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Another mercurial finding from the CDC

By Alice Bradley

There’s a new study out this week on thimerosal, the controversial preservative once commonly used in vaccines. Whether or not thimerosal causes autism has been the cause of much debate, and this new study appears, at first, to reassure.
I have to admit, it’s a little intimidating to cover this topic. I know there are parents of autistic children out there who have researched thimerosal until they could get a Ph.D. on it, who catch the subtle nuances in each study, who could argue every point with the medical bigwigs until said bigwigs were left gasping on the floor. Nonetheless, I shall forge ahead, confident only in the knowledge that I’m probably missing some giant piece of the puzzle. I welcome, of course, your corrections or comments.
Let’s start with the inarguable facts. The rate of autism in children has increased at a staggering rate. There has been more than a ten-fold increase in the number of autism cases in the US in the past thirty years. Similar increases have been seen around the world.
The part no one can agree on is why. One recent study suggests that autism is caused by exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb, creating an “extreme version of the male brain.” Another study blames television: scientists found that autism rates shot up as cable television subscriptions increased, as well as in areas where it rained or snowed a lot, presumably keeping children indoors. (The scientists involved admitted, though, that other factors beyond television could be at play, such as indoor air pollution.)
The main contender, though, has been thimerosal, which is a mercury compound. Mercury is a known neurotoxin, but the type of mercury in thimerosal was thought to leave the system relatively quickly, before it could cause problems. The theory that many now hold—a theory which is supported by some studies— is that thimerosal may be shed by most children, but in some, the mercury builds up until it reaches dangerous levels.
Thimerosal was first introduced into vaccines in the early 1930s, after numerous children died from vaccination-related staph infections. It was phased out of most of them (not including, notably, the flu vaccine) in the late ’90s. As the number of vaccines in infancy and early childhood increased in the past thirty years, the cases of autism skyrocketed. In the late ’90s, the FDA found that some infants, depending on their vaccination schedule and their weight, had been exposed to levels of mercury that exceeded safety guidelines. Consequently, vaccine manufacturers were asked (not required) to reduce or eliminate thimerosal while further studies were conducted. (There is evidence that at least one manufacturer considered and then dismissed removing thimerosal years before: A leaked Merck memo (link is to PDF) from 1991 indicated that the company was aware of the mercury load in infants and children; Swedish researchers had concluded that the load could be eight-seven times the acceptable threshold, and that thimerosal should be removed. Nothine happened.)
Since that decision, the FDA and CDC have backtracked furiously, insisting that the phasing out of thimerosal was a precautionary measure and had no reflection on its actual safety. Meanwhile,several studies have concluded that thimerosal has no relationship to autism. Yet many child-health advocates and parents remain adamant that thimerosal is the hidden culprit. Many accuse public-health researchers of collusion with pharmaceutical companies. (In this latest study, four of the researchers have received fees from drug companies, and the lead author of the study once worked for Merck.) And they cite their own experiences, of watching their lively children withdrawing, becoming shadows of their former selves, weeks after their vaccinations. They also quote an intriguing study from 2006, which found that since thimerosal was removed from many vaccines, autism rates have gone down.
This latest study is being heralded as the final word on thimerosal. “Mercury-Containing Vaccine Vindicated!” crowed ABC News. (Hello, ABC? It’s not the vaccine that was being studied. Let’s get our facts straight.) In this CDC-funded study, 1,000 children between the ages of seven and ten, all of whom were exposed to various levels of thimerosal as babies, were assessed. The findings, according to ABC (and several other media outlets): there was little difference between those children and the ones with low exposure to thimerosal.
Conclusion? Thimerosal is absolutely safe! Let’s all have a thimerosal cocktail and call it a day!
One of the strangest aspects to this study is that it was not designed to address autism concerns. Which begs the question: uh, why not? When the vaccination/autism link has been so hotly contested in the past ten years, why would researchers go out of their way to study the effects of thimerosal on neurological functioning, and avoid testing for autism? Especially when they were thorough enough to study 42 aspects of neurological functioning?
Despite their express avoidance of the A word, there’s a fairly damning finding from the study that’s been glossed over by the media: the increase in facial tics associated with thimerosal. Boys who had been given vaccines with thimerosal were over twice as likely to develop tics. Over at the Huffington Post, journalist David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm, points out this weird disconnect between the study’s findings and its conclusion. There are no neurological risks associated with thimerosal, they say, except for these, um, neurological risks. “Tics,” by the way, can involve anything from the occasional throat clearing to repetitive movements and sounds that eerily resemble many autistic behaviors. (The study authors didn’t specify what sort of tics were found.) As Kirby says, “…if ‘simple’ tics include head jerks and barking; and ‘complex’ tics can entail biting, banging and screaming obscenities; and if thimerosal can more than double the chance of tics in boys; then Atlanta, we have a very big problem.”
So it seems that this study isn’t the final word that the CDC hopes it will be. In addition to the tic behavior, the study has been criticized for its methodology: only 30% of approved families agreed to participate, a relatively low level, and the children were tested at a fairly late age, well after speech and other therapies might have (hypothetically) improved their functioning.
Let’s hope a definitive study comes out one of these days, if it ever does. I never thought myself a conspiracy theorist, but the more I read, the more inescapable one fact becomes: a study that found a link between thimerosal and autism would prove disastrous to the pharmaceutical industry, opening them up to billions of dollars worth of lawsuits. And that might be a good enough reason for everyone to keep their mouths shut, and their researchers obedient.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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Cobwebs
Guest

As I understand it, at least part of the reason why autism rates have increased is because the “autism” diagnosis has been expanded to include a much wider spectrum of behavior. So it’s not really that there’s a lot more autism so much as there’s a lot more things that are being called autism.

Laura
Guest

I don’t know whether autism can be caused by thimerosal. I do know the mere question was enought to concern me. So my daughter goes to a pediatrician who uses thimerosal-free vaccines. And when I was pregnant, I jumped through many, many hoops to get a thimerosal-free flu vaccine for myself. (Why expose her in the womb? And yes, it was necessary for me to have the vaccine. If I don’t get the vaccine, I DO get the flu. And high fevers aren’t safe in pregnancy, either.) In Colorado, the thimerosal-free vaccine was only available in an infant dose. After… Read more »

AEMom
Guest
AEMom

My 8 year old son has autism (Asperger Syndrome) and was never exposed to Thimerosol. I backtracked afterwards and found that all the vaccines he has been given were Thimerosol free as of 1997. This is true of all the standard vaccines given in Canada (the flu shot is an exception). A study conducted by the Autism Centre of the Montreal Children’s Hospital concluded that the rates of autism have INCREASED since 1997, which shoots down the thimerosol = autism connection. Based on my research, I personally believe that autism is primarily a genetic condition that is triggered by something.… Read more »

cagey
Guest

Cobwebs has a valid point. My brother, now in his late teens, was diagnosed in the 1980s just outside of the spectrum of autism – i.e. he was NOT considered autistic, despite having many of the “symptoms” of it. My nephew at just over the age of 4 was diagnosed within the spectrum of autism. Actually, he was just diagnosed YESTERDAY, so I admit I am still emotional on the topic. Based upon behavioral patterns that we are intimately familiar with in my own family, we can see clearly that the differences in “diagnoses” have changed dramatically in the past… Read more »

Angel
Guest

To me, it never made sense why mercury in fish=BAD, mercury in thermometers=BAD, but mercury in vaccines=VERY GOOD AND SAFE.
My daughter was vaxed, my son is not. Honestly, I think he’d be a far different kid if he had been.
I think there may be a predisposed tendency towards autism, and certain triggers flip that switch to “on”. I’m not into conspiracy theories, but this whole mess stinks.
Very good article, I learned a few new things, thank you!

Angel
Guest

Sorry to comment again…I just re-read what you posted about tics.
My daughter was fully vaxxed on schedule. When she was 10, she developed strep–and severe facial tics. She probably had at least 20 tics a minute. Thankfully it has gotten more mild, but pops up when she’s tired or stressed. Now I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t just the strep (which can cause an autoimmue response) but her exposure to mercury as an infant?
::sigh:: The hard part of parenting really sucks.

chiquita
Guest
chiquita

there is way more mercury present in the environment than in vaccines.

Rachel
Guest
Rachel

I think that a great argument could be made for conspiracy when it comes to what pharmaceutical companies have to lose with this issue. However, one good rebuttal of that conspiracy theory is that a lot of us know our family doctors well and I, for one, cannot imagine the doctors I’ve known carrying on with a program that they know or truly believe to be harming children. My doctors are parents themselves, and I’ve had discussions with them about this, and I just don’t think that takers of the hippocratic oath are going to be keeping closed mouthed in… Read more »

Ayla-Monic
Guest

Thimerosol is the main reason why my family hasn’t done any vaccinations since we were just wee babies. My younger brother has Asperger’s Syndrome, which many consider to be part of the Autism Spectrum (but some, like my mother, don’t.) What my Mom is quite sure of is that Thimerosol doesn’t necessarily CAUSE autism, but can TRIGGER it in children who are already genetically or environmentally predisposed to it. This would be why we didn’t do vaccines. My mum didn’t want my Asperger’s Syndrome brother to end up with full-blown autism. Also, my youngest brother is dyslexic and has enough… Read more »

jenalda
Guest
jenalda

I’ve read quite a bit on this subject, and from what I’ve read, the original study that linked thimerosal to autism was authored by 10 researchers, 8 of whom have now recanted their statements in that study. In addition, most of the research I’ve seen says that autism rates have continued to rise while the number of vaccines containing thimerosal have decreased, meaning there probably isn’t a link. To me, it’s a lot riskier to forgo vaccinations for deadly diseases, many of which are on the threshold of being eliminated altogether in the developed world. The winter my baby was… Read more »

Mary
Guest
Mary

Sidestepping the connection between thimerosal and autism for the moment, there’s something I still don’t understand: why are people not vaccinating *now*–when there are thimerosal-free vaccines readily available? It just doesn’t make sense to me. And I say this as someone with a daughter who is on the spectrum, it looks like (in the process of being evaluated).

dd
Guest
dd

Ayla-Monic – There is actually no speculation about whether or not Asperger’s is on the Autism spectrum. It is on the very mild end of a range of disorders, the most disabling of which is Autism. And there is very little debate among professionals dealing with people on the Autism spectrum regarding thimerosal. It is quite largely dismissed as a possibility at this point. That the general public is not better informed of the current issues in the field is perhaps the fault of those reporting the issues and perhaps the fault of those perpetuating dated research topics. At any… Read more »

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

Ahh, Rachel, I hope your doctors are as trustworthy and vigilant as you give them credit for. Alas, like many of us, doctors are apt to be content with knowing what they know and, like the rest of us, they don’t always have the time or inclination to be totally up to date on all the latest findings. I cannot add anything substantial to the discussion about autism here that hasn’t already been said, but I can say I have often tried to engage my pediatricians on some of these unorthodox topics and it is clear that most of them… Read more »

Marcy
Guest

I have to believe that at least one large part of the increase in Autism rates has more to do with diagnosis than anything else. Children who are now considered Autistic would have simply been labeled idiots (or idiot savants) 30+ yrs ago. Perhaps rates really have risen as well, but the increased awareness of this syndrome and its symptoms has to account for a decent part of it. We also have the always tricky fact that correlation does not imply causation. Showing even a link between thimerosal and Autism simply means they might be linked in some way, but… Read more »

Marcy
Guest

PS- according to the FDA, thimerosal has been eliminated from all vaccines recommended for children under 7 yrs old (except for the flu vaccine, which has trace amounts). I thought this was interesting info to throw into the mix.
http://www.fda.gov/cber/vaccine/thimerosal.htm#t1

Robin in San Jose
Guest
Robin in San Jose

Angel, very interesting comment. On the subject of facial tics, my 12-year-old son suddenly developed a pretty noticeable nose wrinkle tic this summer. Feedback can be really helpful in eliminating such tics. I put a piece of tape across the bridge of his nose that would tug at the skin each time he did the tic. The tic disappeared almost immediately with the tape on, and without it over a period of two days. It will pop out again every now and then when, like you noted, he is tired or stressed. He comes from a long, proud line of… Read more »

caramama
Guest
caramama

Mary: You asked why people still don’t vaccinate when the vaccines are “thimerosal-free.” From some research I’ve done, I’ve heard that one reason is because there are many other additives in the vaccines that parent’s are comfortable with, in addition to the nature of vaccinations themselves, which contain either live cultures or synthetics of the disease itself (if I understand correctly). Besides thimerosal, other additives include preservatives such as formaldehyde, and I’ve heard that they still contain aluminum (a neurotoxin). And in addition to autism, people worry about affects of the vaccinations on children who possibly have any of a… Read more »

Biologist
Guest
Biologist

The first rule of biomedical research is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Any two factors which have both increased in the last 20 years will will show a positive correlation when you graph them together. So increases in vaccinations and in autism diagnosis correlate, as do autism diagnosis and TV veiwing hours, and so do vaccinations and TV veiwing hours since both have increased over the last twenty years. That doesn’t mean that an increase in vaccination rates caused an increase in hours spent watching television! Merek doesn’t need to spearhead a conspiracy to keep scientists from researching… Read more »

Liz
Guest
Liz

caramama, 1. The reason diseases such as mumps, measles and rubella are not lifethreatening thses days is BECAUSE WE HAVE VACCINES. There is nothing inherently different about the pathogenesis of these diseases that differs from the way they were fifty years ago. And since they are viruses, we cannot treat them with antibiotics, and vaccination is our sole defense against them. Believe me, if everyone stopped vaccination, it would be catastrophic. Children would be dying from rubella, infants born to mothers with rubella would be blind, kids with polio would be crippled or retarded. Vaccines are why we are safe;… Read more »

marian
Guest

Bravo, Alice! I’m very glad that someone who has such a large public forum of mothers is showing the courage you have here. Nice work!

dorothy
Guest

Two thoughts on this topic, one of which will most likely get me killed. 1) I purposefully found a ped who would give my daughter vaccinations without that stuff in them. It seems like an easy solution to me. 2) I prayed as I watched the shots go in, but I prayed for the ability to accept whatever happens to my daughter in this life. Regardless of whether or not we “allow” (an option not available for those of us who put our children in institutional daycare, where vaccinations are required) our children to get vaccines, we can’t control whether… Read more »

Ellen
Guest
Ellen

I’m going to throw a whole different monkey wrench into this. What if the kids that are diagnosed with autism after vaccinations are kids that would have gotten encephalitis or meningitis, become blind or deaf, or some other neurological problem when contracting the disease (measles, mumps, etc). We know these things can happen with these diseases, and what if the kids who were susceptible to those terrible side effects, get the vaccine which is a “mild” form or killed form of the disease, and instead of getting the bad side effect of the disease, they had a “milder” neurological reaction–autism?… Read more »

Heidi
Guest
Heidi

As the mom of a 10-month-old, I have been agonizing over the fast-approaching 12-month ped visit and the recommended schedule of vaccines. I hesitated to read this article because discussion on this topic always seems to ignite such passion on both sides. I was pleasantly surprised by both the original article and the subsequent discussion in comments and thank you and your readers for a well-reasoned presentation of this controversial topic.

RIAN
Guest
RIAN

I must comment on this. I work for a dr and we treat Autism. I see the effects of thimerosal on a daily basis. Now we do not believe that it causes autism. But is a factor. Another factor is that vaccines also have aluminum in them, which can cause speech delays. Genetics and immune issues are part of the puzzle also. But it is the vaccines that push these kids over the edge into full blown autism. There bodies are not capable of detoxing the metals and thus the make themselves at home in the organs. Causing all kinds… Read more »

sarah
Guest
sarah

Liz on Oct. 3 at 21:54:
Thank you for that response. You are 100% spot on. Amen to that, sister. It is frightening how misinformed about these things people can be.

Liz
Guest

I had whooping cough as a kid (and chronic mild asthma as a result), lost 4 months of school from it. Chicken pox, too — on my TONGUE!
My mom had friends who died of polio and measles. My step-mother’s mom had a weak heart her whole life as a result of scarlet fever when she was a kid.
These are the diseases we’re vaccinating against. Autism is horrible, but I’m not convinced that it’s caused by vaccination. Death by preventable diseases is even worse and we know that vaccination can prevent them.

kenslow
Guest
kenslow

I have three children, the first two who have been fully vaccinated, and my youngest who was not. I don’t know why but in my gut, my mother’s instinct told me NOT to vaccinate my last baby. At the time I had no knowledge of Thimerosal, heavy metal poisoning, genetic links, etc. All I know is that the vaccination felt totally wrong and I stand behind my instinct 100%. Today he’s 6 1/2, in first grade, and doing SO well.

Analiese
Guest
Analiese

Alice, Disclaimer: Like you stated I write this knowing only that I’m probably missing a big piece of the puzzle. :o) One thing you mentioned is that of parents sharing “their own experiences, of watching their lively children withdrawing, becoming shadows of their former selves, weeks after their vaccinations.” I think there’s a chance that there may be a couple of things going on here and it might be important to differentiate. I was speaking to a pediatrician one day (I’m a nurse) and she said that Autism is not a regressive disorder. Meaning a child with Autism fails to… Read more »

class factotum
Guest

I don’t have any kids, but I do have an opinion on vaccines. The previous poster is correct — children used to die of the diseases we vaccinate against today. My great-great-grandmother watched all seven of her children die in six days from diptheria. She went on to have six more children, which is why I’m here.

Judy
Guest
Judy

Analiese, I believe that the doctor you spoke with may be misinformed. Autism can absolutely cause a child to lose already demonstrated skills! In fact, the majority of autism cases are of the regressive type. I’d also like to address the idea that “it’s not really that there’s a lot more autism so much as there’s a lot more things that are being called autism.” There have of course been strides made in identifying and diagnosing autism. However, I cannot accept that the 800+% increase in autism between 1992 and 2003 was due in any major way to the changing… Read more »

dd
Guest
dd

Analiese
That nurse is incorrect about regression. It is common for a child to start developing normally and then suddenly regress with disorders on the Autism spectrum. I treated a child in just that condition as a student studying speech-language pathology. Around the age or 2, his language skills and joint attention skills flew out the window. (Not a vaccinated child, for those who would pin the regression on vaccines…).

Kristen
Guest
Kristen

My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 1/2 years old. In addition, my husband’s nephew was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s, as was his first cousin’s son. And if I go back further into my father-in-law’s side of the family, there are quite a few very intelligent, yet socially “odd” people on the family tree. That makes a pretty strong argument for genetics being the root cause of autism. That being said, I think that the sheer numbers of vaccinations kids get (24 vaccinations by the time they are 18 months old, as a previous poster pointed out)… Read more »

Jeffrey Dach MD
Guest

The Most Bitter Debate There is no greater rancor in medicine than the autism-vaccine debate, and this debate has reached the federal vaccine court where 5000 autistic kids and their families are requesting compensation for vaccine injury. In California it is a illegal to inject newborns with the mercury containing vaccines (such as the Hep-B Shot, and it should be crime in your state as well. Hepatitis B is transmitted with IV drug abuse, or via sexual transmission, both of which are somewhat impossible for newborns. It is much safer to wait until the child is 3 years old to… Read more »

Alison Morrow
Guest
Alison Morrow

We don’t vax our children, and I resent being called ignorant and stupid for making that choice. I researched for months, read a bazillion books and reports, and sobbed the night before my daughter’s 4 month pedi visit where I would have to say yes or no to the shots because I was so torn over the decision. Do not think for a second that people who make this decision do so flippantly or without putting in an insane amount of time trying to figure out what they think is the right thing to do. You haven’t walked in my… Read more »

Susan
Guest
Susan

I’d just like to second Alison above. I would wager that those of us who have chosen not to vaccinate our children have researched this issue far more than pretty much everyone else responding to this post. (And far more than my doctor, who apparently didn’t get past “Well, my med school said vaccinations were good.” We know it’s an unusual choice and we know it opened our kids up to potential danger, but we’ve read enough to realize that the conventional wisdom on this one might be incorrect. Several people above have pointed out various toxins that are added… Read more »

Jennifer
Guest
Jennifer

Alison and Susan: Amen, amen, amen. And thank you. I am blown away at the number of people who so easily throw out the “uninformed” and “ignorant” labels on to those who have chosen not to vaccinate. My children have been vaccinated — except for the cp vax for reasons Susan outlined above and on my chosen schedule, not one set for economic and monetary reasons by the HMOs and their powerful lobbies — but I nearly went the no-vax route rather than the delayed vax route. In researching these decisions, I was continually impressed by the knowledge of the… Read more »

molly
Guest

I come at this issue as a mother of a little girl who has Aspergers. I do think that the rise in diagnosis is about awareness, information availability, education, better diagnosis, and very competetive parenting. By awareness i mean that parents and community members are aware of a childs behavior and notice innapropriate behavior. By information availability i mean media and internet allow parents to research any subject immediately. By education I mean the prevalance of well child check ups and early screening effort by public schools. Better and more acurate diagnosis means fewer children labeled anti social, ADHD, or… Read more »