Injecting Some Sanity into the Autism-Vaccine Debate

Most of us love the idea that babies are born into the world unblemished. “Blank slate” is the popular term, and it conveys a sense of childhood innocence. Sad to say, we now know this just isn’t true. In fact, we come into the world, as the psychologist Jennifer Kunst put it, with a “pre-installed operating system,” which is, in effect, a highly individualized temperament that affects how we make sense of the world, and how we feel about ourselves.


Now, it seems that personality isn’t the only thing we’re born with. Sadly, millions of babies today begin their lives “pre-polluted” with as many as 200 environmental toxins, including heavy metals like lead, aluminum, and mercury, coursing through, and over taxing their tiny bodies, especially the liver, which doesn’t start removing toxins until six months or so (protein production is the liver’s first job). These toxins accumulate in infants during gestation. Naturally, there’s fear, especially among the these infants’ mothers, that multiple vaccine injections might overwhelm their babies’ developing immune systems, exposing this vulnerable population to excess aluminum, an ingredient added to boost the effectiveness of many vaccines, formaldehyde, and of course, the often-discussed mercury.

What’s important to understand is that it’s the dose that makes the poison, as the Swiss German physician Paracelsus once said. It isn’t a single exposure, or even two or three, that cause problems; but the hundreds of exposures that begin in utero with the mother, who passes her accumulated chemicals and heavy metals to her developing infant. Chromosomes may also play a role, as autism affects four times as many boys as girls. We used to believe that fathers didn’t bring any epigenetic changes to the party, but we now know that they’re responsible for 10 to 15 percent of these changes, which could dictate how male fetuses store and accumulate mercury. Time of conception may also play a role, as babies conceived during winter are at 50 percent greater risk of autism. It seems reasonable that any combination of these factors may contribute to the development of autism and other pediatric neurological impairments, especially in newborns who might be harboring potentially dangerous levels of toxins.

“Vaccines are among medical science’s most important contributions to human wellbeing.”

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that nothing can be done about early life chemical exposures. Still, we need greater awareness of future ones that come through the environment, diet, and yes, vaccines. Let me be perfectly clear: I am in not anti-vaccine in any way, shape, or form! Along with a handful of other discoveries and innovations, vaccines are among medical science’s most important contributions to human wellbeing. But like any other medical intervention, vaccines aren’t risk free, making them an easy target for criticism when anything goes wrong with a child’s development. This fact doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t vaccinate your kids. You absolutely should because vaccines don’t just protect your children; they protect entire populations–a concept known as herd or community immunity–particularly the young, old, and the immunocompromised.

One issue that critics like to hone in on, in particular, is the idea that vaccines are rife with toxins. Specifically, they’re worried that thimerosal, which was used as a preservative in vaccines in the U.S. until 2001, and is still used in parts of the world with limited access to cold storage, might play a role in the development of autism and other pediatric neurologic conditions. Let’s take a closer look at this. Almost every human and animal immunized with thimerosal-containing vaccines has been exposed to ethylmercury. While ethylmercury’s cousin, methylmercury, is a known hazardous substance that should be avoided as much as possible, the respected World Health Organization considers small doses of thimerosal safe regardless of how many times one is exposed, even during pregnancy or infancy. Remember, this is for a single dose. On the other hand, a study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that while the toxicology profile for both mercury types vary greatly, “simultaneous exposure to both ethyl mercury and methylmercury might result in enhanced neurotoxic effects in developing mammals.” Because methylmercury is absorbed quickly and inefficiently excreted, it’s especially dangerous to developing babies, particularly if it concentrates in the brain.

In this way, I like to think of vaccines for some children as a feather that lands on the hood of a car that’s been teetering on the edge of a cliff. It’s the act of that feather landing on the hood that pushes it over the edge. Under the right conditions, and with enough prenatal exposures, a single vaccine may be sufficient to push some kids off the cliff, causing injury and even serious neurologic conditions.

“Understand that it’s our own chemical contamination that has the greatest effect on our unborn children.”

Again, I’m not encouraging parents to stop vaccinating their children. In the U.S. at present, all vaccines routinely recommended for infants are available only as thimerosal-free formulations or contain only trace amounts of thimerosal (≤1 than micrograms mercury per dose), except for the inactivated influenza vaccine. Given all that I know about the potential connection between hazardous chemicals and their residues and the damage they do to the brains of unborn children—a 2014 paper authored by Harvard Medical School neurologist Philippe Grandjean and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, listed 12 chemicals that are strongly correlated with everything from lower IQs to ADHD and autism spectrum disorder—I still made sure my two adult children and four grandchildren all received their full vaccine complement. I’m sharing this information so that those who might be on the fence will know that it’s the mother’s body burden of toxins, including heavy metals such as mercury, which she passes to her fetus via the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, combined with an unborn child’s rapid development and incomplete defense system that factor far more than vaccines in the manifestation of pediatric neurological conditions like autism. Don’t lay blame at the feet of vaccines. Understand that it’s our own chemical contamination that has the greatest effect on our unborn children. Thus, we clearly we need to be aware of our own toxic body burden, especially as we plan our families, doing all we can to assure that the toxins we will share with our children-to-be are kept to a minimum.

Multiple studies have failed to demonstrate a causal or even a corroborative link between thimerosal in vaccines or vaccines in general and autism’s startling rise over the last two decades. Indeed, the highly-respected Institute of Medicine, an impartial group of leading scientists and physicians that advises the U.S. Congress on scientific issues, reviewed more than 1,200 studies between 2004-2011, and found no evidence showing a link between vaccines and autism, this included the MMR vaccine, which has been implicated in past autism cases because it contains thimerosal.

“To make sound decisions, about health or anything else, we need sound information, something often lacking in the ongoing vaccine debate.”

So what’s the answer? Is there any association between vaccines, specifically thimerosal-containing vaccines, and autism? Could the mercury that is often found in the fish that we eat be that feather on the hood of the car? To make sound decisions, about health or anything else, we need sound information, something often lacking in the ongoing vaccine debate where an uninformed, and largely scientifically illiterate media gives equal credence to anti-vaccine conspiracy folks, quack doctors (you know who you are) and mindless celebrities with Google University medical degrees. This information should be science-based and shouldn’t come from a friend, relative, or second or third-hand source. Please, seek out advice about vaccines only from highly-credentialed, experienced medical professional you trust.

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