A Lafayette couple, certain that chelation therapy has helped their autistic son, stepped squarely into the controversy surrounding the causes of autism and its treatment Tuesday as they joined 150 other parents in launching an international support group that will aggressively promote the treatment.
Jamie Handley was a happy, healthy baby who reached all his developmental milestones until he turned 18 months, his parents said. Then, he started spinning in circles and standing on his toes and no longer responded to his name. They were eventually told he was autistic one of an increasing number of children over the last decade to be diagnosed with the disorder, which severely impairs a child’s ability to interact with others.
The Handleys are now among a small minority of parents who, believing that the autism was caused by the mercury in thimerosal, a preservative that was routinely used in vaccines until recently are treating their children with chelation therapy, a lotion or pill that strips the body of heavy metals. It has been used for decades to detoxify people contaminated in industrial accidents, but no studies have proved whether it is an effective treatment for autism.
For Jamie’s parents, the proof they need is in front of them: Jamie, now 3 years old and several months into treatment, is plump and playing baseball. His smile has returned.
“Every day brings small, steady gains,” said Lisa Handley of Lafayette. “Our life is filled with hope and the conviction that Jamie won’t just improve, but will completely recover.”
The Handleys said the new support group, Generation Rescue, and its Web site, www.generationrescue.com, will offer information on chelation therapy and connect parents with those who can help. The chelation therapy includes not only the medicine, but dietary restrictions and vitamins and mineral supplements.
The medical community differs on the cause of autism, a developmental disorder marked by communication problems and restricted or repetitive behavior. Some say it’s genetic, possibly exacerbated by other medical or environmental conditions. Others have noticed that the symptoms have often surfaced after a child got routine vaccinations containing thimerosal and believe that the skyrocketing numbers of autism in the last decade are the result of an increasing use of the vaccinations over the same period.
“Mercury is the second most neurotoxic substance on earth, after plutonium, and they were injecting it into newborns until 2003,” said Lynn Mielke, Jamie’s doctor. “An entire generation of children was basically poisoned.”
In California, 1,605 children were diagnosed with autism in 1992-93, compared with nearly 20,000 a decade later, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The national Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies, has concluded that there is no link between thimerosal and autism and says that a number of other factors could explain the rise in autism diagnoses.
But the Handleys and other parents say they noticed symptoms in their children after they got booster shots.
“Our son Andy regressed immediately after his 15-month vaccinations,” said Karen Schwing of Beach Haven, N.J., another member of Generation Rescue. “I was told nothing can be done. Our son is living proof that autism is treatable.”
Treatment of autism is as hotly debated as the causes of the disease. Mielke, who has an autistic son, is a member of a group called Defeat Autism Now and attends an international research conference on autism twice a year. She insists that almost every child improves with the chelation therapy. Others say that it can be treated through changes in diet and with nutritional supplements. Nothing yet has been proved to cure autism, however.
If thimerosal is part of the problem, the numbers of cases should begin to drop. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service said vaccine manufacturers should phase out thimerosal. While it may still be found in vaccines on the shelves of doctors’ offices, said Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Research Institute of San Diego, new pediatric vaccines now contain trace amounts of the preservative or none at all.
Three states: Iowa, Missouri and California have banned the preservative, although the California law doesn’t take effect until July 2006. Other states are considering following suit, but a U.S. Senate bill would prevent states from banning mercury in vaccines.
Government funding is needed to prove or disprove the mercury connection, said Dr. Boyd Haley, a mercury researcher and expert on toxicology at the University of Kentucky. “We need the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to put their money and expertise to determine the best possible treatment.”