Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ABC, the AAP, and Autism

I've been thinking a lot about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent protests of the January 31 pilot episode of the ABC television show “Eli Stone.” In the lawyer drama, a mother receives a $5.2 million settlement after she charges that the mercury-laden preservative thimerosol that was used in a vaccine caused her child’s autism. Since many children are diagnosed with autism around the time that they receive a number of vaccinations, some people have linked these vaccinations with autism, especially the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccination.

A small but influential 1998 study suggesting a link between thimerosol and autism was later retracted by its authors, and researchers have since found no link between vaccinations and autism. Furthermore, thimerosol was dropped as a preservative in standard vaccines in the U.S. in 2001.

Some parents still refuse vaccinations for their children, though, due to concerns about vaccine contents and the possibility of rare complications. Their choices have lead to regional, sometimes fatal outbreaks of measles and whooping cough (pertussis) among unvaccinated children. Right now, for example, there is a measles outbreak in San Diego, with ten unvaccinated children and infants infected and over fifty quarantined.

The AAP only fueled the vaccination debate, however, with an emotional press release in late January, calling the “Eli Stone” pilot “the height of reckless irresponsibility.” In the letter, AAP President Dr. Renee R. Jenkins says that “if parents watch this program and choose to deny their children immunizations, ABC will share in the responsibility for the suffering and deaths that occur as a result. The consequences of a decline in immunization rates could be devastating to the health of our nation’s children.” The AAP went on to authorize the early release of a February Pediatrics journal article showing that infants expel the type of mercury used in thimerosol over ten times faster than they expel the type of mercury often found in fish. Some researchers believe that if heavy metals such as mercury build up in the body, they might cause autism.

But what this debate really comes down to is parents’ fear of autism, a fear that is especially acute in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. A CDC study released in 2007 that looked at autism spectrum disorders in selected regions of the country found an average rate of autism of about 1 in every 150 eight-year-old children. Earlier estimates had suggested autism was much less prevalent, as low as 1 in 500 children. The CDC pointed out that it’s unclear whether the autism rates are increasing over time, or whether it is simply being diagnosed and reported more accurately.

Still, no one knows what causes autism, and a quick glance at the numbers makes it look like an epidemic. When I had my first child, I, too, was told by well-meaning acquaintances that mercury-laden vaccinations might cause autism, one of a long list of things to panic about as a sleep-deprived new Mom. If I had my child vaccinated and she developed autism soon thereafter, would it be my fault if the light in her mind dimmed? Was I willing to take that chance?

By the time my children were born, though, thimerosol had been pulled from the vaccines, and pertussis was making an alarming comeback in San Francisco among unvaccinated infants and adults whose pertussis vaccinations had worn off. My children were vaccinated.

There is a frightening childhood illness for every generation, it seems. At one time it was polio, until Jonas Salk developed an effective vaccine for it in the 1950s. My great aunt had polio as a young woman (luckily she recovered fully). My mother, who grew up in the Bay Area, remembers driving by San Francisco’s Shriner’s Children’s Hospital on 19th Avenue with her family, where many of the young polio patients were dependent on iron lung machines, wondering if that would happen to her. Today, the old Shriner’s Hospital is a retirement community next to a row of modern townhouses, and thanks to the vaccine polio is almost completely eradicated worldwide.

No comments: