Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mercury-Autism Debate Rages On

UK's Boyd Haley thinks some child vaccines still contain a mercury preservative.

By Jim Warren
Lexington Herald-Leader
Feb 5, 2008

A University of Kentucky chemist still thinks that a mercury-containing preservative in children's vaccines is behind rising rates of autism in youngsters, despite a recent California report that seems to dismiss the theory.

The California Department of Public Health reported that rates of autism have continued to rise in California, even though the mercury-based preservative thimerosal ostensibly was removed from most child vaccines by about 2001. Some scientists and medical groups are citing the report as disproving the theory that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

But UK's Boyd Haley, a mercury researcher and leading proponent of the mercury-autism connection, maintains that the California study proves nothing because it is based on a "false premise" that children in California haven't been getting any mercury from vaccines over the past several years.

"They say that mercury was totally out of vaccines in 2001 ... and that's absolutely false," Haley declared.

Haley contends that some child vaccines still contained mercury preservative well after 2001, and that many children might have continued to receive the vaccines because California didn't actually enact a law banning them until 2006. If children were still getting mercury in vaccines after 2001, that could explain why autism rates didn't fall, Haley contends.

Other proponents of the autism-mercury link have been pressing the same argument since the California report came out in early January.

But Dr. Robert Schechter, a health officer with the California health department and lead author on the report, stands by the findings.

Schechter and a colleague studied California autism rates from 1993 through March 2007 and found that rates kept rising, even after thimerosal was removed from most vaccines. (Nationwide, flu vaccines still contain trace amounts of mercury preservative, according to federal health authorities.)

"Autism rates increased consistently ... throughout this period, despite the exclusion of mercury from nearly all childhood vaccines," Schechter said in an interview. "Our findings are inconsistent with the idea that mercury could be the explanation for increases in autism."

As for Haley's argument that some children still might be getting some mercury from vaccines, Schechter said that could be true. But he said the general removal of thimerosal from vaccines still should have caused autism rates to fall -- if mercury were the culprit in the disease.

"I would not claim that children are getting no mercury from vaccines," Schechter said. "But the average exposure for the population has been substantially decreased over the past decade. If mercury from vaccinations was a primary cause of autism, you would expect rates to be dropping substantially."

A drama on TV too

Nevertheless, the often emotional dispute over whether mercury causes autism isn't cooling off.

Last Thursday night it even boiled over into network television. ABC, over objections from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups, broadcast an episode of Eli Stone in which a lawyer successfully argues that a vaccine caused a child's autism and wins a $5.2 million jury award for the mother. The pediatrics group had urged ABC to cancel the episode, claiming that the show would "perpetuate the myth that vaccines cause autism."

The show went on, but ABC included a disclaimer saying that it was fictional and urging viewers to contact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information on autism and mercury.

Lurking in the background is a concern that parents, fearful of vaccines because of the continuing debate, might stop vaccinating their children, leaving them vulnerable to infectious disease. Dr. Erich Maul, a UK pediatrician, notes that cases of measles exploded in England a few years ago, after British parents concerned over mercury and autism stopped having their youngsters immunized.

A toxic debate

The battle over mercury started in the early 1990s, as U.S. public health officials were increasing the number of vaccines recommended for very young children. Back then, virtually all of those vaccines contained the mercury preservative thimerosal.

Rates of autism in young children started rising about the same time. Many parents of autistic children -- along with Haley and some other scientists -- soon were arguing that thimerosal was the cause, citing the toxic nature of mercury.

By the late 1990s, the U.S. government began an effort to remove mercury from vaccines. But mainstream drug and medical groups, including the FDA, the CDC and the federal Institute of Medicine, have maintained there was no scientific evidence to support the theory that mercury caused autism -- a stance that enrages Haley and many parents.

Haley insists that last month's California report does nothing to resolve the dispute. He says that vaccines containing thimerosal apparently were available in Kentucky as recently as 2005.

"I would get calls from parents saying, 'I have to get my child immunized, what should I do,' " Haley said. "I told them, 'make the doctor's office show you the label insert for the vaccine and see if it says thimerosal, because if it does you don't want your child getting that.' Without exception they would call back and say that they were asked to leave the clinic, or that they rejected the shots because the vaccines contained thimerosal."

No ban in Kentucky

Officials at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services say that while Kentucky has no law specifically banning mercury in vaccines, mercury has been removed from virtually all the vaccines routinely given to children. They cite national information from the CDC.

Haley, though, maintains that some vaccines containing mercury still might be out there and in use.

Maul, the UK pediatrician, says the continuing argument leaves parents in a quandary over what to do about vaccines and immunizations. Maul, a spokesman for the Kentucky chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has a son with autism.

Maul says research someday might conclude that mercury in vaccines can cause autism. But he says that evidence hasn't been found yet and that, for now, immunizations are essential to protect young children from serious infectious diseases.

"I will continue to respect those parents who don't want it," he said. "But as someone who has a fourth child on the way, I guarantee you that she will be immunized. I've immunized all my kids, and I continue to recommend it."

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