By DAN OLMSTED
UPI Senior Editor
WASHINGTON, July 18
(UPI) -- This is my 113th and final Age of Autism column.
United Press International, which has been the hospitable home for this series,
is restructuring, and I'm off to adventures as yet unknown -- although I intend
to keep my focus on autism and related issues.
Why? Because it is the
story of a lifetime.
"Autism is currently, in our view, the most
important and the fastest-evolving disorder in all of medical science and
promises to remain so for the foreseeable future," says Dr. Jeffrey A.
Lieberman, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University's
school of medicine.
Most mainstream experts believe autism is a genetic
disorder that's "increasing" only because of more sophisticated diagnoses. But
based on my own reporting, I think autism is soaring due to environmental
factors -- in the sense of something coming from the outside in -- and that
genes play a mostly secondary role, perhaps creating a susceptibility to toxic
exposures in certain children. As the saying goes: Genes load the gun,
environment pulls the trigger.
So to me, the issues autism raises --
about the health and well-being of this and future generations, about the role
that planetary pollution, chemical inventions and medical interventions may have
inadvertently played in triggering it -- are so fundamental that by looking at
autism, we're looking very deeply into the kind of world we want to inhabit and
our children to inherit.
It is impossible to summarize all the issues
I've raised in my columns, but to me, four stand out:
-- The first
question I asked when I started looking at autism in late 2004 was this: What is
the autism rate among never-vaccinated American children? Vaccines are the
leading "environmental" suspect for many families of autistic children. So I was
stunned to learn that such a study had never been done, given that it could
quickly lay to rest concerns that public health authorities say are dangerously
undermining confidence in childhood immunizations.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney,
D-N.Y., introduced -- and just reintroduced -- a bill to force the Department of
Health and Human Services to do just that (generously crediting this column for
finding enough never-vaccinated children to show that such a study is indeed
feasible). She calls it "common sense," and it is an example of ordinary people
-- through their representatives -- telling the experts they want better
answers, and fast.
Recently, such a study was in fact done with private
funds. It was a $200,000 telephone survey commissioned by the advocacy group
Generation Rescue that, as limited as it is scientifically, suggested a
disturbing trend: Higher rates of autism in vaccinated vs. never-vaccinated U.S.
children, along with similar ratios for other neurodevelopmental disorders like
I reported the same possible
association in the Amish community. That's been criticized as inherently
unscientific and undercut by the fact that Amish genes may differ from the rest
of us and that increasingly, the Amish do receive at least some vaccinations.
All true, but intriguing nonetheless. I also found a family medical
practice in Chicago called Homefirst that has thousands of never-vaccinated
children as patients. According to its medical director, Mayer Eisenstein, he's
aware of only one case of autism and one case of asthma among those kids -- not
the 1 in 150 and 1 in 10 that are the national averages for those disorders --
and he has the medical records to prove it.
I wrote about that in 2005,
yet when I met again with Mayer in Chicago last week, he told me not one public
health official or medical association has contacted him to express any
interest. Nor has any other journalist -- not a one.
-- That brings me
to my second theme. I am sorry to say my colleagues in the mainstream
journalistic community have, in the main, done a lousy job covering this issue.
They, of course, would disagree -- two were quoted (anonymously!) in the
Columbia Journalism Review saying, "Olmsted has made up his mind on the question
and is reporting the facts that support his conclusions."
mind is made up about only one thing: Both vaccinations and autism are so
important that definitive, independent research needs to be done yesterday --
and the fact that it hasn't should be making more journalists suspicious.
I think Big Media's performance on this issue is on a dismal par with
its record leading up to the Iraq war, when for the most part it failed to probe
deeply into the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and the
assertions about Saddam Hussein's link to al-Qaida. And it's bad for the same
reasons -- excessive reliance on "authorities" with obvious conflicts of
interest; uncritical enlistment in the "war on terror" and "the war on disease"
without considering collateral damage or adverse events; a stenographic and
superficial approach to covering the news, and an at-least-semiconscious fear of
In the case of Iraq, that fear included being cut
off -- like my exemplary fellow ex-Unipresser Helen Thomas -- from precious
"inside sources" in the government; in the case of autism, fear of alienating
advertisers lurks silently in the background.
To see how squeamish and
slow-on-the-uptake the media can be in the face of an urgent health crisis, look
no further than the early days of AIDS, as chronicled in Randy Shilts' "And the
Band Played On."
-- Another angle I explored intensively involved a
group of families in Olympia, Wash., who noticed their children regressing into
autism after getting four live-virus vaccines -- mumps, measles, rubella (MMR)
and chickenpox -- at an early age and in close temporal proximity. These cases
seemed to have little or nothing to do with the mercury preservative in other
vaccines, called thimerosal, that many parents blame for autism (it was phased
out of most routine immunizations starting in 1999).
That raises an
ominous prospect: The still-rising autism rate might be related to some other
aspect of the immunization schedule as well -- timing, age, total load or other
ingredients. (I didn't invent that idea; the head of an expert panel mandated by
Congress expressed it to me in an interview -- and again, her comments were
One focus of that seven-part Pox series last year was
a case of autism following a small clinical trial of a new vaccine called
ProQuad, which contains the live-but-weakened MMR and chickenpox viruses in one
shot. The chickenpox virus in ProQuad is about 10 times the amount in the
standalone chickenpox shot, a boost needed to overcome "interference" among the
four viruses (and a possible sign of trouble right there). Manufacturer Merck
says the vaccine is safe and not related to autism.
Earlier this year
the company announced it was suspending production of ProQuad -- barely a year
after its introduction -- because supplies of chickenpox vaccine had run
unexpectedly low. The company, however, will keep producing its other products
containing chickenpox virus: the standalone chickenpox shot and a new vaccine
A Merck spokesman told me the suspension of ProQuad had
nothing to do with any safety concerns, that it had been selling well and would
be reintroduced as soon as chickenpox vaccine supplies were replenished. As I've
written before, I found Merck to be quite accessible and forthcoming when I
asked questions about this issue -- much more so than the Food and Drug
Administration, in fact.
So I take Merck at its word. But -- in the
spirit of trust-but-verify -- I'll be watching for the return of ProQuad.
-- The Age of Autism columns that may mean the most over time (IMHO, of
course) are about the first cases of autism, reported in 1943 at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore among 11 children born in the United States in the
With crucial observations from Mark Blaxill of the advocacy group
SafeMinds, I've suggested a pattern in some of those early cases: exposure,
through the father's occupation, to ethyl mercury in fungicides. That's the same
kind of mercury used in vaccines, and both were introduced commercially around
1930, right when those first autism cases were identified.
This is only
a hypothesis, and critics have suggested it is a classic case not of connecting
the dots, but of finding what I went looking for. That may be, but put yourself
in my place when -- more than a year after publicly proposing the mercury
fungicide idea in a column -- I identified the family of autism's Case 2 and
located an extensive archive for the father, a distinguished scientist.
I sat down in the North Carolina State University library and opened the
first box, took out the first folder and opened it to the first page. It was a
yellowed, typewritten paper from spring 1922 summarizing a fungicide experiment
the father conducted as a grad student in plant pathology -- an experiment in
which mercury was the main ingredient (and in the title). By the time his son
was born in 1936, he was working with the new generation of ethyl mercury
fungicides -- yes, the kind used in vaccines.
Though others will
disagree, I find that just a bit outside the parameters of chance, given the
timeline of the disorder and the independent belief of so many of today's
parents that the same kind of mercury, in a totally different context, triggered
their children's autism.
It also suggests that whatever is causing
autism could be coming at us from several directions -- our increasingly
mercury-toxic environment as well as any medical interventions that may be
implicated. Check out "Mercury Link to Case 2" in the series to get the full
So thanks to UPI for supporting this work. And thanks for
reading, responding to -- and critiquing -- this column. Truth is, you haven't
heard the last word from me. Not by a long shot.
Age of Autism series is available at upi.com under Special Reports.)
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