1 in 68 and rising

In 2015 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) records show there were 189 reported cases of measles in the US. That year there was an outbreak linked to a California amusement park. Given that measles is highly contagious, this was considered a large and serious public health concern. The year before, 2014, had 667 reported measles cases – the most we’ve had in a year this century.

Now get ready for a much bigger number: this year there are over 97,000 California public school students who have been diagnosed as autistic. That’s 97,000 just in California public schools. Autism isn’t contagious but it’s been spreading like a California wildfire. The CDC reported in 2014 that nationwide 1 in 68 children had Autism Spectrum Disorder. For boys the number was 1 in 42. By comparison, in 1980 the overall rate was about 1 in 2000. In 2014 the CDC reported that 1 in 58 North Carolina children have autism. There were over 1,000 ASD students just in Guilford County schools, and 60,000 people statewide. What accounts for this alarming increase? First, a quick review of autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, also referred to as autism or ASD, refers to a group of related neurodevelopmental disorders. The symptoms vary from person to person, but generally involve an impaired ability to communicate and interact with others, along with displaying specific repetitive behaviors and interests. An autistic person often has significant problems with learning and social behaviors. The severity of impairment varies widely. Many are unable to function on their own, but some can live independently and work a regular job.

So what accounts for this startling increase in ASD incidence? In part it results from an increased awareness of autism. This has resulted in greater evaluation and diagnosis. In other words, someone with autism is now more likely to be diagnosed as autistic than was the case 30, or even 10, years ago. However, no one suggests that this accounts for the whole huge increase in incidence. Other factors being looked at include genetic and environmental factors. Researchers are looking at genes that may associate with autism. Other genes may increase susceptibility to environmental factors, or impact brain development or cellular communication.

New research shows a substantial percentage of autistic people have mitochondrial dysfunction. This is a condition in which the mitochondria aren’t properly doing their job of producing energy for our body’s cells. It’s also been noted that almost all autistic people are under-methylated. “Methylation” is a biochemical process that is important to gene regulation affecting development and disease. Most people’s bodies are able to methylate properly, but about 22% of the US population has difficulty with it. These people can benefit from purchasing pre-methylated B vitamins; might it help someone with autism? The association between under-methylation and ASD merits further exploration. Researchers are also exploring the possible impact of environmental factors. These factors include air pollutants, viral infections, pregnancy complications, and the impact of all the wireless radiation that has proliferated in recent years.

Once ASD develops it lasts for life. This entails a profound impact on the autistic person. For most cases it also puts a large burden on caregivers. There’s a big financial component as well. The economic costs of autism in the US have been pegged at $268 billion for the year 2015. Researchers at Harvard estimated that the additional education and healthcare costs related to autism average over $17,000 per child annually. This number is expected to rise considerably in the coming years.

There is another possible cause of autism that has generated great controversy. This is the possible link with certain vaccines. The FDA and CDC both say there is no solid evidence that vaccines cause harm. On the other hand, we lack studies demonstrating they are safe. The main suspect, though not the only one, is the aluminum that is in many vaccines. It is added to certain vaccines because it improves their effectiveness. However, aluminum is a known neurotoxin. The FDA requires warnings of possible toxicity on injectables that contain aluminum, but for some reason vaccines are exempt from this warning. If we eat or drink something with aluminum in it, our GI tract neutralizes and excretes it. But injecting it bypasses the body’s defense mechanisms. No studies have been done to determine how much aluminum gets absorbed into the bloodstream and tissues when injected.

So what is considered a safe level of aluminum? The CDC says 5 micrograms of aluminum per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 12-pound two-month-old baby this equates to 30 mcg of aluminum in one day. For a 22-pound one-year-old it comes to a safe level of 50 mcg. Healthy babies might be able to safely process more than this, but the amount hasn’t been determined. So let’s compare these known safe levels of 30 mcg for a 12-pound baby and 50 mcg for a 22-pound infant to the amounts being administered in vaccines. There are 250 mcg of aluminum in the Hepatitis B vaccine given to newborns and again at one month. The first big round of shots typically given at two months contains anywhere from 295 mcg to 1225 micrograms depending on which brands are used. These doses are repeated at 4 months and 6 months. These amounts of aluminum far exceed the levels known to be safe. Could these large doses of aluminum — a known neurotoxin — trigger autism? The FDA says no even though it requires warnings on other injectables that contain aluminum. I think the question at least merits further research. Also bear in mind that aluminum toxicity is difficult to determine simply by observing symptoms.

I managed my own small natural products store in the mid and late 90s. I recall three different mothers each telling me a similar experience. Each had a perfectly healthy child with normal development that had an immediate huge negative reaction to a vaccine and never recovered. In each case a normal, healthy child became autistic overnight following a vaccine shot. This is anecdotal, but you’ll never convince those parents that the vaccine didn’t trigger their child’s autism.

There are pediatricians who believe in the importance and effectiveness of vaccines, but also are concerned about the possible neurotoxic effects. Some of them have responded by spreading out the vaccine schedule to reduce the stress on the child’s body. In particular, don’t give more than one aluminum containing vaccine at a time. At any rate, autism is growing in its cost and impact on our society. We need to quickly figure out what’s going on and how it can be curtailed.

Landau’s column appears the fourth Wednesday of each month. For an in-depth look at the aluminum toxicity issue, he recommends The Vaccine Book by Robert W. Sears, MD, FAAP.