New health fears over big surge in autism
· Experts 'concerned' by dramatic rise
· Questions over triple jab for children
Denis Campbell, health correspondent
Sunday July 8, 2007
The number of children in Britain with autism is far higher than previously thought, according to dramatic new evidence by the country's leading experts in the field.
A study, as yet unpublished, shows that as many as one in 58 children may have some form of the condition, a lifelong disability that leads to many sufferers becoming isolated because they have trouble making friends and often display obsessional behaviour.
Seven academics at Cambridge University, six of them from its renowned Autism Research Centre, undertook the research by studying children at local primary schools. Two of the academics, leaders in their field, privately believe that the surprisingly high figure may be linked to the use of the controversial MMR vaccine. That view is rejected by the rest of the team, including its leader, the renowned autism expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.
Some experts who previously explained the rise in autism as the result of better diagnosis and a broader definition of the condition now believe the upward trend revealed by studies such as this indicates that there has been a real rise in the numbers of children who are affected by it. Although the new research is purely statistical and does not examine possible explanations for the rise, two of the authors believe that the MMR jab, which babies receive at 12 to 15 months, might be partly to blame. Dr Fiona Scott and Dr Carol Stott both say it could be a factor in small numbers of children.
Professor Baron-Cohen, director of the centre and the country's foremost authority on the condition, said he did not believe there was any link between the three-in-one vaccination and autism. Genetics, better recognition of the condition, environmental factors such as chemicals and children's exposure to hormones in the womb, especially testosterone, were more likely to be the cause, he commented. 'As for MMR, at this point one can conclude that evidence does not support the idea that the MMR causes autism.'
Baron-Cohen and his team studied the incidence of autism and autistic spectrum disorders among some 12,000 children at primary school in Cambridgeshire between 2001 and 2004. He was so concerned by the one in 58 figure that last year he proposed informing public health officials in the county.
Controversy over the MMR jab erupted in 1998 after Dr Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, said he no longer believed it was safe and might cause autism and inflammatory bowel disease in children. Many parents panicked and MMR take-up fell dramatically. More families opted to have their child immunised privately through three separate injections to avoid the possibility of their immune system being overloaded by the MMR jab, thus leaving them at greater risk of infections.
The medical and scientific establishment denied Wakefield's claim, described research he had co-authored as 'bad science', and sought to reassure the public, with limited success. Wakefield and two former Royal Free colleagues are due to appear before the General Medical Council next week to answer charges relating to the 1998 research. The trio could be struck off.
The doctors' disciplinary body claims that Wakefield acted 'dishonestly and 'irresponsibly' in dealings with the Lancet, was 'misleading' in the way he sought research funding from the Legal Aid Board, and 'acted unethically and abused his position of trust as a medical practitioner' by taking blood from children after offering them money.
A book to be published this month by Dr Richard Halvorsen, a London GP who provides single vaccines privately to babies of parents concerned about MMR, will fuel the controversy. It will present new evidence of children allegedly being damaged by vaccinations and linking increased autism to MMR.
But Dr David Salisbury, national director for vaccines and immunisation at the Department of Health, said last night: 'The evidence is absolutely clear. No published study has ever shown a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. It is absolute nonsense to suggest otherwise.'
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