It's a fool's errand to try to determine the real autism rate these days, especially tracking it over time. But a couple of "soft signals" from California make me question the idea that severe or "full syndrome" autism is still soaring on the same trajectory we saw in the 1990s.
The latest CDC figure -- convenient for the memory-challenged like me -- is 1 in 88, from 2008, among children age 8, born in 2000. Handy, yes, but it's 2013, for crying out loud.
Nobody argues there is still plenty of autism abroad in the land, but nobody, I would argue, truly knows the rate, the trend, or the relative level of severity right this very minute beyond a basic order of magnitude and the fact it is catastrophic. As our book (The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic) shows, the CDC is fully capable of manipulating the true increase into or out of existence (see Brick Township, New Jersey).
And nobody can seriously argue that thimerosal -- the kind of organic mercury in multidose vials -- was out of vaccines by the year 2000. It could have been, if the feds had yanked it when they announced their concern and went ducking for cover in July 1999. Instead, they asked manufacturers to implement a gradual phaseout -- and even spurned pharma offers to go directly to mercury-free shots in some cases.
Meanwhile, mercury is still in millions of flu shots now given to all pregnant women and all infants over six months of age.
As we also know, there is a world of difference between full-syndrome autism -- mute, self-injurious and sometimes dangerous children who will never be independent or, most likely, employable -- and Asperger's, with PDD-NOS occupying a middle ground of still-severe injury. The CDC likes to conflate all these categories, and new DSM-V further muddles the issue. But severity on the spectrum does matter, and a great deal, however it is gradated and defined.
So the idea that since mercury was "removed" from vaccines in 1999, "we all know" that the rate of severe autism rate has kept rising -- well, we all don't know that. At least I don't.
That's why this comment from one of AoA's astute commentators, Cherry Sperlin Misra, who lives in India but often visits family in the States, caught my eye this week. Read it, and then I'll share my own version of this observation:
I feel that the rate of autism has flattened out and is now falling- at least from what I see in California. The law banning the giving of mercury vaccines to children in California came into effect in 2006. Today, in the malls, streets, parks and other public places, it is rare to see an autistic or hyperactive child.
Undoubtedly, this presents a dilemma for the public health personnel. They like to say that "we stopped the mercury and the autism is still increasing", because then people will continue to trust vaccines. On the other hand , if they say that autism is increasing, people may, at long last, become alarmed by that increase, particularly when schools are finding it difficult to manage their budgets because of the large number of autistic kids.
Their solution seems to be to avoid talking about the topic, and most importantly, giving out no data for children born after year 2000.
Here is my today's experience at a school in an upscale neighbourhood in Silicon Valley: This school has three rooms for the special kids. The room for the kids who are about age 5-7 has fewer kids than the other rooms, and the kids do not seem to have severe autism. I was able to speak to the teacher, saying " Excuse me, could I ask you a question?" She gave her assent, so I said, "Can you tell me if the number of younger kids with autism has fallen?"
Her face clouded slightly and she replied, "I really cant talk about that now." I think I will take that reply as a "yes, but we arent supposed to talk about this," but I wonder if anyone here can provide more information.
The other interesting observation is that nearly all the kids must be from homes that eat fish frequently. All or nearly all of the kids are from Southeast Asia or parts of India where fish is eaten frequently. This is a further implication of mercury in fish as causal for autism and it would be likely that these kids may have been vaccinated in countries, such as India, that still use mercury laden vaccines, or they may have been given extra vaccines for visits to their parents' home countries.
I cant state that there was no Caucasian child in that classroom, but while I watched, only Indian and Southeast Asian kids left for home.
Thanks, Cherry. Now here's my observation. As a result of putting together our recent video, How Mercury Triggered the Age of Autism, and seeing how stark the connection with vaccine-type mercury is in those first cases I've been dipping back into some wonderful sources on mercury and autism.
They include David Kirby's seminal Evidence of Harm, Generation Rescue's excellent Web presentation, putchildrenfirst.org, and my own conversations with longtime advocates like the estimable Beth Clay, who worked with Dan Burton and Liz Burt on the mercury-and-autism hearings back in, oh, 2000 or so, the last year for which we have an autism rate.
All this reminded me of something I was told in late 2010 when I attended an autism conference in Long Beach. Such events are wonderful occasions for, among other things, the range of people I get to talk to. I end up with business cards, slips of paper, things to ponder. I try to file it all away, but sometimes I lose track of an interesting thread for a while.
Here are my notes from October 9, 2010:
-- talked with [deleted -- a local autism mom and treatment advocate]. she told me she has a friend who has taught kindergarten for like 40 years, and 20 to 25 years ago started noticing that kids had trouble holding a pencil. she said [deleted] observed the same thing as a nanny in recent years. fine motor skills problem, not failure of parents to "prep" their kids.
-- she said the younger kids "are milder overall," although there continue to be one or two very damaged children who seem to have severe failure to thrive. she said they don't see headbanging, and instead of arm flapping they now see finger flicking.
-- this is interesting -- she said they see 6 and 7 year olds with autism and the milder group of one-and-one-half to two year olds, but no kids in between. "we don't have 3-4-5 year olds," she said. i don't know what that means ...
So, to summarize my note, kids started to have problems a couple of decades ago. Check.
Then came the full-on autism epidemic - headbanging, arm-flapping, and the rest. Check.
Then, as of 2010, there were still 6 and 7 year olds (born 2003-4) with typical autism.
Finally -- "this is interesting" -- this parent and advocate observed a virtual absence of 3 to 5 year olds with autism in late 2010.
Two and a half years later, those kids would now be "about" in the 5 to 7 age range -- the ones whose absence Cherry was observing in a California school just this week.
After the conference, I shared my notes with my co-author, Mark Blaxill, and basically forgot them. Finally -- a few days before Cherry's comment this week, as it happened -- a lightbulb went off, and it was the same one dangling above Cherry's head: California banned mercury in shots for pregnant women and infants in 2006. The ban has not stuck -- like other states that enacted such early bans, the health department has declared emergencies and snuck "the gentle bacteriostat," the harmless kind of organic mercury, thimerosal, ethyl mercury, back in.
But for a time, thimerosal was not allowed in vaccines given to pregnant women or kids. It took effect in 2006 and seems to have been firmly in place in 2007-08. From the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency Physicians' Bulletin dated October 2007:
In bold type: "California law prohibits the administration of influenza vaccine which contains more than 1 mcg of mercury (in the vaccine preservative thimerosal) per 0.5 mL of vaccine to pregnant women and children under 3 years old.
"There is thimerosal free flu vaccine available for children aged six months through 35 months and for women who are pregnant. See Table 1 for dosages and thimerosal content."
In recent years in California, as in many states that originally banned mercury following the 1999 national phaseout, thimerosal appears to have snuck back in. But in 2006-8, it looks to me like thimerosal would have well and truly been out of vaccines in California, no longer in Hep B, DTaP, and HIB at the CDC's request, banned statewide in flu shots for pregnant woman and for infants up to 3 years of age.
This leads to a hypothesis-generating question: Did changes in exposure to organic mercury from vaccines in California since 1999 coincide with changes in the rate or severity of autism? In particular, did changes in thimerosal in flu vaccine coincide with in the rate or severity of autism?
This is a Question, people! Like, Where are the autistic Amish? I'd welcome crowd-sourcing comments of all kinds, including those who think that hard data makes this iintriguing but ultimately meaningless. But as Darwin said, "Speculation is the basis for all good and original observation."
Now, I am sure that the autism rate in California is still ghastly and getting ghastlier; one researcher-parent has told me he sees no sign whatsoever of a lessening of rate or severity in California. That's the hard data; but what Cherry and I independently collected is what I'd call a "soft signal," the kind of thing that makes you wonder what is really going on -- You've got your basic autism epidemic, validated in California beyond dispute; then, maybe, you've got a gap where some front-line people are picking up virtually no cases, then you've got more cases again, mostly on the milder side.
California and a few other exceptions aside, the national uptake of the pediatric flu shot layered in quite neatly just as the other mercury-containing shots were phasing out. This chart from Put Children First paints it visually:
Even back in 2006, the first year of the California ban, I was writing about how "Mercury Creeps Back In" to baby shots through flu vaccinations: "New calculations suggest children today can be exposed to more than half the mercury that was in vaccines in the 1990s, even though manufacturers began phasing it out in the 1990s.
"Adjusted for a child's body weight at the time of the shots, there's virtually no reduction at all, according to this analysis."
Those who are connoisseurs of connecting dots, please note I didn't have a clue "what that means" when I first heard about this puzzling absence of autism cases in California in 2010, and neither did the woman in Long Beach who was telling me about it. The observation just sat there for nearly three years, and was not concocted to try to connect a decrease in mercury in vaccines with a decrease in autism. It was just people talking, which is the kind of thing that ought to scare the daylights out of the vaccine injury deniers. They hate when that happens.
They've hated it for a long time, and they hate it even more these days. Just take a look at the shrieks and howls this week on Slate and Discover following Bobby Kennedy's assertion that mercury-containing vaccines cause autism. He's a conspiracy nut! The dim bulb that shows why dynasties must be busted up like oil trusts! The anti-science Satan of our day!
In the face of strong evidence that mercury triggered the initial rise of the Age of Autism in the 1930s, and the epidemic surge in cases around the world beginning in 1988, pediatricians, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, public health figures, and their mainstream media enablers and apologists continue to barricade the doors, hunker down, and hope the evidence goes away.
Instead, it keeps piling up higher and deeper, as does the damage wrought on children worldwide, 84 million of whom wordwide continue to receive mercury-containing vaccines every year, according to the World Health Organization.
As Mark Blaxill says, facts cluster around a good hypothesis, and the mercury hypothesis has only gained strength since it was supposedly "debunked."
As we've demonstrated, the first cases of autism reported in the medical literature in 1943 -- all born in the 1930s -- can be linked to the first commercial uses of ethyl mercury that began then, in seed disinfectants, lumber preservatives and, yes, vaccines (click on "How Mercury Triggered the Age of Autism" elsewhere on this page for the nine-minute video version).
Then there's the small matter of the CDC's own Generation Zero study that found a 7-to-11 times greater risk of autism in children with high doses of thimerosal in the first few months of life.
None of this absolves anything else about vaccines, or other sources of organic mercury like fish (as Cherry proposes) from playing a major role in the autism epidemic. No. But mercury is the key clue to autism as an environmental, and a vaccine-induced, and a thimerosal-triggered, whole body disorder.
Present at the creation and going strong long after any sane person would have removed it, at whatever cost, it is Exhibit A as to the lengths the denialists will go to protect their profits and their reputations, no matter who gets crushed along the way.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.