25 May 2003
Rise In Va. Autism Cases Prompts Debate Over Causes
(AP) - An alarming rise in the number of children with autism in
Virginia drew researchers, physicians and parents to a conference
here, including a British doctor who claims that widely administered
childhood vaccines may be responsible for the increase.
to the Autism Program of Virginia, the number of autism cases in
the United States jumped 173 percent over the past decade. In Virginia,
the number of cases has climbed by about 78 percent over the past
three years, and now 2,702 children have autism in the state.
the speakers at Saturday's conference, sponsored by the Central
Virginia Autism Group, was Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist
whose studies have prompted heated debate and helped prompt a congressional
told the approximately 100 people attending the conference that
his first encounter with an autistic child led him to question the
conventional wisdom about the causes of autism. His subsequent research
linked a mercury-containing
in the Measles-Mumps-Rubella, or MMR, vaccine with autism.
described how the child's mother said her son was developmentally
normal until he had his MMR vaccine at 15 months old. Then the autism
appeared, and with it severe bowel problems.
the five years since he saw that first patient, Wakefield has extensively
studied bowel disease in children with autism. He has identified
an inflammatory condition that seems to be linked to the MMR vaccine.
MMR contains the preservative Thimerosal, which has the toxic element
mercury among its ingredients.
says that some children with the inflammatory disorder in the bowel
also have other developmental disorders. He said he believes the
damaged membrane of the intestine can't act as an efficient barrier
to harmful molecules, which can then enter the blood stream and
cause problems throughout the body.
team's first findings on 12 children were published in The Lancet,
a British medical journal. Wakefield said he lost his job after
refusing to back down from the findings and now continues research
with several other teams. His latest findings implicate the measles
virus used in the vaccine, he said.
Elizabeth Mumper, a Lynchburg pediatrician, said she plans to work
on repeating Wakefield's research. She will work with Michael H.
Hart, a Roanoke pediatric gastroenterologist who will do the evaluations
first became interested in autism after hearing Wakefield speak
previously about his research.
thought it was very compelling," she said. "And I thought
it was something that made it clear that other investigators should
try to look into this issue, and either say, 'We're seeing the same
thing the Wakefield team did' or 'In our laboratory we can't reproduce
general, Mumper said, she sees indications of a link to the vaccine.
does seem to be a change in the pattern of autism," she said.
"For many years, most kids seemed to be affected very early
on. And in the last 15 years or so, the numbers have shifted a bit.
And what people are reporting is more and more kids who seem normal
(at first) and were noted to regress between 15 months and two years."
allegations have drawn widespread attention and prompted hearings
by U.S. Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government
Reform Committee. Burton's committee staff recently released a report
that found that "there's no question that mercury does not
belong in vaccines" and that the federal Centers for Disease
Control should have acted at least three years ago to encourage
the use of vaccines that do not contain the additive.
of the problem, according to critics, is that although the amount
of mercury in each vaccine was within federal guidelines for mercury
exposure, many children got several vaccines at once. As a result,
some were getting up to 125 times the level considered safe.
CDC currently is working with pharmaceutical companies to develop
vaccines that do not contain mercury. In the meantime, the pharmaceutical
makers continue to deny that their vaccines are responsible for
the rise in autism cases.
over the claimed link to mercury is likely to continue for some
time, in part because autism is very complex, said Dr. Mary Megson,
a Richmond pediatrician who has more than 2,000 patients who have
autism and other disabilities.
think autism is caused by having a genetic predisposition and then
an environmental event which disconnects major metabolic pathways
in the body," she said.
said she is having some success treating autism with vitamin A,
which she said is best absorbed as an oil molecule but is most often
found in other forms in today's diet. By switching patients to an
oil-based form of the vitamin, she said, she has seen dramatic improvements.
first child I treated was a fifth-grader with no language,"
she said. "I put him on just the RDA, the recommended dietary
requirement of vitamin A in the form of oil molecules - cod liver
oil. Three weeks later, when I walked into the room, he was telling
his mother, 'Leave me alone, I can get up on the table by myself."'
much of the conference was highly technical, even the laymen in
the audience said it was important to air the issues thoroughly.
is complicated," said Willmer Price, parent of a 3½-year-old
autistic child. "Autism itself is complicated. So there is
no one answer to any of the problems."