Thimerosal and autism – an overview, Part II

This is Part II of the series on the purported thimerosal/autism link. Part I, which gives the history of the controversy, is here. Part III is here. . Some of the events mentioned here are still evolving. In this and the subsequent installment, I’ll attempt to clarify some of the myths and conspiracy theories regarding this controversy.

But wasn’t there no such thing as autism until after thimerosal came into use? Hardly. While Dr. Kanner first described and named the condition ‘autism’ in 1943, autistic people have been around…well, probably for as long as the human race. While most of them were probably – as was common practice until recently for the mentally retarded – left to wither away in madhouses, about 10% of people with classic autism have ‘savant’ mathematical or artistic skills, and some gained local fame, at least. Dr John Langdon Down (the doctor who first described Down’s syndrome), discussed these children in his 1887 book, On Some of the Mental Affections of Childhood and Youth.

What about all those testimonies by the mercury moms about how their children were perfectly normal and regressed shortly after vaccines? Doesn’t that prove that it’s the vaccines that caused it? No. Autism is usually diagnosed at around the time children are getting their vaccines, and the development of autistic symptomatology after a vaccine (including regression) can be a temporal coincidence.

Parents’ memory can be a tricky thing as well: as shown in the MMR controversy, the mere suggestion of a vaccine/autism link may have caused recall bias in the parents’ minds. Also, it’s not at all clear the claims of children being completely normal pre-vaccine are correct either: In an Autism Omnibus case (we’ll get to what that is in the next installment), Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the plantiffs claimed their daughter, 12-year-old Michelle Cedillo, was perfectly normal until receiving the MMR vaccine. However, during the hearings, Dr. Eric Fombonne, a leading autism expert, demonstrated that Michelle had shown characteristic signs of autism in family videos as early as 6-8 months old.

But I’ve heard of parents of autistic children who tested them for mercury, and it was ‘off the scale’. Doesn’t that prove anything? No reputable doctor has actually found any evidence of mercury poisoning in an autistic child, much less connected said poisoning to vaccines. However, some doctors (especially those who claim to ‘treat’ autism with dubious methods, such as doctors afilliated with Andrew Wakefield’s “Thoughtful House” or DAN!=Defeat Autism Now!) send their samples to disreputable labs who find elevated levels of mercury or other metals, or send samples of blood taken after ‘provocation’ with a chelator – when the normal limits listed on the test are for ‘unprovoked’ assays. See more about dubious mercury testing here.

How about the numerous stories of children improving or being cured under chelation therapy? Doesn’t that prove it’s the mercury? Nope. Even if we were assume that mercury poisoning was actually the cause of autism (despite all the evidence to the contrary), damaged brain cells won’t regenerate. One might (a big maybe!) prevent further damage, but not cure damage already done.

No, the fact remains that autism is characterized by sudden leaps of progress – kids with autism do develop, though at a different pace than normal children. Some children, having first been considered severely autistic, can, in time (and possibly with behavioral intervention), become high-functioning. If such progress happens to occur around the time a treatment is given, parents will naturally attribute the progress to the treatment. Hence the numerous testimonies by parents that X has “cured” their child’s autism (X being various and sundry unproven treatments, among them chelation).

I heard that the CDC’s own scientists found a link between autism and mercury, but they decided to suppress it? That’s what some conspiracy theorists would have you believe. This rumor stems from an article in Salon written in 2005 by Robert F. Kennedy. Jr.. Kennedy painted a picture of a cloak-and-dagger meeting inj June 2000 at what he termed “the isolated Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Ga.” by top FDA, CDC and phamaceutical company officials, in a supposedly alarmed discussion to cover up the alarming results found by the CDC’s epidemiologist, Thomas Verstraeten, in the first phase of a two-phased study regarding the connection between thimerosal exposure and neurodevelopmental outcomes in 4 HMOs. however, despite the hype, none of the trends found were statistically significant (certainly not regarding autism), and the quotes that Kennedy used were very carefully cherry-picked and out of context. Kennedy, of course, wasn’t counting on people actually slogging through the multi-page Simpsonwood protocols; but alas for him, some of us did. Skeptico has the details, continued here.
I might add that once both phases of the study were completed, still no significant associations between thimerosal in vaccines and autism were found, but there were conflicting results regarding other neurodevelopmental outcomes such as tics and speech delays and further research was encouraged (and later done, as shown in the previous installment). Naturally, the mercury lobby accused the CDC of watering down its results, to which Dr. Verstraeten, no longer a CDC employee, responded in the negative. (Yes, you really do want to click on all the links).

But there are studies that prove that autism is caused by thimerosal and that the rates went down after it was removed. Why did the IOM supress them? The IOM did no such thing. In fact, it analyzed them in great detail, finding their results methodolgically flawed and uninterpretable. Nicer than saying they’re pieces of junk, I suppose.

The studies showing a supposed link between autism and thimerosal and/or MMR were written by a father-and-son team, Dr. Mark and Mr. David Geier, using, for the most part, data from VAERS, which is a passive registry of vaccine reactions by the CDC. Since VAERS doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive database of reactions, and in fact, anyone can write in any reaction they want (see reference to Dr. James Laidler’s entry of the flu vaccine turning him into the Hulk), VAERS is not a good database from which to derive vaccine reaction rates.

The Geiers are not exactly impartial, honest researchers: Geier pere has acted as ‘expert witness’ to vaccine court litigants alleging their children have been damaged by thimerosal and/or MMR; Geier fils runs MedCon, Inc., which helps parents who believe their children were harmed by vaccines receive payment from the government via litigation. The courts are finally getting wise to them at last, though.

The Geiers do “research” literally out of their basement in Silver Spring, MD. One of their pet projects has been the theory that children with autism don’t improve by chelation alone because their androgens are somehow interfering; hence, they’ve started treating small children by injecting the hormone Lupron in what essentially amounts to chemical castration. Since the only legitimate indication for treatment of children with Lupron is central precocious puberty, they’ve been assisting parents of autistic children dupe their insurance companies into paying for the treatment by providing “evidence” of such a diagnosis. I might add that the institutional review board (IRB) for their research (which is supposed to ensure research conforms to ethical and scientific standards) was made up of the Geiers, their loved ones, and a few selected friends. The wonderfully thorough Kathleen Seidel has the goods on this.

If you’re getting the idea the Geier lads are real pieces of work, you’d be quite right. Their latest offering is also being currently exposed as the scientific fraud it is.

But the Amish don’t vaccinate, and they don’t get autism, either. Untrue on both counts. Either way, the Amish are a genetically distinct group of people, and even if they didn’t have any cases of autism among them, it still would not implicate vaccines.

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5 Responses

  1. Bravo! You tell them. I’m going to refer people to this blog!

  2. Outstanding job!

  3. I can’t stand when people use the “It didn’t exist until recently, so it must be due to something new!” excuse for ANY mental illness. I had an ancestor back around the turn of the last century who had some form of mental illness. What form? We have no clue. Because when she was admitted to the asylum they basically looked her over and diagnosed her with “crazy.” They just didn’t care back then, or if they did care they didn’t know what to do.

  4. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Stupendously!!

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