Back in November, the Wall Street Journal featured a prominent article with the following headline: “The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams; Scientists Increasingly Link Vehicle Exhaust With Brain-Cell Damage, Higher Rates of Autism”. It was careful to point out that current evidence is circumstantial; no one is certain about such a connection between traffic, exhaust, brain-cell damage and autism. After all, vehicles today put out far, far less pollution than those operating decades ago, when autism rates were far, far lower.
It highlighted one study published in Environmental Health Perspectives which found that children born to mothers within 1,000 feet of a freeway in three major California cities were twice as likely to have autism. One of the researchers says “it looks like air pollution might be a risk factor for autism," but sensibly cautions that "it is too soon for alarm" since there are so many possible genetic and environmental factors.
This type of finding is classified, in the field of epidemiology, as an ecological correlation. It is necessarily the first but weakest of all observations, since merely establishing a correlation between two variables is not nearly enough to prove causality. Nonetheless, it is still useful – even if an initial hypothesis with intuitive value later falls apart.
This is what science does; it moves from one form of observation to the next, using its own internally consistent methods, until something can be determined with reliability. What would we think of scientists who would abandon the line of inquiry between traffic and autism if, say, the automobile industry raised objections? Or who were content with a prevailing though unwritten “understanding” that even, say, modifications of previous automotive standards over the years warrant no research funding to determine if vehicle exhaust is any more dangerous than it used to be?
People would draw the obvious inference: they refrain from such a line of inquiry because an industry might take a hit, and a whole way of life might come under scrutiny.
I only need to observe my own mood souring while stuck in traffic to appreciate some of its infelicitous effects; I’m open to the concept that pollution might also affect our brains somehow. Still, I’m sceptical about this finding – or at least that this factor, if it is a factor, is a major factor. I could easily be wrong, and perhaps these authors will eventually be vindicated by the science. But I don’t object to the research in and of itself; I commend the Wall Street Journal for presenting one possible explanation, while not jumping the gun with statements that cannot be verified scientifically at this stage.
We only kid ourselves, however, if we think that all reasonable potential factors are all pursued with reasonably similar curiosity and urgency. Pollution and the automobile industry is one thing. But if another industry were to be even implicated – say, the abortion/bio-tech industry – scientists tend to run for the hills.
The astounding rise in autism
An astounding one out of every 88 American children (and one in 54 boys) now has autism – a 78 percent increase in just the last decade – according to the latest CDC estimate just released last month. By contrast, that figure stood at less than five per 10,000 children in 1980. In the UK, the prevalence rate has reached one out of every 64 children. This sharp rise over the past couple decades is all the more terrifying since so much about its causes remains shrouded in mystery. Even if some share of the increase might be attributable to changing diagnostic criteria, we are still dealing with an alarming epidemic. Only the full force of science – properly deployed and free from ideological shackles – can meet the pressing need for answers to this devastating condition.
At least one reason (not mentioned in the Wall Street Journal article) we should probably be sceptical of the theory that air pollution is a major driver of autism is that it does not correlate well to certain points in time, such as 1988, after which autism rates dramatically spiked. Was there some radically distinct and widespread event related to pollution in, say, 1981, 1988, and 1995, which might have triggered noticeable spikes in autism? If so, I cannot think of it.
Other commonly suggested explanations for the colossal increase in autism related disorders, such as television and other technological gadgetry – microwave ovens, cell phones, video games – or improved diagnostic capability similarly fail to match up neatly with the distinct spikes in autism rates observed following those years.
There is, however, another particular variable intimately associated with precisely those years after which autism rates skyrocketed, and for that reason alone – by appealing to that very same concept of ecological correlation – clearly seems to warrant further scientific evaluation. And yet most scientists won’t touch it. It is so highly sensitive, I dare not even say it. OK, if you force me to: vaccines.
Wait a minute: no, I don’t mean vaccines qua vaccines; as one of the most potent tools in the public health arsenal – having eradicated smallpox and now nearly polio, having controlled an array of childhood diseases, and having boosted life expectancy – vaccines coexisted quite well with steadily low rates of autism long before autism ever began to skyrocket.
I mean that something is different in many vaccines nowadays. And I’m not referring to mercury in vaccines. That too has been proposed as a culprit – and more or less dismissed as investigations have not conclusively established any linkage. Mercury couldn’t explain the dramatic explosion of autism in any event, since its levels did not increase in corresponding fashion over time; indeed, autism rates continued to climb even when and where mercury was no longer present in the vaccines.
Some vaccines are made with cell lines from aborted foetuses
I’m referring to the introduction of vaccines manufactured with electively aborted human foetal cell lines; these contain residual human foetal DNA and human retroviruses – contaminants known to prompt gene mutations which, in turn, can lead to autism. The previous, original vaccines used animal cells. I venture to say that few are even aware of this profound alteration of standard vaccine composition. Most “consumers” are not informed about this in plain language, either in public campaigns or at the point of vaccination.
Dr Theresa Deisher – a PhD in molecular and cellular physiology from Stanford University and an expert in the field of adult stem cell therapies – notes that this is the “only environmental event correlating with these statistical autism trend ‘change points’ which would impact almost all children”.
Deisher further notes that “similar change points, associated with the introduction of human foetal DNA contaminants in childhood vaccines, are also evident for Canada, the UK, and Denmark”. In the early 1980s, the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) derived from aborted human foetal cell lines became the only one available in the United States, and by the end of the decade the incidence rate of severe autism had increased more than 15-fold; the same general pattern of elevated autism incidence was observed once this type of vaccine was introduced in the UK a few years later.
Autism rates have also gone up recently (particularly since 2001) in several developing countries which, compared to the United States, have radically different environments – different diets, different standards of hygiene and sanitation, and much less exposure to the modern western gadgets some have viewed with suspicion. Exposure to these types of vaccines – those with residual human DNA – is one thing, however, that children from dramatically dissimilar countries do have in common.
None of this is to say that we can positively claim a causal relationship; that would be premature. There is currently no known basis for making a stronger statement, just as there isn’t with respect to air pollution as a potential risk-factor. Yet if you were doling out funds for research, which of these two variables would you judge to have the greater claim to prioritization?
Overlooking for a moment that only one variable exhibits a striking temporal association and supposing, just for the sake of argument, that aborted human foetal matter in vaccines and traffic jams both proved to contribute equally to rising autism rates, which of these two factors would translate more easily, quickly, inexpensively, and effectively into an intervention to prevent autism: supplying vaccines that don’t come from human foetal cell lines, as was originally the case, or imposing complex, invasive and authoritarian measures to micro-manage traffic and housing patterns?
Intriguing and compelling correlations
By any reasonable measure, these are intriguing and indeed compelling correlations – and as such this theory should not be ruled out. Neither should it be conflated with other vaccine-related theories because this is a distinct issue. It has been established that both the mercury and the attenuated measles virus component within the MMR vaccine have not led to the spikes in autism. (A representative literature review, for example, provided by UpToDate – a professional clinical service used by medical practitioners – covers this ground). This is important.
Yet that’s not all that is in the vaccine. Existing epidemiological studies (indicating little evidence of a link) have not yet properly accounted for vaccines specifically derived from human foetal cell lines as an isolated or co-variable. The stock phrase that the vaccine is not linked to autism – a generality repeated in the popular media and the scientific community – may therefore be excessively broad.
It should also be noted that a 2009 FDA publication regarding the safety of vaccines containing residual DNA cites the same expert studies from the early 1990s that were used as a basis for alleging the safety of a gene therapy trial (SCID-X1) which, in drastic contrast to their extremely low risk appraisal, resulted in four out of nine successfully treated patients subsequently developing cancer (T cell leukaemia); if nothing else, this should give us pause. Incidentally, the virus used to deliver the gene therapy is a close family member of another virus which contaminates the MMR II and Varivax (chickenpox) vaccines.
Furthermore, with knowledge gained over the last several decades from the fields of immunology and gene therapy, the unequivocal assertion that contaminants from human foetal cell lines pose no danger cannot be credibly made. There are also a series of other findings might reasonably raise some suspicion: we know that injected naked DNA can be transported to the brain, that shorter DNA fragments have a higher probability of entering the nucleus of a cell, and that present levels of residual human DNA in several vaccines far exceed limits recommended by the FDA.
Again, none of this is nearly enough to demonstrate anything conclusively. We are still in the realm of speculation. But as much as we do not know at present, there does seem to be sufficient biological plausibility – in addition to the ecological correlation – to reinforce the conclusion that further investigation is warranted. In fact, to leave this matter unstudied in the face of what authorities are calling a national emergency would seem to require a greater explanation. A front page story in the USA Today highlighted the need for better early diagnosis and treatment in light of the latest, alarming CDC report. (A subsequent story reassured readers that vaccines are definitively not implicated but saw fit to mention the traffic and air pollution theory). Wouldn’t it also be a good idea to pursue with due diligence the identification of whatever may reasonably be deemed to be a possible and preventable trigger?
Safety and correctness
It is hardly a model demonstration of the scientific method to extrapolate from what is known about those other vaccine components and pronounce that all is therefore well if the safety of administering human DNA fragments through otherwise vindicated vaccines has to this day simply not been definitively determined. This would be like pronouncing BLT sandwiches are just fine after properly determining that the bacon, lettuce and tomatoes are all fine while shying away from looking into the mayonnaise, made with a new recipe, which many perceive to be routinely inclined to spoiling.
The repetitiveness of such imprecise assurances seems intended in part to discredit a legitimate line of inquiry – to label those who clamour for any further, properly thorough investigation as irrational reactionaries. But acknowledging on the one hand that there have been historical episodes of unfounded anti-vaccine hysteria is not incompatible with deeming this particular issue to be eminently worthy of investigation. In fact, what properly disinterested scientist would not be interested in actually examining it?
As it stands now, a real scare – whether justified or not – has led to downturns in vaccination coverage; resurgences of epidemics such as measles in the UK and whooping cough in California have been the unfortunate result. If compliance rates were to dip too low, the desired effect of vaccination programs – population-level or “herd” immunity – would be compromised. To insist on an honest and rigorous scientific investigation of this specific and unresolved question, far from being anti-vaccine, is fundamentally consistent with valuing their enormous contribution to public health.
We lionize scientists who supposedly leave no rock unturned in the search for truth and for the benefit of their fellow man. Nothing – and especially nothing with any religious overtones – will deter them from this noble pursuit.
But this is too touchy.
Scarce are the funds made available to investigate this matter; rare and easily ignored are the studies, such as a thorough 2011 review in the Journal of Immunotoxicology, which concluded that this matter is a legitimate concern. Apparently there are indeed limits to what the scientific establishment will pursue, and these limits happen to correspond to certain ideological standpoints (not moral precepts or religious injunctions) which are not to be questioned much less contradicted in polite society.
Safety today passes as a synonym for correctness or permissibility. Safety serves as an indispensible ally if not an outright justification for the modern project of absolute freedom. Rectitude or objective morality is, to many modern minds (particularly in the fields of science), a thing of the past; that which can be done safely or legally can’t be wrong. The flip side of this form of rationalization, of course, is that any evidence of a given practice’s harm jeopardizes its claim to legitimacy.
This is why any hint of such harm must be kept under wraps. To take but one example, we already know – strike that: most people do not know – that abortion is a major risk factor for breast cancer, even if scientific and governmental bodies have gone to great lengths to deny it. Or who can fail to see that this same type of ideological undercurrent accounted for the enormous disparity between our approaches to human embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research. The former received the lion’s share of funding and favourable media reporting – even as evidence mounted that the latter was proving safer and more effective. Yet deep down we still know that giving cover, either by commission or omission, to any side of an ethical debate is not what we typically associate with the job description of scientists.
We also know that stem-cell treatments derived from human embryos have led to tumours or were at times otherwise not well tolerated by the patients taking them. Is it utterly inconceivable that vaccines containing residual human DNA from aborted human foetal cells might have some adverse consequences, even if only as a trigger to those with a genetic predisposition for autism?
It appears that many in positions of influence and authority, particularly within the scientific establishment, need there to be no link between the aborted human foetal matter in vaccines and autism for reasons having nothing to do with science. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, do not need to establish such a linkage or indeed any other type of linkage in order to validate their position on the sanctity, dignity, and inviolability of human life; their arguments are moral and philosophical and do not depend on utilitarian reasoning – that is, on the various potential consequences of abortion. (Having an induced abortion, it is known but not widely broadcast, leads to premature deliveries in subsequent pregnancies, and pre-term babies are at greater risk for autism as well as cerebral palsy and other conditions).
They will always prefer vaccines that have not utilized human foetal cell lines – even if from a pragmatic perspective those vaccines that have used them end up proving to have no adverse consequences. Only those whose ethical stances depend on consequences could be threatened by getting to the bottom of this – not counting, of course, the unscrupulous driven strictly by financial incentives.
The real question, then, is: do the scientific establishment and their funders have such little regard for the suffering of their fellow man – the devastation endured by children and families with autism – that they simply refrain from investigating this specific question head on, with the urgency it deserves, just because it relates to abortion, even if remotely, and therefore might undermine it?
It is possible that there is another explanation for the meteoric rise in autism rates – that human DNA fragments in these vaccines are not the culprit – or is even likely that a diverse combination of factors is to blame. We can only hope that science will uncover and bring to light (for those are different things) whatever is behind this tragic epidemic. But those presently framing and perpetuating the narrative that the case is closed – the verdict of safety is safely in – seem not so much to be purely pro-vaccine as they are anti anti-abortion.
Predetermined politicized positions are precisely what science supposedly repudiates.
Matthew Hanley is the author, with Jokin D. Irala, of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West.