Autism Debate Gets New Life Following McCain Comments

The debate over autism and vaccines was just reignited by a Presidential candidate.  While recently campaigning in Texas, Republican hopeful Senator John McCain was quoted as saying, “It’s indisputable that autism is on the rise among children.  The question is, what’s causing it?  And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

The thimerosal-autism issue has been hotly debated and vigorously studied in recent years.  And, yes, autism diagnoses have increased exponentially in recent decades; however, there is ongoing disagreement regarding the link.  Some parent groups and lawmakers feel <"">thimerosal, which contains mercury, has caused a rash of new autism cases, but most traditional researchers disagree. McCain’s comments and a recent decision by federal regulators regarding one little girl’s autism have brought new attention to the issue.

Autism, also called “classical autism,” is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and is characterized by impaired social interaction; problems with verbal and nonverbal communication; and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests.  Experts estimate three to six out of every 1,000 children will have autism, with males four times more likely to have autism than females.

McCain’s autism comments have gotten a lot of play, and people are talking about the autism-vaccine link again.  Apparently, radio hosts, journalists, and even a new television drama have covered the issue.  Perhaps McCain was looking to challenge popular thinking and put some focus on the government’s handling of the issue, and many feel it was a good political move.  Given that the US Department of Health and Human Services recently conceded that childhood vaccines contributed to the symptoms of one girl’s autism, McCain’s comments are timely, if nothing else.

Federal officials have ruled that the family of Hannah Poling, nine, of Athens, Georgia is entitled to receive compensation from a federal vaccine injury fund, although the amount she is entitled to receive remains undetermined.  In a court document, the government said vaccines aggravated “a rare underlying metabolic condition that resulted in a brain disorder with features similar of autism spectrum disorder.”  Hannah’s parents, Jon, who is a neurologist, and Terry, said the settlement will help pay for therapists and medical visits Hannah will need for the rest of her life.  Two similar court cases are expected to go to trial in May.

Several large-scale studies have found no evidence linking thimerosal and autism and medical groups including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have publicly concurred.  Also, this January, California reported an increase in autism cases, despite the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines, which seemingly confirms thimerosal is not linked to autism.  Then, this February, a global team of researchers analyzing blood samples from vaccinated children discovered the children’s blood levels of ethyl mercury “fell rapidly and had largely returned to baseline levels by Day 11 after vaccination.”  This drop was more rapid than that seen in absorbed mercury among people eating fish, which led researchers to conclude that injected thimerosal is less likely to build up in the blood.  Still, parent groups stand strong in their belief that there is a thimerosal-autism link and are even more skeptical of what the government says.

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