One of the big medical mysteries of the past decade is the alarming rise in the number of autism cases among children. In 1991, autism hit one kid in 2,500. It was rare enough that it lurked in the background, a spooky but not terribly immediate possibility for most parents. Since then, the rate has risen fifteen times, so that it now strikes one out of every 166 children. There are half a million autistic children in the U.S. right now. With the amount of effort, care, and cost that it takes to raise an autistic child–not to mention continuing costs and support required throughout adulthood–this is an enormous, looming public health crisis.
It’s also a tragedy — a tragedy because it could have been prevented. While many causes have been proposed for the rise in autism (including, incredibly, geeky parents), none have really stuck. Until now.
Robert Kennedy Jr. reports in Salon on what seems to be a very clear linkage between thimerosal and autism. Thimerosal is a preservative that, until recently, was used in many vaccines. It also contains mercury, which has been shown to have dramatic effects on the brains of infants and young children. In small doses, it may be no big deal. But since 1991, the number of vaccinations children in the U.S. get has risen from 3 to about 22. That’s a sharp increase in mercury exposure–and it correlates extremely well with the rise in autism.
Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control has known about this link since before 2000. The FDA reports that thimerosal has been greatly reduced if not eliminated from most vaccines — at least the ones used in the U.S. — since then. Yet the federal government has done nothing to publicize the effects of thimerosal–in fact, it covered up research confirming the autistic effects of thimerosal. Even worse: Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, by the way) keeps trying to put riders on various bills to protect thimerosal’s maker, Eli Lilly, from legal liability.
I’m not eager to join the freaky ranks of the anti-vaccination crowd, but the research on this seems quite specific and quite scary. (More details.)
Fortunately for babies currently being vaccinated in the U.S., thimerosal is no longer an issue. But if Kennedy is right, this is a huge scandal–and because it should have been identified and corrected years ago, it’s especially shocking. If I were a reporter this is the story I’d be chasing right now.