimate desperation" being exploited, jon will "always have some sympathy" for anti-vac folks in general on this issue, socraticgadfly talks about "hurting parents" . . .

Posted by: Dan S. on January 8, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Barring any evidence that thimerosal was harmful, yes they should have left it in.

Really? Rather than substitute the non-mercury-based methods of preservation that have been developed?

It's all well and good to sneer at the hysterics, but when you're looking at taking your infant child to the pediatrician to get a bunch of injections, it does focus the mind. When I did that, I was glad to learn that for the most part, thimerosal is a thing of the past.

Posted by: alkali on January 8, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Both of my sons (ages 9 and 2) have autistic tendencies. The 9 year old was never diagnosed, since he is extremely verbal, reads at 12th grade level, and is generally very friendly and personable. But he exhibits many autistic behaviors, especially when he was younger.

The 2 year old is not verbal at all and has presented enough signs that we are doing early intervention. He has improved considerably in the last month.

I don't think the vaccines had anything to do with it. I have some autistic traits myself....obviously there is a strong genetic factor. No doubt there are environmental components as well. What the environmental trigger is, I don't know. But the vaccines my 2 year old got didn't have mercury, and the ones my 9 year old got did. It's not the mercury, at least not in our case.

Posted by: FDRLincoln on January 8, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously, it's the lack of lead in our diet. First we removed it from the paint, then the gasoline, and now from the Chinese toys.

But I am glad that they got the mercury out of the vaccines; sad experience suggests that we should avoid consuming any but microscopic amounts of heavy metals, and removing the mercury did allow us to get this solid piece of data that it was not, in fact, the mercury. We can quit spending time on that, and spend more time looking at other possible causes.

Posted by: dr2chase on January 8, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

Cain, I hope that if you have kids, they have long-term chronic health problems. From what I can see, that's about the only way you will ever understand what these parents go through.

To cast aspersions on parents of kids w/disorders - and insinuate that these parents are going aftre the poor widdle pharma companies for the $$ - is reprehensible.

If you're OK with injectin gyour kids w/mercury, be my guest. But don't insult those of us who refuse to allow it in our kids, or demand answers from those who facilitated it.

Posted by: scott on January 8, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

So, Cain, your position is that a substance known to be a neurotoxin in at least certain doses and exposures should nevertheless have been left in childhood vaccines until it was affirmatively proven to be harmful in that particular setting? You know, I'm pretty sure nobody has even proven that, say, PCB-containing chewing gum is harmful, even though PCBs in fish tissue are bad . .

Posted by: CDT on January 8, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Eclectic: "Only fundraising requests" pitched primarily at emotion-overwhelmed parents not thinking rationally isn't a gold mine? If not, what is?

Oh, and there's a difference between the ethylmercury of thimerosal and methylmercury, too. Perhaps you might want to read up and think more rationally.

Dan S., thanks for the insight on what is, and isn't, personal attacks by me and others.

And, Eclectic, if Cain is a "boob," (which he/she isn't), you come off as a raver; that is not meant as a personal attack, but simply as an analysis of your emotional state. I'm sorry you have an autistic child, but, the way you're reacting makes clear my original point, that you're a target for money-seeking bottom-feeding predators.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 8, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Industialists will argue that market capitalization depends upon thousands of tons of noxious and toxic wastes being dumped into our environment annually. Our delicate babies' neurological systems have not been equipped to defend against these introduced wastes to our environment. Originally autism may have been a natural defect, but its increase is probably environmental. Finding the cause will be very complicated, but complicating the investigation even more will be the wealth of the polluters.

Posted by: Brojo on January 8, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Sadly Eclectic, this is one of Drum's blind spots. He loves to serve out common wisdom that he doesn't apparently have the background to understand and then claim that those that disagree are wearing tin foil hats. (Similar to Kevin's insistence that even discussing a move back to the gold standard marks one as a crackpot.)

I don't have any autistic kids so I am pretty neutral about the thimerisol autism connection.

However, I did have a disease that often kills people or steals two years of their lives that has been positively linked to vaccinations, and no one yet knows why. As a result of that GPs and neurologists all tell me to avoid future vaccinations.

And so with that experience I do tend to give the parents the benefit of the doubt. And I do tend to look more closely at the testing of safety, efficacy, and long term hazards than many people. Which is one reason why I and many other liberals and feminists are opposed to vaccinations like gardasil. (Google evilslutopia and gardasil for 20 important facts.)

Of course, opposing gardasil marks me not just as an anti-vaxxer, but to many so called self identified feminist bloggers it marks me as a Christian Fundamentalist that wants my daughters to to die of cancer all because I think that sex is sinful. Nothing could be further fromthe truth, but so goes "common wisdom" in much of our "reality based" liberal blogosphere these days.

Since thimerisol is problem free, I can only assume it is a nutrient. I just want to know how much mercury we should inject our kids with and why otherwise think that mercury is such a problem in tuna that we are not supposed to give tuna to kids or pregnant women more than once a week.

Kevin?

Posted by: jerry on January 8, 2008 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

"But there's no reason for extending that to personal attacks on parents who plausibly suspected or suspect a link between mercury and autism."

I'm all for personal attacks, though. What better way to find out what the motivations of certain people really are? For example, one cannot determine who is shilling for the pharmaceutical industry until they throw around a lot of baseless, crazed accusations. THE ANSWERS that people give to these allegations is when the truth starts to come out. This is how they catch people who steal money from the cash register, I believe.

Perhaps fathers are having children at an older age. A study was recently published that showed there is a correlation between father's age and risk of autism.

That's certainly true in my case. My youngest, Miranda, was definitely an accident. She was fathered when I was just then figuring out how best to divorce her mother. A mistake, perhaps a disaster. We're not sure yet. She is very moody, and we thought that was autism for a while. She was innoculated and immunized against pretty much everything, unlike her brothers, who lived overseas and learned to deal with raging bouts of diarrhea. Miranda was babied here in the states and not introduced to the exoticisms of the world like her brothers were. All of the Rogers men have had cholera and tuberculosis--it builds character if one can survive such scourges.

So, as I said, we suspected Miranda was autistic for at least seven or eight years. It turns out she was just listening to a lot of "gothic" music and was wearing too much eye shadow.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on January 8, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the post, Kevin. I think we (pediatricians) were right to stop using thimerosal preserved vaccines when we did. The number of vaccinations babies receive has increased significantly, and all those teeny tiny doses (yes, of ethyl not methyl mercury) may have been adding up to something. For everyone's information, there have been no new better preservatives developed--we're just getting thousands of single-dose vials. The impact on the environment is left as an exercise for the reader.

I hope that this study (which just backs up what I've been saying for years) helps calm people's fears about vaccinations, but we humans are not all that good at risk assessment.

Posted by: DrFood on January 8, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Another dad of an Aspie here, who wants to echo the points both sides are making -- a lot of Aspies would have been variously considered "walks to the beat of a different drummer", "chronic underachiever", "maladjusted," or even OCD or ADD, any of which my son's condition could be confused for, a generation ago. (Or "a Lamborghini with flat tires", which is how he and I sometimes describe it.)

But Asperger's is not the same thing as severe autism. We have six special-ed kids living on our one four-block street. I've met them and at least three of the six would have been considered, well, "retarded" or other epithets a generation ago. (To be insensitive, you can tell just by counting the short buses that make stops.) That's a lot. It's a lot more than can be explained by better diagnosis. There is something wrong with us.

Posted by: eyelessgame on January 8, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

I can tell you that Thimerisol was NOT removed from vaccines in 2001, and so the study is flawed. In June of 2003, I took my then 5 yr. old daughter for her pre-kindergarten vaccines. Because I have an older son with Autism, I was aware of the preservative problem, and so asked the nurse if I could see the package insert of the DPT vaccine. Lo and behold, there in black-and-white, was the THIMERISOL listed as an ingredient. So I politely declined, at which point the pediatrician was called in to the room. She was shocked to find it in the ingredients, apologized, and said she was sure it had been removed from the vaccine.
So I think it's a case of the drug companies saying one thing, and doing another.

Posted by: Patty on January 8, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

The impact on the environment is left as an exercise for the reader.

What a bizarre statement from someone on the Intart00bs claiming to be a physician.

I suspect the impact on the environment is much much less than all the single dose water bottles we toss out, much less than all the overpackaged drug samples you hand out, and pretty damned small overall.

In this case, I worry less about the environment than about the kids.

Posted by: jerry on January 8, 2008 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

A vaccine with thimerosal gives you about the same mercury exposure as having fish for dinner. This has been studied extensively for many years, by scientists in different countries with no conflicts of interest. Every time, the result is clear: there is no relationship between vaccinations and autism. This latest study may be another confirmation of this, but scientifically, the book was closed on this many years ago.

And yes, the neuroscientists I know tell me straight out that rising autism rates are due to more frequent diagnosis, nothing else.

Posted by: Eric on January 8, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Ped, you think they should have kept thimerosol in the immunizations? We should have kept putting mercury at higher than federal standards into our kids to just "show" those parents that they were deluded fools? Correct me please, because I'm rather irritated with you right now.
Posted by: Eclectic

Not ignoring you, but pretending to be working. :)

I honestly sympathize, but a single faulty Lancet study, which has subsequently had its conclusions retracted, should NEVER have led to a situation where thimerosal was even a question. Faulty data led to a panic, which is partly responsible for recurrant outbreaks of measles in the UK and US.

It isn't meant to denigrate the parents' or their intelligence, but the hysteria caused unnecessary bad consequences.

Posted by: Ped Lurker on January 8, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

The primary reason for the increase Autism/ASD is that we have the broadened the definition of Autism.

Posted by: Brian on January 8, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

"Autism," I think, is like "cancer" -- many different conditions with many different causes. A friend who was diagnosed with bladder cancer became a bit annoyed with the nurse practioner who kept trying to figure out what my friend had "done" to get this disease; as for me, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer I didn't spend any time wondering if it was my 10 extra pounds, my wine with dinner, or working in an old building. I just said, "let's cure this."

Posted by: elisabeth on January 8, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly: there's a difference between the ethylmercury of thimerosal and methylmercury, too. Perhaps you might want to read up and think more rationally.

And perhaps you might want to stay up to date. Yes, the ethylmercury in thimerosal is not as bad as methylmercury, but claims that it's "harmless" are utter nonsense.

Bottom line: since there is no essential reason to use it, it's a good idea not to inject people with highly toxic heavy metal compounds.

I've never believed that thimerosal is a significant causative factor in autism, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it. Many knowledgeable debunkers of the thimerosal/autism theory have said the same thing. Just because it doesn't cause autism doesn't mean it's harmless. Similarly, putting your hand into a meat grinder won't give you cancer, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.

if Cain is a "boob," (which he/she isn't)

Cain made the brilliant statement that:

Barring any evidence that thimerosal was harmful, yes they should have left it in. I'm sorry, Eclectic, but you're gut feeling does not trump objective reality. Just because you don't understand the science doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

If this non-boob understood the first thing about science or rational thought, he/she would realize that you can't prove a negative. The "objective reality" is only that thimerosal has never been proven to cause autism, which is not the same as saying that it's been proven harmless.

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Eric: the neuroscientists I know tell me straight out that rising autism rates are due to more frequent diagnosis, nothing else.

Bully for them. When are they going to write the seminal paper that proves that statement? At this point it's a plausible but unproven conjecture.

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Nothing is ever settled. There will be determined proponents of the thimerosal theory for years to come. Others may shift their focus to some other substance that has no demonstrable connection to autism. Thinking scietific studies will settle political or emotional conflicts is wishful thinking. And with the Internets, people will always find others willing to support them in their fantasies.

Posted by: SteveH on January 8, 2008 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

With four kids of my own I also went through the vaccination worry. I went with the science and thank God they are all healthy.

I am truly sorry for any parent with a special needs child. Life is hard enough without that difficulty, combined with the unknown of why this happened.

Someday we will know, but not this day. All we've done is rule out one of hundreds of possible factors.

People who bring false hope or false reasons to hurting parents are scum.

Posted by: Tripp on January 8, 2008 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

SteveH is correct- this issue will linger on for decades, and science will never "settle" it.

By the way, my understanding is that thimerosal has been removed from the standard, recommended childhood vaccines, not from all vaccines, and this is only in the developed countries, not worldwide.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on January 8, 2008 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Alex,

you can't prove a negative.

Well, yeah, but you can certainly prove a negative to a certain degree of error.

For example the chance of thimerosol causing autism might be proven to be one chance in a (high number).

In other words I can't prove I won't win this weeks Powerball because I just might but that is a very very slim reed to hang my hopes on.

Posted by: Tripp on January 8, 2008 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Ped...I used to be an elementary school speech pathologist 12-15 years ago. A lot of the kids who are diagnosed with autism today would not have been so diagnosed then. The students I worked with whom we called autistic were the non-verbal kids who were in the corner rocking and flapping their hands. The kids who could hold a conversation and do more or less age appropriate schoolwork were not autistic by our standards, although they might have had other characteristics. How can the dramatic expansion of the diagnostic criteria not lead to a dramatic increase in the number of children being diagnosed?

Posted by: AlaMich on January 8, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

As a an actual Asperger's patient, I think the reasons are the following:

First, until about ten years ago, my diagnosis was a rare duck indeed. Second, Including Asperger's and other Diagnoses, the family of disorders covered has become better defined in th literature, particularly in the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic reference for Psychologists and Psychiatrists.

Secondary effects of that include greater awareness of the disorders. Once, it was so obscure that my condition was regarded as a 1 in 10,000 affliction. Now it's on magazine covers everywhere.

A Tertiary effect of that is that resources are being brought to bear, and the commonality of the diagnosis, while also including the more common higher-functioning disorders, also includes many who are being advised to seek that diagnosis to gain better care. It used to be the other way around: Parents of Autistic Children were told to seek diagnoses related to retardation.

But could it be real? Yes, but if we want to be scientific about it, rather than running after every conceivable theory flailing our arms, we have to be able to let go of suspects, if the studies analyzing factors demonstrate the logical unlikeliness of such things.

If Thimerosal is being taken out of vaccines, yet autism rates continue to increase, or even remain the same, then elementary logic would tell you it's not the Thimerosal.

Pollution, though, is a considerable problem, and there are plenty of other sources of Neurotoxins, heavy metals, and other chemical developmental disablers that could be contributing to the problem.

But even that might not yield a magic answer. In fact looking for any magic answer at all might be an exercise in chasing mirages.

First, Autism Spectrum Disorders may be more a category of disorders with common symptoms rather than common causes. Mental Retardation can be attributeable to anything from the famous Chromosome 21 trisomy of Downs' Syndrome to the metabolic mayhem of disorders like Phenylketonuria. Some Autistics might be suffering from metabolic disorders, others from toxic exposure in or out of the womb. There's so little we know, it's not funny.

Genetics probably plays a big role. The science has singled that out as a major factor. But other factors might be making Autism more noticeable, or amplifying symptomatic behavior.

Our environment, for one thing. It's push and pull. The nature of the internet makes it something of an autistic's friend. You can't read subtle non-verbal communication, but neither can anybody else! Rote learning has become more common in schools, which is both good and bad in qualitative terms, but which serves the greatest strengths of AS type memories. The quicker pace of the workplace is unkind to many, who are more painstaking and exacting, but the explosion of computer science has provided a haven for those who can learn the kinds of things that are painstaking and exacting: like computer programing.

Additionally, many autistics and AS patients have a love-hate relationship with today's sensory overload society. For many Autistics, their relatively unfiltered senses lead them to think, speak, and understand things best in sense associations- in other words, to think in pictures, and to be able to communicate well in them as well. An AV rich society like ours has many opportunities for those whose first language is sensory imagery.

The overall result is a society that brings out both the worst and the best in those with Autism Spectrum disorders, but which unquestionably makes them more noticeable to those who might seek to diagnose them.

Also, in a very real sense, People might become conditioned by our modern media society to where their more autistic sides to their biological inheritance are expressed more, the very environment encouraging the responses they are naturally inclined to.

At the end of the day, nobody, though, has isolated Autism to one problem, much less taken the next step and presented any kind of cure. The nature of the disorder, in fact, might rule out such dreams of a cure, for some, if not all.

It's time for people to recognize that the science on the issue is more complex than just a question of what's in a vaccine, and when we get them.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty on January 8, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with the theomersol kerfuffle is that it convinced legions of parents to forego immunizing their kids, with the result that numerous diseases we considered historical artifacts are back with us again.

Case in point: a co-worker's grandson has been in the hospital two weeks with whooping cough. Whooping cough!?!

In the meantime we're not significantly closer to understanding what triggers autism. Too many eggs in that particular basket, unfortunately, and precious time and resources lost.

Posted by: trollhattan on January 8, 2008 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Tripp: you can certainly prove a negative to a certain degree of error ... For example the chance of thimerosol causing autism might be proven to be one chance in a (high number).

Why are you limiting the question to autism? I explicitly stated that the evidence is strong that thimerosal is not a significant factor there. My point was that it hasn't been proven harmless in general. And since thimerosal is nothing more than a minor convenience, it's best not to inject heavy metal neurotoxins.

Interesting note on thimerosal: the FDA banned it for animal use in the early 1990's. So it's ok to inject your kid with it, but not a pig?

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

I think several commenters, including FDRLincoln and Brojo, have put their finger on it: autism is likely a condition (or set of conditions, thus autistic *spectrum*) that is not caused so much as *triggered* by an environmental element, perhaps including some foods.

IF this is correct, then the autism diagnosed in kids who didn't have mercury vaccines will be triggered by something else, somewhere along the way. In our case, I think it was a nasty case of chicken pox. But I can't spend my life wishing he had gotten the chicken pox vaccine - as that, or something else, may have pulled the trigger. The key, as has been pointed out, is early intervention - and lifelong help for those who will need it.

Posted by:

Posted by: I never post on January 8, 2008 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

check out wikipedia before posting, gosh. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thimerosal

Posted by: bojack on January 8, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

My two cents:
while the diagnoses of autism may be new, the syndrome itself is not. In pre-modern Europe, this is how you knew the local witches had substituted a changling for your child: one day you had a nice, responsive two-year old, the next day he looked like your child but he wasn't your child - he didn't make eye contract, he didn't speak, he didn't behave like a normal child, and if he knew or learned anything it was something that an ordinary human being couldn't know (which we now consider the "idiot savant" side of autism). So you tried to persuade the fairies or the local witch to return your child by making it clear that you were going to kill the changling. When they didn't give you your child back, you'd kill the changling, and get the autorities to hang the witch.

Everyone knows witches were hunted in considerable numbers in pre-modern Europe. Autism looks like it was one of the reasons. These pursuits of outside sources for autism always remind me of those witchhunts.

As for opposition to vaccines, just go read what Voltaire and others went through trying to convince people that children should receive smallpox vaccines in the first place....

Posted by: Diana on January 8, 2008 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

Quite a few years back, thimerosol was the preservative of choice in most contact lens solutions, and a number of people, myself included, had to hunt around for certain brands because we had allergic reactions to the stuff. Eventually all manufacturers removed it from their products. My conclusion from that experience is that this chemical is at least somewhat dubious in contact with the human body and it's best to remove it altogether. It might be instructive to compare rates of autism in industrialized countries where there's a significant exposure to heavy metals and chemicals, to those in less developed areas, if any such remain. Our bodies today are so filled with tons of appalling crap it's hard to know where to begin.

Posted by: Delia on January 8, 2008 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

AlaMich: How can the dramatic expansion of the diagnostic criteria not lead to a dramatic increase in the number of children being diagnosed?

That doesn't explain the increase in the number of severe classic Kanner autism cases. There's more afoot that just expanded diagnostic criteria, and attributing it solely to that means ignoring a very serious and growing problem.

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

"As for opposition to vaccines, just go read what Voltaire and others went through trying to convince people that children should receive smallpox vaccines in the first place...."

Of course, you have to remember that the type of vaccination to smallpox that was available in Voltaire's day -- inoculation of smallpox pus into a scratch on the skin of a healthy person -- carried a 20% risk of causing a full-blown case of the disease. No small risk. The cowpox treatment came later.

Posted by: Delia on January 8, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

"It's time to accept this and move on."

It's strange, Kevin, but that's pretty much my reaction to anyone bemoaning the loss of their favored team in a game of any sport.

(Not that anyone has ever done that here.)

I never say it, though. It's kind of patronizing.

I think Jerry (at 1:51 PM above) pretty much nails it.

There are so many things about autism I could say here, but my family's four decades of experience in the subject and our equally lengthy experience with the "compassion" of people who are bored or bothered by other people's problems means I tend to choose my venue carefully.

Please, Kevin, do not misunderstand me. I am not taking your advice "to accept this and move on." Nor am I suggesting that any aspect of autism should become a cause you advocate, as it plainly does not interest you and no one needs a disinterested advocate. But in the long history of activism (which I believe dates back to shortly after the development of language), every activist is going to get that advice.

The committed ones know what to do with it.

I suspect it is the same response you have had to people who have told you "to accept this and move on" since you started blogging.

Courtesy is for everyone.

Kassy

Posted by: Kassy Greene on January 8, 2008 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

I think they should point their suspicions at pesticides and plastics. From estrogen mimetics and other issues involved, there is plenty of room in there for a whole host of mental and physical problems.

Get off the thimerosal already. That pony is long dead. There is fertile ground in pesticides and plastics toxins for being a culprit in a host of problems.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on January 8, 2008 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

Other trends: sperm count going down in men. Breast cancer incidence going up. Girls reaching sexual maturity at decreasing age (not only in well-fed Western countries so diet is not the simple answer).

Certainly isn't all due to thimerosal. Hmmm. What ELSE has been going on the last few decades? Plastics. Ubiquitous plastics everywhere. Bisphenol A, a plasticizer used to make plastics soft and flexible is an agonist for estrogen receptors (activates them). There are other xenoestrogens in plastics as well and they cause problems in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds...and very very likely humans.

Don't go looking at vaccines, which have saved lives at a level second only to improved sanitation. Look at the modern plague of plastics and all the nastiness that leaches out of them.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on January 8, 2008 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

What ELSE has been going on the last few decades?

Processed foods and factory farms are also potential culprits. Synthetic hormones in the meat supply and herbicides/pesticides can't be discounted.

Autism is not the only disorder that is apparently increasing in prevalence. In addition to autism and many cancers, infertility and other endocrine disorders are increasing in prevalence as well.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 8, 2008 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

Stephen Daugherty: wonderful comment.

Posted by: Nat on January 8, 2008 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone have a link to the study? Where is the data? How was it compounded?

Thought so.

Do you know that thimerasol has STILL not been removed from the flu shot and other childhood vaccines.

The government continues to deny the connection but doesn't fund studies of ASD kid's porphrin levels. My child is ASD. His mercury levels were through the roof when he regressed (days after his flu shot). Environmental mercury is also a factor (coal burning power plants emit tons of mercury in the air each year).

All of this plays into a subset of children that cannot get rid of the heavy metals (low glutathione levels).

You naysayer folks really need to do your homework before making idiots / fools of yourselves in a public forum.


Posted by: Phillip Holmes on January 8, 2008 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Actually they did remove thimerosal but replaced it with a different preservative that has either ethyl in the place of methyl mercury or the other way around. So, Mercury hasn't really been taken out of the vaccinations. The assumption is that the different compound cannot be absorbed into the body.... but we all know that nature will find a way.

Posted by: DoTheChemistry on January 8, 2008 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(1):19-24.

Posted by: genome on January 8, 2008 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

Two bits of information help to debunk arguments that vaccinations cause autism:

1) As mentioned elsewhere, many things which would, in the past, be diagnosed as mild retardation in children are now diagnosed as autism. So, not are we looking more deeply for autism, we're also expanding the number of conditions which can be diagnosed as autism.

2) One thing which has been definitely associated w/autism in children is increased maternal age. To quote Psychiatric News (http://pn.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/39/16/28-b): 'he risk of mothers 35 years or older of having a child with autism was increased threefold compared with mothers younger than 20 years.' In 2005, the average maternal age for the first child was 25.2 years, the highest on record (http://mchb.hrsa.gov/mchirc/chusa_05/popchar/0205ma.htm).

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on January 8, 2008 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

to: DoTheChemistry

Actually, you're completely incorrect.

Posted by: Phillip Holmes on January 8, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

Genetics and a very carefree attitude about biochemistry (wide ranging use of petrochemicals) over the last 50+ years are the most likely areas to investigate.

Not that I`m holding my breath that this is going to actually happen anytime soon. Too much money/power at risk ya know.

Yes it does suck and people need to move their minds beyond junior high school lunch table logic so we can all progress.

What a sorry state the human race is in.

"The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices." - James Carter

Posted by: daCascadian on January 8, 2008 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

Wouldn't the cause be an unlucky combination of parental genes? Or is autism not hereditary?

Posted by: MNPundit on January 8, 2008 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

MNPundit: Wouldn't the cause be an unlucky combination of parental genes? Or is autism not hereditary?

Empirically it's been observed that the likelihood of having autism has a genetic component, but that doesn't mean that it's a genetic disorder.

A tendency towards many disorders and diseases is hereditary. For instance, susceptibility to breast cancer is hereditary, but that doesn't explain rising breast cancer rates.

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding environmental factors -- almost thirty years ago, I remember hearing two things from an industrial chemist friend of my Dad's. One was that his two favorite solvents (after water) were acetone and ethanol, because our bodies tolerate those in outrageous quantities (sometimes, we produce them). The other was that if phthalates turned out to be bad for us, we're screwed, because they're everywhere.

And as time goes by, I wonder if I was very lucky to grow up in the middle of an orange grove, a half-mile from pavement, drinking (hard) well water, and milk we got by hand from a lone cow (i.e., no bovine friends to catch bugs from). Plus, we played in the dirt all the time, so none of this hygiene-induced asthma for us.

Posted by: dr2chase on January 8, 2008 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

Alex-
Oh, I wasn't trying to say that I believe expanding the diagnostic criteria is the only explanation for the increase in cases, not by a long shot. I'm firmly in the "there's a lot of crap in our environment and it's probably making us sick in ways we don't even understand" camp. I've just found it interesting, in the last few years, how it never really gets mentioned as one reason this may be happening. It seems obvious to me, because of my former job, that the term autism has become this very large umbrella that a lot more people, by definition, can fit under.

I also have been getting more and more frustrated at the alarmism and fear-mongering of the media, and wonder how much of it is a result of that as well. Not that that is any consolation to the parent of a child with autism, but just something to think about.

Posted by: AlaMich on January 8, 2008 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK

You seem to have missed the part in the story that says that thimerasol is still present in some flu shots. For several years now, doctors have recommended that all pregnant women get flu shots. No study can seriously dismiss the possibility of a thimerasol connection that doesn't make sure that it has traced all of the instances in which a baby --- or fetus --- is introduced to the substance.

Posted by: catherineD on January 8, 2008 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

It does seem likely that thimerosal is not a causal agent in autism or Asperger's, but I agree with those who point out that it's still a good idea to have removed it from some vaccines, and I agree that it should be removed from all vaccines, since alternatives are available.

I would like to raise a related question.

First, let me emphatically state that I am NOT opposed to vaccinations in general. I am a post-polio person who lived through the last big epidemic in Cleveland in 1953, and saw untold suffering which could have been prevented had the Salk vaccine come out earlier. And though the Sabin vaccines have occasionally caused polio in susceptible individuals, nevertheless, on balance, polio vaccinations are for the greater good. So are most vaccinations.

But I am concerned with the fact that they have been given at younger and younger ages in recent years. I believe that babies are now receiving some vaccines at 6 months old.

Blue Girl and the pediatrician upthread know more about this than I do, but I do know that a child's immune system is very immature at 6 months old, and will not "remember" the vaccine after a time period, necessitating re-vaccination around two years, or two-and-a-half years, when the immune system has matured enough to "remember" the acquired immunity.

While vaccinations are on balance a good thing, they DO stress the body. I just can't help but wonder if we are stressing our tiny babies with premature vaccination, along with all the other environmental stresses. I also wonder about studies which attempt to isolate given environmental stimuli. A particular stimulus in isolation may not be toxic, but all of the stimuli together could very well be, and testing in isolation is far from replicating the real stresses which we all face every day.

My 2 cents worth.

Posted by: Wolfdaughter on January 8, 2008 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

What pisses me off as a recently diagnosed kid with ASD (PDDNOS) is how much effort is being done to show what isn't causing it, and how little effort is going into what causes it.

So all of you people who think this is funny, wait and see how you feel when your kid has it. Suicidal thoughts are probable.

The lack of detection or treatment of this disease will unravel the world (this is about 1/30 boys in CA right now), and any positive benefits that vaccines have or anything else that might be causing this has will seem like nothing once you see your kid doesn't hug you but someone else's kid does.

You cannot imagine how much damage does to you, the family, your productivity and the cost.

Watch the rates continue to march up, watch the lead toys and the mercury vapor from coal-fire power go up, watch all the toxins and all the abuse of antibiotics cause super bugs, watch viruses continue to reek havoc on our DNA, watch epigenetics suppress and express genes due to environmental issues.

The world is going out of balance, and this autism epidemic is really the front line.

Posted by: fnord on January 8, 2008 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

Wouldn't the cause be an unlucky combination of parental genes? Or is autism not hereditary?

Would that all there was to genetics but "D" and "r"

Before the dominants and recessives come into play, there is the homeobox sequence. Some researchers are looking into mutations in the HOX genes attempting to establish a link, but so far nothing definitive, to my best knowledge.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 8, 2008 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

AlaMich: I wasn't trying to say that I believe expanding the diagnostic criteria is the only explanation for the increase in cases, not by a long shot.

Ok, that wasn't clear to me in your original post though.

I also have been getting more and more frustrated at the alarmism and fear-mongering of the media

Sometimes a little alarmism and fear-mongering is a good thing. That's what gets funding and makes people aware.

To the extent that the reported increase in autism is due to greater awareness and wider diagnostic criteria, it may be a good thing. The first step in treating any problem is to accurately diagnose it.

Yes, I know there are cases where this can be carried too far. How many kids aren't labeled ADD these days? (not to say that there aren't legitimate cases). Nevertheless the old approach of labeling lots of kids as mentally retarded or some such was really just a reflection of ignorance - toss 'em into a catchall because we don't understand it.

Posted by: alex on January 8, 2008 at 9:20 PM | PERMALINK

First, thimerosal was voluntarily removed from some vaccines starting in 1999--but those vaccines were never recalled. If you ask to see a package insert for most vaccines, even now, thimerosal is still in many--a real shock for doctors who haven't bothered to check. Second, the flu shots given to children in CA still contain thimerosal (mercury). There's no excuse for injecting anyone with mercury on purpose. There is no safe level of mercury.

Posted by: GS on January 8, 2008 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

People do a lot of wondering, and say a lot of perhaps. I understand the motivation, but we have to realize that (especially with things as complex as this) there are a buttload of possibilities of which only a few really can be right, even with what I said before (multiple possible causes).

One person suggested that immunizations might stress a young child. I would suggest to them that if an immunization did that, the full blown disease, it would follow, would do even worse damage. If it is such an evil, immunization remains the lesser of two evils by comparison.

To properly derive the causes, we must be willing, when presented with solid contradictory evidence to at least strongly downgrade the seriousness with which we take theories. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that people bandy about, cures and treatments that are supposed to work, but if we want any serious examination of their effectiveness and safety to go on, we must be willing to acknowledge that some of our own hypothesis, even the ones we love to death, are wrong.

That's how science progresses, really: killing our pseudoscientific darlings, so they don't remain to befuddle us. How many things have we had, like the notion of biologically distinct races, Earth as the center of the universe, and the lightness of a feather being responsible for its slower rate of fall in an atmosphere, whose intuitive logic has proved false accordingly? Science that cannot be proven or disproven is not science; science works with what can be tested, not conclusions held above reproach.

For the Science of Autism to proceed, sacred cows must be sacrificed. Too much political push in an unscientific direction will only delay and frustrate the real science, to the detriment of all interested.

fnord-
Science essentially filters out bad explanations or parts of explanations more than it formulates good ones. The effect, though, is the same.

People are looking for a cause. Unfortunately, though, It's sort of like looking for your car keys in a messy room where all the debris was encased with mud when a recent flood came through.

We're not even sure we're looking at one set of keys even. To make things even more difficult, we're dealing with a disorder in a population, which is sort of like looking for those keys in the living rooms of a bunch of different families whose organizational habits and favored locations differ.

We're not yet to the point where we could just dump nanobots in your body to report back on your personal metabolic, physiological, and developmental course, so many of the means we're using to try and isolate causes are what could be called statistical. We're looking for the correlation and connection of factors, as well as the opposite- what doesn't seem to have a logical relationship with Autism. Determining both is important, since the ground helps bring out the true shape of the figure in sharper relief.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty on January 8, 2008 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

Stephen: thanks, that's one of the most intelligent descriptions of scientific investigation I've seen in this kind of forum, and certainly the best explanation of why the thimerosal controversy has actually hurt autism research. Are you a scientist too by any chance? I haven't met many laypeople who understand what we do - shit, I too many scientists who don't understand it either.

Posted by: the other Nat on January 9, 2008 at 1:37 AM | PERMALINK

The most compelling case I've found to explain the rise in autism is the lack of vitamin D...resulting from the false hysteria against sunlight raised by the medical community against all evidence to the contrary. Please see www.vitamindcouncil.com/health/autism/vit-D-explains-autism.shtml

Posted by: herb on January 9, 2008 at 6:51 AM | PERMALINK

As Stephen has pointed out, ASD is almost certainly a cluster of conditions with a common set of symptoms. There have been interesting studies showing an overabundance of neurons in certain portions of the brains of some ASD patients (my son was part of one of the studies), a condition that is apparently congenital, but there are likely to be situations where post natal exposure to toxins create different kinds of damage but the same symptoms.

The parallel to cancer - many diseases, same name and similar effects - is a good one. And slightly OT, but Elisabeth pushes one of my buttons about the people who want to figure out what you did to explain your cancer or your ASD. Not only pointless, but hey most of the time that's not how it happened.

Posted by: stuck in 200 on January 9, 2008 at 7:24 AM | PERMALINK

A few years ago I was listening to an Air America show (Rachel Maddow, Ice-T and Liz Winstead, I think) where they interviewed a woman with an organization for autism. They brought up the fact that there are no studies that demonstrate a link between vaccines in general or thimerosol vaccines in particular to autism. The lady dismissed them all as "pharmaceutical company propaganda." Rachel and crew noted to her how many of these studies were funded by private nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, the NIH, the CDC, etc. and the lady actually stated that the funding source is irrelevant, it was all pharmaceutical company propaganda.

If that dismissive, facts-be-damned attitude remains prevalent, I'm afraid that the science will never make any difference to the anti-vaccination crowd. Perhaps it's just too painful for some people to acknowledge that autism has a genetic basis and since you can't change your DNA, then you can't prevent autism and you can't predict it (yet, anyway). Assigning blame is one of the stages of grief and if no blame can be assigned, perhaps some people get stuck at this stage.

Posted by: Constance Reader on January 9, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

I think the critical point here is that we've spent so much time, money, and effort on Thimerosal at this point that the hypothetical link is better researched than all other possible causes put together. And with no significant causative effect being found. As far as science is concerned, thimerosal is the one thing that's not causing autism; nothing else is as well researched.

So the more we dwell on thimerosal, the more kids will be afflicted with autism because is a distraction that is wasting time, money, and energy preventing us from finding the real cause(s).

(An additional point I've not seen mentioned in this thread. One of the scandinavian countries - i forget which at the moment - eliminated Thimerosal from childhood vaccinations 10-15 years ago, yet their autism rates have risen in lock-step with the rest of the industrialized world.)

Posted by: IdahoEv on January 9, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

To alex:
Interesting note on thimerosal: the FDA banned it for animal use in the early 1990's. So it's ok to inject your kid with it, but not a pig?

Believe it or not, yes. Mercury bioaccumulates and you will eat a lot of pigs over your lifetime. You are much better off injecting yourself with a small amount of a mercury-containing compound than injecting all of your livestock with it, as the latter would result in a hell of a lot more mercury in your system. (This is exactly the problem with fish; the small amount in each fish adds up to be a bucketload in you).

Posted by: IdahoEv on January 9, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

IdahoEv: Mercury bioaccumulates and you will eat a lot of pigs over your lifetime.

Of course if the "ethylymercury in Thimerosal is excreted" line were completely true, as some claim or assume it is, then the accumulation wouldn't occur. Of course, as more recent research has shown, it's not completely true.

The safest approach is therefore not to inject people or farm animals with a non-essential neurotoxin.

Posted by: alex on January 9, 2008 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

The safest approach is therefore not to inject people or farm animals with a non-essential neurotoxin.

I agree with you on that one. And the others may be right about ethylmercury; I will admit I know about bioaccumulation of mercury, but not ethylmercury, so if it is in fact excreted then my earlier comment would be incorrect.

Posted by: IdahoEv on January 9, 2008 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Constance Reader: If that dismissive, facts-be-damned attitude remains prevalent, I'm afraid that the science will never make any difference to the anti-vaccination crowd.

There will always be such people. Others will blame demonic possession.

Perhaps it's just too painful for some people to acknowledge that autism has a genetic basis and since you can't change your DNA, then you can't prevent autism and you can't predict it

Now you're guilty of the same thinking as the anti-vaccination crowd - fixating on one possible cause for which there is no evidence.

Autism is not a genetic disorder - there is a genetic predisposition to it. The same is true for many types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc., etc., etc. The existence of a genetic predisposition does not account for rising rates of autism, which are also not completely accounted for by rising awareness, diagnostic fashion or broader clinical definition. There is something else happening, and smug answers and assumptions won't help figure it out.

Posted by: alex on January 9, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, the problem with all the wonder, perhaps and other speculation is that it diverts us from actually focusing on what is causing the rise in autism and how we might cure or mitigate the illness for people who have it.

Oh, and it results in significant drops in vaccination rates, with an accompanied increase in complication and death rates from otherwise preventable diseases.

So, I sympathize with the parents of autistic children for the plight their kids are in. However, I find no sympathy with these peoples' inability to understand the difference between correlation and causation, and for clinging to dis-proven theories to the detriment of the general public health.

Much like I have little sympathy for the people that spend $14 billion (collectively) on hocus-pocus like homeopathy, psychic surgery, Reiki and other quackery while also bemoaning the cost of western medicine. It muddies the waters and wastes precious time in our discourse about health and health research. Just imagine if that $14 billion were diverted to things that might actually help/cure/improve people's lives.

Posted by: jcricket on January 9, 2008 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

If you don't have a child or family member on the spectrum you have no business commenting on Kevin's post. Live with autism every day then understand the sensitive nature of this topic. Otherwise shut the fuck up.

Posted by: John Smith on January 9, 2008 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

John Smith, you illustrate perfectly why I rarely participate in threads on this topic, certainly not in detail - in spite of a Masters degree in Neuro, actual research in the field, and not one, but two autistic godchildren.

Good luck, special needs children are a heavy burden. you have my sympathies in spite of not wanting to hear anything I have to say on the topic.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 9, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

I have taught children with autism for 8 years now. I've seen all sorts of cases. One case that proved to me that autism is not mercury based was a family with 5 children. All 5 were autistic or aspergers (the parents both exhibit signs). The first 4 received immunizations, but the fifth received none. He was the most autistic on the scale of any of them. It is also interesting to note that if one twin has autism the chances of the other having it are significantly higher (Regardless of immunizations.)

Autism is real and it's definition and characteristics continue to broaden. This broadening will make it more difficult in years to come to pinpoint an exact cause. My prayer is that while we continue to search for a cause we also invest money and energy in finding appropriate serves that families can access. Autism may be one of the most devastating conditions for parents to handle both mentally and physically. It is to difficult for families to get the help that they need under current mental health situations. These parents have enough to deal with they shouldn't have to advocate for services that there children are entitled to. God Bless each of you that has a child with this disease and know that while there is no magic bullet there is always hope! Keep fighting!

Posted by: AU teacher on January 9, 2008 at 7:26 PM | PERMALINK

I have a child on the spectrum. She has never been vaccinated. While I do not dismiss the idea that vaccination and mercury may be contributing factors to atuism I believe that we have to look futher. Recently, there was a study published that looked at the correlation between autism, cell phones, and wireless computers. It was very comprehensive and informative. It got a bit of attention for a couple of days and since has been virtually ignored. You may believe it; you may not, but people on both sides of the mercury debate need to look beyond the question of vaccination.

Posted by: Joe on January 14, 2008 at 1:19 AM | PERMALINK

HELLO GUYS, FIRST INFANTS ARE VACCINATED WITH HEPB
THE DAY AFTER THEY ARE BORN AND AGAIN THREE WEEKS LATER AND AT 6 WEEKS AND SO ON. THIMERASOL IS STILL IN 12 KIDS SHOTS BUT AT WHAT THE CDC CALLS ACCEPTABLE LEVELS . GIVE ME A SMALL BREAK. IT'S ODVIOUS NONE OF YOU HAV A CHILD WITH AUTISM. DOCTORS WARN NOT TO EAT TUNA WHILE PREGNANT BECAUSE OF MERCURY BUT IT IS OK TO INJECT IT INTO TO BABIES WHO CANNOT EVEN REGULATE THIER OWN BODY TEMPS YET. PLEASE!!!!COVER UP MAYBE?

Posted by: MICHELLE on January 19, 2008 at 7:36 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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