[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Evidence of Harm': What Caused the Autism Epidemic?
checker at panix.com
Sat Apr 16 13:31:09 UTC 2005
'Evidence of Harm': What Caused the Autism Epidemic?
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17
By POLLY MORRICE
EVIDENCE OF HARM
Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.
By David Kirby.
460 pp. St. Martin's Press. $26.95.
Back in November 2002, when the journalist David Kirby started
researching ''Evidence of Harm,'' he couldn't have known how good his
timing would be. His book on the contentious issue of whether mercury
in vaccines led to an autism epidemic is appearing in the midst of
what must be called an autism boom. In the past few months, this
unexplained brain disorder -- which skews language and social skills,
and can unloose fierce obsessions -- has hit a media trifecta.
Television news segments, a magazine cover story and a host of
newspaper articles have discussed its symptoms, treatments, effects on
families and, most controversially, its apparently soaring incidence.
Why so much autism now? In part, the deluge is cyclical, as
journalists discover -- apologies to Yeats -- the fascination of
what's difficult. Yet this year's coverage has had a particular note
of urgency. Beginning in the late 1980's, the number of autism cases
started to take off. The latest estimates are that one child in 166
has some form of the disorder, with effects that range from mild to
crippling. These figures have raised vital questions. Is the increase
in autism real or the result of revised diagnostic criteria and
improved awareness? If the syndrome has become epidemic, is some
environmental factor partly to blame?
Kirby, who has contributed to various sections of The New York Times,
personalizes this dispute by introducing us to a collection of parents
who began to suspect that genetic tendencies might not have induced
their children's autism. Brought together by the Internet, this group
soon focused on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in
vaccines, including many that were added to the immunization schedule
in the early 1990's. When infants received higher doses of thimerosal,
it was suggested, the result was an autism epidemic.
Many of Kirby's subjects have had sour encounters with the medical
establishment. One such couple, Lyn and Tommy Redwood, struggled to
obtain a diagnosis for their son Will, who at 17 months started to
lose his language and withdraw socially. When Will turned 4, his
latest ''expert'' doctor ran out of options: ''Why don't you just take
him fishing?'' Like the Redwoods, the other parents in Kirby's book
watched their children develop normally until the second year of life.
After receiving measles-mumps-rubella (M.M.R.) vaccines, they
regressed, developing symptoms of autism and severe gastrointestinal
Initially, the parents wrote off the rumors of a thimerosal-autism
connection, even though the idea that vaccines contributed to the
disorder wasn't new. In the mid-1980's, an antivaccine activist
collaborated on a book linking autism to the
diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis shot. And the British doctor Andrew
Wakefield argued that autism was an immune-system disorder brought on
by live measles virus in the M.M.R. vaccine (which does not contain
thimerosal). Then, in July 1999, the United States Public Health
Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement
calling for vaccines containing thimerosal to be phased out as soon as
possible. The document noted that while babies had received cumulative
doses of ethylmercury (in thimerosal) that exceeded a federal safety
limit for methylmercury, its more toxic chemical cousin, there was no
''evidence of harm.''
After reading the statement, Lyn Redwood toted up the micrograms of
mercury Will had received during his first six months and realized
that the government had averaged the mercury exposure on a per-day
basis rather than acknowledging that infants got potentially more
toxic ''bolus'' doses -- large amounts at one time. Meanwhile, other
parents, who would join with Redwood to form the Coalition for Safe
Minds, researched the similarities between mercury poisoning and
autism. They found a striking parallel in acrodynia, a 1930's ailment
that occurred in some children exposed to mercury in lotions and
From here on, Kirby follows the tug of war between government health
agencies and the parents and their supporters. At a succession of
hearings, the so-called Mercury Moms presented their research on
acrodynia and thimerosal, and a neurologist described his research
showing that tiny amounts of thimerosal triggered brain-cell death.
The federal agencies, in turn, cited seemingly conclusive
epidemiological studies. (Denmark, for example, removed thimerosal
from vaccines in 1992 but saw a rise in autism cases rather than the
expected drop.) The Safe Minds parents went home and picked the
studies apart. Despite their efforts, in May 2004 a committee from the
Institute of Medicine found no ''causal relationship'' between
thimerosal-containing vaccines, or the M.M.R. vaccine, and autism.
If this story has a smoking gun, it's the Vaccine Safety Datalink
thimerosal study. Based on data collected from H.M.O.'s, this project,
financed by the Centers for Disease Control, sought to determine
whether there was a correlation between the timing and amounts of
thimerosal infants received in vaccines and the emergence of
neurodevelopmental disorders, including speech delay,
attention-deficit disorder and autism. The Safe Minds statisticians
contended that the government analyses of such data were flawed in a
way that obscured or eliminated the original findings of statistically
''Evidence of Harm'' is filled with abbreviations and statistics, but
Kirby does an admirable job of clarifying most of the scientific
background -- including an explanation of the complex biochemical
process of methylation, which plays a central role in Safe Minds'
arguments. (The idea, in its simplest terms, is that in susceptible
people thimerosal blocks the ability of cells to regulate their
functions; these individuals cannot shed mercury -- or other toxins or
heavy metals -- from their bodies.) However, Kirby is less clear on
the nature of autism, which he sums up as ''a hellish, lost world.''
In his account of one government hearing, an angry activist denounces
''the traditional brain-and-genetics stuff'' of mainstream research,
but readers who aren't familiar with that ''stuff'' might welcome a
summary. Some researchers also suspect that thimerosal and the M.M.R.
vaccine delivered a one-two punch to the immune system -- the first
weakened it, the second finished it off. A fuller explanation of this
theory would also have been helpful.
KIRBY doesn't offer his own verdict on the debate, although he makes
the unassailable point that American health agencies lagged in
calculating the amount of mercury being injected into babies. He
quotes Rick Rollens, a founder of the MIND Institute at the University
of California, Davis, who thinks answers to the thimerosal-autism
question may come from his home state, which has the country's most
reliable system of tracking new cases. The decline in infants'
exposure to thimerosal, Rollens estimates, began in 2001; he predicts
the effects ''should start showing up in our system in 2005'' -- in
other words, any day now.
As for Will Redwood, his parents have tried applied behavioral
analysis, vitamin B-12, folinic acid and chelation, the chemical
removal of metals like mercury from the body. In third grade Will was
admitted to a mainstream private school, and at the age of 10 he was
becoming interested in girls. If one certain conclusion can be drawn
from ''Evidence of Harm,'' it's that Will's parents made the right
decision about going fishing.
Polly Morrice has written for Redbook and Salon. She is working on a
book about autism.
More information about the paleopsych