<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- The controversy swirling about childhood immunization was covered in this space about 13 months ago, but it's time to visit the subject again, specifically the possible link between certain vaccines and autism.

You'll be hearing and reading more about this soon, for various reasons explored below.

Autism is a neurological disorder -- first recognized half a century ago -- with varying degrees of severity that affects more and more children each year.

Classic autism symptoms include lack of speech, repetitive behaviors, little or no social interaction, withdrawal from parental and sibling contact, jerky body motions of specific limbs, head-banging, hand-flapping, and weird individual obsessions like eating cardboard containers or breaking certain specific objects each time the victims see them.

Back in the '50s, medical scientists -- who didn't have a clue as to cause -- tried to pin it on bad parenting by mothers. When that didn't fly, they shrugged it off and said it was defective genes -- luck of the biological draw, so to speak. There's a four-to-one chance the child affected will be a boy.

Not many Americans paid attention to autism, because 20 years ago, only one in every 5,000 kids in the United States was affected. By the turn of the millennium, that ratio was one in 500 children. By 2002, it was one in 250 American children. Last year, it approached one in every 155 male toddlers in the country.

Parents have heard about it now. The raw numbers are perhaps more shocking than the ratios, especially in certain states.

In California about 15 years ago, only 2,800 kids were afflicted. By 2002, that had increased to 20,400 in that state and now it's up to about 24,000. The number of autism cases has increased 440 percent in the last decade in that state. It's up 200 percent in the last decade in New York State; in Pennsylvania, almost 900 percent in that time. There aren't enough special-ed teachers in any state to even begin to approach the problem. It costs states about $2 million for each child with autism for the first 18 years of life. The Department of Education disabilities data bank shows autism cases in school-age children rose from about 5,500 nationwide to an astonishing 79,000 during the 1990s.


Many parents, doctors, scientists and pediatricians think it's because as the 1990s rolled in and pharmaceutical companies brought new and promising vaccines to market, the number of scheduled shots your baby normally received in the first four or five years of life increased from about 20 to almost 40. And some of these vaccines contained an additive called thimerosal, a preservative that stops contamination of vaccines and preserves shelf-life. Thimerosal contains mercury, a toxic metallic element that attacks neurons in the body. In drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency limit for human consumption is two parts per billion. In landfills, it's 200 parts per billion.

Recent lab tests on some baby teeth have shown a content of more than 3,000 parts per billion.

Dr. Mark Geier, a Washington area geneticist and vaccine expert, studied autism rates among 85,000 children who had received mercury-containing vaccines against about 70,000 who didn't. He found the risk of autism in the thimerosal-receiving group was almost 27 times higher.

The thimerosal controversy came to public attention about five years ago, when the American Academy of Pediatrics announced federal health officials would begin phasing the substance out of childhood vaccines. Not to worry, said the doctors, just a precaution.

But Congress told the lethargic Food and Drug Administration -- which should have had the numbers handy, but didn't -- to find out how much of the potent neurotoxin was actually contained in vaccines. What the FDA discovered astounded the medical profession.

Despite drug company studies from 70 years ago that concluded mercury-containing serum was not fit for cattle or dogs, and with all the huge, expensive federal agencies to protect us from just such a mistake -- the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine -- not one had taken the time to total up how much thimerosal and mercury had been added to the average child's intake with the new increased immunization schedule.

In essence, it was a grade-school math problem, but the nation's medical elite hadn't done it. The answer was about 120 times the amount allowed by the EPA for daily mercury exposure.

As Andrea Rock -- a terrific science reporter -- points out in the current issue of "Mother Jones" magazine: "During the 1990s, when some 40 million children were vaccinated, the number of thimerosal-containing vaccines given to children nearly tripled, while autism rates inexplicably increased tenfold."

Regulators, she notes in the "Mother Jones" article, "chose not to act aggressively to reduce infant exposure to thimerosal."

As a result, mercury-containing vaccines mandated for infants remained on the market until the end of 2002. Instead of yanking any trace of those mercury-containing vaccines off the market, the federal agencies we pay billions to support allowed about 8,000 children a day to be needlessly exposed over almost four years.

The federal government and medical establishment reacted as they almost always do -- by covering up. Despite the obvious parallel of usage increase and epidemic onset, articles were written in medical journals assuring parents that there were no direct links between thimerosal and autism. When reporters, vaccine critics and congressional investigators delved into the medical literature, however, they found either the numbers were rigged, the data manipulated, or the writer secretly under the employ of a vaccine manufacturer.

The vaccine-medical-pharmaceutical establishment reacts this way for a variety of reasons: avoidance of liability, refusal to admit dire mistakes, and an altruistic fear that growing parental aversion to inoculations will destroy "herd immunity" -- what doctors call getting enough kids vaccinated to stamp out the spread of contagious diseases.

Dirtball politicians, of course, gleefully joined in the medical fiasco at the expense of injured children and parents. In November of 2002, while the final version of the Homeland Security Act was being voted, someone snuck in as the last four paragraphs of the 484-page document a provision that protected the Eli Lilly Company -- largest maker of thimerosal -- from future autism lawsuits. Nobody owned up to creating the protective clause. The giant Eli Lilly firm, which insists it didn't ask for the provision, had just given about $1.4 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2002 elections, 75 percent of it to Republicans.

Dan Burton -- a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Indiana -- whose House Government Reform Committee has been investigating autism increases for three years, raised hell on the floor. He said that "the legislative process was hijacked" by lobbyists who pushed the Lilly protective provision into reality.

A year ago last week, the House and Senate -- impressed by the ensuing public uproar -- took away the Lilly cloak against liability lawsuits.

Parents who want to recover the immense costs for damage to their autistic children have to first go through a complicated and laborious process called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program -- a federal rigmarole that is stacked against the parents, and a legal labyrinth that demands the damage claim be filed within three years of the inoculation. Yet, in autism, first symptoms often occur five or six years later.

Recent court rulings have gone against that provision, however, and about 4,000 cases are now headed for a special vaccine court of claims. If they fail there, the litigants can take on the vaccine makers and doctors and federal officials in open trial court. The wave of potential lawsuits could cost drug companies billions of dollars.

The early schedule vaccines for your baby that used to commonly contain thimerosal include DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis), hepatitis B and Hib influenza. Tell your doctor to make sure he's not using an old vial with mercury in it.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com February 24 2004