By now you have heard that some people, mostly mothers of autistic children, feel that vaccines may be the reason, or one of the reasons behind the epidemic of autism we are witnessing. You probably have also heard that just about all docs feel there is no causal relationship between autism and vaccines (American J. Medical Genetics 2007;143A:1397.)
Yet, there may be enough evidence to keep an open mind, particularly after today’s report that a former NIH director feels the data have not been analyzed objectively, so causation cannot be ruled out. She feels the economics of finding a relationship would be devastating, which is what keeps docs from being more aggressive about this issue (CBS News, May 12th, 2008.) I agree with her opinion.
Imagine what would happen if we were to unequivocally implicate vaccines; would moms stop vaccinating their children? Would the vaccines industry collapse under the weight of lawsuits? Not to justify a timid approach in looking for hard evidence, but the consequences of settling this issue in favor of observant moms are downright scary. While understandable, the continuous reticence to be painfully objective in examining the data cannot be justified any longer.
For one, it is not very scientific to categorically deny a relationship between vaccines and autism, since the examination of the data leaves much to be desired. Second, it seems that a lot of these children have been found to have dangerously high mercury levels (thimerosal is used as a preservative in vaccines,) despite reassurances that said neurotoxic heavy metal was reported to have been eliminated from vaccines. Third, moms’ observations that their kids seem to come down with autistic characteristics right after they get a battery of immunizations cannot be dismissed as merely wives tales. We have learned from past experiences that moms’ keen and loving opinions are not to be ignored offhand, particularly on the grounds of some shaky, intellectual theory that may well be heavily influenced by economic interests.
In my opinion, a middle-of-the-road approach makes the most sense; I feel that the problem cannot be solely the mercury, or some other toxic substance, or all our children would have autism. Rather, I feel that it is likely a genetically inherited inability to detoxify the mercury (or another toxic substance) that is at play. In other words, we are all exposed to mercury, but we see autism only in those children who cannot eliminate it effective, thus building up higher levels in their brains (“Risk of autism disorder in affected offspring of mothers with a glutathione S-Transferase P1 haplotype,” J. Archives Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2007;161:356.)
This hypothesis would explain not only autism, but many other diseases. It is always a combination of nature and nurture, isn’t? To continue to insist on a clear answer between the two is not only unrealistic but unscientific. Such immature dichotomy only serves the special interests of those who would rather protect their gains, instead of serving the public.
The interplay of genes and the environment reminds me of a patient who felt I had belittled him while trying to answer his query that he felt picked on when he noticed that despite his excellent lifestyle, he was sicker than those who indulged in questionable health habits. My feeble analogy was not well received: when the wolf attacks a flock of sheep, he overtakes the weakest ones first. So it is with our lifestyles: bad habits catch up first in those who have a genetic tendency to a given disease, sometimes despite their best efforts to be healthy.
Inevitably, we have to ask why the incidence of autism is climbing. Some opine that it is merely a better recognition of the disorder. While this may be true, I feel that a more toxic environment and poor diets have contributed the most. Poor diets in children, who are addicted to processed foods, contribute to poor detoxification of pollutants like mercury. Remember the new field of nutragenomics, which makes clear that our diets significantly influence genetic manifestation: the better we eat, the better our genes are copied, which leads to better function in every organ, including detoxification on our intestines, liver, kidneys, lungs and skin.
What can we do about all this?
First, we need to be more supportive of mothers, whose intuitive observations often precede scientific validation.
Second, we need to continue our crusade for cleaner foods and environments.
Third, we need to muster the courage to objectively examine the data on vaccines and a possible link to autism.
Fourth, we need to find a more flexible approach to immunizing our children, rather than eliminating vaccines altogether. In my opinion, children who can be kept from daycare centers are likely to do well if they postpone vaccines until they are one year old, when their immune system is more developed. Then, they could get one vaccine at a time, instead of the powerful cocktails they now get, which, in my opinion, may easily overwhelm their nascent immunity.
I am sure these opinions are likely to upset just about everyone: those who propose eliminating vaccines and those who see nothing wrong with them will probably let me have it. I will not respond, since, just like attitudes about soy, vaccines have become imbued with religious-like fervor. I can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will all be open to further research, for the sake of our children and their long-suffering parents.
For the record, I have a child who suffers from Asperger Syndrome (milder autistic-like problem) in my family.