regression: Marion Wickens noticed a change in her autistic daughter, Melissa, 10, after
an MMR injection
Photograph: Andrew Hasson
MERCURY in vaccines for babies and infants could be the
cause of a steep rise in cases of autism in children around the world, according to a
growing number of scientists.
The increase in reports of autism in Britain, America and some other countries
coincides with a growth in the number of inoculations given to young children, say the
Many of the vaccines contain a preservative called thiomersal, which is 49.6% mercury -
a substance known to have neurotoxic effects, especially in infants whose brains are still
developing. Symptoms are similar to those displayed by autistic children.
Autism is a spectrum of disorders which range in severity from bizarre, violent
behaviour to an inability to communicate or interact socially, along with repetitive
patterns of behaviour.
Estimates of the prevalence of the syndrome in Britain range from 10 cases per 10,000
of the population with "classic" autism, to 9.1 cases per 1,000 showing some
signs of autistic behaviour.
The National Autistic Society estimates that there are about 500,000 people with autism
in Britain, 120,000 of them children. According to one recent study, there has been a
tenfold increase among children between 1984 and 1994.
The new possible explanation of the rise has emerged after a two-month review of all
the available information by The Sunday Times. Several groups of academics and researchers
in America and Sweden are investigating similar theories that a combination of factors is
They include a genetic predisposition, the cumulative effects of mercury in vaccines
lowering the immune system, with the controversial measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) triple
vaccine being a possible trigger.
The US Institute of Medicine is so concerned that officials have organised a two-day
meeting in July to discuss the "hypothesis" that thiomersal and mercury in
vaccines are linked to autism.
Boyd Haley, chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky, has been asked to submit
a paper. "Thiomersal is extremely toxic. The preliminary data is convincing and does
indicate that vaccines are the most likely suspect for causing autism," he said.
In general, the researchers argue, the cumulative effects of mercury impair brain
development and damage the child's immune system and gastrointestinal tract, resulting in
hypersensitivity to toxic environmental substances.
This build-up could lead to autism or a form of mercury poisoning - whose symptoms are
similar. In addition, researchers believe, the MMR triple vaccine, usually given at 18
months to two years, could trigger autism because the damaged immune system cannot cope
with three live viruses at once.
Only some children exposed to mercury will develop symptoms. Researchers believe this
indicates that there may be a genetic predisposition. This theory was reinforced by a
study published this month which showed that in 99% of autistic children a family of
proteins essential for disposing of mercury and other heavy metals is missing or
The proteins, called metallothionein (MT), are the main way in which the body counters
heavy metal. The study, by the Chicago-based Pfeiffer Centre, a health research institute,
found that of 503 autistic patients 499 showed an MT "dysfunction".
The number of vaccinations given to babies and children in Britain and America has
increased significantly. In the United States the number given before the age of two has
risen from eight in 1980 to 22 now.
In Britain in 1970, most children received diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough
and BCG for tuberculosis; about half were also immunised against measles. In 1972 rubella
was added; MMR in 1988, Hib (Haemophilus Influenza type b), against a form of meningitis
in 1992, MMR as a second dose in 1996, and meningitis C in 1999.
The MMR first dose is given between 12 and 15 months, with diphtheria and tetanus and
the second dose of MMR at three to five years.
Like tens of thousands of other children, Melissa Wickens, 10, underwent a full course
of inoculations. When she was just 14 months, after she had received her MMR jab, her life
From being an alert, normal child, her behaviour became erratic. Typically, when she
arrives home from school she throws down her fluffy red school bag and pulls everything
out of it. In the kitchen she snatches a box of breakfast cereal and crams flakes into her
mouth. Later she smears strawberries over herself and her bedroom upstairs.
She has already broken several television sets and throws chairs around the sitting
room and pulls down shelves. Melissa, who was given the MMR vaccine in 1992, has severely
regressive autism and inflammatory bowel disease.
"On the same day as the MMR she started a high-pitched screaming," said her
mother Marion Wickens, from Brighton. "Over the next few weeks she cried
inconsolably, started to bite herself and to pull out her hair, resulting in bald patches
on her head.
"She used to have a lovely sparkle in her eyes but they went blank. She couldn't
understand 'Where's mummy?' any more. It no longer registered."
She concluded: "Melissa wasn't born autistic, she regressed."
MMR does not contain thiomersal, though other child vaccines do. Thiomersal was
introduced in the 1930s as a preservative and went into common use without review by
America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it was assumed to be safe.
In America, researchers found some infants who are being vaccinated using multidose
vials with thiomersal can receive 62.5 micrograms of mercury per visit. This is 100 times
more than the intake considered safe for the average six-month-old by the US Environmental
In June 1999 the FDA discovered that: "Infants who receive thiomersal-containing
vaccine at several visits may have been exposed to more mercury than recommended by
Federal guidelines." The following month the European Agency for the Evaluation of
Medicinal Products (EMEA) issued a statement saying: "Cumulative exposure to
ethylmercury [found in thiomersal] . . . could lead to a potential cause for
In May last year, a scientist from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) gave a presentation, based on a study of the Vaccine Safety Datalink Project - a
database of 400,000 children - with evidence of harm. Dr Thomas Verstraeten of the CDC
found the screening analysis suggests "statistically significant associations"
between certain neurologic developmental disorders - such as attention deficit disorder,
and speech and language disorders - and exposure to mercury from thiomersal-containing
vaccines before the age of six months.
As a result, the EMEA issued another statement last June, saying: "For vaccination
in infants and toddlers, as a precautionary measure it would be prudent to promote the
general use of vaccines without thiomersal. Moreover, the use of thiomersal-free vaccines
should be recommended for newborns."
Neither of these EMEA statements received national newspaper publicity in Britain, and
at least 10 thiomersal-containing vaccines for children are still in use as drug
manufacturers are permitted to finish stocks.
Jane Maroney El-Dahr, an immunologist at Tulane University medical centre in New
Orleans, said: "It is important for me to emphasise that the message is not to not
vaccinate children, but to make sure that vaccines are thiomersal-free."
The health department said: "Thiomersal has played an important role as a
preservative in vaccines.
Because thiomersal contains mercury, both European and American regulators have
recently recommended that vaccine manufacturers phase out its use wherever possible as a
precaution. They have not recommended the withdrawal of any vaccines.
"While there is substantial evidence that MMR vaccine - which is a live vaccine
and therefore contains no thiomersal - is not a factor, the cause of autism remains