A Californian couple is convinced chelation therapy has alleviated the symptoms of their autistic son, who they believe got his autism from mercury in the thimerosal preservative in a vaccine. Chelation therapy is a lotion or pill that strips the body of such heavy metals, and when supposedly treating autism is typically combined with severe dietary restrictions plus multiple vitamin and mineral supplements. The story goes:
Jamie Handley was a happy, healthy baby who reached all his developmental milestones until he turned 18 months, his parents said. Then, he started spinning in circles and standing on his toes and no longer responded to his name. They were eventually told he was autistic
For Jamie's parents, the proof they need is in front of them: Jamie, now 3 years old and several months into treatment, is plump and playing baseball. His smile has returned.
"Every day brings small, steady gains," said Lisa Handley of Lafayette "Our life is filled with hope and the conviction that Jamie won't just improve, but will completely recover."
Hum. It seems to me there are several questionable things about this story.
The first is that there is no evidence of a link between mercury in vaccines and autism. More to the point, there is even evidence of no link:
Denmark mandated removal of thimerosal from vaccines in 1992. Even allowing for continued use of thimerosal-containing stocks of vaccine, Danish children were thimerosal-free by 1995. Autism prevalence in Denmark has risen in exactly the same fashion as in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Secondly, as I reported Michael Fitzpatrick writing a couple of days ago, the symptoms of mercury poisoning and those of autism, are different.
The third puzzle is why is this kid’s autism linked to thimerosal? According to Quackwatch, manufacturers stopped using thimerosal in children’s vaccines in 2000, and so few children now under age four have ever received a thimerosal-containing vaccine. However, this child is stated to be three years old. He could have been one of the “few”, I suppose.
But the thing that really puzzles me is this. Even if thimerosal does cause the neurological damage related to autism, and even if chelation removes all the thimerosal, why would this child be getting better? Surely the damage has already been done? I could see that perhaps he wouldn’t get any worse, but how would he be getting better? If someone can explain how chelation therapy can repair neurological damage already done, I’d be really interested.
Why do this child’s parents think chelation made him better? Impossible to say, but incorrect initial diagnosis of autism springs to mind. Or maybe they are over-optimistic in reporting improvements. In any case, you can’t draw any conclusions from just one story or from anecdotes in general.
I guess it is good to stop putting thimerosal in vaccines if it means more parents will vaccinate their children. And if thimerosal is part of the problem, the numbers of cases should begin to drop. Alternatively, the Danish results may be replicated, and autism may continue to rise regardless. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d bet autism will continue to rise. And I’ll also bet that won’t stop the peddlers of chelation and other dubious cures from continuing in business.
By the way, I’ve just noticed Orac today has an excellent and more detailed article on vaccines and autism. In addition, Autism Diva has more information on autism, mercury in vaccines, chelation therapy and related subjects than you can shake a stick at. A recommended read.