House Studies Possible Link Between Autism, Vaccines

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April 6, 2000 (Washington) -- In a marathon and emotionally charged hearing, a Congressional committee on Thursday examined an alleged link between routine childhood vaccines and autism.

"We're talking about an epidemic of autism," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Burton, whose grandson is autistic, said he believes there is a link between vaccines and autism. Similarly, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) says, "The problem may not be our children ... but in what our children are being given."

The onset of autism often coincides closely with the first administration of vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella.

But Coleen Boyle, PhD, an official with the CDC, testified that no link has been found between vaccines and the disease. And the American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics all issued statements asserting that vaccines do not cause autism, and provide far more benefit than risk.

Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the committee's lead Democratic member, accused Burton of "sensationalism" in holding the hearing, which featured 19 witnesses. "Hearings like this have a real danger. Why should we scare people ... until we know the facts?" he said. He said the hearing could cause people to die if children fail to get vaccinated and then contract certain illnesses.

Autism is an ill-understood, lifelong neurological disease that severely hinders an individual's communication with the outside world. The hearing highlighted the fact that the number of children with the disease appears to have increased in recent years. California, for example, has reported a 273% increase in children with autism since 1988, while Maryland reported a 513% increase from 1993 to 1998. But some experts attribute the rise to better recognition of the disease and an evolving definition of the condition.

Regardless of its scientific merit, the idea of a connection between vaccines and autism appears to have garnered broad grass-roots interest. Four parents began the hearing by testifying to their belief in the link, saying that their children's autism symptoms began shortly after they had measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccinations between the ages of 1 and 2. Their impassioned testimony brought tears from both the audience and members of the committee.

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The hearing was so packed with autism and vaccine activists that it required two overflow rooms.

The controversy on the subject began when British researcher Andrew Wakefield, MB, hypothesized in a 1998 piece in The Lancet that autism may be triggered by viruses in the MMR vaccines. Wakefield reiterated his findings for the hearing. And Vijendra Singh, PhD, a research professor at Utah State University, testified: "The onset of autism should no longer be regarded as merely a coincidence with the timing of the vaccinations."

But other researchers and physicians said that subsequent studies have not established any such link. Charles Prober, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases, tells WebMD, "If people believe this en masse, then our vaccine programs will suffer substantially and there will be a resurgence in all the diseases we had so successfully controlled."

Prober suggested that Burton's interest in autism is clouding his judgment. "His degree of objectivity is a little marred by the concern that he has, appropriately so, for his family members. Science is meant to be as objective as possible."

Burton, for his part, sought to cast doubts on the objectivity of some of those who asserted that there was no vaccine-autism link. Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, testified that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. But Burton pointed out that Offit is paid by the drug firm Merck to educate physicians about vaccines. Merck manufactures the MMR vaccine.

"There is nobody I know that does vaccine work that would want to hide or deny an association that has some plausibility," Prober tells WebMD. "The process of vaccine development, testing, licensure, and follow-up is an extremely complicated process that has probably more checks and balances than the government." For example, Prober said, the infant rotavirus vaccine was pulled swiftly from the market last year after safety problems were found.

On the other hand, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group with serious concerns about current vaccine standards, maintains that the federal government may have ignored or concealed early data that could have kept that vaccine off the market.

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The CDC and the National Institutes of Health are now conducting several studies looking at both autism and vaccines. Lawmakers at the hearing called for further funding and initiatives.

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