Photograph by Steven Higgs
Former New York Times reporter and Huffington Post blogger David Kirby says not enough research is being conducted into the connections between mercury exposure to infants and the rise of autism. Mainstream science, he says, is afraid to study anything that might implicate mercury in vaccines.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Five years after the publication of his book on autism and mercury in vaccines, David Kirby finds much of the ongoing debate on both subjects rather tiresome. Before dismissing the notion that the connection between the two has been debunked, he pauses. He only wishes the public discourse were focused there.
"It's crazy that in this debate, we're still debating whether autism numbers are actually going up or not, which is insanity to me," he said. "It's people desperately clinging to this belief that autism is genetic, that it's always been with us at this rate, that we're just better at counting it, better at diagnosing it."
The two most recent government-backed studies put the rates in children at 1 in 110 and 1 in 91. And since males are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than females, that means roughly one in every 60 males of all ages has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
"So where are the 1 in 60 men with autism in this country, in this world?" asked the author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. "They don't appear to exist. I've never seen them. I've met a few adults with autism in my life, but very, very few."
Data collected from the Indiana Department of Education (IDoE) a week after Kirby made that statement in his Brooklyn home support the autism-is-epidemic position. Autism is one of 17 special education diagnoses that local school districts must collect data on and report to the IDoE, which sends it to the federal government.
Called Child Count Data, Indiana's reports for the decade between December 1998 and December 2008 show a fivefold increase in special education services for kids with autism statewide, from 0.2 percent to 1 percent.
While diagnoses for special education are based on specific criteria, they must be agreed to by school psychologists, school officials and parents, so skeptics argue there is room in the process for misdiagnosis. But across all 17 special ed categories, the statewide percentage increased by 2 percent from 1998 to 2008, from 14.7 percent to 16.7 percent.
Another frustration for Kirby is the allegation that the debates about mercury, a known neurotoxin, and vaccine safety have stalled more important research on autism, because in an ironic way, those who argue that are right, he said. Mainstream science won't research what it should -- such as environmental mercury, mitochondria-damaging insults or live virus infections -- because it is terrified of implicating mercury-containing vaccines. "It's the fear, it's the dread of that possible connection to vaccines that is stymieing the real research," he said.
"They finally stopped making mercury-containing vaccines in 2001. But there was still a lot that had been made that needed to be used up. "
Nine days before Christmas, Kirby was writing an article on mercury for a national magazine. It's an exceedingly complicated topic, he said. "There's many, many different types of mercury. There's many different types of, quote-unquote, mercury poisoning or manifestations of mercury toxicity."
So the proposition is not, simply, mercury exposure from vaccines leads to autism. "It depends on the type of mercury," he said, "the route of exposure, the amount of exposure, the duration, the weight, size, sex and genetic makeup of the individual who is exposed."
And throughout the 1990s, coinciding perfectly with the rising numbers of autism diagnoses, practically every American child received excessive amounts of mercury in a vaccination schedule that increased from five shots before 18 months in 1983 to 19 shots in 1999. Beginning in 1992, children were inoculated at birth against hepatitis B.
In July 1999, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and American Academy of Pediatrics issued a news release calling for mercury to be removed from vaccines. Vaccine makers did not resist, but it took several years for them to ramp up their mercury-free production. "They finally stopped making mercury-containing vaccines in 2001," Kirby said. "But there was still a lot that had been made that needed to be used up. It was a gradual transition into the mercury-free formula. It didn't happen overnight."
Mercury continued circulating in routine vaccinations until at least 2003 and possibly beyond that, he added. "Then, of course, we started recommending the (mercury-containing) flu shot for pregnant women and small children right around that time. So we never really hit zero, even as we got most of the mercury out of most of the shots."
"It was a gradual transition into the mercury-free formula. It didn't happen overnight."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, parent activists who believed their children regressed into autism from vaccines, many of whom Kirby profiled in Evidence of Harm, did not force the PHS into its mercury recommendation, he insisted. The 1999 announcement was not political; it was in the public interest.
"That's how most parents found out that there was mercury in the shots, that their kids were being overexposed to organic mercury injected directly into their bodies in their vaccines," he said. "And then, when they looked up some of the symptoms of mercury poisoning, they found a lot of crossover, a lot of similarities between what was happening with their autistic kids and what the literature had to say about mercury poisoning."
A genetic component to autism has been accepted science since some of the earliest research, dating back more than a quarter century. A landmark 1985 study of twins in the American Journal of Psychiatry found a "concordance for autism," or medical evidence of a genetic susceptibility to the condition. The study was published by Dr. Edward Ritvo, a pioneering autism researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Kirby has long been among those who believe environmental factors trigger autism in genetically predisposed individuals. But after all these years, those genetic susceptibilities remain largely unknown, he said. "We do know that people have genetic susceptibilities to mercury toxicity because they don't produce enough of a substance called glutathione, a natural, sulfur-based protein that binds with heavy metals ... and helps us to eliminate toxins from our systems."
So it's possible that a susceptibility gene determines whether certain individuals are vulnerable to certain environmental triggers, like toxic metals. "The gene that regulates our production of glutathione might be something to look at," he said, "because if that child is born with no glutathione, and we start exposing him to heavy metals, those metals are going to accumulate and possibly get into the brain."
When Kirby talks about autism today or writes about it in his Huffington Post blog, vaccines and mercury are but songs on an album. He emphasizes that mercury is just one ingredient in the "environmental soup" kids grow up in today, and he explores the different pathways through which some research suggests autism can develop.
One is "a direct sort of heavy metal poisoning" that damages the nervous system's coating of fatty acids, known as myelin. Another could be heavy metals or live viruses that exacerbate disorders of the mitochondria, which are energy-produced structures found in cells.
"If that child is born with no glutathione, and we start exposing him to heavy metals, those metals are going to accumulate and possibly get into the brain."
A child exposed to heavy metals, either environmentally and/or through vaccine ingredients like mercury and aluminum, may get direct brain damage caused by that accumulation.
"We know that there's mercury in the environment," he said. "We know there's mercury in fish. We know that there are heavy metals and other things that we are breathing in, pregnant women are breathing in. So that might be one route."
Another pathway could be a live virus, such as measles, that attacks the myelin sheath, causing Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM). "One in 1,000 children who get measles will develop ADEM," he said. "They will have myelin damage -- a good reason to vaccinate your kid against measles."
A "very, very new study" that looked at roughly 20 children with mitochondrial dysfunction and autism found that 12 regressed into autism following a fever. Four of those regressed following vaccine-induced fever. There were no other diseases, no colds, no flus, no chicken pox, no measles, no febrile infection. "All they had were their vaccinations, and yet they regressed," Kirby said.
"So it could be heavy metals in the environment or heavy metals in vaccines," he said. "It could be live viruses in the environment or live viruses in vaccines. It could be a fever caused by a natural disorder, or it could be a fever caused by vaccines. In each case, it produces what we call autism."
Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indianapolis, is one of the pre-eminent parents in the nation who believe vaccines caused autism in their families. Burton's grandson regressed into autism immediately after receiving multiple vaccination shots in one day. That, Kirby said, is a frequent scenario parents have reported.
"We know that there's mercury in the environment. We know there's mercury in fish. We know that there are heavy metals and other things that we are breathing in."
"Some kids just have an immediate reaction to their vaccines and basically never recover," he said. "They get sick, they get diarrhea, they get a fever, they get a seizure, and they go to the hospital. It starts within hours of the vaccination."
They may get better physically, but they just never fully recover, Kirby said. "Those parents are absolutely convinced."
Other kids might get a fever but don't have fierce reactions, he said. "Yet within weeks or months, they start to regress."
Kirby acknowledged the logic behind the argument that the timing is coincidence. By definition, most symptoms of autism appear at these ages, so these kids may have regressed anyway. "They argue it's not the vaccination, it's just the parents who think it's related," he said.
Part of the response to that, Kirby said, is that 20 years ago parents weren't saying their kids were fine and then regressed into autism, suddenly or over time. "You just didn't hear that at all," he said. "Take vaccines out of the equation completely, there was no regression, so something seems to be causing the regression."
Further clouding the issue is the fact that some of these potential autism pathways involve delayed response. ADEM can take up to four weeks after exposure, Kirby said. Mercury exposure can take up to six months.
"This is a tricky thing," he said, "and it's going to take a lot of hardcore science to sort through it and figure out."