Editor's note: At the end of this post, we collect the stories Age of Autism has written about the new, and shocking, autism numbers. Here, AOA Media Editor Anne Dachel looks at mainstream media coverage -- and finds it part of the problem.
By Anne Dachel
Friday, Dec 18 the CDC finally got around to updating the autism rate. News about a stunning increase had actually been out for several months as reported in stories on autism, but the CDC waited to let the word out right before Christmas where it naturally had brief press coverage and even less attention from the general public, caught up in pre-holiday scrambling.
Any of us in the autism community could have predicted how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would spin the fact that one percent of children now have autism. They'd still have no definite answers and they'd continue to attribute much of the increase to the tired claim that doctors used to call these kids something else but now the definition includes less severe forms of the disorder. The new increase however from one in 150 (announced in 2007), to now one in every 110 children, one in every 70 boys (based on studies of eight year olds in 2006) was too much even for the CDC to try to pretend that kids have always been like this.
While never using the word CRISIS, Catherine Rice from the CDC had to admit that this might be more than just better diagnosing. Autism might actually be on the rise. She’s not sure of course and it’s nothing to be really worried about, but there might just be environmental factors.
So how is the American public being told that one percent of children are disabled? A press release from the CDC did appear in stories around the U.S.
AP's Mike Stobbe wrote, “About 1 in 110 children have autism, according to the government's latest estimate released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rice was included, advising us that the CDC is working on autism but they have no answers. " ‘At this point it's impossible to say how much is a true increase and how much is identification,’ she said, in a Friday news conference. “Doctors do not know what causes autism, but have been investigating possible genetic and environmental triggers. Results from the environmental research are still years away.”
WPTZ reported " ‘We have much to learn about the causes,’ Rice said.”
MSBNC offered typical, reporting, “The CDC calls the new data a significant health care concern.”
They had Lee Grossman of the Autism Society of America sounding alarmed. Grossman: “When you see such a dramatic increase, 57 percent in a four year period… I’m trying to conceive of how many kids we’ve missed during that four year period.” Dr. Max Wiznitzer countered saying, “This study does not tell us the ‘why.’ It just tells us what’s going on and it identifies a public health issue.”
MSNBC gave us some strange information, including, “The majority of cases weren’t diagnosed by a doctor until around age four…meaning they’ve missed the benefits of early intervention.”
MSNBC also said, “No one has been able to pinpoint any one reason for the increase. They said it could be due to better detection and screening or that cases truly could be rising.”
It’s hard to understand how MSNBC could be telling us about “better detection” at the same time they saying that “someone, usually a mom or dad raised concerns by age two,” but it took doctors till age four to recognize that the child had autism. So much for “better detection.”
ABC 7 in Los Angeles told the public: “There’s a dramatic rise in the cases of autism. …The news is a wakeup call to government agencies, researchers, and parents. …Experts say we’re seeing more diagnosis and more cases.” They even had Dr. Richard Besser confirm that genetics and environment are at play here and that doctors don’t have a clue, “No one understands what’s driving this increase in autism.” ABC 7 finished by telling viewers that NIH was going to put $60 million into finding the cause and treatment of autism.
I thought it was interesting that ABC 7 actually reported that the latest rate is a wakeup call for government agencies. Personally, I think that since the CDC hasn’t expressed more than mild curiosity so far, an autism rate of one in 10 wouldn’t rouse them.
In local news reports around the U.S., Catherine Rice was the CDC official most often cited. There may be new numbers, but along with them came the familiar hand wringing and tired admissions of ignorance. Officials decisively downplay the news by their refusal to express any alarm. Somewhere, someone has to be worried about the prospects that in four more years, there could be another 50+ percent increase. No one voiced this concern, but officials have no answers either and therefore no way they could possibly assure us it won’t happen.
I did notice some exceptional coverage.
One such report was from WIFR in Rockford IL. In the story, Autism Numbers on the Rise, a local mom asked, “Why all of a sudden are we getting such an increase in all this and what can we do to help prevent any more increase?” The reporter also added the comment, “Shots might be at least partly responsible for causing autism.”
I couldn’t help but notice the use of the word PREVENT in speaking about autism. I don’t recall ever hearing an official talk about preventing autism.
By far the best coverage of the new rate was from WGN in Chicago. In the brief report, New data sparks a call for increased funding for autism research, they had video of a parent who’s also the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst sounding an alarm about the latest numbers. Pete DiCianni cited the CDC for failing to recognize this disaster. He said, “As parents, we want answers. We want to know why. Why are children getting autism?
What is the CDC’s plan for combating our country’s number one children’s disease? ‘Better diagnosis’ does not account for this public health crisis, affecting one percent of our population today.” DiCianni was the voice of countless frustrated parents who are sick to death of only hearing excuses and denials when it comes to autism. DiCianni asked questions that are never asked by members of the media. It was amazing to hear him.
WGN also acknowledged the impact autism is having on IL schools saying “About 12,000 children in IL received special education services for autism last year.” (Whenever I see numbers like that I think of the conservative estimate of $3.2 million in lifetime care cost for one individual with autism that came out in 2006.)
The latest numbers make it clear how bad things are when it comes to autism. Officials can’t explain the numbers; they don’t even try. Anyone expecting a baby should be worried because there’s no way to prevent a child from becoming autistic. And no one has a cure for the disorder. Officials gave us the stunning increase, but they did it with no words of urgency, yet the average person out there can recognize that this is a significant increase and there has to be something driving it.
The main reaction from the CDC has always been defensive when it comes to autism. The only thing they’re sure of is that it can’t be connected to their vaccine program. Regardless of the fact that they have no answers, vaccines are safe.
Still, officials have begrudgingly admitted that the increase might just mean that there are more kids with autism and that’s a shocking admission on the part of the CDC. That can’t be good. More and more people are talking about the autism numbers. They want answers and maybe the agency that has come up empty whenever the cause is mentioned should give up trying. The CDC is no closer to knowing what causes autism than they were when my son was diagnosed twenty years ago. Will they be just as useless in the future? All indications are that autism will be an eternal mystery for health officials no matter how bad the numbers get.
I seriously wonder how long the CDC will get away with claiming no evidence of harm. When will doctors start to feel a little embarrassed citing studies from the CDC?
More and more questions are being raised about the ethics of this agency. On Dec 17, NY Times reporter Gardiner Harris reported on the pharmaceutical ties at the CDC in Advisers on Vaccines Often Have Conflicts, Report Says. Harris wrote, “A new report finds that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a poor job of screening medical experts for financial conflicts when it hired them to advise the agency on vaccine safety, officials said.
“Most of the experts who served on advisory panels in 2007 to evaluate vaccines for flu and cervical cancer had potential conflicts that were never resolved, the report said. Some were legally barred from considering the issues but did so anyway.
“In the report, … Daniel R. Levinson, the inspector general of the Dept. of Health and Human Services found that the centers failed nearly every time to ensure that the experts adequately filled out forms confirming they were not being paid by companies with an interest in their decisions.”
In addition, the quiet announcement was made late last year that Dr. Julie Gerberding, ex-head of the CDC and longtime defender of the safety of vaccines went to work as director of the vaccine division of Merck Pharmaceutical Co. Business Week covered it in the story, Health Highlights: Dec. 22, 2009, under the heading, “Ex-CDC Chief to Head Merck's Vaccines Business” they wrote, “The former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon head Merck & Co.'s $5 billion vaccines business.
“Julie Gerberding, CDC director from 2002 until earlier this year, will take over as president of Merck's vaccines operations, overseeing sales of its existing vaccines, development of vaccines currently in the works, and continuation of plans to expand vacccinations in developing countries, Dow Jones Newswires reported.
“Richard Clark, Merck chairman and chief executive, described Gerberding as a ‘preeminent authority in public health, infectious diseases and vaccines,’ Dow Jones reported.”
Maybe what we should be asking is whether the revolving door between the vaccine makers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention means that officials have never really made the health and safety of our children their main concern. Maybe that’s why autism will never be a real priority for this agency. Gerberding has long been a staunch defender of vaccines in the face of charges by thousands of parents and more and more doctors that an unsafe and unchecked vaccine schedule is behind the explosion in autism. At least in her case, it seems that the real payoff for corporate loyalty comes after someone leaves the agency.
The countless parents struggling with children disabled with autism still have no answers.
The CDC still refuses to admit anything about the disorder. They still have only “concern” when it comes to this health care emergency.
We simply can’t continue to ignore the suffering of a generation children and their families. How long will the agency receiving millions of dollars each year to run health care in this country get a free pass when they can tell us nothing about why autism is consuming our children? Why do news sources meekly pass on the latest press release from the CDC, no questions asked? Does the press feel any responsibility to the public? How long will the agency charged with approving, mandating, and promoting vaccines also get to answer questions of vaccine safety?
I can’t imagine how history will judge all of this when the full reality of the autism disaster is finally realized. I think the most puzzling question will be, “How could so many do nothing for so long?”
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.
Below are links to our coverage of the December 23rd CDC press conference about the increasing autism numbers. The news that 40,000 children had been diagnosed with autism in a single year didn't make a ripple in the mainstream media pond.
Mark Blaxill: Lies, Damned Lies and CDC Autism Statistics
CDC Reports "True Increase in Autism Risk Can Not Be Ruled Out"
CDC Brings Bad Tidings: 40,000 Children Diagnosed This Year Alone
Katie Wright: About that CDC Autism Press Conference Right Before Christmas