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Medical Institute Set to Determine if Vaccines Really Cause Autism

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Despite being confident that the MMR vaccine is not a trigger for autism, Offit and his peers are concerned about the scheduled IOM review. "This is not a sound scientific process," Offit tells WebMD. "What bothers me is that this process tends to be political."

The possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has generated a lot of political attention. It also has managed to capture the imagination of at least one powerful Republican in Congress -- Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, whose grandson is autistic.

Burton, who chairs the powerful House Government Reform Committee, is believed to be the root-cause behind this IOM review. In April, Burton held an emotionally charged congressional hearing, during which he explicitly stated his belief that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Offit now fears that Burton and his supporters will use the IOM review to discourage parents from having their children immunized. "It's sad to see so much time being spent on offering parents an explanation that is so clearly wrong," Offit says.

According to the CDC, there also could be a tragic impact. Thanks in large part to the measles vaccine, the agency observes, the number of reported measles cases has now dropped to about 100 per year from more than 27,000 a year in just one decade. In 1999, the agency says, there were no reported deaths compared to about 64 deaths in 1990.

But Kimberly Curtis is not surprised at Burton's and other parents' persistence.

Anger -- That's the initial feeling parents and relatives confront when their loved ones are first diagnosed, and it feels good to have something or someone else to blame, she explains. "It's the hardest phase to deal with," she tells WebMD.

Kimberly Curtis now councils other parents with autistic children in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore region. Since Morgan's birth about eight years ago, she has had three more children, all of whom received the MMR vaccination without becoming autistic.

The IOM committee charged with looking into the alleged connection will meet three times this year and, over the course of the next three years, also will attempt to address eight other vaccine-related safety concerns. The CDC and the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, will jointly fund the entire project.

"The intent is to have a mechanism by which we can get a [quick review and decision] by a panel of credible and nongovernment people to look at issues," Martin Myers, MD, a director of the CDC's national vaccine program, recently explained at an NIH-sponsored meeting.

The level of public concern has also made it imperative that these vaccine-related safety issues be addressed, said Kathleen Stratton, PhD, a senior IOM program director, who will help chair the 14-member review committee.

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