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SafeMinds: why won’t you tell your membership about the vaccine safety study you funded? Perhaps because it says vaccines are safe?

28 Aug

Earlier this year a paper was published on vaccine safety: Examination of the Safety of Pediatric Vaccine Schedules in a Non-Human Primate Model: Assessments of Neurodevelopment, Learning, and Social Behavior. This was a followup study to earlier pilot studies that got a lot of attention in the “vaccines-cause-autism” groups (Delayed acquisition of neonatal reflexes in newborn primates receiving a thimerosal-containing hepatitis B vaccine: influence of gestational age and birth weight and Influence of pediatric vaccines on amygdala growth and opioid ligand binding in rhesus macaque infants: a pilot study.)

It is worth noting that the pilot studies didn’t link vaccines to autism. They did make claims that some early reflexes were delayed in the monkeys given thimerosal containing vaccines. If you see someone talking about “root” or “snout” or “suck” reflexes in a vaccine discussion, they are referring to the studies above. These were pilot studies–small preliminary studies to see if it is worth launching a larger study. As such the results should have been taken with caution. But caution is not what groups like SafeMinds (or any of the groups that promote the failed vaccine-autism link) are known for. Inflating any scrap of evidence that can support their political point of view, that’s what they are known for.

SafeMinds made a big deal out of the early studies. Mark Blaxill (then of SafeMinds) called the study a “blockbuster” in a four thousand word analysis. That’s a lot of space to devote considering the full study was eight thousand words. And, as noted already, preliminary. But politics is politics.

Now, an intellectually honest person, or group, would watch for the followup study and report on it no matter the result. Because, let’s face it, if you are going to spend 4000 words overstating the importance of a study, scaring people and instilling them with guilt and pain over their child’s disability, you have a responsibility to do a follow up.

If you are intellectually honest.

So, as noted above, the follow up study was published. It was published in April. Four months ago. And I don’t see anything from Mr. Blaxill on the Age of Autism blog (where he posted his “blockbuster” article) or at the SafeMinds website on the followup study. SafeMinds has their own blog, and if you search it for, say “snout”, you get this article (Ground-Breaking Monkey Study: Mercury-Containing Hepatitis B Vaccine Causes Brain Damage) on the pilot study, calling it “groundbreaking” and claiming that it demonstrates that the thimerosal containing HepB vaccine causes brain damage.

Very strong words. Words which, if overblown, are very damaging. Imagine going through life as a parent thinking that you agreed to a vaccine and that caused brain damage to your child. Now imagine that the evidence you used to draw that conclusion was (a) not strong to begin with and (b) now refuted.

Wouldn’t you want to know the truth? Wouldn’t you expect the people and the organizations that convinced you of this falshood to seek you out and correct their mistake?

And this is why people don’t hold Mr. Blaxill or SafeMinds in high regard. They are quick to scare but don’t have the courage to admit they were wrong. Courage isn’t standing up and saying unpopular truths. Courage is standing up and admitting that your “unpopular truth” was, in fact, not the truth at all.

Now, why pick on SafeMinds in specific here? A lot of people and groups jumped on the pilot study and spread a lot of fear. Check out the footnotes of the study.

This work was supported by the Ted Lindsay Foundation, SafeMinds, National Autism Association, the Vernick family, and the Johnson family

SafeMinds helped fund the new study. The one they are ignoring. They were likely aware of the results before they were published. But no word.

I expect more from decent advocacy organizations. But I am not surprised with SafeMinds, nor Mark Blaxill.

Yes, the National Autism Association did too and they need to step up as well (a point I hope to make in a later article).

How about the Johnson Family? Well, the Johnson Center stepped up and put out a press release New Research Finds No Evidence That Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines Affect Neurodevelopment and Behavior in Infant Primates. (all SafeMinds, the Age of Autism and the National Autism Association needs to do as a start is publish the press release).

Here’s the last sentence of the press release, quoting the lead researcher: “Despite these limitations, the data in this primate study overwhelmingly provides support for the safety of pediatric vaccines”

It would take a lot of courage for SafeMinds and Mark Blaxill to publicize such a statement. More than they have.

By Matt Carey

Why won’t the government fund vaccine/autism research?

15 Jul

This question gets brought up a lot by some parent advocates. The are informed by groups promoting the idea of vaccine causation that the government is blocking this work. The evidence points strongly away from vaccines as a primary cause of autism, and investment in this area doesn’t seem wise. At least that’s the viewpoint of the majority of parents (including myself), autistics and researchers. But some remain unconvinced and want vaccine/autism research performed. And they are upset that none of this work is being performed.

Here’s a different question: why are the groups who promote the idea that vaccines cause autism failing to inform their members that, yes, indeed vaccine/autism research is being performed?

Or, to put it simply: vaccine/autism research is being performed and it’s being funded by the government. But you wouldn’t know that if you read, say, the Age of Autism blog, Generation Rescue’s website, SafeMinds’ website, or the other groups advocating for this research. If you are interested in vaccine/autism research and you are reading about these projects for the first time here, ask yourself “why have these orgs not informed me of this?”.

As noted here recently, Tom Insel discussed an upcoming vaccine/autism study. Already commissioned, performed and in the publication stage. That announcement was in April. What was the response from the community that has pleaded for vaccine/autism research? For the first few months: Silence. In July, SafeMinds finally put out an article showing that they were “worried” about this study. I don’t see much discussion of this announcement from other groups or outlets.

I’m not surprised by this. I’ve noted before that work on areas such as vaccines, mercury, environmental risk factor research and GI dysfunction don’t get discussed by the groups that are focused on these topics. I’ve covered the research in these areas more than they have.

So let’s get back to what other work is going on in vaccines and autism. Let’s start with the simple question: how would you find out? One place is the IACC/OARC Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Portfolio Analysis Web Tool. That could use updating, but it is an easily searchable database. Another place is NIH Reporter. It’s less easy to use than the Portfolio Analysis Tool and includes all of NIH. I.e. it covers non autism topics and doesn’t include projects being done outside of NIH (say, by Autism Speaks or other private funders). But, search Reporter for autism and vaccines or mercury and what do you get? Quite a number hits. Let’s consider a few.

How about:

There’s a study by Ian Lipkin’s group at Columbia titled: GENE-ENVIRONMENT INTERACTIONS IN AN AUTISM BIRTH COHORT.

There’s a study by Gene Sackett’s group, A PRIMATE MODEL OF GUT, IMMUNE, AND CNS RESPONSE TO CHILDHOOD VACCINES. This appears to be a follow on project to the Laura Hewitson studies that were discussed a great deal online a few years ago.

Isaac Pessah’s group at the UC Davis MIND Institute has a project NEURODEVELOPMENTAL TOXICOLOGY OF AUTISM. Prof. Pessah also had a multiyear project ENVIROMENTAL FACTORS IN THE ETIOLOGY OF AUTISM

Judy Van de Water’s group at UC Davis MIND Institute has a project IMMUNOLOGICAL SUSCEPTIBILITY OF AUTISM.

The Lewin Group study (which I believe is the one mentioned by Tom Insel) STUDY OF HEALTH OUTCOMES IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM AND THEIR FAMILIES. (Just a note–see how this has been publicly available information for a year?)

There’s the CHARGE study, which is looking at a large array of potential environmental risk factors, including specifically mentioning mercury. THE CHARGE STUDY: CHILDHOOD AUTISM RISKS FROM GENETICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Here’s a 2014 grant to Ray Palmer, well known to the groups promoting mercury as a cause of autism, PRENATAL TIMING OF HEAVY METAL EXPOSURES FROM AUTISTIC AND NON-AUTISTIC CHILDREN.

The EPIDEMIOLOGICAL RESEARCH ON AUTISM IN JAMAICA – PHASE II project is continuing (hence the Phase II) and includes work on mercury.

There are more projects. Some I left out because they are older. But I think the point is made and is very clear: vaccine/autism and mercury/autism research are being funded.

And that is without even discussing how research on the biology of autism feeds into all etiological questions. Whether it’s vaccine, genetics or what have you, if you understand the biology, you have a better chance of understanding the cause. (when I searched NIH Reporter with the terms Autism and Immune, I got 25 pages of hits. Sure, not all are on-topic, but that’s 25 pages, 606 topics).

Here are the full abstracts–with emphasis added by me–for the NIH Reporter projects mentioned above.


Abstract Text:
Reports of increasing prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), a set of highly genetic conditions, are intensifying interest in the role of environmental exposures, including infectious, immune, and toxic factors. Retrospective studies exploring associations between environmental factors and ASDs are compromised by selection bias, small sample sizes, possibly invalid diagnosis, and absence of biologic measures. This prospective study will employ an unselected birth cohort of 75,500 in which cases are ascertained through screening of the entire population, diagnoses established using uniform procedures, extensive histories and clinical data obtained, and biologic samples collected serially throughout pregnancy and early childhood. The application of high throughput laboratory assays to derive maximal information from developmentally-influenced, finite, and nonrenewable biologic samples, and inclusion of early screening and diagnostic assessments, will permit an unprecedented, rich view of the longitudinal trajectory and nascent signs and symptoms of ASDs, facilitate discovery of biomarkers, and afford unique insights into the role of gene:environment interactions in ASD pathogenesis. Specific aims are to: (1) establish the autism Birth Cohort (ABC) through ascertainment of cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD, N=150-233) and selection of controls (N-1000) from the Norway Mothers and Child (MoBa) cohort; (2) examine biologic pathways that may predispose to ASD, through evaluation of immune, endocrine, and neuroregulatory factors in mothers during early gestation or at birth and in children, at birth or 30 months postnatal; (3) identify environmental factors that may be directly or indirectly associated with ASD, including pre- or postnatal infection, vaccination, very low birth weight or other obstetric risk factors in which infections are implicated, dietary and/or environmental exposure to methylmercury; (4) describe the natural history of clinical, anthropometric, and neurobehavioral features of ASD; and (5) explore genotypic influences that may be directly or indirectly associated with ASD by testing associations of ASD and/or its endophenotypes with family history of autoimmune disease or selected candidate genes, and investigating conditional gene-environment effects using antecedent factors found to influence ASD risk.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Brain Disorders; Clinical Research; Genetics; Immunization; Mental Health; Mental Retardation (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)); Neurosciences; Pediatric; Prevention; vaccine Related

Project Terms:
autism spectrum disorder; Autistic Disorder; Autoimmune Diseases; base; Biological Assay; Biological Markers; Birth; Candidate Disease Gene; case control; Child; Clinical; Clinical Data; cohort; Cohort Studies; Collaborations; Collection; Confusion; Control Groups; design; Development; Diagnosis; Diagnostic; Discipline of obstetrics; Disease; disorder risk; Drops; early childhood; Endocrine; endophenotype; Environment; Environmental Exposure; Environmental Risk Factor; Epidemic; Epidemiologic Studies; Evaluation; Exposure to; Family history of; gene environment interaction; Genes; Genetic; Hereditary Disease; Immune; immune function; Infection; insight; interest; Investigation; Laboratories; Life; Measles; Measures; member; Mercury; Methylmercury Compounds; Mothers; Mumps; Natural History; Nested Case-Control Study; neurobehavioral; Neurodevelopmental Disorder; Norway; novel; Pathogenesis; Pathway interactions; Phase; Population; postnatal; Pregnancy; prenatal; Prevalence; Procedures; prospective; Prospective Studies; Recording of previous events; Relative (related person); Reporting; Research; Research Design; Retrospective Studies; Risk Factors; Role; Rubella; Sample Size; Sampling; Screening procedure; Selection Bias; Signs and Symptoms; Specimen; Testing; Vaccination; Vaccines; Vacuum; Very Low Birth Weight Infant


Abstract Text:
This subproject is one of many research subprojects utilizing the resources provided by a Center grant funded by NIH/NCRR. Primary support for the subproject and the subproject’s principal investigator may have been provided by other sources, including other NIH sources. The Total Cost listed for the subproject likely represents the estimated amount of Center infrastructure utilized by the subproject, not direct funding provided by the NCRR grant to the subproject or subproject staff. Diagnoses of childhood developmental disorders involving autism-spectrum symptoms are increasing, estimated to affect 1 in 100 children in the United States. Childhood Vaccines have been hypothesized to be contributory factors to this increase. The childhood vaccine regimen has an experimentally unstudied potential for cumulative and synergistic toxicities and possible immunologic interference to normal development. A prior study developed a primate model to assess neurodevelopmental consequences of the 1994-1999 pediatric thimerosal vaccine regimen (1994-1999). Significant neurodevelopmental deficits were evident for vaccinated animals in survival reflexes and standardized cognitive tests, and exposed animals developed gastrointestinal inflammation associated with focal transmural colitis, lymphoid hyperplasia, and syncytia.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Brain Disorders; Cancer; Digestive Diseases; Immunization; Lymphoma; Mental Health; Mental Retardation (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)); Pediatric; Rare Diseases; vaccine Related

Project Terms:
Affect; Animals; Autistic Disorder; Child; Childhood; Cognitive; Colitis; cost; Development; developmental disease/disorder; Diagnosis; Funding; gastrointestinal; Giant Cells; Grant; Immune; Immunologics; Inflammation; lymphoid hyperplasia; Modeling; National Center for Research Resources; Neurodevelopmental Deficit; Primates; Principal Investigator; Reflex action; Regimen; Research; Research Infrastructure; Resources; response; Source; Symptoms; Testing; Thimerosal; Toxic effect; United States; United States National Institutes of Health; Vaccinated; Vaccines


Abstract Text:
The long range goal is to determine if exposure to environmental toxicants early in development contributes to the etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. A related goal is to determine whether susceptibility to autoimmune disease increases the neurotoxicity of environmental contaminants and increases the risk for developing disorders such as autism. Understanding how exposure to environmental toxicants may contribute to the etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders is important so that the exposure risks can be identified and minimized. If immune system dysfunction is found to increase the risk of exposure to environmental toxicants, then exposure limits to toxic substances can be lowered, and children with immune system dysfunction who may be at increase risk can be identified and protected. The specific aims are to expose mouse strains with low (C57BL/6J) or high (SJL mice) susceptibility to autoimmunity perinatally to either methylmercury (MeHg), polychlorinated biphenyl 95 (PCB 95) or polybrominated diphenyl ether 47 (BDE 47). We will then compare the effects of toxicant exposure between these mouse strains on brain development, complex social behaviors, and immune system function. The hypothesis is that perinatal exposure to each of these toxic substances will impair brain development and behavior, and that suscepbility to autoimmune disease will increase the neuro- and immunotoxicity of these agents. We will also explore a potentially new model of autism in mice injected prenatally with unique autoantibodies isolated from the serum of mothers who have given birth to two more more autistic children. Brain development will be examined histologically using stereological procedures and immunohistochemistry. Complex social behaviors will be studied using behavioral testing procedures established in our laboratory that measure social recognition, social interaction and social communication in mice. Immune system status will be established by measuring cytokines, chemokines, immunoglobulins, and quantifying immune system response to antigenic stimulation. In addition, seizure susceptibility will be measured in toxicant-exposed mice as well as measures of synaptic excitibility and plasticity in hippocampal brain slices. These studies will provide critical new information on the role of the immune system and its interaction with environmental contaminants in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Autoimmune Disease; Behavioral and Social Science; Brain Disorders; Epilepsy; Mental Health; Mental Retardation (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)); Neurodegenerative; Neurosciences; Pediatric; Perinatal Period – Conditions Originating in Perinatal Period

Project Terms:
Age; Animal Testing; Antibodies; Anxiety; autistic Children; Autistic Disorder; Autoantibodies; Autoimmune Diseases; Autoimmune Process; Autoimmunity; Behavior; behavior test; Behavioral; Biological Assay; Birth; Brain; CCL2 gene; CCL3 gene; CCL4 gene; Cerebellum; chemokine; Chemokine (C-C Motif) Ligand 4; Child; Complex; cytokine; density; Development; developmental disease/disorder; developmental neurotoxicity; Disease; Environmental Pollution; Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay; Etiology; Exposure to; fetal; Fibroblast Growth Factor; Flurothyl; Fright; Glutamate Receptor; Goals; Granulocyte-Macrophage Colony-Stimulating Factor; Hippocampus (Brain); Histologic; Homer 1; human TNF protein; IL8 gene; Immune response; Immune system; Immune System and Related Disorders; Immunoglobulin A; Immunoglobulin G; Immunoglobulin M; Immunoglobulins; Immunohistochemistry; Immunophilins; immunotoxicity; In Vitro; in vivo; Infection; Interferon Type II; Interleukin-10; Interleukin-17; Interleukin-4; Interleukin-5; Interleukin-6; Kindling (Neurology); Laboratories; Learning; Leptin; link protein; Long-Term Potentiation; Measures; Memory; Metabotropic Glutamate Receptors; Methods; Methylmercury Compounds; Mitogens; Modeling; Mothers; mouse model; Mouse Strains; Mus; N-Methylaspartate; neurobehavioral disorder; neurodevelopment; Neurodevelopmental Disorder; Neurologic; Neuronal Injury; Neurons; neurotoxicity; offspring; Pentylenetetrazole; Perinatal; Perinatal Exposure; phenyl ether; Plasma; Poisons; Polychlorinated Biphenyls; postnatal; Predisposition; pregnant; prenatal; prenatal exposure; Preparation; Principal Investigator; Procedures; programs; Proteins; RANTES; receptor; receptor function; repaired; Research Design; Research Personnel; research study; response; Risk; Role; Ryanodine Receptor Calcium Release Channel; Ryanodine Receptors; Seizures; sensory gating; Sensory Motor Performances; Serological; Serum; Signal Pathway; Signal Transduction; SJL Mouse; SJL/J Mouse; Slice; Small Inducible Cytokine A3; social; Social Behavior; social communication; Social Interaction; Source; Splenocyte; Structure; Synapses; synaptotagmin; System; T-Cell Proliferation; Testing; Tetanus; Tetanus Toxoid; Tetanus vaccine; Toxic Environmental Substances; toxicant; Toxicant exposure; Toxicology; Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha; Vascular Endothelial Growth Factors; Western Blotting; Work; Xenobiotics

Abstract Text:
Recent studies indicate that immune function in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is profoundly altered compared to developmentally healthy controls. There is a strong interface between the immune system and the neurologic network, and successful neurodevelopment is contingent upon a successful interaction between these two systems. We have identified several aspects of immune dysfunction in patients with autism compared with typically developing controls. These include a reduced response to vaccine antigens of bacterial origin, altered cytokine levels in plasma and upon stimulation of PBMC, increased levels of leptin in patients with early onset autism, and autoantibodies to brain antigens. This wide and complex variety of immune anomalies noted in our first funding period is in keeping with the broad range of phenotypes encompassed by the autism spectrum. Thus, we will build upon our earlier findings of both serologic and cellular changes in immune function. While our studies in the previous project period were aimed at a broad analysis of immune function in patients with autism, the current proposal will address the mechanisms responsible for the numerous alterations in immune homeostasis uncovered in our earlier studies. Therefore, our primary focus will be on the mechanisms responsible for such anomalies in immune function through an in depth analysis of cellular immune function. Our overall hypothesis is that patients with autism have a fundamental defect at the cellular level that ultimately leads to abnormalities in immune function and heightened susceptibility to environmental triggers. To examine this, we propose to: (1) examine longitudinally the serologic profile of children with ASD to ascertain whether the various immune changes noted in our first studies are maintained and/or deteriorating further; (2) determine which immune cell population(s) plays a critical role in the immune dysfunction seen in patients with autism; and (3) fully characterize the autoantibody response in a subpopulation of children with ASD and some mothers of children with ASD. It must be noted that due to the highly heterogeneous nature of autism, there will potentially be immunologic differences that relate to sub-groups of patients with autism. Therefore, we will carefully define the study groups based on our current data to include children with early onset autism, children with delayed onset/regressive autism, general population controls, and children with developmental disorders without ASD. The studies will be performed on CHARGE subjects formerly analyzed by our laboratory (CHARGE-BACK study). This will allow us to extend our prior studies longitudinally to determine if the immune dysregulation, such as increased leptin levels in the early onset patients, remains over time. The following aims address both the serologic and cellular aspects of immune function in patients with autism.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Brain Disorders; Mental Health; Mental Retardation (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)); Neurosciences; Pediatric

Project Terms:
Address; Age; anti-IgM; Antibodies; Antigens; autism spectrum disorder; autistic Children; Autistic Disorder; Autoantibodies; B-Lymphocytes; Back; base; Behavior; Blood Cells; Brain; calcium indicator; Calcium Signaling; Cell Culture Techniques; Cell physiology; Cell Proliferation; Cell surface; Cells; Child; Color; Complex; Cultured Cells; cytokine; Data; Defect; Development; developmental disease/disorder; Digestion; Disease; Dose; Dyes; early onset; Environmental Health; Etiology; fetal; Flow Cytometry; Flu virus; Frequencies (time pattern); Funding; Gel; General Population; HLA-DR Antigens; Homeostasis; Human; IgE; Immune; immune function; Immune system; Immune System Diseases; Immunoglobulin A; Immunoglobulin G; Immunoglobulin M; Immunologics; Label; Laboratories; Lasers; Leptin; Maps; Mercury; Microarray Analysis; Mitogens; Modeling; Mothers; Mus; Nature; neurodevelopment; Neurologic; Oligonucleotides; Pathogenesis; Pathology; Patients; Pattern; Peptides; Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cell; Phenotype; Plasma; Play; Poly I-C; Population; Population Control; Predisposition; Pregnancy; Principal Investigator; Production; programs; Reagent; research study; response; RNA; Role; Serological; Serum; Source; Spectrometry, Mass, Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption-Ionization; Staining method; Stains; System; T-Lymphocyte; Testing; Time; TNFSF5 gene; Tube; Up-Regulation (Physiology); Upper arm; vaccine Antigen; Xenobiotics


Abstract Text:
This contract modification is to extend and supplement Contract HHSN271201000033C, consistent with the scope of work of “Study of Health Outcomes in Children with autism and Their Families¿ in order to access the currently validated database developed under the contract to provide for further analysis . Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a significant public health concern, with an estimated prevalence of 1 in 88 children in the United States. Much of the research to date has focused on the core social and communication deficits of ASD, but there are anecdotes and some survey data suggesting that the rate of comorbid health conditions may also be elevated in this population. Furthermore, despite several large-scale epidemiological studies that have assessed but not found any potential association between ASD and vaccinations, public concerns persist about such a causal link. At least partly as a consequence, health officials in the United States have reported an increased rate of vaccine refusal in the general population. The Study of Health Outcomes in Children with autism and their Families was begun two years ago. Under this contract, the Contractor analyzed a large dataset of retrospective commercial health plan claims of 46,236 children with ASD, their parents and siblings, and a comparison cohort of children and family members. They successfully completed the analyses requested in the original statement of work, which included a study of the validity of ASD diagnoses in the claims data, and descriptions of health outcomes and health care utilization of the ASD cohort, their family members, and the comparison cohorts.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Brain Disorders; Immunization; Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD); Mental Health; Pediatric; Prevention; vaccine Related

Project Terms:
Anecdotes; autism spectrum disorder; Autistic Disorder; Child; cohort; Contractor; Contracts; Data; Data Set; Databases; Diagnosis; Epidemiologic Studies; Family; Family member; General Population; Health; health care service utilization; Health Planning; Link; Modification; Outcome; Parents; Population; Prevalence; public health medicine (field); Recording of previous events; Reporting; Research; Siblings; social communication; Surveys; United States; Vaccination; Vaccines; Work


Core 4 is the Molecular Core. It serves as the central resource for the projects that isolate and process RNA on Affymetrix microarrays, and for performing RT-PCR confirmation of the microarray data for those projects. The UCD Affymetrix Core Facility is run by Dr. Jeffrey Gregg and is equipped with fluidics stations, hybridization ovens, and the new scanner required to scan the human Affymetrix U133 2.0PLUS arrays. Preliminary data from the previous CHARGE study has shown that there are changes in gene expression in the blood of children with autism compared to control children in the general population (GP) and to control children with mental retardation and developmental delay (MR/DD). The blood genomic profile in children with autism without regression (A) was different from controls, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and different from children with autism with regression (A-R). In addition, there is a group of regulated genes in most children with A, A-R and with ASD that are expressed by natural killer (NK) cells in peripheral blood, suggesting an abnormality in this cell type that is common to all types of autism. These NK-cell related genes are expressed by all of the autism phenotypes including A, A-R and ASD, and hence may point to common pathways that underlie the common language and behavioral abnormalities in all three disorders. This core will be utilized by the projects as follows. Project #1: Aim #1: Perform genomic (RNA expression on microarrays) studies on blood from children with autism in the 4-9 year old range, and compare to the blood genomic profiles we have obtained in children with autism in the 2-5 year old age range. Aim #2. Compare gene expression as a function of blood metal levels in both age groups in A, A-R, ASD, MR/DD and GP groups. Aim #3. Examine genomic profiles in pregnant mothers who have previously given birth to an autistic child to determine if there is a specific genomic profile that correlates with whether the mother’s fetus is destined to develop autism. Project #2. Aim #1. Describe the gene expression profiles in the blood using specific white blood cell subsets including NK cells for children with autism without regression, autism with regression, and ASD children compared to GP and delayed children. Aim #2. Examine gene expression following stimulation or activation of specific white blood cell subsets of A, A-R, ASD, MR/DD and GP children with: low level mercury; immune cell stimulation/activation with vaccine antigens and cell-specific mitogens; and xenobiotics. Project #3. Compare gene expression profiles in the blood of children with autism to the blood of experimental animals exposed to toxicants including organic mercury, PCB 95, and PBDE 47 (Project #3).

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Biotechnology; Brain Disorders; Genetics; Mental Health; Mental Retardation (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)); Pediatric

Project Terms:
5 year old; 9 year old; Accounting; Age; age group; Animals; autism spectrum disorder; autistic Children; Autistic Disorder; Autoantibodies; base; Behavioral; Birth; Blood; Blood specimen; cell type; Cells; chemokine; Child; Core Facility; cytokine; Data; Developmental Delay Disorders; Disease; Environmental Health; Fetus; Gene Expression; General Population; Genes; Genetic; Genetic Transcription; Genome; Genomics; Human; Immune; immune function; Inherited; Language; Leukocytes; Mental Retardation; Mentally Disabled Persons; Mercury; Metals; Mitogens; Molecular; Molecular Profiling; Mothers; Natural Killer Cells; Pathway interactions; Patients; pentabromodiphenyl ether; peripheral blood; Phenotype; Polychlorinated Biphenyls; Population Group; pregnant; Principal Investigator; Process; programs; Resources; Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction; RNA Processing; Running; Scanning; Subgroup; Surveys; Toxic Environmental Substances; toxicant; vaccine Antigen; Xenobiotics


Abstract Text:
DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Few rigorous epidemiologic studies have addressed the environmental causes and biologic underpinnings of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The CHARGE (Childhood autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) Study is a large, population-based case-control investigation of environmental risk factors, broadly defined, in relation to ASD and developmental delay without ASD symptoms, with referents from the general population. Fieldwork began in 2003, and by now CHARGE has published widely on exposures such as air pollution, mercury, flame retardants, maternal nutritional status in the peri-conception, untreated fever during pregnancy, mitochondrial dysfunction, candidate genes, a wide array of functional immune markers in both the child and the mother, and maternal metabolic conditions including obesity and diabetes. This last finding is notable, given the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes that has occurred in parallel with the steady rise in ASD over the last few decades. Moreover, an emerging literature implicates several endocrine disrupting chemicals as contributing to obesity and metabolic dysregulation, including hyperinsulinemia, and to neurodevelopmental disorders as well. This project therefore builds upon these observations in several ways. First, obesity and type 2 or gestational diabetes will be examined in a larger sample, and glucose challenge test (GCT) results for the first time, to determine associations not only with development of ASD and intellectual impairment in the children, but also with specific speech and language delays, behavioral phenotypes such as attention deficits or hyperactivity, and gene expression. Second, these maternal metabolic conditions will be evaluated for associations with markers of both metabolic and immune dysregulation to be measured in neonatal bloodspots. Third, the predictive value of neonatal bloodspot markers for a later diagnosis of ASD or other child developmental and behavioral outcomes will be assessed. Fourth, the maternal metabolic conditions will be analyzed for potential links with upstream exposures to phthalates and anti- bacterial compounds, ubiquitous chemicals in common household products. Finally, this project will examine how gene variants that play a role in biochemical pathways relevant to the processes under study may influence susceptibility of the mother, the neonate or the child. To ensure adequate power for this analysis of gene-environment interaction, the sample size will be increased to 2400 children. This project addresses several goals set by the NIH Interagency autism Coordinating Committee: 1) to discover environmental factors contributing to ASD, particularly in the prenatal period, 2) to understand biological mechanisms for ASD risk, including gene-by-environment interactions, and 3) to identify children at risk for ASD at earlier time points. Results of this detailed inquir into early exposures, maternal pathophysiology and prognostic markers in the newborn will set the stage for developing prevention strategies.

Public Health Relevance Statement:
PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE: This project addresses several issues of direct public health relevance, and the science to be produced will lead to benefits in a wide cross-section of the U.S. population. Because obesity is reaching epidemic proportions and other metabolic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, and dyslipidemia are rising steeply, understanding environmental causes has tremendous public health potential for moving us closer to effective prevention strategies. If environmental chemicals used in common household products do prove to adversely affect body weight, measures can be taken to either reformulate those products, removing them from the market, or to educate consumers on how to avoid them. Similarly, steady increases in ASD might be curbed if the postulated causal pathway is supported by the evidence.

NIH Spending Category:
autism; Behavioral and Social Science; Brain Disorders; Clinical Research; Diabetes; Genetic Testing; Genetics; Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD); Mental Health; Neurosciences; Nutrition; Obesity; Pediatric; Perinatal Period – Conditions Originating in Perinatal Period; Prevention

Project Terms:
Address; Affect; Age; aged; Air Pollution; Anti-Bacterial Agents; Attention; autism spectrum disorder; Autistic Disorder; Behavior; Behavioral; Biochemical Pathway; Biological; Biological Markers; blood glucose regulation; Body Weights and Measures; C-Peptide; Candidate Disease Gene; case control; CCL2 gene; chemical association; Chemicals; Child; Childhood; Conceptions; cytokine; Data; Development; Developmental Delay Disorders; Diabetes Mellitus; Diagnosis; disorder risk; Dyslipidemias; Endocrine Disruptors; Ensure; Environment; environmental chemical; Environmental Risk Factor; Epidemic; Epidemiologic Studies; ESR1 gene; Exposure to; Fever; Flame Retardants; Functional disorder; gene environment interaction; Gene Expression; General Population; Genes; Genetic Risk; Gestational Diabetes; Glucose; glucose metabolism; Goals; high risk; Household; Household Products; human TNF protein; Hyperactive behavior; Hyperinsulinism; Hypertension induced by pregnancy; Immune; immune function; Immunologic Markers; Impairment; inattention; Inflammation; Inflammatory; Insulin Resistance; insulin sensitivity; interest; Interleukin-6; Investigation; Language Delays; Lead; Leptin; Link; Literature; Marketing; Maternal Exposure; Measures; mercury; Metabolic; Metabolic Marker; Metabolism; mitochondrial dysfunction; Mothers; Neonatal; neonate; neurodevelopment; Neurodevelopmental Disorder; Newborn Infant; Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus; Nutritional status; Obesity; Outcome; Pathway interactions; Phenotype; phthalates; Play; Population; population based; PPARG gene; Predictive Value; Predisposition; Pregnancy; prenatal; Prevention strategy; Process; prognostic; Prognostic Marker; public health medicine (field); public health relevance; Publishing; Regulation; Risk; Role; RORA gene; RPL10 gene; Sample Size; Sampling; Science; Self Care; Speech Delay; Staging; Symptoms; Test Result; Time; Triclosan; Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha; United States National Institutes of Health; Variant; Variation (Genetics)


DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Little is known about the etiology or risk factors for autism, a disease affecting 1 in 50 children in the U.S. While genetic and environmental factors are thought to act together, the specific mechanisms are not known and the measurement of environmental risk factors during critical periods of neurodevelopment has been lacking. This case-control study seeks to apply a novel dental biomarker of early life metal exposure, including in utero, to identify risk factors for ASD. Beyond looking at exposure intensity, we will be able to identify differences in exposure timing between cases and controls. This will allow us to identify critical windows when exposure, even at low levels, increases the risk of ASD. Using the proposed biomarker, we will directly assess fetal exposure, and will not rely on maternal biomarkers which may only provide an indirect measure of fetal exposure to metals. This work will have substantial impact on epidemiologic investigations of the relation of early life chemical exposures to ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders as it can be used to objectively reconstruct both exposure intensity and timing.

Public Health Relevance Statement:
PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE: Little is known about the causes of autism. This proposal seeks to apply a novel dental biomarker of early life metal exposure, including in utero, to identify risk factors for ASD. Beyond looking at exposure intensity, our application is novel in that we will be able to identify differences in exposure timing between cases and controls. This will allow us to identify critical windows when exposure, even at low levels, increases the risk of ASD.

Project Terms:
Accounting; Address; Affect; Aluminum; analytical method; Animals; Apatites; Arsenic; autism spectrum disorder; autistic Children; Autistic Disorder; Binding (Molecular Function); Biological; Biological Markers; bone; Cadmium; Calcified; Calcium; case control; Case-Control Studies; Chemical Exposure; Chemicals; Child; Childhood; Chromium; critical period; Data; deciduous tooth; Dental; Dentin; Development; Disease; early life exposure; Elements; Environment; Environmental Exposure; Environmental Risk Factor; Epidemic; Epidemiologic Studies; Etiology; Exposure to; fetal; Fetus; Genes; Genetic; Health; Heavy Metals; Human; Immune system; in utero; Investigation; Lead; Life; Literature; longitudinal design; Manganese; Measurement; Measures; mercury; Metal exposure; Metals; Methodology; Methods; mineralization; Mothers; neurodevelopment; Neurodevelopmental Disorder; Nickel; novel; Perinatal; Perinatal Exposure; Play; postnatal; Predisposition; Pregnancy; prenatal; Property; prospective; public health relevance; Recording of previous events; repository; Risk; Risk Factors; Role; Sampling; skeletal; Staging; Time; Tissues; Tooth structure; Toxic Environmental Substances; toxicant; Toxicant exposure; Work

Small groups band together to attempt to derail autism research funding

21 May

The law that sets in place the structure to steer autism research is up for renewal this year. Public Law 109-406 was introduced as The Combating Autism Act in 2006. It was reauthorized in 2011. And it is up for reauthorization again this year.

The law authorizes congress to appropriate $190,000,000 per year for autism research. But there are those who would like to scuttle this effort.

A number of groups have banded together to form the “Autism Policy Reform Coalition” to oppose continuing with the law funding autism research. From The Hill:

But an upstart group known as the Autism Policy Reform Coalition (APRC) is against the bill, arguing a drastic overhaul is needed in order for the money to be used effectively.

Who are the “Autism Policy Reform Coalition”? Readers to Left Brain/Right Brain will likely recognize many of these groups. And quickly put together the link that ties them together. In case you haven’t already guess it, yes, it’s vaccines. With science against them on vaccines, they are trying to legislate their views into existence.

Many of these groups are very small. Well funded, but small. None has a truly large membership. Most if not all do not allow for their leadership to be selected by a vote of membership. In fact, for most it seems one can not join them as a member, so it’s difficult to understand how they claim to represent a large part of the autism communities. As far as I know, none have an autistic in any prominent position, much less as a leader. And yet they purport to represent the “autism community”.

While many of these groups have toned down their public statements on vaccines over the years, they are still heavily invested in the idea. One marker of their support for the idea and their lack of scientific rigor is their support for Andrew Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield is the disgraced former academic surgeon who lost his medical license for unethical behavior and whose work attempting to link the MMR vaccine with autism was declared one of the great science frauds by Time Magazine. Much more, his work has been shown to be wrong (for one example, here).

Here are the groups in the Autism Policy Coalition:

Autism is Medical

Appears to be involved with Andrew Wakefield and the failed vaccine-causation notion. They are relatively new having just received 501(c)(3) status this year.

Defending Academic Integrity and Research Foundation
Again, a new group. They appear to be in place in large part to give financial assistance to Andrew Wakefield’s lawsuit against Brian Deer and the BMJ (replacing the “Doctor Wakefield Justice Fund”).

Here’s a recent Facebook page post

D.A.I.R. Foundation is committed to integrity in academics and research and exists to support scientists, doctors, and researchers working in the best interest of the public health whose efforts have come under intense and unfair scrutiny.

At the heart of this is Dr. Andy Wakefield whose work challenged special interest groups who responded with opposition and injustice. The Weston A Price Foundation awarded Dr. Wakefield the prestigious Integrity in Science award at the 2013 Wise Traditions Conference where he was also keynote speaker at the banquet. The DAIR Foundation Fundraiser seeks to provide legal support for Dr Wakefield and others in similar situations. We welcome your support. Tickets are tax deductible and attendees receive cocktails, dinner from a Paleo-style buffet, and a copy of Dr Wakefield’s latest book. Dr. Wakefield will speak to dinner guests about his research and his documentary movie.

To purchase tickets visit the DAIR Foundation website and click on the envelope icon next to the text Orlando Fundraiser Event

It is unclear how one would become a member, voting or not, of DAIR, nor how their leadership is selected.

Generation Rescue

Generation Rescue is currently run by Jenny McCarthy, who has been very vocal in her support of the vaccine/autism link. When Andrew Wakefield lost his job at Thoughtful House, Generation Rescue stepped up with a $100,000 donation to his “Strategic Autism Initiative”.

Generation Rescue’s founder wrote:

With less than a half-dozen full-time activists, annual budgets of six figures or less, and umpteen thousand courageous, undaunted, and selfless volunteer parents, our community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire, is in the early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.

I can not find from their website whether one can join as a member (voting or not) or how their leadership is selected.

National Autism Association

Recently ran into controversy over a fundraiser for their stance on vaccines. Supporter of Andrew Wakefield. They state on their website:

The National Autism Association believes:
Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions.

One can become a dues-paying member of the NAA. Their most recent IRS form 990 shows that they took in $4,775 in dues. That would be fewer than 150 dues paying members at their $35 tier.

I can not see how leadership is selected; whether the membership is allowed to vote in open elections.


One of the first organizations formed around the idea that vaccines cause autism. In specific, SafeMinds is focused on thimerosal in vaccines. The leadership has many of the same people over the past decade and I can’t see where one could join and whether if members are allowed, if they are allowed to vote for leadership.

Talk About Curing Autism

Another org that is strongly behind the vaccine-autism link.
(and here). It’s unclear if or how one would become a voting member. The leadership has been largely unchanged since founding.

The Thinking Mom’s Revolution

While I’m very fond of blogs, I don’t see them as organizations. Again, where does one join or vote for leadership? How does this blog count membership? Facebook likes?

I believe every one of the above groups considers Andrew Wakefield to be a hero, ignoring his proved ethical lapses (he was stripped of his medical license and the fact that his ideas on vaccines and autism have been shown to be wrong (e.g. Lack of Association between Measles Virus Vaccine and Autism with Enteropathy: A Case-Control Study to select one of many)

I am a public member to the IACC, which was set up by the reathorization in 2011. All views above (and anywhere) are my own. While there are certainly things I would hope could be done differently in the way the U.S. manages autism research, handing control over to a few small groups so they can push a failed agenda on vaccines is not the direction we should go. Scuttling the reauthorization because support is not going into further research on this failed idea is also not the direction we need to take. Not at all.

It’s very telling that these groups for the most part hide or downplay their position on vaccines. The NAA, for example, recently ran into controversy about their stance and lost a fundraising opportunity with the national restaurant chain Chilis. The NAA leadership paid lip service to effect that the statements on their website are old views, but those statements remain. They know this position is a liability in public. But rather than accept that the view is a liability for good reason, they chose to downplay their views.

I don’t know if many in the legislature are giving them a serious listen, but I hope not. These groups do not represent the autism communities. They certainly are not showing an effective leadership, working to scuttle a law and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in funding if their own failed ideas are not supported.

By Matt Carey

Is there a split in the autism-vaccine groups?

1 Mar

For people who watch the public discussion of autism and vaccines, organizations like Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, the National Autism Association and TACA (and others) come to mind. One less public organization is Focus Autism. Focus Autism is a private foundation. In other words, they don’t accept donations from people outside the foundation. Here are tax forms submitted by Focus Autism in 2010 and 2011:

2010 tax form 990
2011 tax form 990

In 2011, Focus Autism pulled in $1.7M, which makes it as big or bigger than most of the other groups named above. If you peruse their website, it is clear that they have promote the vaccine-epidemic idea. Their “about” statement is:

FOCUS AUTISM is dedicated to finding answers about autism causation, no matter how inconvenient it might be. We believe in accountability, transparency and above all, a sense of urgency.

Childhood vaccine policies must be carefully administered. We demand strict avoidance of neonatal vaccination and vaccination of vulnerable children.

We must hold leaders of government, corporations, and the medical establishment accountable for failures that have led to the autism epidemic.

Leaders in the field agree there is a subset of vulnerable children who are predisposed to vaccine-related injury. We want those children identified, so that we do not needlessly harm innocent children.

Millions of dollars have been funnelled into genetic research in a frantic search for the single gene or a small number of genes responsible for the autism epidemic. Emerging consensus rejects a purely genetic cause. Most experts now agree that the primary causes must be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

They have funded a mix of projects and groups. In 2010, most projects were not vaccine-focused. In 2011 they funded: Autism Speaks ($51,000), the Marcus Autism Center ($50,000), projects in Africa and many other non-vaccine focused projects. In 2011, Focus Autism funded vaccine-oriented groups such as the National Vaccine Information Center ($37,500), SafeMinds ($70,000), Generation Rescue ($40,000).

In 2011, Focus Autism added to its board Louise Kuo Habakis and Katie Wright, both vocal proponents of the vaccine-causation idea. The board currently includes Brian Hooker, who is also a vocal proponent of the idea. There has been some discussion lately about Mr. Hooker’s involvement with the autism hearing held by the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform last year. The idea being presented that Mr. Hooker, lone citizen, made contact with members of congress and got the hearing moving.

Consider that Focus Autism was founded and is apparently run by Barry Segal. Mr. Segal’s family foundation has over $50M in assets, and seems to be doing a great deal of good work, especially in sub-saharan Africa. Mr. Segal’s company sold for an undisclosed amount, but had sales of $1.7B (yes B) in 2006.

Here is a picture from Facebook showing Mr. Hooker in the audience of the congressional hearing from Focus Autism’s facebook page. Sitting next to him is Mr. Segal’s wife, then Mr. Segal.

Hooker-Segal 2

I consider it possible he had a bit more support in his efforts than, say, I might have.

Focus Autism includes in its list of partners: Age of Autism, EBCALA, the National Vaccine Information Center, the Canary Party and the Dwoskin Family Foundation. All groups promoting the idea that vaccines cause autism.

As to the split mentioned in the title of this article, consider this short blog post on the Focus Autism website: The Fragmented Autism Community:

The so called autism community is represented by:

#1 Autism Speaks, which because of Bernie-Julie thing refuses to meaningfully go after environmental issues, especially vaccines.

#2 Safe Minds, another disaster and I don’t know (or care) what their agenda is.

The rest of the community is fragmented, acts like our congress, accomplishes nothing and has an approval rating similar to congress. In both cases we need to change.

“Bernie” is most likely Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and founder of the Marcus Autism Center. I’m not sure who “Julie” refers to. SafeMinds, well that reference is clear. It is also interesting in that Focus Autism donated money to both the Marcus Autism Center and SafeMinds in 2011. Somewhere in the past couple of years, there seems to have been a falling out.

Given some of the current discussion about the way the congressional hearing was put together, specifically Mr. Hooker’s and SafeMinds’ roles (see here, here and here), it is interesting to see the organization he works with taking such a harsh stance on SafeMinds.

The name Barry Segal was familiar to me, and it took me a few days to recall where I saw it before. It was on a discussion at the Forbes website. I usually avoid bringing discussions held on other sites to this blog, but I think these statements show the possibility of further rifts, both between autism organizations and within organizations. Here are the statements made by Mr. Segal (or someone using his name, but I have no reason otherwise) at Forbes:

First this one (actually two, it was repeated):

I guess you are aware that in 1960, 3 years before the measles shot, 100 people died of measles. In 2012 over 80,000 of the babies born that year will end up on the spectrum. Bob Wright knows certain children are vulnerable to vaccines but Bernie Marcus won’t let him go there. Do you really give your child or grandchildren a Hep b shot at birth, or do you have them practice safe sex till they are 6 years old. (That is when the shot wears off)

Indicating his opinion that Bob Wright (founder of Autism Speaks) wants more vaccine research but that Bernie Marcus (Marcus Autism Center and Autism Speaks) is blocking it.

Mr. Segal went on:

I won’t discuss Hepatitis B with you except that the following five countries, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany and Japan only give the Hepatitis B vaccination to children whose mothers test positive.

As far as Bob Wright, I have met with him and he shared with me, the following thoughts:
1.That there needs to be more vaccine research
2.That there should be no more thimerosal in any vaccines or medicines

I had dinner with Bernie Marcus in Florida. Towards dessert, I mentioned what Bob Wright had said and he told me, “There is no thimerosal in this country today,” to which I replied, “ You’ve got to be kidding me, you can go to your local drug store and get a shot of thimerosal in your flu injection.” He is clueless and after starting the Marcus Autism Center and hearing Bob Wright had an autistic grandchild, he reached out to Bob Wright to form Autism Speaks with the intent that they do not address the vaccine issue. Peter Bell and Holly Peete both have vaccine injured children and will not vaccinate their subsequent children as mandated.

And this:

I had breakfast with Peter Bell on 12/8/11. He explained to me that the increase in the vaccinations alters the immune system. When he lived in CA, he didn’t have to vaccinate his children (philosophical exemption is available in CA) but when he came to NJ, he slowed it down as much as possible. Peter suggested Tylenol could be part of the problem.

Rodney Peete said in his book, “NOT MY BOY!” co-authored by Danelle Morton:

“At home that night, R.J. had a terrible fever and started shaking violently, just short of something like a seizure. Holly called the pediatrician to ask him what could have caused this. Should we take R.J. to the hospital? The doctor was unruffled and told us it was not a reaction to the shots. He recommended that we give R.J. some Tylenol to help him with the fever and he promised that R.J. would be fine. R.J. had a terrible reaction to the Tylenol and we rushed him to the emergency room late that night. We believe he went into some kind of toxic overload shock. After that, we didn’t hear the words “Mommy” or “No” for about four years.”

As far as vaccine safety, the problem is much more than just thimerosol. Today, the autism incidence rate is 1 in 88 and this is for children born in 2000. If we apply a more conservative 8% growth rate to this rate, we’re looking at over 80,000 children born this year being on the spectrum!

In these two suggesting that Peter Bell (Autism Speaks), Holly Robinson Peete and her husband Rodney Peete (HollyRod foundation, Autism Speaks) are also proponents of the vaccine-causation idea.

All this again indicating tensions between and within autism orgs over the topic.

For anyone who thinks the vaccine-autism-epidemic idea is going away from the public discouse any time soon, keep in mind that this is not a grass roots movement. There are millions of dollars being spent by these groups every year. Much of it from wealthy donors.

Mr. Segal had some very interesting things to say about the departure from Autism Speaks of their previous president. That is discussed in Was Mark Roithmayr pushed out of Autism Speaks over vaccines?

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

Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

9 Oct

In the past few years there has been a great deal of discussion on wandering and autism. Wandering as in elopement, running away, leaving a home or group. With people who are not independent this can obviously be a dangerous situation.

The U.S. Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) had much discussion on wandering. The previous IACC had a Subcommittee on Safety and provided HHS Secretary Sebelius with a letter on the subject. One hot topic was whether a medical code should be created to track wandering as there was little hard data on the topic.

One result of this discussion was a study to answer: how prevalent is wandering? Anecdotally we knew the answer was going to be that there is a high prevalence. Now there are numbers to back that up from a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Here is the abstract:

OBJECTIVES: Anecdotal reports suggest that elopement behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) increases risk of injury or death and places a major burden on families. This study assessed parent-reported elopement occurrence and associated factors among children with ASDs.

METHODS: Information on elopement frequency, associated characteristics, and consequences was collected via an online questionnaire. The study sample included 1218 children with ASD and 1076 of their siblings without ASD. The association among family sociodemographic and child clinical characteristics and time to first elopement was estimated by using a Cox proportional hazards model.

RESULTS: Forty-nine percent (n = 598) of survey respondents reported their child with an ASD had attempted to elope at least once after age 4 years; 26% (n = 316) were missing long enough to cause concern. Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of traffic injury. Elopement risk was associated with autism severity, increasing, on average, 9% for every 10-point increase in Social Responsiveness Scale T score (relative risk 1.09, 95% confidence interval: 1.02, 1.16). Unaffected siblings had significantly lower rates of elopement across all ages compared with children with ASD.

CONCLUSIONS: Nearly half of children with ASD were reported to engage in elopement behavior, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm. These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.

Usually with papers like this I try to obtain a copy in advance to review when it is released. last week and this week are too busy for that. The Autism Science Foundation blog has a discussion of the paper in New Study Confirms Autistic Wandering is Widespread. Autism Science Foundation president Alison Singer was one of the forces behind getting this study accomplished, along with Lyn Redwood of SafeMinds and there was support from the National Autism Association and Autism Speaks.

Often on such high profile papers, the full paper is made available to the public. Apparently not in this case.

By Matt Carey

Why is Autism Speaks sponsoring a conference featuring Andrew Wakefield?

18 Aug

It’s no secret that the National Autism Association is a staunch supporter of Andrew Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield, of course, is the researcher whose work on MMR and autistic children promoted the vaccine/autism link. Mr. Wakefield’s work was fraught with ethical lapses and research fraud. In short, from my perspective, Mr. Wakefield may rank as the person who has caused the most harm within the autism communities in recent decades.

Check the speaker list for the upcoming NAA conference. I’ll draw your attention to two points. First, Andrew Wakefield is scheduled to speak. Second, Autism Speaks is listed as a sponsor of the conference, sharing space with an HBOT company and a mail-order medical laboratory.

Mr. Wakefield is scheduled to speak about his next book. He has been involved with a family in Arizona who are battling child protective services. Here is the blurb on his upcoming talk:

Hoping for Perpetual Sunshine

This presentation is the subject of a new book coming out the spring of 2012. It deals with the hazards of pursuing a diagnosis of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) in children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), particularly those with gastrointestinal (GI) disease and/or dysfunction. Specifically, it reviews the symptomatic presentation of GI disorders and, the frequency and nature of GI disease in affected children. It discusses the history of MSBP and briefly reviews alleged cases involving “factitious” GI symptoms. The main part of the talk will describe the experience of one family, deconstructing the evidence against the parents and their alleged fabrication of their children’s health issues, in order to identify not only the shortcomings of the diagnosis itself, but also the systematic problems that arise out of institutionalized ignorance. Deficiencies on the part of Social Services, Child Protective Services, the judiciary, and the medical profession, are identified and analyzed in respect of the published science on the presentation, pathogenesis, and treatment of autism.

Autism Speaks has a choice in where to spend their money and where to spend their reputation. Sponsoring a conference which brings Andrew Wakefield to speak to a segment of the autism community is not a wise choice, in my opinion.