The vaccine-autism link goes to court.

Health and medicine explained.
May 28 2007 8:52 AM

Thimerosal on Trial

The theory that vaccines cause autism goes to court.

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Geier's foray into medicine has infuriated a number of parents of autistic children who sharply dispute the vaccine-autism link. In particular, it ticked off Kathleen Seidel, a doughty New Hampshire mother of a teenager with an autism-spectrum disorder. In a series of investigative blog posts, she laid bare the flimsy theoretical underpinnings of Geier's treatment protocol and its potential dangers. In January, the journal Autoimmunity Reviews retracted an article by the Geiers on the Lupron protocol after Seidel wrote a long, scathing letter to the editor in which she noted that both of the journal's co-editors are witnesses in vaccine litigation.

Lupron isn't the first radical remedy offered to the autism community. Visit the homes of some autistic children and you'll find kitchen cabinets stuffed with dozens of expensive supplements, vitamins, foods, antibiotics. There is money to be made in this field, as this legal dispute between two alternative practitioners reveals. But Lupron seems like particularly strong medicine to test on children. In their published work, Geier and his son cite as precedent a 1999 case report of a 24-year-old autistic man who was given Lupron because he was exposing himself in public and molesting children. The drug stopped the inappropriate sexual activity but not the psychosis. The Geiers' protocol, which they prescribe to some patients with whom they are in contact only by telephone, sometimes also includes Androcur, an even more potent prostate-cancer drug with side effects that include liver damage, depression, and blood-clotting disorders. Androcur is not FDA-approved and must be ordered from abroad.

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To qualify children for their Lupron protocol, according to parents, the Geiers run 33 tests to check for abnormal hormone levels and to rule out genetic abnormalities. If not insured, the parent is out $10,000 for these tests, and they require copious blood drawings, which can be especially traumatic for autistic kids. When the Geiers accept a child for treatment, they order multiple injections of Lupron along with shots or oral doses of a chelating agent. It is not unusual for children under the Geiers' care to get 60 needle sticks in a month. The usual drill for a scientist who wants to conduct a medical experiment is to have it reviewed by an independent ethics monitor called an Institutional Review Board. The Geiers' homemade IRB included the Geiers themselves, Mark Geier's wife, a vaccine litigator, and the parent of a child on the protocol, who is also a vaccine litigant.

Seidel looked on listservs where parents related their experiences treating kids with Lupron and chelation. One man described pinning his 7-year-old autistic daughter to the bed to push a 2-inch needle into her buttocks. "We did this by holding her down while she lay on her belly. We were able to hold her still for the injection by sitting on/straddling her back while my wife held her legs still." As is the case with many unorthodox treatments of autism, a highly variable disorder, some of the children seemed to improve, according to their parents. Others didn't. Heartbreaking as it is to see parents signing their children up for this treatment, it reflects the foxhole bonds among those convinced that the government and drug companies poisoned their babies with vaccines.

The potential impact of the vaccine case Geier will testify in is huge. If the court finds that vaccines are guilty of triggering autism, it could order lifelong payments for the care of thousands of autistic children. This would bankrupt the vaccine-compensation program, created two decades ago to shield the drug industry from lawsuits while providing the parents of vaccine-damaged children with a no-fault means of payment. The compensation fund, which currently contains about $2.5 billion, is financed by a tax on pediatric vaccines. But concerns about potential liability already have helped drive the price of vaccines to levels that are making it hard for pediatricians to continue administering them. Meanwhile, the Geiers' Lupron treatments continue.

Arthur Allen is the author of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, Ripe, and Vaccine. He is a health writer and editor at Politico.