Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is there a link between Autism, a vaccine and the seizures it may cause?

For parents who believe that childhood vaccinations can cause autism, this week's ruling by a special federal court that no apparent link exists between autism and one common vaccine is hardly the end of the matter.

"This doesn't put this issue to rest, and scientific research is going to continue" into possible connections between vaccines and autism, said Ellen Cicconi of North Strabane, who has two sons who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

"The interaction of the environment and autism is an area that needs to be explored," she said, "and I don't think vaccines are the only environmental issue of concern here."

Special masters appointed by the vaccine court in Washington ruled Thursday in three test cases that there is no evidence to support a connection between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, with or without the mercury preservative thimerosal.

Those who have been following the court's work say that could be followed in the near future by a separate ruling that thimerosal also isn't linked to autism when it is used with other vaccines.

Cindy Waeltermann, of McCandless, is another parent who isn't convinced by the court's ruling.

Mrs. Waeltermann, who runs a parent support group called AutismLink and also has two sons with the disorder, said, "We're disappointed, obviously, and it's not just parents in Pittsburgh but all over the autism community, because we still feel that vaccinations played a large part in our children's autism."

Mrs. Waeltermann stressed that she was speaking for parents who believe vaccines are a culprit in autism and not for AutismLink, which takes no official stance on the issues. "Some of our parents believe it's genetic, and some believe it's biomedical. I happen to believe it's both."

"None of us are anti-vaccine," Mrs. Waeltermann insisted. "I just think there are too many vaccinations too soon." Noting that children today routinely get more than 20 vaccinations in their first 18 months of life, she said, "I never had to get that many, and I never died or had any hideous disease."

She said she was particularly disappointed in December, when a federal panel overseeing new research into autism switched directions and decided it would not fund any studies into the vaccine-autism link.

She got backing on that point from one noted autism researcher, Geraldine Dawson, medical director of Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy group.

The last-minute decision by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee to eschew vaccine research "happened extremely quickly," Dr. Dawson said. "There should have been more time for public input, especially when there was going to be a change in something people feel so emotional and passionate about."

The turnaround could have the unintended effect of making many people mistrust the nation's childhood vaccinations system even more, she said.

Dr. Dawson said Autism Speaks plans to continue funding research into possible vaccine-autism links.

One study will examine whether children who have a rare disorder known as mitochondrial disease are especially vulnerable to developing autism after they are vaccinated. Another study in the early planning stages would look at whether children who are prone to getting seizures after vaccinations are also at greater risk for autism.

But Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said he thinks the vaccine court's rulings should put an end to the debate.

"It would be nice if autism advocacy organizations actually advocated for children with autism," Dr. Offit said. "Instead, they are anti-vaccine organizations, and the fact of the matter is vaccines have nothing to do with autism and it's high time that these organizations stopped deluding people into thinking that vaccines do have something to do with autism and started focusing on the real causes of autism," which he strongly believes are genetic.

Nancy Minshew, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Excellence in Autism Research, seconded Dr. Offit, in more muted tones.

"I just hope families can carefully consider the comments of the judges who heard all the evidence and truly realize that valid scientific evidence does not support a connection between vaccines and autism," Dr. Minshew said. "I also hope this begins to end the death threats and character assassination against scientists and physicians who have tried to convey the science of this to the public."

Dr. Offit said the vaccine controversy had diverted energy and money that is needed for research into the genetics of autism. "It's a dead-end hypothesis, and it's time to move on. By continuing to have this notion that never ends, I think it keeps us from going after the true causes of autism."

Mark Roth can be reached at or at 412-263-1130.


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