Thimerosal made the headlines about ten years ago. Parents were furious. It seemed that the mercury-based ingredient that was added commonly in vaccines since 1930 was causing autism. We were in the midst of an autism epidemic, we read, and pharmaceutical companies had knowingly and willfully endangered our children by exposing them through the use of cheap preservatives like Thimerosal. My spouse and I did what every other couple in America was doing at the time – we argued unceasingly about to vaccinate or not to vaccinate our children. Was the threat real? Did Thimerosal really endanger our children? Or, were we unnecessarily endangering our children by forgoing vaccinations?
According to the National Autism Association, “An analysis of the US Department of Education data from 1992-1993 in comparison to 2000-2001 indicates that there has been an average increase of 644% among all US children” (NAA, nd). Frightening statistics to say the least, but are statistics really telling the whole story? As an educator, I know that education has improved our understanding of learning differences dramatically. We have become much better at diagnosing disorders, like autism, and we are able to do so at much younger ages. This is a blessing, in most respects, because the earlier we can work with these children, the more profound our impact will be. Yet, this earlier detection is a double edged sword that, for all events and purposes, obscures the story behind the statistics. Have cases of autism really shot through the roof, or have we simply become much better at diagnosing children who in previous years would have gone unnoticed?
It is an interesting dilemma. As is another question that has been raised and not sufficiently addressed. Point one, mercury poisoning is, without a doubt, a horrific and preventable condition. It is also one where the symptoms mimic autism. This does not mean that mercury poisoning is autism or that it leads to autism. Point two is this. We know that mercury poisoning is usually reversible through chelation therapy. Since disabilities by their very nature aren't something we can turn off or on, would not suggest that cases of mercury poisoning that are reported as “autism” aren't autism at all, but rather mercury poisoning?
The point of this discussion is not to inflame the parents of children who have autism. Nothing can be more devastating than a child who isn't healthy as he should be. Parents have every right to scream and demand an answer. What is being suggested is that simply pointing to mercury and screaming has done nothing to find the real determinant behind the increase in autism nor has it resolved the cases or made children's lives better.
It has been roughly 20 years since Thimerosal has been phased out of use. Many manufacturers voluntarily suspended its use, long before the federal government finally stepped in, long before newspapers began the rant against Thimerosal. Yet, the epidemic continues and new cases of autism are reported every day. While we're busy continuing to scream, our children go on without answers and without help.