Photograph by Steven Higgs
Author David Kirby disagrees with those who argue a link between the contaminants found in vaccines, America's vaccination schedule and the autism epidemic has been disproven. In the past two years, a federal Vaccine Court has awarded monetary damages to the families of two children due to vaccine-induced autism.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Two days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its newest data on U.S. autism rates, author David Kirby consented to a two-hour, videotaped interview in his street-level brownstone apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The government, the former New York Times reporter said, always drops its worst news late on Fridays, assuming the attention-addled mainstream media will forget it by Monday, when people actually pay some attention.
While the release of new autism data on the Friday before Christmas would normally trigger nervous anticipation in the whirlwind of Washington spin, this year's holiday news dump was anticlimactic. The CDC had revealed the gist of its autism findings in October, after a study in the journal Pediatrics said its incidence had reached 1 in every 91 children.
To inoculate the public against the 65 percent increase the Pediatrics study represented over the CDC's last estimate of 1 autistic child in every 150 born in 1994, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius herself intervened the day it came out. In a hastily arranged conference call with the autism community, Sebelius announced that preliminary numbers in the third in a series of CDC studies show the ratio was 1 in 100 for kids born in 1996.
"A 50 percent increase in a birth cohort two years apart is really cause for concern," Kirby said. "We really need to go back and look at what happened in those two years."
Dec. 18 would hold more than one surprise for Kirby, whose best-selling first book, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, was published in 2005.
By the time the CDC released the new data that Friday afternoon, the new incidence rate had been adjusted down to 1 in 110, still a 36 percent hike between 1994 and 1996.
"I get angry when people who question vaccine safety, who question the safety of individual ingredients -- like mercury ... -- when we get labeled antivaccine, as if we're trying to wipe out the whole vaccine program."
Also that same day, Kirby conducted a telephone interview with Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Dr. Insel and the Inter Autism Agency Committee have done just a dismal job," Kirby said 48 hours before their conversation. "They refuse to acknowledge that we have an emergency. They refuse to acknowledge autistic regression exists, that the numbers are going up.
"They are recommending that virtually all money go into genetic research, and they refuse to consider vaccine research, just flat out refuse. Even though Congress, when they passed the bill, the Combating Autism Act that created this money, Congress said, 'We want the NIH to study environmental triggers, and that includes vaccines.'"
On Dec. 21, however, Kirby posted a Huffington Post blog that showed some unexpected progress. "I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Insel's frankness," he wrote.
Insel told him, "As far as I can tell, the burden of proof is upon anybody who feels that there is not a real increase here in the number of kids affected." And factors such as better ascertainment "don't really explain away this huge increase."
The director continued: "You really have to take this (increase) very seriously. From everything they are looking at, this is not something that can be explained away by methodology, by diagnosis."
He added, "There is no question that there has got to be an environmental component here."
Four months short of Evidence of Harm's fifth anniversary, Kirby remains convinced that mercury and other neurotoxins in childhood vaccines, whose use and toxicity increased precipitously in the 1990s, are among those environmental factors. Not the cause, he insists, perhaps not even the most significant, but a component nonetheless.
"The rise in autism, of reported cases of autism in this country, coincides exactly with the introduction of these new vaccines," he said, "and exactly with the introduction of these new thimerosal-containing vaccines." Thimerosal was a mercury-containing preservative that was commonly used in childhood vaccines until the late '90s and early 2000s.
"In no other realm that I can think of in consumer product safety are people who question the safety of certain products so vilified and so ostracized."
Some newborn infants born during those years were exposed to as much as 125 times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is a "safe" level of mercury for adults to consume in fish, Kirby said. To this day, flu shots administered to six-month olds contain 25 micrograms of mercury, which, according to EPA standards, is more than what a 500-pound person could handle.
And mercury is but one of the known neurotoxins that was injected into children's developing systems, from the day of birth through infancy, when the onset of most types of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) appear.
"We also know things like aluminum levels have actually increased, they've been boosted," Kirby said. "We know that the mumps component of the MMR vaccine was quadrupled at one point, right around the time we started to see more autism as well." Drug companies have subsequently cut that in half. "One has to wonder what is Merck up to and why are they doing that," he said, referring to the New Jersey-based drug manufacturer Merck & Co.
At least on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2009, nothing rankled Kirby more than the allegation that those who question the coincidence of the increased vaccine schedule and the onset of the autism epidemic, or the individual ingredients used in immunizations, are antivaccine. To the contrary, he disagrees with parents who do not vaccinate their children at all.
"I'm not antivaccine," he said, "and I get angry when people who question vaccine safety, who question the safety of individual ingredients -- like mercury, like aluminum, ... like three live viruses at once, in certain children, with certain predispositions -- when we get labeled antivaccine, as if we're trying to wipe out the whole vaccine program. That's just ridiculous."
As ridiculous is the aggressive, one-size-fits-all vaccination schedule that has been imposed on children in the past two decades, Kirby insisted. It's common wisdom some kids just can't handle some things, like aspirin, like Tylenol, like milk, even. But the assumption is that all kids can handle all vaccines.
"My point is that in no other realm that I can think of in consumer product safety are people who question the safety of certain products so vilified and so ostracized, when they're just asking the same questions that we ask about automobiles and airplanes and cough medicines and heart medicines and blood pressure medicines."
The evidence suggests the vast range of ASDs, from conditions that require constant professional care to those that accompany productive, successful lives, is caused by equally complex combinations of factors, environmental and genetic, Kirby said.
"You can't just test one vaccine ingredient, or in this case, one vaccine ingredient and one vaccine, the MMR, and then exonerate all vaccines and vaccine ingredients."
"I believe now, after all these years, that there is no one trigger to autism; there is no one type of autism," he said, just before taking a break to congratulate his two canine roommates for their respectable behavior and to indulge in some New York City tap water. "I believe there are many triggers to autism that interact with genetic predispositions."
That position is anything but fringe. The Insel quotes that Kirby used in his Huffington Post piece indicate even the federal government has reached that same conclusion, at least when officials talk to the autism community. In addition to the Huffington Post, Kirby is a regular contributor to Age of Autism, the "Daily Web Newspaper of the Autism Epidemic."
"I don't think in those terms, exactly, that it's either genetic or it's environmental," the nation's top autism official told him. "From my perspective, it's almost always going to be both."
When Kirby goes back and looks at what changed between 1994 and 1996, when the number of kids diagnosed with autism jumped 36 percent in just two years, he prefaces his remarks. "Correlation does not equal causation. There are any number of other possibilities and explanations."
But the hepatitis B vaccination, a mercury-containing shot administered at birth, was introduced in 1992. That first year the "uptake level" was very low, about 8 percent, he said. In 1994, it climbed to around 28 percent. By 1996, it had reached something like 86 percent. "They did a very good job of getting more and more kids started on that birth dose of hepatitis B in those two years," Kirby said.
The hepatitis B shot wouldn't account for all autism cases, he stressed. But while the incidence was already high in the 1994 birth cohort, it went through the roof two years later.
"When you look at what changed radically in those two years, there's one thing that should at least be looked at," he said.
Kirby's focus these days is more on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than autism. His second book, Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment is due out in March 2010. And while he has no plans to write another book on autism, at least not now, he still writes and speaks publicly about it.
"That child is now receiving money from the government, from us, for his vaccine injury. He is autistic, he goes to an autism school."
In some ways, given the manner in which the mainstream press reports the vaccine issue, it's almost his duty. Like the NIH's performance in recent years, the media's has been abysmal. "What we hear everyday, from the press and the public health people, is that vaccines -- plural -- and autism have been studied thoroughly and any link has been completely debunked," he said.
Well, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program of 1986 established an Office of Special Masters, a.k.a. the Vaccine Court, to rule on allegations of vaccine-induced injury. And in the past two years, it has issued some ground-breaking decisions.
The media was all over the court's February 2009 denial of three families' claims that vaccines caused their children's autism. A Feb. 12 story from the Reuters news service quoted the three-judge panel's decision. "The evidence does not support the general proposition that thimerosal-containing vaccines can damage infants' immune systems."
Largely unnoticed by the media, however, was another ruling that same month in which the court found a child named Bailey Banks regressed into Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) as a result of his measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination. PDD-NOS, along with Autistic Disorder and Asperger's Disorder, comprise the autism spectrum.
"That child is now receiving money from the government, from us, for his vaccine injury," Kirby said. "He is autistic, he goes to an autism school, he receives ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy, and the judge ruled that the MMR vaccine damaged his myelin, and that that myelin damage caused his autism."
Myelin, he said, is a coating of fatty acids on the brain and the nervous system. "Think if it as the rubber coating on wiring that protects it and insulates it," he explained.
"The rise in autism, of reported cases of autism in this country, coincides exactly with the introduction of these new vaccines."
A year earlier, in March 2008, the government conceded the case of a girl named Hannah Poling, whose parents argued that a vaccine-induced fever caused her autism, Kirby said.
"There is evidence to show that children with mitochondrial dysfunction, between say 1, 2 and 3 years of age, if they encounter a regular, normal, febrile seizure, ... they could very well regress into autism," Kirby explained. "... Hannah Poling will now be receiving money, compensation for a vaccine injury that led to autism."
Mitochondria are energy-producing structures that serve as "little batteries" for brain and muscle cells, he said.
The studies that have been done have not shown a link between autism and vaccines, Kirby said, but neither have they disproven one. In fact, the state of research is poor, largely because "mainstream science is so terrified of researching anything that might possibly, one day, implicate vaccines in even the most tangential way," he said. "... Aluminum has not been tested in regards to autism."
Studies have looked at the MMR vaccine, alone, and at thimerosal, alone, he said. But most of them have been conducted overseas, where the vaccination schedules don't compare to those of the United States.
"You can't just test one vaccine ingredient, or in this case, one vaccine ingredient and one vaccine, the MMR, and then exonerate all vaccines and vaccine ingredients," he said. "The correct thing to say is, 'One vaccine, out of about 11 or 12, has been studied, and one vaccine ingredient out of, I guess about 80, has been studied, and no link to those have been found.'"
Throughout the afternoon, David Kirby's dispassionate demeanor predominated. With dark-rimmed glasses and a somewhat disheveled appearance he apologized for (he had made an unscheduled trip to Washington to get clearance to travel to the Mideast after Christmas), the professional journalist spoke directly to the camera. Chuckles, sighs and pauses were occasional, but rare.
But Kirby, the educated citizen, was happy to expound when asked about his opinions.
"I don't believe autism is genetics," he said. "I wish we could just get past that argument and accept the fact that these kids have been hit with some environmental trigger of some sort, or sorts, combined with these genetic predispositions ... and get on with it."
"I don't believe autism is genetics. ... I believe there are many triggers to autism that interact with genetic predispositions."
These kids are physically sick, he said, and autism is a medical issue that can be prevented, can be treated, and in some cases, can be reversed.
After one of the longer pauses of the afternoon, Kirby offered his opinions on vaccines.
"I personally, personally, don't believe all these vaccines are necessary," he said. "That's my personal view, and I'm not a scientist, I'm not a public health expert. The public health people tell us that they are all necessary."
Kirby has no children, but his opinion is that vaccination should be a personal choice. It is a medical procedure, and informed consent should be the rule for medical procedures in the United States, he believes.
As one who has felt the wrath of those disagree with his work, Kirby knows the decision is difficult and emotional.
"I live in Brooklyn, it's a city of immigrants, it's a borough of immigrants," he said. "We have JFK down the road. There are people arriving here every minute from all over the world. If I had a newborn baby, and I was out in a restaurant or in the subway or in the park, and my kid was completely unvaccinated, I would be a nervous wreck."
But neither nervousness nor fear should cloud judgment. Is exposure to neurotoxins in vaccines, say, worth the reduced risk from exposure to chicken pox? Is inoculation on the day of birth against the possibility that the newborn's mother may have contracted hepatitis B in the last three months of her pregnancy worth the risk?
"I would look at the risks and benefits of some of the shots, " Kirby said.