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Autism and Vaccines
Health Experts to Re-Examine Autism, Vaccine Links
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
Feb 8, 2004
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A panel of independent experts will take a fresh look Monday at the possibility that vaccines, especially those made with a mercury preservative, may cause autism.
A panel from the Institute of Medicine (news - web sites) will examine a raft of new studies on the subject, including a Danish study of nearly 500,000 children that found no link between vaccines and autism and a U.S. study that found a possible mechanism for mercury, lead and other heavy metals to cause such disorders.
The panel issued its last report on the subject in 2001, saying there was no evidence that vaccines caused autism, but noting there was not a lot of research either.
"Since the Institute of Medicine released its report on autism back in 2001, there have been new studies done since, and there are still ongoing concerns among parents about this issue," said Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for the institute, which advises the federal government on health matters.
Several advocacy groups claim vaccines cause autism, a mysterious disorder with symptoms ranging from a lack of social skills to a crippling inability to relate to others.
Autism appears to be on the rise, although there are no clear studies showing whether it is occurring more often, or simply being recognized more as a disorder separate from mental retardation or mental illness.
Because it is usually diagnosed during the toddler years, when children receive many of the 18 or so early childhood shots, many groups believe vaccines are to blame.
The mercury preservative thimerosal is no longer found in childhood vaccines in the United States, but remains in the influenza vaccine and in vaccines in other countries. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public health Service recommended removing thimerosal from childhood vaccines in 1999 as a precaution.
Scientists say it is plausible that if thimerosal got into the brain, it could cause brain damage. In one study published last week, Richard Deth of Northeastern University in Massachusetts found that DNA damage done by thimerosal, lead and some other metals could damage nerve cell signaling.
Danish researchers will discuss what many scientists say is the most convincing study to date.
Anders Hviid and colleagues at the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen looked at 467,000 children born between 1990 and 1996, some of whom were vaccinated with a thimerosal-containing whooping cough vaccine and some who got one without the preservative.
They found no differences in autism rates between the groups.
Dr. Polly Sager of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease will also speak to the panel. She reviewed several studies that show babies eliminate the mercury found in thimerosal within days.
"The fact that it is excreted in stool really is pretty exciting," she said in a telephone interview. "It is a simple concept -- if a kid is pooping out mercury, it is not in their body, it is not getting to their brain, it can't do damage."
But Boyd Haley of the University of Kentucky will discuss a study that suggests autistic children have lower-than-expected levels of mercury in their hair, raising questions about whether mercury remains in their tissues and if they have an impaired ability to rid their bodies of the toxic metal.
Some experts note vaccines are not the biggest source of mercury in the body. Many fish contain high levels of mercury, as does the water supply in some parts of the country.
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