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According to my daughter's pediatrician, the original study that linked thimerosal (mercury) with autism was extremely flawed. However, that flawed research made it's rounds and is now circulating all over the internet as fact.
Thanks to vaccines, diseases that killed or maimed millions throughout most of human history have been virtually eradicated. Where strong immunization programs exist, diseases such as polio, measles, mumps and diphtheria are scourges of the past.
This remarkable achievement is periodically threatened by suspicions about vaccines that might prompt parents to resist getting their children inoculated.
What? Autism affects ability to communicate, respond to surroundings and form relationships. Restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior are common.
Who? As many as 500,000 Americans younger than 21. Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.
When? Usually diagnosed at ages 2 or 3.
Why? Causes are unknown, and there is no specific medical cure.
Sources: National Alliance for Autism Research, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest furor involves thimerosal, a mercury-based chemical once used routinely as a preservative in childhood vaccines. Some parent activist groups claim that it causes autism, a set of developmental disorders characterized by difficulty in social interactions and behavioral problems.
The anti-thimerosal campaign has taken an unfortunate turn that's heavy on inflammatory rhetoric. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. suggests that public health officials conspired with drugmakers to "poison a generation of American children." The campaign is supported by lawyers who've filed more than 4,800 suits against vaccine-makers, despite these facts:
•Health organizations — including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization, Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the American Academy of Pediatrics — agree there is no evidence linking thimerosal and autism.
•If thimerosal causes autism, the prevalence of the disorder should have declined as the chemical was removed from vaccines. No such decline occurred in Canada, Denmark and Sweden, where thimerosal was removed during the mid-1990s.
•Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the United States starting in 1999 as a precaution because of concerns about mercury levels. Except for some flu vaccines, no vaccine given to American preschool children now contains it.
Autism's causes are unknown, and there is no proven cure, leaving parents understandably anxious to find one and suspicious of evidence that closes off any avenue of hope.
Government agencies have fed those suspicions by resisting requests to make their records public promptly, inadvertently encouraging precisely the kind of mistrust and conspiracy theories that the agencies want to avoid. They would do well to reassure the public by releasing all relevant data.
But the greater danger is that the anti-thimerosal campaign threatens to scare parents away from protecting their children from infectious diseases without scientific support. Whenever vaccination rates drop, epidemics make a comeback.
Low vaccination rates sparked a measles epidemic in the United States from 1989 through 1991 that involved 55,622 cases and claimed the lives of 123 people, 90% of whom hadn't been vaccinated. As inoculation rates rose, measles declined markedly.
More than 17,000 American preschoolers don't get any of the vaccinations they need each year, a CDCP study found. Needlessly scaring parents and undermining confidence in vaccines proven to save lives won't help a single autistic child. But it could endanger the lives of millions.