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New Intensity to Debate Over Autism Cause

Parents and Researchers Grapple With Claims That Autism Is Linked to Thimerosal in Vaccines
WebMD Health News

July 12, 2005 -- Sallie Bernard and Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD, have something in common. Each is the mother of a child with autism.

Both of these mothers care deeply about their children. They care deeply about other children, too -- especially those with autism. But they could not differ more on what they think needs to be done for them.

Bernard is the executive director of Safe Minds. Her organization is working hard to warn parents that mercury -- especially thimerosal, a form of mercury once used in U.S. childhood vaccines -- is the likely cause of an epidemic of autism.

Gernsbacher, president elect of the American Psychological Society and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warns us not to believe in an autism epidemic. "False epidemics elicit false causes," she wrote in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Renewed Controversy

Last year, it looked as though the book might finally close on the vaccine/autism debate.

A blue-ribbon panel convened by the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed the evidence. It did not create many waves when it rejected the idea that the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine might cause autism. That theory was retracted by nearly all of the researchers who originally proposed it. The IOM committee then flatly rejected the idea that vaccines containing thimerosal could cause autism.

Bernard wasn't convinced. Neither was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kennedy's recent article for Rolling Stone and Slate -- followed by a scathing Wall Street Journal editorial -- set off a flurry of public interest.

Kennedy indicts thimerosal as a likely cause of autism. And he accuses the CDC, the FDA, the IOM, the World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics of helping drug companies hide or misrepresent the evidence.

What is this evidence? WebMD takes a look.

Is There Really an Autism Epidemic?

Fact: Autism rates have been going up. Recent years have seen a higher percentage of kids getting diagnosed with autism. The trend seems to have begun in the 1980s and to have picked up speed in the 1990s.

Eric Fombonne, MD, FRCPsych, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London, has studied autism in the U.K.

"From our data, we can say that we have a prevalence that is 62 cases per 10,000 children," he told WebMD in a 2001 interview. "In the mid-1960s, we showed rates of 4 cases per 10,000."

Isn't this the sign of an epidemic? Not necessarily.

"You cannot compare studies now to studies from 30 years ago," Fombonne said. "It would be comparing oranges not with apples, but with sheep."

Children with autism vary widely. It was not until 1940 that this constellation of problems with social interaction, communication, and focused interest came to be called autism. And it was not until 1980 that the diagnosis of autism was formalized.

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