Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
8 August 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Autism: the mercury trail

Powerful evidence points to a preservative in vaccines as the likely culprit

By Margaret Cook

The classic juvenile tactic to get out of a scrape is to deny it vehemently, even if that means claiming black is white. Curiously, governments adopt the same technique, reinforcing their indignant denials with name-calling.

This has been the response from both US and British establishments to parental fears that autism is causally related to vaccines. Andrew Wakefield was sent packing after he suggested MMR vaccines were suspect. His failure to declare an interest in connection with his research was used to destroy his career, even though his lapse pales into insignificance beside the conflicting incentives present in the entire chain of vaccine-policy command from Cabinet Office to consulting room.

But it is more difficult to bully away the question of mercury in vaccines and its putative link with autism. A book published in the US this year, Evidence of Harm by David Kirby, makes a compel-ling case. Any unbiased doctor who reads it, following the golden rules of listening to the parents’ stories and assessing the evidence the book quotes, cannot fail to be persuaded. Yet the response in the British Medical Journal, in a review by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, is to rubbish it in a hectoring tirade, the theme of which is that parents are not reliable witnesses and the experts know best. How dare the parents side with “credulous journalists” and defy the “authoritative US Institute of Medicine”?

Since 1939 a preservative called thiomersal (thimerosal in the US) has been used in some vaccines, and it contains nearly 50 per cent mercury. Mercury is a nerve-cell poison, but the amounts in vaccines were said to be “traces” only. It was used in, among others, the diphtheria/tetanus/ pertussis vaccine given in three doses early in infancy. It is not present in MMR or other vaccines containing live viruses. In the US, pre-school vaccinations are compulsory and, under this blanket, jabs upon jabs were added to make a worryingly crowded programme. It was nearly a decade before the Food and Drug Administration added up the mercury being injected into infants in the first few months of life, and then it found that it was well in excess of federal legal limits even for adults. In 1999 regulators in the US and Europe advised phasing out mercury in childhood vaccines in the shortest possible time – while continuing to deny it was harmful. Believe that if you will.

Autism and related disorders were un-known before 1939. The exponential in-crease in recent years seems to parallel the rising number of mercury-containing vaccines given at an ever earlier age. The infant blood-brain barrier is not developed until six months of age, and it is to be expected that even minuscule amounts of this cumulative toxin can do harm. A causal association between the metal and autistic disorders is wholly biologically plausible. Epidemiological studies have come up with conflicting results, depending on the mindset of the researcher.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

There is evidence that autistic children have a (probably genetic) problem in excreting mercury. It now seems likely that these predisposed children, burdened and immuno-suppressed with toxic metal, then given a dose of MMR live vaccine, suffered a triple whammy causing full-blown autism. The history obtained from parents of children with autism is consistent and should not be dismissed so contemptuously as the reviewer Fitzpatrick did. The story that a child progressed normally until an adverse reaction to a vaccine seemed to tip him or her into a slide into autism is heard again and again.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

The extraordinary increase in autism among children – one child in 166 now suffers from an autism spectrum disor- der – cannot be explained away by better recognition and diagnosis, as claimed by psychiatrists. If it were so, where are all the adults with covert autism?

So worried was the US government about the mercury question that a rider barring thiomersal litigation was tacked on at the 11th hour to the (unconnected) Homeland Security Bill 2002 – a sign of the US health, federal and industrial establishments ganging up to evade a mercury fallout.

Mercury was removed from UK infant vaccines in 2004. Parents of autistic children in the UK struggle to engage the support of public services, and many find that physical symptoms are ignored. Autism is compartmentalised as a mental illness and doctors tend to leave it to psychiatrists. Gastro-intestinal aspects of autism were Wakefield’s speciality, and look what happened to him.

Yet this disease needs to be wrested back into mainstream medicine and that will happen only when the establishment seriously addresses the theory of mercury as a contributory cause.

The writer is a retired consultant haematologist, formerly at St John’s Hospital, Livingston