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Keith Rankin: Autism A 21st Century Pandemic?

I recently watched a BBC Panorama documentary called "Every Parent's Choice". It was screened in New Zealand on Prime TV in the week before the Philistines from the West Island took over Prime. The first casualty of the take-over was the regular BBC documentaries.

The programme was about the possible links between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination and autism and bowel disease. The programme is reasonably balanced, noting that parents may be being asked to increase the risk of their children becoming autistic in order to decrease the likelihood of their getting measles and its complications.

Public health is highly political in Britain, as it is in New Zealand. As a result, you cannot rely on information and assurances given by public health agencies.

The research about links between this vaccine and autism appears to be inconclusive. There is no proof of a link. There is also no proof that there is no link. Actually, if the research suggests that there is a 94% chance that there is a link, then that is regarded as no proof, and the status quo (the supposition that there is no link) continues to prevail.

What the programme failed to show is the extent to which the incidence of autism is growing. However it did note that the British public are now much more likely to know someone with autism than someone with complications from measles. Hence British parents fear autism more than they fear measles.

The programme (see transcript) made two alarming claims. One of the protagonists in the British debate, Dr Andrew Wakefield, says that the latest American data shows an incidence of autism in the USA is "in some states as high as 1 in 32 children".

Towards the end of the programme, the presenter stated "there are now more than half a million autistic children in Britain". By my maths, that's 1 child in 25 affected by a condition that medical books called "extremely rare" 25 years ago. (If 4% of British children are autistic, then 7% of boy children are autistic, given that seven-eighths of autistic persons are male.) If 1 in 25 people had AIDS or bubonic plague, we would call it a pandemic.

These figures may be mistaken; I would have thought 1 child in 250 was more likely. But it seems that the figures are true. (See "Loved to Death"; Guardian 23 August 2000.)

If more than 1 in 50 children in the developed world are being diagnosed as autistic, then this is a global public health time-bomb that must be addressed immediately.

The last time in New Zealand that autism was much in the news was during the trial of Feilding mother, Janine Albury-Thompson, who killed her autistic daughter Casey. We were all sympathetic to Janine. But if autism is a serious enough condition to drive a parent to strangle their autistic child, then we are dealing with a major problem. And I have barely mentioned the bowel condition that often accompanies autism.

The rise in the incidence of autism has implications for us all this century.

We are told that the children of today must provide for the baby-boom generation in retirement. If we are facing an autism pandemic, however, it will be retired baby-boomers (many of whom will be in good health) who will be caring for the much younger autistic population.

If we want our immunisation programmes to become credible, public health officials have to take parents' concerns seriously. The reluctance on the part of a growing minority of parents to give their children MMR and whooping cough vaccinations is because there is not enough information about the conditions which have (possibly mistakenly) been linked in the public mind with these vaccinations.

We could start by coming clean about the true incidence of autism, the extent to which it is becoming more common, and by funding much more research into the causes of and cures (if that's the right word) for autism. Parents, in an information vacuum, have every reason to give credence to the many anecdotal stories about these immunisations.

Temple Grandin, an autistic woman, is world famous. She seems to have an extraordinary empathy for animals; indeed she designs facilities for livestock. Could it be that many animals - cats come to mind - are autistic? Autism may represent some kind of default condition. Maybe something has to happen to us in early childhood to cause us to not be autistic? This important something may be happening less in developed countries than in the third world. Whatever, it is a baffling condition.

Autism is a social problem that is not going to go away by ignoring it.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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