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Life and Health: Developmental Disorders - Autism

Author: Alice Abler

Published: 2008-01-08 : (Rev. 2010-07-19)

Synopsis and Key Points:

In 2007 CDC estimated 1 in 150 eight-year old children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Main Digest

n 2007 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 1 in 150 eight-year-old children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

This shocking life and health statistic spurred a barrage of debates: are the elevated numbers simply the result of improved diagnosis or is something else"perhaps something society is doing" causing an increase in ASDs

Autism spectrum disorders are listed as pervasive developmental disorders in a widely accepted authoritative reference tool, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (Text Revision), or DSM-IV-TR, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The causes of ASDs are undetermined, but evidence points to a strong genetic component.

Many parents and families of children with ASDs are looking beyond the genetics and are expressing grave concerns about a possible connection between immunization in particular the standard combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine that is routinely administered to children around the world"and autism. The main ingredient in question is thimerosal (called thiomersal in some countries), a preservative that is 49 percent ethylmercury.

Not all vaccines under debate incorporate thimerosal, which has now been phased out of most childhood vaccines. It remains in many influenza vaccines, however.

The CDC maintains that there is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions.

Even so, the number of people claiming to have been harmed by vaccinations prompted the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to establish the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program as a no-fault compensation scheme whereby persons allegedly suffering injury or death as a result of the administration of certain compulsory childhood vaccines may petition the federal government for monetary damages. As of June 2007, about 5,000 claimants with autism or similar conditions have filed for compensation.

Although long-term studies on the subject are ongoing, the official stance of government organizations in many countries is that there is no connection between vaccinations and autism. The World Health Organization states that there is no reason on grounds of safety to change current immunization practices with thiomersal-containing vaccines, as the risks are unproven. The position of the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is similar: To date there is no definite, scientific proof that any vaccine or combination of vaccines can cause autism.

Like ASD, the causes of schizophrenia, another mental disorder listed in the DSM-IV-TR, are undetermined, but evidence points to a strong genetic connection. This is largely based on studies of siblings and twins, particularly monozygotic (genetically identical) twins. When one twin develops schizophrenia, the other has a 50 percent likelihood of developing the disorder as well. An important factor that seems to be overlooked in some studies is that two-thirds of monozygotic twins share more than genetics: their shared placenta is a strong environmental factor.

This environmental link is reinforced by recent research, which shows a strong connection between maternal infections (especially influenza) during the first half of pregnancy and increased risk of schizophrenia in the fetus. The infected mother's immune system releases special proteins to fight the infection, and these cytokines (specifically interleukin-6) may have a negative effect on the neurological development of the unborn child.

At least one scientist has taken this concept further. Paul Patterson, professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and research professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, studies the relation of maternal infections to both autism and schizophrenia. In a 2005 lecture at Caltech, Patterson quoted the CDC's recommendation that pregnant women should routinely get flu shots. At first glance, the recommendation may seem sensible, as pregnant women would want to avoid getting influenza, which could cause their immune systems to impair the developing minds of their unborn children. But then comes the zinger: And what does a vaccination do? It activates the immune system. That's the point of vaccination.

This is a perplexing conundrum. The very thing that some recommend to prevent problems could actually be causing mental disorders in the unborn child.

Patterson concluded, In practice, not all pregnant women receive flu shots, and I think that universal vaccination of pregnant women could get us into a whole new set of problems. I'm hoping, therefore, that a way will be found to intervene somehow and repair the damage or re-regulate the immune system. Of course, the CDC still recommends that pregnant women be vaccinated against influenza. Less invasive precautions include frequent hand washing with soap and water and avoidance of those who are ill. It is important for the life and health of all, born and unborn, to practice good hygiene and cleanliness, to cough and sneeze away from others into a disposable tissue or at least into the upper arm, and to follow the principles of quarantine.

Although modern medicine has made great strides in many areas, we still have many social issues and much to learn about the connections between body and mind, and even more about the connections between maternal body and fetal mind.

Selected Resources:

Autism Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network

National Institute of Mental Health

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

United States Court of Federal Claims

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fact Sheet

Pregnancy, Immunity, Schizophrenia and Autism.

Author, Alice Abler, contributes articles on life and health and social issues for Vision Media. For more information about these and other topics, please visit the www.vision.org/visionmedia/default.aspx Vision Media website.

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