By Tracy G. Cassels
One of the biggest parenting debates of the last while has been the controversy over vaccines and the potential link to Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Starting with an article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 in the Lancet that reported a link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of ASDs, we’ve seen a decline in parents vaccinating their children, a rise of diseases once thought to be nearly extinct, and parents who are generally more confused than ever about the safety and risks associated with vaccinating your child. First, it should be made clear that the work by Dr. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the MMR vaccine will cause ASDs. Given that many children are diagnosed around the age of one to two (the time when the MMR vaccine is given), it seems to be an unfortunate coincidence.
However, it’s very hard to believe that parents who see a dramatic change in their child after rounds of vaccines are completely out of their minds and are simply wrong. In fact, I’m a firm believer that most of the time parents know their children better than anyone else, including their doctors. So what could account for this discrepancy in what science tells us and what parents tell us?
Personally, I read a fair amount before deciding to vaccinate my daughter and also talked to people I knew who witnessed some rather dramatic changes in a child’s behaviour after being vaccinated. One of the things that jumped out at me was the potential risk of aluminum that’s present in most vaccines. I know it’s been deemed “safe” by most doctors and some researchers, but the basis for these conclusions are spurious at best. (For a full account of the lack of research on aluminum and why we might want to be more concerned than we are, see Dr. Sears’ summary in either his book The Vaccine Book or online at http://www.askdrsears.com/thevaccinebook/vaccine_faq.asp). What struck me most was the eerie similarity between certain symptoms of aluminum poisoning and ASDs, especially in children, and the personal anecdotes that most of these symptoms arose after getting loaded up on vaccines instead of just one or two at a time.
Here’s a list of some of the symptoms people are told to look for in ASDs: unusual sleeping patterns, appears not to be aware of surroundings, does not respond to name, shows distress for unexplained reasons, repetitive language, outbursts, and lack of affection (amongst others). Now the list of symptoms associated with aluminum toxicity: disturbed sleep, nervousness, emotional instability, memory loss, headaches, impaired intellect, and speech problems (amongst others). Now, it may just be me, but there seems to be a fair bit of overlap, especially when we consider that diagnoses are judgment calls on behalf of the doctors who make them. If doctors have no reason to assume aluminum toxicity, then they may very well interpret some of the speech problems, or emotional outbursts, or sleep changes as being symptoms of ASDs.
But why should we be worried about aluminum? If you look at the amounts of aluminum in various vaccines, we can see that there could be problems. For example, the HepB vaccine has 250mcg per dose, the DTaP shot has 625mcg, and the pneumococcal vaccine has 125mcg. If you use combo shots, the amounts can be higher than the sums of the individual shots, as with Pentacel which has 1500mcg per dose (it is the combination of DTaP, HIB, and polio). But what do these numbers mean? Well, the general rule for safe aluminum consumption (because there is aluminum in our environment that we take in daily and does not harm us) is that it should be no more than 4-5 mcg per kilogram per day. An average 2-month old weighs approximately 5 kg for a daily total of 20-25mcg of aluminum. But a 2-month old infant getting his shots will receive between 295 and 1225mcg of aluminum depending on the brands being used for the vaccines. That’s between 12 and 49 times the recommended amount! Of course, we’ve been told that the vaccine slowly enters the system so we don’t need to worry about the large dosages of aluminum. However, I find it very hard to believe that it could spread the entry over 49 days and there is certainly no evidence to suggest this. You must also remember that aluminum builds up in the system, so if the body can’t process all the aluminum in a set of shots, it will simply start to accumulate as the body deals with the daily aluminum we are exposed to.
But with all this said and done, we don’t see most infants showing signs of aluminum toxicity, right? As far as we know, that’s true. But we have seen an alarming increase in diagnoses of other known behavioural problems, like ADHD and Conduct Disorder, in children[i] and we have to start to wonder what is causing these changes. It is not impossible that a build-up of aluminum is affecting children. My anecdotal experiences suggest that many problems start with children who are receiving vaccines either when sick and their immune system is weakened (and thus unable to process aluminum as efficiently as usual) or when doing “catch-up” shots and thus receiving even more aluminum than has been described herein. While a healthy child may better be able to process the higher levels of aluminum in the long-term, those infants and children who are sick have the cards stacked against them.
Of course, this is all theory at this point and with that said, I have immunized my own daughter and plan to continue, but we have altered her schedule a bit to avoid her being too overloaded with aluminum. However, I add my name to the list of parents, doctors, and researchers who would like to know more about the effects of aluminum in vaccines on our children instead of just blindly accepting that everything is okay because the people who made the vaccines told us it was.
[i] Ingersoll, R. E., & Previts, S. B. (in press). The prevalence children’s mental disorders. In E. Welfel & R. E. Ingersoll The Mental Health Desk Reference: A Source Book for Counselors. New York: Wiley.