Is Autism Declining?

There are tantalizing hints that autism is indeed starting to decline among the very youngest children, born and vaccinated more recently, when mercury was transitioned out of most shots.
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For quite some time, the American government, health establishment and mainstream media have repeated the mantra that mercury-containing vaccines were eliminated "several years ago," yet the number of autism cases continues to climb -- the inference being that injecting organic mercury into newborn babies has now been proven to be 100 percent safe.

The problem, though, is that there is no proof that mercury was eliminated "years ago" and, more importantly, now there are signs that autism rates among the youngest children might actually be falling.

On Wednesday, the California Department of Developmental Services released data from the second quarter of 2007, showing that the number of three- to five-year-olds with autism in the state system increased by 169 children over the first quarter of 2007. This is about the same quarterly increase seen in the state over the past several years.

But it turns out that a private citizen has paid the state each quarter to analyze the autism numbers according to year of birth, and not just by age group. State law requires that such privately funded analyses be made available to anyone else who asks for it.

So I asked for it. What I got was rather interesting.

After breaking down the current data among three- to five-year-olds by year of birth, you notice that the number of cases among children born in 2002 (who are now roughly five years old) and 2003 (or roughly four years old) continued to go up.

But among those kids born in 2004 (who are now turning three years old) the number of cases has fallen, as compared to kids born in 2003.

For example, at the midpoint of 2006, there were 2,250 children born in 2001 (or roughly, five-year olds) with autism counted in the system. By the same period of 2007, the number of kids with autism born in 2002 had risen to 2,490, an increase of 240 children, or 10.7 percent.

Among "four year olds," the increase was even more dramatic, with 326 more kids diagnosed with autism midway in 2007 than in 2006, a startling jump of 17 percent.

But among the very youngest kids counted, the story was the opposite. At the end of June 2006, there were 688 children born in 2003 with autism diagnoses. This June, the number of kids born in 2004 with autism was 632, a statistically significant drop of 56 children, or 8.1 percent less than last year at this time.

This marks the second drop of its kind among the youngest children in California (which only tracks so-called "full spectrum" autism, and not milder forms of the disorder). It follows the first quarter of this year, when 251 children born in 2004 entered the system, compared with 264 kids born in 2003 who were enrolled in the first quarter of 2006 - a modest decline of 13 students, or 4.9 percent.

Keep in mind that these drops are being reported despite the fact that:

1) Rates among kids born just one or two years earlier continue to spiral upward

2) California has experienced a recent baby boomlet (the number of 0 to four-year-olds rose by 9,369 in 2002, according to census estimates; but jumped by 62,393 in 2004).

3) Legal and illegal immigration continues to rise from countries that still use the full amount of mercury in childhood vaccines.

4) Aggressive early intervention campaigns have consistently brought down the average age of autism diagnoses.

Intriguing though the numbers may be, it is far too early to know if this refreshing downward movement will turn into a bona fide trend. The deficit of 56 children could be made up by the end of the year.

But the decline does not come in a vacuum. Minnesota, for example, tracks autism among children as young as two years of age, (though the counting is done through the school system, and is considered less reliable than California's data).

The rate of two-year-olds diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Minnesota peaked in 2003, at 4.45-per-10,000 kids. By 2005, the rate fell to 3.88-per-10,000, and last year it was 3.55-per-10,000, a drop of 20.2 percent since 2003.

We will have to wait until these kids get a bit older to see if the decline holds true.

Meanwhile, back in California at the massive Kaiser Permanente healthcare, officials reported that, among five- to nine-year-olds in their system in 2006, the rate of ASD was 93-per-10,000. But among the youngest kids, two- to four-year-olds, it was 66-per-10,000 - a 40% difference.

One would naturally expect to see fewer two- to four-year=olds than five- to nine-year-olds with an ASD diagnosis. But in 2004, Kaiser began recommending routine ASD screening for all children at 24 months of age. Presumably, the majority of the two- four-year-olds in the system have now been screened for ASD, which must, by definition, appear before age three for a diagnosis to be made.

Sadly, more two-year-olds at Kaiser will end up with ASD, and some stragglers among the three- and 4-year-olds will also turn up. But whether they can make up the 40% deficit compared with their older siblings remains to be seen.

Are autism rates dropping? I would never say they are for sure. We simply have to wait and see.

But there are tantalizing hints that autism is indeed starting to decline among the very youngest children, born and vaccinated more recently, when mercury was transitioned out of most shots.

Which brings us to the, mercury was removed "several years ago" mantra, whose best retort is probably: "Says who?"

According to the Boston Herald, the last mercury-containing shots given to U.S. children expired back in 1999. The Washington Post, meanwhile, put the date at 2001, the FDA said it was 2002, the Institute of Medicine and the Immunization Action Coalition said 2003, and the Council of State Governments claimed it was "early 2004."

Who's right? We may never know. But we do know that companies were still manufacturing mercury-containing shots for American kids in 2001, and most vaccines have a shelf life of about two years. And we know that 90 percent of flu shots given to pregnant women and infants still contain the full amount of mercury today.

The number of California kids born in 2004 who have autism is, by any measure, still too high. True, we don't know how many of those 632 children were exposed to mercury in routine vaccines overseas, or flu shots here at home. But with numbers this lofty, it's highly unlikely that thimerosal alone was responsible for the entire autism epidemic.

If mercury is but one cause of autism, there must be other causes as well.

Let's say that autism cases among three-year-olds fall by 10 percent or so by year's end. Could thimerosal be the cause of 10 percent of autism cases? That would still mean tens of thousands of Americans injured by mercury in their vaccines. Moreover, identifying the cause in just 10 percent of cases might help us discover what is causing the other 90 percent.

But I am writing way ahead of myself here.

Regardless of one's position on the mercury-autism contretemps, I hope everyone can agree that an actual drop in the numbers, no matter what the cause, would provide a welcome respite from the endless chorus of grim news we all seem to face these days.

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