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Debate over autism study

By Evan Bevins, ebevins@mariettatimes.com

POSTED: February 4, 2010

A study that linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism has been retracted by the British medical journal that published it 12 years ago.

According to the Associated Press, The Lancet issued the retraction on Tuesday, a week after Great Britain's General Medical Council ruled that the lead physician on the study, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, had acted unethically and shown a "callous disregard" for the children used in his study.

Still, Ginger O'Connor, director of early childhood and therapy for the Washington County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said people should "be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water."

O'Connor, considered an expert in autism in both the region and the state, agrees that the integrity of the study was compromised, but "that doesn't mean the results are wrong." Rather than use that study as a benchmark though, reasearch into the subject needs to continue, she said.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, www.cdc.gov; the agency is committed to investigating the issue to the fullest extent possible, even though multiple studies have failed to show a link between vaccines and autism and evidence to the contrary is accumulating.

"There has been absolutely no proven scientific evidence that there is any connection," said Kathleen Meckstroth, Washington County health commissioner.

Despite that lack of evidence, the federal Food and Drug Administration recommended removing thimerosal - a preservative that contains mercury and has been used in some vaccines and other products since the 1930s - from vaccines routinely given to infants. Since 2001, it has not been used as a preservative in those vaccines, except for some flu immunizations, according to the CDC Web site.

O'Connor isn't convinced vaccinations are a cause of autism. But she doesn't think the possibility should be ignored.

"What we know about autism, from most researchers, is that there is believed to be some sort of genetic component and then there's an environmental hit," she said. "And we don't know what that environmental hit is."

O'Connor said it is frustrating to know the number of children affected by autism is increasing and not have a reason.

"We're just losing these kids to this horrible, horrible disorder and we don't know why," she said.

The CDC estimates an average of 1 in 110 children have some autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral difficulties. They range from "classic" autism - in which affected people usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges and unusual behaviors and interests - to Asperger syndrome and other related conditions.

O'Connor said the timing of vaccinations and recognition of autism symptoms can make may parents wary of a connection, despite research saying there is no link.

"By the time a child is about 18 months to 2 years (old), they could have up to 20 vaccines in their bodies," she said. "Lots of times parents don't pick up children's characteristics of autism until 18 to 24 months.

"So what is it that kicks on that we start 'losing' children at 18 to 24 months?"

According to The Los Angeles Times, the aftermath of Wakefield's study (which was co-authored by 12 other physicians, 10 of whom have since renounced it) included many parents in Great Britain and the United States choosing not to have their children vaccinated.

Meckstroth said there are some in the Washington County community who take this approach. She said she understands individuals being able to make their own choices for themselves and their children, "but when it affects a community... it becomes public health's problem to deal with."

Some people might believe it's better for a child to get a disease and develop immunity on their own, Meckstroth said. However, she said infants who are not old enough to receive the vaccinations could then be exposed to someone with such a disease, which could result in serious illness and even death.

Meckstroth said that is likely one of the factors in a handful of whooping cough cases reported in the county in the last three years. Some older children need booster shots against the disease, also known as pertussis, and individuals whose immunity had waned may have been exposed to someone not fully protected, although not necessarily locally.

O'Connor said she believes children should be vaccinated because the health risks are too great otherwise. However, she said it is prudent for parents who are concerned to talk to their doctors about the issue and consider different approaches.

The Associated Press contributed.