April 4, 2006

The Age of Autism: Hot potato on the Hill

The Age of Autism: Hot potato on the Hill

The newly proposed legislation to study the autism rate in never-vaccinated American kids could settle the debate over vaccines and autism once and for all. Does that mean it will never happen?

This week U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., stepped out front on the issue. She announced at a briefing at the National Press Club that she is drafting legislation to mandate that the federal government find the answer to that question.

Notice the word "mandate" -- as in "direct," which is the language the bill uses. As in, quit making excuses and just do it.

Bureaucrats and lobbyists and "experts" sometimes forget that the power in this country resides with the people, who express their will through their elected representatives. This may sound rather grand, but the point is that legislators are not some "special interest" who must be humored while the permanent ruling class goes on its merry way.

That's why putting a bill before the Congress -- which Maloney says she will do by the end of April after getting as much public comment as possible -- could be a bigger threat than people realize.

After all, as Maloney said this week, "Maybe someone in the medical establishment will show me why this study is a bad idea, but they haven't done it yet."

Maloney, who credits this column with the idea to look at the never-vaccinated, also critiqued the studies that supposedly have ruled out any link between vaccines -- particularly the mercury-based preservative thimerosal -- and autism.

"The one major government study to date, the Institute of Medicine's 2004 review, has been met with skepticism from a lot of people," she said. "There are serious questions about the data set and methodology.

"Meanwhile, there is new biological evidence published in top journals, and from major U.S. universities, to support the mercury-autism hypothesis. Just last week we saw the study out of UC Davis, which found that thimerosal disrupts normal biological signals within cells, causes inflammation and even cell death.

"In short," the congresswoman concluded, "I believe that there are still more questions than answers. But answers are what we desperately need."

Surely everyone's in favor of answers, aren't they? Well, no, they're not. Already, doubts are being raised about whether there are enough never-vaccinated kids to do such a study (there are); whether it's worth doing (it is); and what the results would really show (well, let's find out).

In fact, if the feds hadn't been contentedly dozing for the last decade as the autism rate inexplicably soared, we'd already have our answer.

Back in 2002 a woman named Sandy Gottstein, who does not even have an affected child, came all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, to raise this issue at a congressional hearing.

"My question is, is the National Institutes of Health ever planning on doing a study using the only proper control group, that is, never-vaccinated children?" Gottstein asked.

Dr. Steve Foote of NIH responded: "I am not aware of a proposed study to use a suitably constructed group of never-vaccinated children. ... Now CDC would be more likely perhaps to be aware of such an opportunity."

Responded Dr. Melinda Wharton of the CDC: "The difficulty with doing such a study in the United States, of course, is that a very small portion of children have never received any vaccines, and these children probably differ in other ways from vaccinated children. So performing such a study would, in fact, be quite difficult."

Another futile effort is recounted in David Kirby's book, "Evidence of Harm," which recounts parents' compelling stories that their children's regressive autism was triggered by vaccine reactions.

The book -- just out in paperback and winner of this year's prize from the prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors -- describes how in 2004 Lyn Redwood of the advocacy group SafeMinds sent a list of proposed studies to Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla.

Weldon, a strong advocate of banning thimerosal, sent the list on to Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Redwood's proposal No. 1: "An investigation into the rates of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations (e.g., Amish, Christian Scientists.)"

Last year this column set out to test that theory among the Amish, in an unvaccinated subset of homeschooled kids and in a large medical practice in Chicago with thousands of never-vaccinated children. In this admittedly unscientific and anecdotal reporting, we didn't find very many kids with autism.

That's certainly not conclusive, but we did conclude there are plenty of never-vaccinated kids in this country, and not all of them are riding around in buggies and reading by candlelight. The total number of appropriate "controls" -- reasonably typical never-vaccinated kids -- is well into the tens of thousands, at least.

Nor is the issue pro-vaccines vs. no vaccines, as some who oppose such a study are subtly suggesting. It's safety vs. complacency.

After all, the CDC switched to an inactivated polio vaccine in 2000 when it became clear that the live polio virus was causing a handful of polio cases each year. And kids today are still protected from polio -- only now with zero chance of actually contracting it from the vaccine.

Switching to a safer vaccine did not cause a collapse in public confidence in childhood immunizations -- probably quite the contrary.

Expect to hear all kinds of excuses, including that one, from the powers that be as to why such a conclusive study couldn't, shouldn't and really mustn't be done. Then ask yourself, Why?

E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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