Scott Hilyard Monday, June 12 2006, 07:48 PM
Dr. David Ayoub, the self-taught
expert on vaccines, mercury and the autism epidemic, stood in
the back of the room on the second floor of First United
Methodist Church in Normal, Ill., recently on the verge of a
CHILDREN AND AUTISM
He faced the backs of his audience. They all faced a portable
tripod screen that would soon display a dizzying torrent of
Power Point charts, graphs, facts and statistics for the
consumption of the standing-room crowd of Illinois State
University college students, instructors and people whose
connection to the misery, mayhem and melancholy of autism were
more personal, confounding and intense.
He began: "You might wonder that a radiologist who doesn't have
a child with autism might come across as being a little bit on
the fringe (on this topic)," Ayoub said, the light touch of
self-deprecation, depending on a person's point of view, either
cementing his credibility or undermining it. "I just want to
know the truth like I'm sure you just want to know the truth."
Ayoub then tore into his short-form two-hour lecture (he said he
has eight hours of material), preaching to the choir, firing up
his base, trolling for converts.
"You might as well not take notes," said Ayoub, a Peoria native
and high school track superstar, who now lives in Springfield,
Ill. "You won't keep up."
AUTISM IN A SYRINGE?
ELUSIVE THEORY GAINS MOMENTUM
The absolute truth about autism and mercury is as slippery and
hard to grab as a bead of quicksilver on a clean glass surface.
It's no longer dismissed as a wild-eyed theory clung to by
desperate-for-answers family members of children with autism.
The debate over whether mercury-laced vaccines administered to
infants and toddlers in increasing amounts in the 1990s sparked
an autism epidemic has entered the realm of more mainstream
science. And appears not yet ready to fade away.
The lines, however, are still sharply drawn and both sides are
dug in deep. Public health agencies, both the American Medical
Association and American Pediatric Society, and the makers of
the vaccines - powerful and influential institutions all -
maintain the unified front that the vaccines and vaccine
schedules are now, and have always been, safe.
That there might, might, be a connection between mercury and
autism is an idea that has gathered momentum in recent years.
More and more medical professionals and researchers, like Ayoub,
politicians and the burgeoning population of autism families
have been absorbing the voluminous amount of literature and data
and coming up believers. A book that laid out the case for the
mercury and autism connection, "Evidence of Harm" written by
David Kirby, was a New York Times best seller last year and
landed the author on "Meet the Press" where he debated the topic
with Harvey Feinberg, the director of the Institute of Medicine.
Here's what drives the controversy:
Mercury is among the most toxic agents on earth and is a known
neurotoxin. Autism, once thought to be the result of bad
parenting, is now designated as a neurological disorder.
Autism was first described in medical literature in 11 case
studies written by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, 14 years after
thimerasol, a mercury-based preservative used to keep vaccines
from contamination, was developed by the drug company Eli Lilly.
Unheard of before Kanner's case studies, autism remained
consistently rare until the 1970s. In the United States the
incidence of autism in that period was between 1 and 3 per
10,000 children; it rose to 20 to 40 children per 10,000 births
in 1998. Today the rate is one in 166 births.
The startling increases coincide with an increase in the number
of vaccinations infants and toddlers receive in the natural
course of their pediatric care as new shots were added to the
schedule. Even though each shot contained only traces of
thimerosal, the cumulative amount raised concerns to some. The
Los Angeles Times cited an internal drug company memo from 1991
it had obtained that said that "6-month-old children who
received their shots on schedule would get a mercury dose up to
87 times higher than guidelines for the maximum daily
consumption of mercury in fish."
Public health officials say there is no evidence of a link
between mercury, vaccines and autism. Better diagnostic skills
and an expanded definition of what sort of behaviors fit on the
autism spectrum explain most of the increase in rates.
Still, in July 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention recommended that thimerosal be removed from most
vaccines as a precaution. Here is its explanation:
"A review conducted by the Food and Drug Administration
concluded that the use of thimerosal as a preservative in
vaccines might result in the intake of mercury during the first
six months of life that exceeds the Environmental Protection
Agency, but not the FDA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry or the World Health Organization guidelines for
Thimerosal contains ethylmercury. Methylmercury is a related
compound and has been more thoroughly researched than
ethylmercury. Thus, federal safety standards are based on
information we have about methylmercury.
FDA's review found no evidence of harm caused by doses of
thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor local reactions."
Ayoub is mistrustful of the CDC's claim.
"It just kind of sounds funny," he said at his Illinois State
University lecture. "They're saying (thimerasol) causes no harm,
but get it out (of vaccines) as soon as possible."
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Ayoub is well-known in certain circles in Peoria for reasons
that have nothing to do with autism. The Peoria High School
graduate is in the Peoria Sports Hall of Fame mostly for his
state championship race in the half-mile that was the fastest
nationally at the time and remains one of the fastest ever and
the fastest in Illinois almost 30 years later.
He went on to run track at the University of Illinois. Then he
went to medical school. He is a part-time radiologist and works
out of Springfield's Memorial Medical Center, an assistant
professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and
the unpaid medical director of the Prairie Collaborative, an
immunization watchdog group.
It might not surprise those who lost track of Ayoub when he left
Peoria that he would emerge in the public eye a passionate
activist for an underdog of an idea. Though knee surgery ended,
for now, his running days, Ayoub maintains his championship
runner's doggedness, focus and intensity. Fluent in
science-speak, the words burst forth with rapid-fire assuredness
that falls on this side of benign zealotry.
Actually it was the knee surgery three years ago that led to his
interest in mercury, vaccines and autism, a medical debate far
removed from his radiology background. Laid up, Ayoub exercised
his mind by poring through medical journals and studies and came
by accident upon the autism controversy.
"The more I read, the more I was drawn into the issue," said
Ayoub, in a recent interview in his cramped office at Memorial
Medical Center in Springfield. "The material is compelling."
FINDING TRUTH IN MEDICAL STUDIES
Since his self-education, Ayoub has traveled the country to
Defeat Autism Now conferences and others and has testified
before two state legislatures, Illinois and Massachusetts. The
opposite of a paid position, he figures he has spent about
$30,000 of his own money. He lectures for free.
His technique is to critically study the available literature,
look for conflicts of interest and results that may have been
"You can do so much with studies to make them say anything you
want them to," he said. "I try to get behind the numbers and
statistics to find what a study is truly saying."
For instance, a study in Denmark is often cited as
counter-argument of the autism-mercury link, by showing that
reported new cases of autism did not decline after thimerasol
was removed from all vaccinations in 1992. Ayoub shows that the
authors of the study didn't sample a consistent population of
patients, thus the results are skewed. He believes it is proof
Ayoub believes there are innumerable paths to the autism
spectrum. There are people with autism who had no exposure to
thimerasol, and not everybody who received vaccinations with
thimerasol has autism. There might be genetic and environmental
causes and either one might work in concert with the
introduction of even small amounts of mercury into a child's
system and create a recipe for autism.
"The point is to keep looking until answers are found," Ayoub
For many parents of children with autism, theory makes sense
Copley News Service
While scientists, doctors, public health officials and
researchers debate whether a link exists between autism and
trace amounts of mercury once found in childhood vaccines, there
is one place in the United States where the argument was settled
Inside a lot of homes of families with children with autism.
Prevailing medical opinion be damned, many parents are true
"I completely believe my son's autism came from the end of a
vaccination needle," said Paula Sessing of Peoria, Ill., who
joined a lawsuit with hundreds of other plaintiffs filed in
Texas against the federal government seeking compensation. "He
was born typically normal and at the 9-month mark he went in and
received several vaccinations in one trip and the bizarre
behavior started almost immediately."
That's called "anecdotal" evidence of a link, and in the eyes of
medical researchers, one story, no matter how compelling,
doesn't prove anything. Sessing moderates an Internet autism
group that has more than 3,500 subscribers.
"You'd be amazed at the number of stories just like mine,"
Susan Grimm of Groveland, Ill., has two autistic sons and a
nephew with Asperger's, a milder form of the disorder often
characterized by hyper-intelligence instead of the withdrawn
isolation of autism. Her sons were immunized within the
timeframe of the autism epidemic, and she was at risk in other
ways. She received eight dental amalgam fillings that contain
small amounts of mercury and received shots in the military she
suspects contained thimerasol.
"I believe there is a genetic predisposition for autism that
thimerasol might trigger in some people and not in others,"
Grimm said. "Just like if you had lung cancer in your family it
would be stupid to smoke, if you're genetically susceptible to
heavy metals you might want to avoid shots with mercury in
Like Sessing's son, Grimm's son was developing at a normal pace
when he received a vaccination shot at 18 months.
"He had a local reaction that was bigger than a quarter around
the site of the shot, and he came home and just collapsed and
slept and slept and slept," she said. "It was very concerning."
Soon thereafter he stopped singing his ABCs. Then he stopped
talking. Grimm has had some success with chelation, a treatment
program that removes heavy metals from the body. Now both of her
sons are fully verbal.
Lauri Hislope of Peoria, the current president of a local autism
support group and information clearinghouse, says her son Kyle
was "assaulted by vaccine." After developing normally up until
16 months, his turnaround was dramatic and fast. In 2004 at 13,
Kyle was too disruptive, violent, unpredictable and such a drain
on the family's emotional state that he moved to the residential
Hope School in Springfield.
"He's doing much better in that environment," Hislope said. "And
we're not giving up, but it has been very, very difficult."
All of the mothers said they support the public health
vaccination effort. Studies are clear; when vaccination rates
decline, childhood illness increase. Reports of a mumps outbreak
in Iowa highlight how necessary and important is continued
vigilance against disease.
And though thimerasol has been removed from childhood vaccines,
it remains in many flu shots. Children ages 2 to 5 are now
recommended recipients of annual flu shots and they are
routinely given to pregnant women. Thimerasol-free flu shots
should be readily available upon request.
- Scott Hilyard