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Medical Institute Set to Determine if Vaccines Really Cause Autism


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Jan. 10, 2001 (Washington) -- When Morgan S. Curtis was born, everything was normal -- at least from all appearances. He looked like any other baby, according to his parents Kenneth and Kimberly Curtis, and life was a picnic, they say. But when Morgan had just passed his second birthday, they were hit by a thunderous realization. Despite his happy demeanor and normal appearance, the couple's "pink, chubby Michelin Man" was diagnosed as being moderately autistic.

Autism: To many people, the word generates images of acclaimed Hollywood actor Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man -- a sort of idiot with sparks of genius, a savant. But the reality, Kimberly Curtis assures WebMD, is quite different. "It's hard when they can't tell you how they are or what they are thinking," she says. "It really varies from day to day."

Autism is a disorder of brain development that is characterized by problems with social interaction, communication skills, a strict routine, and the need for repetitive behavior, such as swaying or watching the same video over and over again. There is no cure, but intensive education can help autistic children develop new skills. Unfortunately, these programs are expensive and can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $100,000 a year for a residential school setting.

But for parents with newly diagnosed children, these day-to-day challenges and expenses are not the only hurdles they must overcome. Often, parents of autistic children also must deal with the simple frustration of not knowing why their child is autistic.

For that reason, Congress has now ordered the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to investigate an alleged link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The IOM is a division of the National Academy of Sciences, an institution whose members serve as scientific advisers to Congress. Meeting this Thursday, Jan. 11, the IOM is charged with the task of looking at whether childhood vaccinations really do cause autism, or if there's another cause out there that hasn't been identified.

The IOM is then required to make a recommendation on what course of action U.S. health authorities should take in terms of recommending childhood vaccinations.

For those parents of autistic children who believe there is a connection, there is a lot at stake. The current U.S. policy is to encourage timely immunizations. As a result, state authorities generally ban children from attending public schools unless they have been immunized. Some states also charge parents with child neglect and/or abuse if they fail to have their children immunized.

There is no clear evidence to establish a link between vaccination and autism. But over the past three years, the notion has gained broad support, thanks in large part to a handful of researchers. These researchers allegedly have documented a time-based association between the onset of autism and the administration of a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

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