On the morning of August 23, 2005, Marwa Nadama brought her 5-year-old autistic son, Abubakar, to the Advanced Integrative Medicine Center in Portersville, PA, for treatment. There she met Dr. Roy Eugene Kerry, a board-certified physician and surgeon. Dr. Kerry was certain that he could help cure Abubakar's autism by removing mercury from his body.
Ms. Nadama had heard that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative in some vaccines, caused autism. Indeed, parent testimonials found throughout the Internet claim that thimerosal causes autism. Although thimerosal had been taken out of most vaccines by 2001, Ms. Nadama believed that its toxic effects hadn't been taken out of her son's body.
For years Ms. Nadama struggled to help her son, but to no avail: Abubakar remained distant and uncommunicative and was unable to return her affection.
Dr. Kerry represented a ray of hope. He believed he could rid Abubakar's body of the cause of his autism by using chelation therapy, a technique used to remove heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury from the body by introducing chemicals that will attach to (or chelate) metals in the bloodstream or body tissues and then enhance their excretion from the body.
At about 10 a.m., under the direction of Dr. Kerry, Abubakar's arm was cleaned with alcohol, and EDTA (ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid), a chelate, was directly injected into the boy's bloodstream. At 10:50 a.m., Abubakar Nadama was dead of a heart attack.
Vaccines containing mercury don't cause autism
Epidemiologic studies performed on three continents by four separate research groups have shown that mercury in vaccines doesn't cause autism. The findings are clear, consistent, and reproducible. Furthermore, the signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning are different from those of autism.
So, if mercury in vaccines doesn't cause autism, why did more than 10,000 autistic children in the United States this year receive medication to rid them of mercury?
How "balanced" reporting perpetuated myths
The notion that vaccines might cause autism contains all of the elements of a great story: greedy pharmaceutical companies, government cover-up, uncaring doctors, and parents fighting against all odds for their children. But the facts don't support the story.
On the one hand, every major medical organization including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine state that mercury doesn't cause autism. On the other, a few marginal scientists and clinicians — in the absence of any solid, reproducible data — say that it does. The media gave equal time to both sides, but downplayed the fact that one side had no evidence for their arguments. This makes for great stories, but, unfortunately, perpetuates the dissemination of myths.
How scientists, doctors and public-health agencies failed the public
Although scientific studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism, scientists have done little to explain these studies to the public. On July 19, 2005, Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the CDC, called a press conference to explain the science that refutes the notion that vaccines cause autism. Gerberding is an excellent communicator, and her message was clear and compelling. But that was one conference on one day; a tiny bell ringing against the constant, deafening drumbeat of weekly stories in the media that suggested otherwise.
How parents were grasping at straws
Parents of autistic children desperately want to find something — anything — that works to help their children. So they're susceptible to fad therapies. Several years ago it was said to be the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine that caused autism. Before that, secretin, a small protein secreted by the intestine, was proposed as a cure; many parents traveled hundreds of miles and spent thousands of dollars for secretin injections. Parents felt just as strongly about secretin and MMR at one time as they do today about mercury.
False hope for sale
The Dr. Kerry phenomenon isn't new. During the polio epidemic in New York City in 1916, Dr. George Retan ignored warnings from his colleagues and drained large quantities of spinal fluid from the backs of polio victims and infused a salt solution into their veins to "cure" polio. The procedure killed many people. But in 1916, as today with autism, no one knew what caused polio or how to treat it. And George Retan offered hope.
If we are to effectively prevent the next tragedy, we must communicate the science of vaccines to the general public with equal fervor to those who firmly believe that mercury in vaccines causes autism. We must show that we are not just doctors and researchers standing behind a one-way mirror of science, but that we are also parents who don't want to see another child sacrificed at the alter of bad information. Otherwise, the death of Abubakar Nadama won't be the end of this.