To our mind, the autism epidemic remains the only serious and large scale epidemic in which thinking about finding the cause has been controversial.
Typically, when terrifying outbreaks erupt, two imperatives compel all to act- avoiding being the next victim and finding the cause to put out the flames.
In the case of autism, a welter of distractions have effectively blocked even the attempt to really find the cause. A great deal of time and money have been wasted on a futile debate about immunizations, tremendous energy has been spent arguing about even whether autism is more common each year, a large percentage of research dollars have been devoted to measuring the effectiveness of a broad array of therapies none of which claim any chance of cure, and another large percentage of research dollars have been consumed with risk factor rather than causation research. In each instance, research is not being devoted to finding the cause of a disaster that now puts over 1% of all children born in the US at risk.
Today, July 5, 2011, The New York Times published an article on a publication that suggests that the autism epidemic indeed has a cause, and it may be environmental.
The article discusses findings from a study of identical and fraternal twins. Of course identical twins have 100% (roughly) of their DNA in common. Fraternal twins have 25% of their DNA in common (the Times reporter stated erroneously that the number here is 50%). So if autism is solely a genetic problem we would expect identical twins to have 4x the chance of both having autism than fraternal twins. They do not, and so a level of environmental cause is found.
Of course, as the article notes, it would make little sense to think that the actual cause of autism is genetic. The epidemic began around 1990 and has been booming ever since. No genetic changes happen that fast.
What the article does not mention, is that genes and environment are quite intimately linked. Consider the case of lead poisoning. In a house where lead levels in the dust are high, typically only a few children will develop high blood lead levels, even if all eat the same amount of lead. This is because people vary in their ability to absorb lead that they eat. One could say that the gene for absorbing lead is causing the lead poisoning. But it would be far more accurate to say that lead is the cause, and the gene opens the door to the cause working.
Our stance for many years has been that something is causing a horrific epidemic across the developed world. This something is now pushing over 1 in 100 babies born into a life with autism. Certainly genes must play some role in deciding which child will be affected, but the evidence is compelling that something in our world is causing this. It may turn out that the cause can be eliminated, as was the case with lead, and that this epidemic can be stopped like so many before it.
We call on our community, including our political leadership, to push for finding the cause. Imagine how horrifying it will be to find out something could have been done to prevent the thousands of cases of autism developing right now, and how wonderful it will be done.
Dr. Arthur Lavin
*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.