By JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
CARTHAGE, Mo. — In second grade, Devon Clark got a flu shot. A month later, he got another.
“It was my idea, because he had asthma,” said Devon’s father, Alan Clark, who is a physician.
Within weeks, Devon’s behavior changed dramatically. He had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in first grade, but this was much worse.
“He became more obsessive and compulsive, angry, paranoid,” Clark said. “He would yell and bang his fists on stuff. He would say, ‘I don’t feel like me.’ ”
A series of visits to a neuropsychologist yielded a startling diagnosis: Devon had Asperger syndrome, which often is referred to as a high-functioning form of autism.
“I was in shock,” said Devon’s mother, Lujene Clark, a former nurse. “I thought, ‘My normal, healthy child has an autism spectrum disorder?’ ”
Lujene Clark said that before getting the flu vaccine, “this child walked on time, talked on time, met all his developmental milestones — even exceeded them.” But afterward, “it was like we were in ‘The Twilight Zone.’ We watched our child slip away from us virtually before our very eyes.”
The Clarks, like thousands of other parents nationwide, think that thimerosal in the vaccine caused their son’s disorder. Thimerosal is a compound that is 49.6 percent ethylmercury by weight. It has been used for decades as a preservative in vaccines and other medical products.
Though concerns about thimerosal’s toxicity have prompted its removal from almost all recommended childhood vaccines in the past few years, the substance remains in some flu shots that will be administered this fall to American children. Thimerosal also remains in some tetanus boosters and meningitis vaccines that older children receive.
Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t think mercury and autism are linked, saying “there is no conclusive evidence that any vaccine or vaccine additive increases the risk of developing autism or any other behavior disorder.”
The CDC cites a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine that concluded that there was no association between autism and vaccines that contain thimerosal as a preservative.
The CDC also maintains that it is safe for children to receive a flu shot that contains thimerosal because the compound has been removed from all other recommended childhood vaccines. The agency says that the benefits of getting a flu shot outweigh the theoretical risks of thimerosal.
But the Clarks are not convinced, noting that the government’s statistics reveal that 1 in 6 children today have neurodevelopmental disorders.
Devon was 7½ when he got his first flu shot in November 2002. A second followed in December, as recommended by health officials.
“By Christmastime, we were noticing marked changes,” Lujene Clark said. “His asthma got worse, his allergies got worse, his ADHD symptoms got dramatically worse. Everything went into warp speed.”
Devon began seeing a specialist, and in September 2003 he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Desperate for information, Lujene Clark read everything she could about the disorder. On a hunch, she did an Internet search for “heavy-metal toxicity and autistic children.”
“And Google just went nuts,” she said. “My body went numb when I found the part about the vaccines.”
Alan Clark, former president of the Greene County Medical Society, said he was flabbergasted when he learned that several of the vaccines Devon had received contained mercury, and at levels many times higher than the amount considered safe.
The Clarks said they think Devon’s flu shot was the “toxic tipping point” that sent him over the edge.
After Devon’s diagnosis, Lujene Clark embarked on a crusade to get mercury out of vaccines. She has testified before congressional committees and in state legislatures and was instrumental in getting laws passed in Missouri and Iowa that ban mercury in vaccines.
The Clarks’ organization, No Mercury, does not have members or mailing lists. It doesn’t accept donations and hasn’t filed lawsuits. The Clarks operate a Web site, www.nomercury.org , where they post articles and scientific research.
The Clarks want to make one thing clear: They are not “anti-vaccine.”
“We think vaccines are important,” Lujene Clark said. “But they should not contain a neurotoxin. Introducing mercury into children is just stupid.”
Devon, who turned 10 in July, now is in the fifth grade. He takes medications and vitamins and undergoes other medical treatments that his parents say have helped his condition.
“We still have some bad days, but it’s a dramatic jump in improvement,” Alan Clark said.
Last January, Alan and Lujene Clark had lunch with Devon at school. The pupils had been learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and made “I Have a Dream” posters.
“There, among all the ‘I want to be president, I want to be a soldier, I want to be a dancer’ — all the childhood dreams — at the very end was our son’s,” Lujene Clark recalled, her eyes welling with tears.
On Devon’s poster was a drawing of a vial of thimerosal with a skull and crossbones on the label.
Above the picture, Devon had written: “My Dream … Stop Mucry Poisoning Kids.”