- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The descent is terrible, shocking: A bubbly, gregarious child slowly becomes mumbling and reclusive. Autism has set in. It's a tragic, incurable developmental disorder that now afflicts an estimated one in 500 children every year up from one in 10,000 15 years ago.

Is there an explanation for this tragic epidemic? House Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton believes that at least part of the reason may be thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that until recently was used in many vaccines. Mr. Burton, himself the grandfather of an autistic child, recently held hearings in an attempt to determine if the two could be linked in a chain of causation.

The chairman pointed to a 2001 report by the Institute of Medicine, which stated that the link was "biologically plausible" even though the evidence is "inadequate to accept or reject a casual relationship." The correlation seems reasonable, since most forms of mercury are known to be toxic to living things, and many parents have reported that their children began experiencing autism-like symptoms shortly after being vaccinated. In addition, since the 1980s, the number of vaccination shots (many of them containing thimerosal) given to children has increased dramatically. Before they are 6 years old, children often receive more than 10 vaccinations through an estimated 30 doses. Moreover, the increase in cases of autism, which are growing by about 10 percent each year, seems to be more than just an artifact of increased awareness or better diagnoses.

Unfortunately, it's not clear if this is a correlation or a causation, since no one is exactly certain what causes autism. As the younger siblings of autistic children are more vulnerable to the disease, scientists are fairly certain that there's a genetic link, possibly involving between 10 and 20 genes. There's almost certainly environmental components as well especially given the rise in the disease but no specific causative agent(s) has been established.

For instance, until recently many thought that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine may have played a role (the MMR theory). That theory seems to have been greatly weakened by a study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found no statistical difference between occurrences of autism among 500,000 MMR vaccinated and non-vaccinated Danish children born between 1991 and 1998.

However, those who didn't receive inoculations faced higher risks of disease. In fact, while vaccinations often have unfortunate side effects, the consequences of not vaccinating namely, catching a disease can be far worse. Even those concerned about a possible link between thimerosal and autism, such as Mr. Burton, are still avowedly pro-vaccination.

Parents concerned that they or their child might receive a vaccine containing thimerosal should check the label and ask their health-professional first. While vaccine makers voluntarily phased out the use of thimerosal at the FDA's request, some may still be on the market.

Congressional and scientific investigations into the matter should continue. In the meantime, reasonable people concerned about the matter can take the proper precautions.

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