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No, the thimerosal in the flu vaccine does not explain why autism rates did not go down

6 Oct

Surprisingly enough, there are still people promoting the idea that the rise in autism diagnoses observed over the last decades was caused by thimerosal in vaccines. The original argument was this–vaccines were added to the vaccine schedule in the 1990’s and with them the infant exposure to thimerosal increased. Concurrent with this rise in infant thimerosal exposure was a rise in autism diagnoses. Add to this a poorly concocted argument that autism resembles mercury intoxication and you have the basis for the mercury hypothesis.

Thimerosal was phased out of infant vaccines over 10 years ago. Thus, if the thimerosal hypothesis were true, reported autism rates should be declining by now. As far back as 2005 David Kirby (whose book “Evidence of Harm” played a major role in promoting the mercury hypothesis) acknowledged this point in a statement

If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.

It’s 2013. Autism rates in California have not declined. Not in Special Education. Not in the CDDS roles. And, yes, we are six years past the 2007 deadline that David Kirby gave us.

To be specific, let’s use the same method that David Kirby and others used to claim a thimerosal induced autism epidemic in the 1990’s (namely the California DDS client count–which not a good method, by the way). Autism “rates” have gone up by over 150% since thimerosal was phased out of infant vaccines. The age 3-5 bracket had about 4000 children in 2003 and is currently over 10,000.

CDDS 3-5

So we have more kids in California receiving services under the autism label than when thimerosal was in vaccines.

This is but one in a huge list of reasons why the thimerosal hypothesis doesn’t work.

But let’s go back in time a bit. Not so long ago one would hear proposals that we go back to the vaccine schedule of the early 1980’s when, it is claimed, the autism rate was 1 in 10,000. Fewer vaccines, less thimerosal, less autism. So goes the logic.

Generation Rescue, in fact, used to recommend the 1983 schedule as one of their alternative schedules

Turn back the clock
Comment: This is the schedule from 1983. If it worked for kids then, why doesn’t it work for kids now?”

Does it make sense to go back to the 1983 schedule? No. Why? OK a lot of reasons, but let’s focus on the fact that infants were exposed to more thimerosal in the 1980’s than today. Infant vaccines have no or only trace amounts of thimerosal.  So if thimerosal were the (or even a single) primary cause of autism risk, we would see autism rates lower today. To not only 1990’s levels, but to something like 1980’s reported levels. Assuming that the reported rates in the 1980’s were an accurate count of how many autistics there were then (a bad assumption but it’s the one they use).

To recap–Infant thimerosal exposure from vaccines peaked at nearly 200 micrograms in the 1990’s, up from about 100 micrograms in the 1980’s and is now less than 10 micrograms. And autism rates have not declined at all. Much less to 1980’s levels.

Once anyone says this the instant answer is that there is still thimerosal in some influenza vaccines. This, they say, is why autism rates have not declined. (note that thimerosal containing vaccines, including influenza vaccines, are banned in California for infants and pregnant women…and autism “rates” have continued to climb here).  

For completeness sake, let’s consider a kid who gets the maximum exposure to thimerosal from vaccines. I.e. a non California kid.  A kid who turns 6 months (the earliest age they will give a flu vaccine to a kid) during the flu season.  That kid will get 2 vaccines in the first year (6 and 7 months) then another influenza vaccine each year thereafter. Each with 25 micrograms of mercury from thimerosal. How does the thimerosal exposure compare to the 1983 schedule?  Take a look for yourself (exposures in micrograms of mercury from thimerosal):

1983 schedule 2013 schedule
DPT Inluenza
2 months 25
4 months 25
6 months 25 25
7 months 25
Total by 1 year 75 50
18 months 25 25
Total by 2 years 100 75
30 Months 25
Total by 3 years 100 100

So by age 3, the exposures are the same.  Except that the kid of today gets the thimerosal later and more spread out over time.  As an aside–most people who talk about the rise in thimerosal exposure during the 1990’s neglect to point out that the cumulative exposure in the 1980’s was already 100 micrograms. I.e. the “safe” level was significant.

If thimerosal were the driving force behind the rise in autism diagnoses, we should be back to 1983 levels, misrepresented by those claiming an epidemic as 1 in 10,000.  Instead we are at 1-2%.  The “rates” didn’t go down.

By this point the proponents of thimerosal are basically screaming, “you are forgetting the vaccines recommended to pregnant women!” No, I just put that off until now.  Sure, the influenza vaccine is recommended for pregnant women, but as the CDC notes:

Prior to 2009, influenza vaccination levels among pregnant women were generally low (~15%) (5,9).

So, from about 2000 to 2009 there wasn’t a big increase (or even a large part of the population) getting influenza vaccines while pregnant, nor were their children getting exposures higher than those in the 1983 schedule.

Take a look at that graph for California administrative autism prevalence again. Between 2002 (after the drawdown of thimerosal in vaccines) and 2012 the autism count doubled. Thimerosal exposure was down. A lot. Below 1990’s “epidemic” levels. Back to the 1983 “worked for kids then” levels. But autism “rates” continue to climb.

The people still pushing the idea that thimerosal is a (or even the) primary cause of autism are not unintelligent. We are talking about college educated people. Ivy league schools. A former journalist, an intellectual property expert and more. There is no math above. It’s all quite simple and straightforward. It uses the exact same logic and methodology they used to promote the idea that mercury causes autism. This is where intellectual honesty and basic integrity should kick in and get people to suck it up, admit their mistakes and start repairing the harm they have caused.

I’m not holding my breath.

By Matt Carey

No, the autism “rate” in California did not go down after removing thimerosal from vaccines

26 Feb

I recently attended a talk where the speaker showed autism prevalence by age group for a large HMO in California. The administrative prevalence (fraction of people in the HMO identified autistic) was still going up as of 2010, and the speaker indicated this trend continued to 2012. California is an interesting case study because not only was thimerosal removed from vaccines along with the rest of the U.S. starting in the late 1990’s, but the state enacted a law which required that pregnant women and children under three be given thimerosal free vaccines from 2006 onward. So, with the exception of an an exemption in 2009 and another one right now, even the influenza vaccine in thimerosal free. I bring this up because it is a common argument that somehow the exposure from the flu vaccine is keeping the rate climbing, even though at most this is a lower exposure than that from the 1990’s pediatric vaccine schedule.

This all said, the talk made me dive back into looking at autism prevalence. I decided to finally write about the fact that the autism prevalence in Denmark is higher post thimerosal than while thimerosal containing vaccines were in use. This is completely unsurprising, but a myth has been propogating that it came down and that fact was being hidden.

As it turns out I also checked back with what once was the most common source of autism data for the armchair epidemiologist: the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS). (I admit one could argue that Special Education data are the most common source for the armchair epidemiologist). The CDDS provides services to disabled Californians and keeps and makes public statistics on their client base. For a long time, every quarter they would come out with a report. For a long time, every quarter these reports would be followed by announcements about how the data showed that vaccines cause autism. One of the people you could always count on was David Kirby (author of the book, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, and basically a PR man for some of the vaccine-causation groups). Mr. Kirby went so far as to claim that these data were the “gold standard of autism epidemiology”. Well, the data had their uses (such as identifying and quantifying some of the social influences behind the increase) but it is not an easy task to get results from them. The idea that they represent an accurate count of all those with ASD’s (or even accurately account for all individuals with autistic disorder) is a stretch.

But this didn’t stop David Kirby. Back in 2005, David Kirby was claiming that there was an indication that the administrative prevalence in California was starting to drop, and if the trend continued this was a sign that the removal of thimerosal was having an effect:

Stay tuned. If the numbers in California and elsewhere continue to drop – and that still is a big if — the implication of thimerosal in the autism epidemic will be practically undeniable.

Well, by 2007 it was clear that the California data were not really showing a drop. In addition, the lack of a drop was published in 2008 as Continuing increases in autism reported to California’s developmental services system: mercury in retrograde.\

The rise in the number of autism clients in the CDDS database was key to the idea of the mercury-induced epidemic. David Kirby (and others) relied on these data and Mr. Kirby even acknowledged that the data should start showing a drop (statement from 2005):

If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.

The reason is that 5 year olds in 2007 were born after the removal of thimerosal from vaccines. Their exposure to thimerosal was much less than kids in the 1990’s. If the “thimerosal caused an autism epidemic” idea were true, the rates would have to drop. They should drop back to pre-1990 (actually pre 1980) levels if thimerosal were the main, or even a main, cause of the rise.

My recollection is that Mr. Kirby did later backpedal and claim that we would have to wait until some much later date, but it was a weak argument (even by David Kirby standards).

Sorry to keep diving into past history, but one of the strangest moments in the mecury debate (and I can use the term this time, because there was a debate) came in San Diego in 2007. David Kirby debated Arthur Allen in the UCSD Price Center (about 100 yards from my old office, as it turns out). Presented with the fact that even though thimerosal exposure from vaccines had gone down, the California numbers kept going up, David Kirby presented (in something like 100 power point slides!) a four pronged response. First was a claim that California HMO’s had stockpiled thimerosal containing vaccines, so the exposure from vaccines didn’t really go down as much as reports were claiming. Then:

1) A gigantic plume of coal smoke from Chinese power plants has settled on California, depositing lots of mercury and therefore causing the autism numbers in the state to continue to grow.

2) Bad forest fires have put tons of mercury into the air, depositing lots of mercury etc…

3) Cremations (!). The burning of dead bodies with mercury amalgam in their mouths has added even more mercury to the air.

It was a hail Mary pass, to be blunt. Lot’s of handwaving and ignoring the facts.

In 2007, the CDDS changed the way they assessed and counted their clients and they stopped publishing the quarterly reports. As you can imagine, many claimed this was part of a conspiracy to hide the fact that the autism rates were declining in California. And with that the quarterly ritual of misinterpreting and deconstrucing the data came to an end.

All amusing history, sure, but one might ask, why bring all this up again? Well, because it turns out that the CDDS started putting out quarterly reports again in 2011. Yes, there’s a gap of a few years in the data. Yes, some things changed (for example, the CDDS now shows the PDD fraction of autism client base). Given these limitations–and the other limitations in the CDDS data (i.e. they are *not* the “gold standard” of autism epidemiology), what do these data show? The upward trends continue. More individuals served by the CDDS with autism, even though thimerosal was removed from vaccines. Here’s the total–all ages–count for CDDS clients in the autism category (click to enlarge):

CDDS total

Looking at the younger age groups, those whose exposure to thimerosal is much lower than for kids born in the 1990s, there is also an increase. Here is the age 3-5 age group (click to enlarge)

CDDS 3-5

and the 6-9 age group (click to enlarge):

CDDS 6-9

9 year olds in 2012 were born in 2003. Post the removal of thimerosal nationwide. 5 year olds were born in 2007, post thimerosal nationwide and post the California law prohibiting mercury in vaccines for pregnant women and small children. In both groups, the CDDS autism counts are higher than they were in 2002 (the earliest date in the currently available data). Which, in turn, was much higher than the counts from the 1990’s. Here is a figure from the Schechter-Grether paper refenced above:

S-G CDDS paper figure

Which is all a very long way of saying: years ago the evidence was against the thimerosal/epidemic idea; it is even more clear now. For years we heard Mr. Kirby and others talk about how those responsible should step up and admit what happened. Well, the fact is they did. Now it is time for those who promoted the mercury notion to step forward and show they have the guts to admit they were wrong. Because they were. Clearly wrong. It would take a lot of guts to step forward and admit the mistakes. Even though their influence has waned, it would help the autism communities. While I have focused on David Kirby in this discussion, the list is much longer of people who should step forward. I’m not going to hold my breath.

By Matt Carey

California regional center on probation

25 Jan

The California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) has a simple charger: “The California Department of Developmental Services is the agency through which the State of California provides services and supports to individuals with developmental disabilities.” The CDDS works under the framework of the Lanterman Act. Key to the Lanterman Act is the concept that the state would empower local, private agencies to both manage and provide these services. From the management side, this lead to the Regional Center system. Regional Centers are local nonprofits which contract with service providers to serve the clients (developmentally disabled) in their area.

One of these regional centers is IRC–Inland Regional Center, which serves Riverside and San Bernadino counties (inland from Los Angeles).

The Sacramento Bee (the main newspaper for the State’s capital) ran this story earlier this month: California housing for developmentally disabled has high cost.

Now, I got to admit, I read that title and though, “uh-oh. Here comes another of those stories criticizing services for the disabled. But, here are the first few paragraphs of that story:

In 2006, a state-funded center serving developmentally disabled people spent $2.9 million to develop four houses for its clients in Riverside County.

Just months after the houses were completed, the county assessor’s office estimated the properties were worth $1.1 million less than the Inland Regional Center had paid to build them.

Four years later, they’re worth 31 percent of their cost.

The $2 million loss, as documented by tax records and assessor data, wasn’t just the result of a bad real estate bet made with public money by the regional center, which is part of the state’s system of 21 nonprofits charged with arranging care for developmentally disabled people.

I don’t know what is worse, the idea that services for the developmentally disabled cost too much on their own, or that some sort of mismanagement is costing taxpayers extra in their support of the developmentally disabled.

The Sacramento Bee has followed up recently with the story: Southern California center serving disabled put on probation

The state Department of Developmental Services has placed on probation the largest of 21 publicly funded regional centers serving developmentally disabled people, saying it illegally used state money to develop housing, violated the center’s contract with the state and circumvented a statutory freeze placed on rates paid to care providers.

The department sent a letter dated Jan. 19 about its actions to the center’s board in Southern California.

Ouch. Ouch on so many levels. Yes, as a taxpayer, I hate the idea of my money being wasted. On the other hand, this goes to the fact that organizations like the regional centers hold much more than the obvious (supplying support). They hold a large part of the reputation of the community. In times like these, with the economic stresses we are under, we can’t afford stories like those above.

Proposed California budget includes big cut for developmental services

24 Jan

In Governor Brown Proposes Massive Cuts to Social Safety Net, Marty Omoto of the California Disability Community Action Network writes:

$750 Million Reduction For Developmental Services

The Governor’s proposal for a $750 million reduction in state general fund spending for developmental services includes the 21 non-profit regional centers.

The bulk of that cut will most likely come from the 21 non-profit regional centers who coordinate community-based services and supports to over 240,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities. The regional centers contracted under the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) also coordinate the state’s early intervention program – called Early Start – that serves over 25,000 infants.

The proposed $750 million reduction does not include any lost federal matching funds which would like push the total reduction in spending in developmental services to close to $1 billion (all funds). This reduction is on top of 2009’s permanent and on-going $500 million reduction (including federal funds lost) in developmental services (the bulk of it impacting regional center funded services).

The $750 million reduction in State general fund spending proposed by the Governor would include the continuation for at least another year of the existing 4.25% reduction in payments to most regional center providers and to regional center operations which was scheduled to end as of June 30, 2011. That reduction would, under the Governor’s proposal, continue at least through June 30, 2012 – though the savings or reduction amount actually is permanent.

The reduction also would be achieved through several unspecified measures, including imposing new accountability and transparency measures; and implementation of a statewide purchase of services standards – first attempted in 2002 by Governor Gray Davis.

Many readers here will know of the Regional Centers as the source of data used by many to track autism “rates” over time. The Regional Centers (RC) are California’s method of administering support services to developmentally disabled residents. Each RC covers a large territory and is responsible for purchasing services from private vendors. This method would be in place of a system where the state employs the administrators and the service providers directly.

That said, the recent budget proposal includes $750,000,000 in cuts for services for the developmentally disabled. This will incur an estimated $250M in lost matching funds and is in addition to previous cuts already enacted.

Take the numbers and do the math, using just the $750M amount as a start. Use 265,000 people served by the CDDS. That’s about $2,800 per person. These are not small cuts.

And there is no end in site to the economic woes of the State.

Autism Clusters Found: areas with high incidence of autistic children

1 Jan

Researchers at the U.C. Davis MIND Institute has discovered regions in the state of California that have notably higher autism incidence. But the story is more complicated, and more sad, than one might think at first. Instead of indications of an “autism epidemic”, these clusters point to the fact that minority and poor children are much less likely to receive autism diagnoses.

I don’t have the paper yet (I’m still trying to find the abstract), but articles in the Woodland Daily Democrat and the San Diego Union-Tribune are reporting the story.

The clusters do not appear to point to environmental causes. Instead…well, read for yourself:

Researchers said that in this investigation the clusters probably are not correlated with specific environmental pollutants or other “exposures.” Rather, they correlate to areas where residents are more educated.

Children with autism diagnoses in these clusters are more likely to be White and have parents with high education levels. Again, a quote:

“In the U.S., the children of older, white and highly educated parents are more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism or autism spectrum disorder. For this reason, the clusters we found are probably not a result of a common environmental exposure. Instead, the differences in education, age and ethnicity of parents comparing births in the cluster versus those outside the cluster were striking enough to explain the clusters of autism cases,” said senior author Irva Hertz-Picciotto.

Kids in the “clusters” are about twice a likely to be diagnosed autistic and kids in nearby areas.

Twice as high.

To the many of us armchair epidemiologists who who have looked closely at the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) data, this comes as no surprise.

For me, the most memorable discussion of the autism clusters came from Autism Diva, in her post from July 1997, Malibu and Compton: Compare and Contrast.

Here is a graph from that post:

The South Central Regional Center, in a predominantly non-White, poor area of the Los Angeles basin, had an administrative prevalence of 33 per 10,000. Compare that to Westside Regional Center with a prevelance of 84. Westside is a much more affluent are with a higher proportion of White families.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“There is mounting evidence that at least some of this clustering results from the greater access and utilization of services by those with more years of schooling,” the UC Davis researchers wrote.

Yes, there is a certain “I told you so” moment here. This blog, Autism Diva, Autism Natural Variation, Autism Street and others have been pointing out the apparent autism clusters in the raw CDDS data for years. Long before I started blogging. But the real story isn’t the effect such clusters have on the idea of the “autism epidemic”. Rather, this is a clear indication that we are underserving the disabled in our minority and poor communities. This is just plain wrong.

It is long past time for real autism advocacy organizations to work on increasing awareness and access to services in underserved areas. The autism “clusters” are probably not real. From where I sit, what is real are the “anti–clusters” of undiagnosed autistics, minorities, the poor, and, yes, adults.

Richard Deth – gambling man

27 Apr

Maybe you don’t know, or have forgotten who Richard Deth (pronounced to rhyme with ‘teeth’) is.

He is:

Richard Deth, Ph.D., is a neuropharmacologist, a professor of pharmacology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and is on the scientific advisory board of the National Autism Association. Deth has published scientific studies on the role of D4 dopamine receptors in psychiatric disorders, as well as the book, Molecular Origins of Human Attention: The Dopamine-Folate Connection. He has also become a prominent voice in the controversies in autism and vaccine controversy, due to his theory that certain children are more at risk than others because they lack the normal ability to excrete neurotoxic metals.

Deth became ‘hot property’ in the anti-vaccine autism groups after publishing a paper (with which there were numerous issues – see Bart Cubbins excellent video for details) that was funded by one of those anti-vaccine groups – Safe Minds. Interestingly, during an exchange with Kathleen documented at, it also came to light that Richard Deth was registered as a paid expert witness in the vaccine litigation omnibus proceedings. Professor Deth said:

“I thank you for alerting me to the fact that my name was included on that expert witness list. It was done so without my knowledge or permission. It might be related to a phone call from that law office that was logged to my office while I was away on vacation in February. I never returned the call.”

To which Kathleen replied replied:

“It was quite an oversight for the attorneys to fail to confirm your willingness to serve in that role prior to naming you as a plaintiffs’ expert in the Petitioners’ Initial Disclosure of Experts, and filing that document with the Court of Federal Claims. However, their certainty is understandable, given your indication during our brief telephone conversation that the lawyer with whom you discussed the matter was “Andy” Waters, lead attorney in the thimerosal cases.”

Deth didn’t comment any further. As many have discovered, if you want to go head to head with Kathleen you better make sure your i’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed.

One of the statements Deth made during their exchange stood out to me at the time.

…I would like to make a virtual wager that within the next 18-24 months scientific evidence will make the thimerosal-autism link a near certainty. If you are willing, I’ll let you name the stakes.

Deth sent his email on March 22 2006. Luckily for him, Kathleen took pity on him and declined his rather gauche offer.

So what does this mean? What does it prove?

Why, nothing. Nothing at all. I just wanted LB/RB readers to be perfectly clear that a strong _belief_ in a scenario doesn’t make one right. In fact, when we look at all the recent evidence for the various beliefs of the various anti-vaccine/autism groups – from the prediction that the Omnibus Autism cases would be a walkover for them, to David Kirby’s certainty that thiomersal causation would be vindicated by CDDS data in 2005, then 2007, to this example of ego from Richard Deth what we see is a clear picture of a set of people who are consistently and unerringly wrong. This is because they simply cannot see the science right in front of them. Even such an august figure as Richard Deth, Ph. D.

Why is David Kirby grasping at straws?

9 Jan

Once more for the record, I like David. I tried very hard to get to see him in London last time he was over and we’d arranged to meet up for a drink but due to my family situation it wasn’t to be. However, I cannot let that stop me from recalling that we have very differing views on a wide range of things to do with autism and vaccines.

I have noticed of late a tendency for David’s HuffPo blog posts to be more than usually full of ‘if’ ‘maybe’ ‘might’ etc. However his skill as a writer buries these ambiguities and makes them appear certainties. I’m not even sure its a concious thing for David. His need to write well sometimes (I think) obscures a clinical need for precision in such delicate areas as he and I write in.

With that in mind, I recalled a post of his from November 2008 entitled ‘Tom Daschle: Friend to Many Autism Families’ in which he describes Mr Daschle thusly:

By nominating Tom Daschle to head up the Department, President Elect Obama has selected a man who has demonstrated an unflinching willingness to question vaccine safety, and to fight for the rights of those people who believe they have been, or may be, seriously injured by certain vaccinations.

I think David might’ve been trying to insinuate that Tom Daschle’s nomination was good for the autism/antivaccine community. Certainly however, as with the autism/antivaccine’s belief that RFK Jr would be appointed by Obama, this nomination might not be quite what that community is expecting. As blogged by Orac today, Daschle’s true feelings on vaccinations were spelt out by the man himself:

Immunization is probably as — as sound an investment as we can make in good health. I can’t imagine that we could do any better than ensure that every — every child is immunized, and that we understand the importance of — of broad-based immunization and the tremendous good health that can come from it.

Following that, David made a fairly innocuous presentation from a US Army scientist look much more sinister than it actually was. He claimed that the army listed autism as a possible ‘health effect’ of mercury/thiomersal. It turned out that that was not actually the case.

Dr. Centeno’s presentation, entititled ‘Mercury Poisoning: A Clinical and Toxicological Perspective,’ did mention Thimerosal. However, its inclusion was specifically intended to point out that although there has been some speculation about a potential association between Thimerosal and Autism, currently there is no data or science to support such a claim. Neither the AFIP nor Dr. Centeno have been involved in or conducted research on Autism.

After that was the recent debacle when David mixed up and – the latter being a website of Obama. The former a privately owned enterprise for at least the last 2 years. David thought (and committed to a blog post) that Obama had hired pro-neurodiversity bloggers and he imagined a conversation Obama might have with an autism parent:

It is hard to imagine the President one day saying…“I do not think we should devote resources to finding out what happened to your [autistic child]. I do not believe there is anything we can do to help him, and it is not desirable to even try.

This post made me sad and angry. I thought better of David than that. To say that any of us who do not believe vaccines cause autism do not think it is desirable to help our autistic children is massively insulting. I hope someday David can maybe spend a bit of time with parents who don’t think vaccines caused their child’s autism and see for himself how we help our kids. And maybe an apology might be forthcoming also.

David’s latest faux pas is regarding the latest MIND institute study. In a post entitled ‘UC Davis Study: Autism is Environmental (Can We Move On Now?)’ David says:

Autism is predominantly an environmentally acquired disease, the study seems to conclude. Its meteoric rise, at least in California, cannot possibly be attributed to that shopworn mantra we still hear everyday, incredibly, from far too many public health officials: It’s due to better diagnosing and counting.

The autism epidemic is real, and it is not caused by genes alone: You cannot have a genetic epidemic. It really is time that we, as a society, accept that cold, hard truth.

Here’s the full conclusion:

Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing. Younger ages at diagnosis, differential migration, changes
in diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases do not fully explain the observed increases. Other artifacts have yet to be quantified, and as a result, the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

Lets look at that last again:

…the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.

And yet David seems to to think its crystal clear. The paper itself also contains some direct and fairly easy-to-check errors. For example:

The inclusion of milder cases has been suggested as an explanation for the increase in autism. Neither Asperger’s
syndrome nor “pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified” qualify under the category of autism in the DDS system.

Here is what DDS passed on to me in Summer of 2007. I promised not to attribute the quote to an individual so I won’t, but you can email DDS yourselves and ask them.

The current CDER was written in 1978 and updated in 1986, which is why the language is so out of date ( e.g., Residual Autism). California has clinicians in the field who are, of course, using modern criteria in their assessments but then they have to go backwards and try to fit those kids into the 1986 CDER. So you are going to have Aspergers kids, PDD-NOS kids in both categories 1 and 2. Categories 1 and 2 are called ‘Autism.’ But because there are so many clinicians, using lots of different techniques for evaluation, there is a lot of inconsistency and enrollment figures should not be misused as epidemiological data.

Hertz-Picciotto might also be interested in a quote from Rita Eagle PhD of the California Dept. of Developmental Services (DDS) to Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 1, February 2004:

To many clinicians, it appears that more and more children who, in the past, would never have been referred to the regional centers for example, bright but anxious and slightly socially inept kids with average or better IQs and children who, in the past, had been or would have been diagnosed as ADHD, OCD, ODD, anxiety disorder, learning disabilities, psychotic, and so forth are now being diagnosed wit high-functioning autism and/or Asperger syndrome and referred to the regional centers for services.

Truth is that a lot of Hertz-Picciotto 2009 is simply wrong. For an extensive overview of why, please read Joseph’s technical takedown from which I’ll quote his conclusion:

H-P et al. is a surprisingly poor paper. It does not produce any new data in order to support its two main results. It makes an apples-to-oranges comparison between a Finnish epidemiological study and California DDS ascertainment over time. It tells us the obvious about “milder” cases. In the end, I don’t think this is an improvement over the 2002 MIND Institute report to the California Legislature. In fact, it could very well be worse.

The way H-P et al. have gone about trying to show there’s a real rise in autism incidence over time is not a very good way to go about doing things, in my view. There are other ways. For example, I’ve suggested trying to replicate Lotter (1967) in detail. This would not be as easily challenged.

David closes his latest error prone piece with:

But the sooner our best minds in science and medicine come to grips with the fact that these poor, hapless kids have been exposed to the wrong environmental toxins and/or infectious agents at the wrong time, the sooner we can find out how to best treat what really ails them.

This is a prime example of bad science leading the media. David has reported on a paper that has made fairly bad errors and taken them at their word. Sadly, this sort of thing will only continue as long as institutions like MIND (controlled by a man who is dedicated to proving vaccines cause autism) churn out error strewn papers.

David Kirby clarifies?

31 Oct

David is obviously a reader of this blog or Autism Vox or Respectful Insolence as these are (so far as I know) the three blogs that commented on his claim that thimerosal was no longer the ‘smoking gun’ for autism causation. Here’s the quote from the New Jersey Star Ledger:

David Kirby, a journalist and author of “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy,” said he believed that thimerosal, which still exists in trace amounts in some childhood vaccines, was no longer the “smoking gun.” Several national studies have found no connection, and a California study found that, even after thimerosal was removed from vaccines, diagnoses of autism continued to rise.

Now that’s a pretty unequivocal statement. Even so, David felt the need to clarify on Age of Autism yesterday:

The term “smoking gun” comes from Sherlock Holmes…..[]….To this writer’s mind…….the term means the “one and only cause,”.

I do not believe that thimerosal is the one and only cause of autism.

Now I’m confused. In the quote from the New Jersey Star Ledger David says thimerosal is no longer the cause of autism. In his own quote on AoA he says it is. Here is the quote that uses the words ‘smoking gun’:

The triggers, as I mentioned, might include, unfortunately, everything, and when I wrote my book I was hopeful that maybe thimerosal was the smoking gun. And if we just got mercury out of vaccines, autism would rapidly reduce. And we haven’t seen that happen yet. But I did say if that does not happen then that’s bad news; now we’re back to square one. It would have been so much nicer, and easier, and cleaner to say, gosh, it was the mercury in the vaccines and now we can take it out and the case is closed. That didn’t happen, and we need to look at everything. And as I said, not only the individual vaccine ingredients, but also the cumulative effects of so many vaccines at once.

So, this then as people said to me, is not David saying ‘its not thiomersal’, its David saying its not just thimerosal.

I’m kind of saddened by this. As David himself says:

There has been so much debate over ‘What is THE cause?’ And for a long time in this country, we were fixated on thimerosal, the vaccine preservative, and I share some of the blame for that because my book focused mostly on thimerosal.

Fixated is the right word. Some of us over and over and over were constantly telling people it couldn’t possibly – based on the available data – be thimerosal. And yet this stopped no-one from saying it was. More importantly it stopped no one from chelating autistic kids needlessly for ‘mercury poisoning’ that didn’t actually exist.

David now officially joins with Jenny McCarthy and the new side of autism/vaccines. Its everything. Individual vaccines ingredients and the cumulative effects of so many vaccines at once. My question is why? What we have here is an instance where a hypotheses was tested and failed to be accurate. It took 10 years for people who believe David to get that message. Many still haven’t.

David also claims that his infamous claim about CDDS data in 2005 (that if the thiomersal hypothesis was correct CDDS rates would fall – they didn’t) failed to take into account key confounders –

1) Falling age of diagnosis
2) Thiomersal in the flu shot
3) Immigration
4) Rising levels of background mercury

With all due respect to David these are pretty shoddy. David asks if the caseload could’ve increased between 1995-96 due to recent falling age of diagnosis and aggressive early intervention. I’m not sure that 95-96 could really be considered recent.

As discussed by Do’C on Autism Street, the whole ‘mercury in flu shots’ thing is rather misleading:

…better than 90% of the 5 year olds in the relevant data set were not even vaccinated. Does the increase in flu shot uptake in this age group that occurred after 2003 even matter with respect to the California data? It doesn’t seem likely given that about 80% of kids in the relevant age group are not even vaccinated during the next couple of years. But aside from that, the ones who were vaccinated were decreasingly likely to receive a thimerosal containing flu shot at all.

I’m not sure what to make of the Immigration thing. It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable – its easy to blame ‘the outsiders’ but without any actual science (and I’m not of the opinion that running CDDS data through Excel is science, sorry) to back those beliefs up, it feels like an easy ‘out’.

This rising levels of background mercury thing puzzles me. It may well be happening. David didn’t source the three studies (I imagine one is the Palmer thing) but I don’t see what background mercury has to do with thiomersal? Maybe I’m missing the obvious here.

David went on to describe what mercury can do:

constriction of visual fields, impaired hearing, emotional disturbances, spastic movements, incontinence, groaning, shouting, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation,” (HERE) (otherwise known as every afternoon at the Redwood house, circa 1998 in my book)

That may well be ‘every afternoon in the Redwood house’ but its never been any time of the day in my house. None, I repeat, none of the symptoms David lists form part of the DSM (IV). Whatever it was causing those symptoms every afternoon in the Redwood household, it had nothing to do with autism.

David closes by referring to a study published early this year. He says:

So, despite all the cries of innocence among mercury supporters, the California study authors insist that this trend has not been confirmed.

Not quite. Here’s the quote from the Medical News Today article:

They also cautioned that the evaluation of the trends needs to continue in order to confirm their findings for the children born more recently.

What they’re saying is that their conclusion for the data they’ve looked at is:

The DDS data do not show any recent decrease in autism in California despite the exclusion of more than trace levels of thimerosal from nearly all childhood vaccines. The DDS data do not support the hypothesis that exposure to thimerosal during childhood is a primary cause of autism.

but – quite reasonably – for children they haven’t looked at, they can’t speak for.

A quiet concession

3 Jun

While much has been made of a certain “concession” lately, it is worthwhile noting that the past month has seen a significant shift in the mindset of people pushing the autism “epidemic”.  In vaccine court it was the petitioners (plaintiffs) who opened with the admission that if there is any group of people with autism as a result of vaccine injury, the number would be so small as to be invisible to epidemiological studies.  (This didn’t stop them from closing with the latest Geier paper claiming that they can see the effect of thimerosal on the autism rates.)

But, this hasn’t been such a sudden shift.  As far back as last November, David Kirby noted:

“Finally, to all those who are going to post comments about the autism rates in California not coming down, following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines: You are right. The most likely explanation is that thimerosal was not responsible for the autism epidemic.”

Baby steps….baby steps…

That’s my way of saying to those who would bravely rise up in their seats and proclaim, “stop the hate speech!” that the above is progress.  Sure, we still have to continue to endure the “epidemic” language for now.  Why he can’t just admit it in full, I am not sure.  Oddly, Mr Kirby doesn’t put forth a valid suggestion of what caused this “epidemic” of non-thimerosal-induced autism.  He does try a last-ditch effort to prop up the possibility of a thimerosal-induced-autism-epidemic with claims of immigration and pushing the goalposts back to 2011.  

But, I felt I had to acknowledge the fact that even Mr. Kirby is stating that the most likely answer is that it is not thimerosal before I go on.  Because, if one looks at the data just a little farther, one can find a likely answer for why there is a larger number of young people identified with autism than older people.  It isn’t news to us, and it isn’t news to Mr. Kirby and the rest: one likely reason is substitution.  I don’t know which they would try to avoid more, admitting that substitution is a big effect or an MMR jab, but let’s look a the data.  Just a peak. 

Consider  Autism as a function of age in the CDDS (California Department of Developmental Services) data.  Keep in mind, this is service data–i.e. this is a count of who is receiving services from the CDDS, not a count of who has autism in California.  This is not epidemiological grade data.   But, since it has been used so much, let’s move forward, keeping the caveats in mind. (click on the graph if you want to see it larger and more clear)


So, Autism count vs. age (data in black), what do we see?  Of course, we see a big peak in the younger ages.  This is the “Tidle Wave” or “Tsunami” or “Insert Other Hate Speech Term Here” that people like to use to make this scary.  But, as you have noticed, I have included the data for “Mild Mental Retardation” as well, in red.   What do we see there?  A dramatic dip in individuals identified with mild mental retardation in the younger ages.  Does anyone believe that something happened in California to reduce the number of people with intellectual disabilities?  If so, they aren’t very vocal about it.

If I were reading this for the first time, I would be suspicious of someone using only one mental retardation category.  Believe me, all mental retardation categories show much lower numbers in the younger age brackets.

This is a clear indication of “administrative substitution”.  [edit–see comments below] Joseph has done a lot of work on the CDDS data in the past and notes (below) that it is very difficult to draw conclusions about substitution from the publicly available data.  However, this is similar to what people have reported in the literature especially using special education data: people with autism have very likely been mislabeled, their autism label was “substituted” for a different label.  They weren’t “missed” as the favorite straw-man arguement would have it, but mis-labeled.

One person in the AutismOne media discussion (as reported by AutismNewsBeat) kept saying, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, implying that the future is going to be very different from the past.  I have to agree, in the future, more adults with autism will be correctly identified.  They won’t be in hospitals with schizophrenia diagnoses, for example.  This will be a good thing.

Frankly, I’d like to see that change come sooner.  I’d like to see adults properly identified and appropriately served now.  We have to move away from baby steps and take bigger steps away from the “epidemic” and acknowledge that unidentified/misidentifed adults with autism are almost certainly out there.

Instead, we have people asking to “Green Our Vaccines“.  The “Green Our Vaccines” idea is a very cute way to mask the typical “epidemic” speech.  But it is the same old story: autism is vaccine injury and new.  Note that almost all of the groups sponsoring the “Green our Vaccines” rally are autism-related.   Sorry to divert to that topic somewhat, but I can’t help thinking that all that effort is being put into that rally by people who actively supress the existance of adults with autism.  I can’t help thinking that the present and the future would be better if they were acting to help everyone with autism, now.

(noted, this has been edited to more correctly reflect Joseph’s opinions on substitution.  Also, I missed another Green Our Vaccines link.)

Adults, Autism and Scotland

10 May

I have been thinking recently how nice it is that the online autism community has moved on from the quarterly analyses of the CDDS data. For those who are blissfully unaware–the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) publishes statistics on the people it serves. They do this every three months.

These data are a favorite of people who would like to promote the idea of an autism ‘epidemic’. Mr. David Kirby has a book and enough power point slides for three debates which are filled with (mis)interpretations of these data.

For the past year or so, every three months the CDDS publishes the data followed by people stating, “The CDDS autism count has gone up, this proves there is an epidemic” and “the CDDS autism count has gone down, this proves the epidemic”. Both seemingly contradictory statements being made on the same dataset. These were quickly followed by multiple bloggers pointing out that the interpretations made were incorrect.

Three things happened that made for a break. (1) Mr. Kirby declared that he was moving on from autism, (2) the CDDS is on a break while they rework the way they compile the data and (3) A case was conceded in the Autism Omnibus which shifted the debate (and ended item (1)).

I was very happy to see the CDDS phase of the autism discussion end.

Then, much to my dismay, the same arguments started up again. This time it is data from Scotland, not the CDDS being misused. Otherwise, it is the same old arguments and the same bad analyses. Well…almost. Some new bad analyses have been added.

Mr. Kirby has a discussion of the Scottish data on another blog. Let’s avoid the conceptual mistakes (such as assuming that somehow everyone is properly identified and receiving services). Before we get to the real implications of this, let’s take a break and look at the math errors, shall we?

Mr Kirby takes this graph of data from the Scottish report:

And states:

Let’s look at the numbers. There are approximately 34,000 young people with autism in Scotland, born during the 16 years from 1987-2002. That is an average of 2,125 cases per birth cohort. But among older people, born during the 31 years between 1955 and 1986, there are only about 600 reported cases, or just over 19 cases a year.

Based on this, he has determined that if the true incidence of autism is constant, about 1 in 110 of the adults are missing from the count.

OK, go back and click on that image for me. I know you skipped over it, but, go take a look at the bigger version.

Did you see it? Yep, the number is not 34,000, but 3,400 adults with autism in the Scottish survey. A factor of 10. Don’t worry if you missed it. Mr Kirby (who spent some time ‘analyzing’ the data) and at least 20 people who responded to his post missed it too.

At this point, I can hear the screams of “So what, that’s just a small mistake. You are trying to distract us all from the big picture.” Because, in the end, even though Mr. Kirby is off by a factor of 10 and there aren’t 100 times more kids than adults receiving services with an autism label in Scotland, there is a roughly factor of 10 difference in the administrative prevalence of autism.

A factor of 10 is still big. I’d argue it’s huge. In fact, I’d scream right back at the people who are trying to use this for political gain.We can argue back and forth whether it’s real. But, consider some of the possibilities for the Scottish survey:

  1. the numbers are correct, all autistics are correctly counted.
  2. People are getting appropriate services, but some are under the wrong label (e.g. intellectual disability).
  3. Some people are getting the wrong services because of an incorrect label (e.g. schizophrenia).
  4. People who really should be getting services and supports are not getting any.

Let’s face it, if there’s a chance that people are getting the wrong services, we should be looking. And, yes, it is a very real possibility. Remember the big stink some people made when it was implied that some adults with the label of Schizophrenia might actually be autistic? Well, David Mandell is scheduled to talk about this at IMFAR this year in his paper: Evidence of autism in a psychiatrically hospitalized sample.

A £500,000 project to look for adults with Autism in the UK has been recently announced. To quote one of the researchers on this project:

“Adults with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are too often abandoned by services with their families left to struggle alone. Equally, people are frequently missaprorpriately referred to either mental health or learning disability services

“This study will inform the development of a national strategy designed to ensure that adults with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are supported to have full lives.”

“We still don’t know enough about autism, but we do know that left unsupported, it can have a devastating impact on those who have the condition and their families. One of the key gaps in our knowledge is simple – we don’t know how many people have the condition in any given area. That is why I am ordering a study to address this. “

It sounds like a really tough project. I don’t know if this study can really be accomplished. But, I have hopes that it could help improve the lives of adult autistics.

Now, as long as we brought up the Scottish survey, why not look at some of the details that were missed by others?

One question was how many of the individuals had “other behavioural or biomedical conditions?”. For the adults, this was 30% of the total. For the children, this was 3% of the total. Is this an indication that the kids being identified today actually have less severe symptoms than the adults? Even without that, only 1% have “other…biomedical conditions”?!? Where are all the kids with all the conditions like bowel problems that some groups claim define autism?

Another interesting fact from the survey is that over 50% of the children are in mainstream schools.

Yet another factoid: about 32% of the children in the survey have Asperger syndrome. Of those, half are listed as having ‘no learning disabilities’. For adults, only 14% are listed as having Asperger syndrome.

Surveys of those getting services are prone to a lot of errors–as has been discussed in the past for the CDDS data many times. So, these data should not be taken as hard epidemiological counts of the actual number of people in Scotland with autism. However, these data do not support the idea that the younger generation of autistics have greater challenges than the adults had to overcome.

I am actually glad that the subject came up of autism in Scotland. Why? Because in looking for some of these data, I found the website for the National Autistic Society Scotland. I particularly liked this page: I Exist: the message from adults with autism in Scotland.

For me, I have just finished a box of McVitie’s HobNobs while writing this. I don’t know if they are Scottish, but I love them. Perhaps I’ll open the other box to celebrate a study of adults with autism.


Sullivan’s catch of David’s maths error is good but I thought to myself as soon as I heard about this Scottish report that I’d heard about it before. I had. I blogged on this audit three years ago. One of the most fascinating aspects of the paper was when local authorities were asked for their opinions on the following question:

Research tells us that prevalence rates of autistic spectrum disorder represent an underestimate. To what extent do you consider the numbers above to be an accurate reflection of all those who live in your area?

The answers were very interesting. About 45% of the areas questioned said that the prevalence for adults was grossly underestimated, badly reported and that a lot of these adults exist without diagnosis. For example:

Argyll & Bute Council
It is believed that the figures represent a significant under-representation of those with ASD in Argyll and Bute. This was thought to be due to a historical under-diagnosis and the absence of clearly defined referral pathways and multi-agency assessment processes for adults.

East Renfrewshire Council, NHS A&C and Greater Glasgow NHS

…as a result of changing patterns of diagnosis over recent years there are likely to be substantial numbers of adults with ASD who are not known to services and are not diagnosed as having ASDs.

It is apparent that information collection and collation for adults is almost non existent.

There is little doubt that this number is far short of the actual number of adults in Dumfries & Galloway with ASD.

There is low diagnosis for longstanding clients, whom workers are aware have autism as well as a learning disability.

It is believed that these figures comprise a significant underestimate due to the lack of a diagnostic process particularly for adults. It is believed that the figures for younger children are accurate due to the development of diagnostic tools for children are accurate due to the development of diagnostic tools for children and the establishment of multi-disciplinary partnerships which include education.

The estimated numbers provided for the pre-school and primary school ages are thought to be a reasonably accurate reflection of the true picture. However the estimated number of secondary school children is less accurate and the estimated number of adults with ASD is likely to be a considerable underestimate of the true prevalence.

Figures for children are an accurate representation of needs. One or two children may yet be diagnosed. Figures for adults are under estimated as diagnosis has not been made and access to specialists is variable.

Perth & Kinross Council
Figures for adults reflect the national findings that the numbers known to services/diagnosed represent a significant underestimate of those individuals likely to be affected. For example day centre managers locally consider a number of people to be on the spectrum who have had no formal diagnosis.

Pretty interesting stuff I think you’ll agree. This means that about 45% of the areas questioned said that the prevalence for adults was grossly underestimated, badly reported and that a lot of these adults exist without diagnosis. The two really stand out quotes for me were:

There is low diagnosis for longstanding clients, whom workers are aware have autism as well as a learning disability……day centre managers locally consider a number of people to be on the spectrum who have had no formal diagnosis.

So as well as the excellent points Sullivan raised, I’d also like to ask how it is possible to place any kind of interpretation of the data when the fact that adult prevalence is grossly under-reported is so well established?