Dan Burton is a U.S. Congressman, a legislator elected to represent the state of Indiana to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Burton was once a frequent name in the discussion about autism. His grandson is autistic and Mr. Burton championed the idea that mercury, in specific the vaccine preservative thimerosal, was a possible cause of autism. Mr. Burton hosted congressional hearings on the matter which fueled the discussion. Much of this is documented in David Kirby’s 2005 book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.
When Congressman Burton was holding meetings In the early 2000’s, there was not a great deal of scientific data on the idea that mercury could be behind an autism epidemic. There was correlation–autism prevalence estimates by various sources showed rising rates coincident with the increased exposure from infant vaccines during the 1990’s.
But this isn’t the early 2000’s. A lot has been learned since Mr. Burton held his hearings. And the knowledge gained points away from thimerosal as a cause if autism Mr. Burton himself is set to retire this year. Yesterday Mr. Burton wrote about his previous efforts and a new initiative he has proposed in a blog article: It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic. And by epidemic, Mr. Burton appears to mean the failed mercury-induced-autism-epidemic. From his article:
Unfortunately, a great deal of misinformation has been thrown around in public and private about the Committee’s focus on mercury in medicines as a possible factor in the autism epidemic. I’m not a scientist, but the Committee heard from many credible scientists and experts who are convinced that mercury is a contributing factor; and the theory is no less worthy of exploration than the theories being propounded today that the pregnancy weight of the mother or the age of the father at conception influences whether a child becomes autistic. When you have no idea what is causing a disease, policymakers and scientists should never be afraid to investigate any plausible theory. In fact, researching possible environmental factors is a central component of today’s research on autism.
Mr. Burton’s attempt to compare the mercury hypothesis to recent results falls flat. For one thing, there is evidence that factors such as parental age may increase the risk of autism. Multiple studies indicate increased risk. On the other side, there is no real evidence to suggest that mercury increases the risk of autism, and a great deal of evidence to the contrary.
As already noted: a lot has been learned since Mr. Burton held his hearings 10 years ago. But today, as it was 10 years ago, scientists and policymakers are not afraid to investigate the hypothesis that mercury caused an autism epidemic. We’ve seen paper after paper come out of those efforts. Accepting results is not fear. Far from it.
Mr. Burton states:
The other issue we dealt with is how do we help the millions of individuals and families afflicted with this disease. Autism has no cure and it is not a life-threatening disease. That means that the autistic children of today will be the autistic adults and autistic seniors of tomorrow. Our nation is ill prepared to deal with the complex challenges posed by a generation of autistic individuals.
It strikes this reader that the leadership of the past, which certainly includes Congressman Burton, was afraid to tackle a basic question: what is an accurate count of the number of autistic adults? The autistic children of yesterday *are* the autistic adults of today. How many are there? What do their living conditions look like? What successes and failures can we learn from the lives of those autistics, and the way the rest of society supported them? What health issues are there for autistics as they age?
The sad fact is we don’t really know.
Some researchers in the U.S. have looked for, and found, misdiagnosed autistics in some populations. The U.S. has mounted a project to explore autism prevalence and other issues in older cohorts, but that work has just begun. Researchers in the U.K. have delved into the questions of adult prevalence and living conditions, five years ago.
The U.S. is ill prepared, and precisely because of the leadership Mr. Burton offered. Instead of accepting even the possibility that there were misdiagnosed or undiagnosed adult autistics, attention was focused on asking the same question again and again: is mercury behind the rise in autism prevalence? Time and again the answer came back no.
And, now, we are going to ask yet again. Mr. Burton mentions in his article a bill he sponsored: H.R. 3489: White House Conference on Autism Act of 2011. Yes, a bill from last year. It was introduced to committee on Nov. 18th of last year and has had no action since. In other words, a bill which is all but dead.
The bill calls for a conference. A meeting. To generate a report. The conference has no charge other than this. It is reminiscent of Mr. Burton’s hearings. People gathered. People were selected specifically to speak based on their views that mercury could cause autism. Reports were generated. This is action? Leadership?
Who will be a part of this conference? Mr. Burton’s bill spells out who should be a part of this committee:
(1) at least 1 shall be a parent or legal guardian of individuals with autism or other pervasive developmental disorders;
(2) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about autism intervention programs and systems, including complementary and alternative therapies;
(3) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to meet the unique educational needs of children and adults with autism;
(4) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to meet the unique housing needs of children and adults with autism;
(5) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to train and educate law enforcement and criminal justice officials to respond to the unique needs of children and adults with autism; and
(6) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about environmental or toxic exposure of adults and children as it relates to the development of autism.
A lot has changed since Mr. Burton held his first hearings on autism. One thing that has changed: autistics have rightfully fought for and won the right to be represented in autism discussions. Mr. Burton’s bill does not represent that shift.
Mr. Burton’s words do not acknowledge that the question of whether there was a mercury-induced-epidemic of autism has been answered.
Let’s put it simply. Mr. Burton: the answer is no. Thimerosal didn’t cause an autism epidemic.