The vaccine/autism theory may be dead, but the treatments live on.

Health and medicine explained.
April 1 2009 12:25 PM

Treating Autism as if Vaccines Caused It

The theory may be dead, but the treatments live on.

Also in Slate: Sydney Spiesel explains why parents believe in autism cures that don't work.

Activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally calling for healthier vaccines. Click image to expand.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally about the alleged connection between vaccines and autism

A federal court may have changed the public discourse about the safety of vaccines in February, when it dismissed the theory that they cause autism. But vaccine damage is still the reigning paradigm for a rump caucus of thousands of parents who turn to physicians with a remarkable set of beliefs and practices in hope of finding recourse for their children's ills.

To sift through the 15,000-page record of the Autism Omnibus hearings and the decisions by the three special masters who considered the evidence is to peek into a medical universe where autism is considered a disease of environmental toxicity, rather than an inherited disorder, and where doctors expose children to hundreds of tests simply to justify the decision to "detoxify" them. In some cases, the judges found, doctors simply ignored data that didn't fit the diagnosis.

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The court came down hard on the alternative medical practitioners who tailor their treatments to fit theories of vaccine damage. Among the doctors criticized was Jeff Bradstreet, a former Christian preacher in Melbourne, Fla., who has treated 4,000 children with neurological disorders. Among the children was Colten Snyder, whose case was one of those considered by the court.

Chelation therapy—the administration of chemical agents that tightly bind heavy metals and can be used to flush them out of the body—became a craze in the 1980s as a treatment for atherosclerosis in adults; proponents claimed patients were being harmed by mercury from their fillings. Dentists used it as an excuse to pull teeth and even remove jaw bones from their patients. Boyd Haley, a University of Kentucky chemist, was the high priest of the amalgam wars. When the thimerosal theory emerged on the scene, Haley and other chelationists shifted their focus to autistic children.

From 2000-06, Bradstreet prescribed seven rounds of chelation for Colten, each consisting of 90 doses over a four-month period, mostly in pill form. Bradstreet theorized that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative previously used in three infant vaccines, caused Colten's symptoms. Remove the mercury, cure the autism, went his theory.

Colten, now 12 years old, hated chelation, which can be painful and, on rare occasions, fatal. On Aug. 20, 2000, a nurse reported that he "went berserk" after receiving the chelating agent. On other occasions he screamed all night, vomited, and suffered constipation, back pain, headaches, night sweats, and "meltdowns."

Of course, children generally don't like medicine, especially when it's administered intravenously, as was the case with Colten's final rounds of chelation. But Special Master Denise Vowell found Colten's suffering particularly egregious, because the boy had never shown any evidence of mercury toxicity.

"The medical records ... reflected that Colten did poorly after every round of chelation therapy," Vowell wrote in her opinion. "The more disturbing question is why chelation was performed at all, in view of the normal levels of mercury found in the hair, blood and urine, its apparent lack of efficacy in treating Colten's symptoms, and the adverse side effects it apparently caused."

The answer can be traced, in part, to a Chicago laboratory that performs most of the chemical testing for alternative doctors like Bradstreet who treat autistics. Doctor's Data Inc., which tests about 100,000 urine samples for toxic metals each year, presents the results in such a way that it almost guarantees a finding of "toxicity" for each child.

According to a recent federal report on complementary medicine, about 72,000 children were chelated in 2007. Most of them were probably seen by doctors loosely allied to an organization called Defeat Autism Now! The doctors, naturopaths, and other practitioners in DAN! frequently order up exhausting regimens of testing for each child in the belief that people with autism are out of whack with nature. They test the children for viruses, bacteria, yeast, immune system elements, and brain antibodies, drawing copious amounts of blood, as well as spinal fluids and biopsy material, before prescribing immune globulins, vitamins, enzymes, and other pills and infusions. The tests and therapies run into the tens of thousands of dollars per child.

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