Injection of fear
Ireland Section - Focus SEction
August 26 2001 FOCUS
Kathryn Sinnott blamed herself for her son's autism until she checked medical
records. Now she wants people to be aware of the possible risks of vaccines.
By Paul Colgan Injection of fear
Jamie Sinnott would not stop screaming. It had been a hectic day for his
mother, Kathryn. She was trying to help her parents pack in time to catch a
flight to America, as well as keep Jamie's older brother and sister under
control. Trauma: Jamie Sinnott was diagnosed as autistic after vaccinations
It was February 1978 and Jamie was four months old. Days before, the infant's
grandfather, a doctor, had given him a routine injection for diptheria,
tetanus and whooping cough. For months afterwards, Jamie cried incessantly.
Only lying in a dark, silent room would soothe him and he no longer appeared
to recognise his mother.
In May that year, doctors suggested that Jamie might be autistic. The trauma
of the child's grandparents leaving their Cork home, they speculated, might
have ruptured the smooth curve of his development. It was a suggestion that
haunted the young mother for years, leading her to blame herself for his
"From that day, when my parents left, I thought I had fumbled the emotional
football," said Kathryn. "You associate the beginning of your child's autism
with some life event from the time."
In the years that followed, the young boy had further injections to protect
him from other diseases. But he suffered persistent bowel problems, and his
autism made him introverted, hampering his language and social skills. Jamie
later developed epilepsy and contracted whooping cough. His health problems
seemed to coincide with the vaccinations.
Sinnott, however, had no reason to question the safety of the injections, and
trusted the opinion of the medical staff that administered them - her father,
after all, was a family doctor. Then in 1994, Jamie was suddenly "flattened"
with flu just 24 hours after getting vaccinated against that virus. Sinnott
began to think immunisations were doing more harm than good. Her suspicions
drove her to check the family's medical records, and she found the
coincidences applied to her other eight children as well.
"Everyone has big events happening in their life all the time. You just fix
on the one from around the onset of the autism, and blame that," said
Sinnott. "It's only when you go back and start checking the records that you
find it was right around the time that you had brought your child to the
doctor for their jabs."
Until last week, the public mostly knew Kathryn Sinnott as the mother who, on
her son's behalf, fought - and lost - a titanic court battle against the
state. She wanted the government to provide free primary schooling for Jamie,
despite the fact that he was over 18 years old.
Last Tuesday, the public met Kathryn Sinnott the activist, who believes
hundreds of children are at risk of developing autism every day from a tiny
pin-prick designed to protect them against diseases of the industrial age.
Sinnott is in contact with the parents of hundreds of other autistic children
with similar stories.
Usually, the story goes like this: a healthy, happy baby has the vaccination
for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) at 15 months. Within weeks, he or she
starts to withdraw into their shell, losing interest in the world around
them. A few months later, they are diagnosed with autism.
At their press conference, Sinnott and concerned parents' groups highlighted
what they claimed was a "raging autism epidemic" in the republic. Some
children, they suggested, might not be able to handle the impact of the large
number of childhood vaccines they receive. They argued that the sudden surge
in cases of the debilitating psychological condition has occurred in parallel
with the "herd vaccination" of Ireland's young. Was it not unreasonable to
think the two trends were linked?
They were reacting to a report from a Dail committee which found, after a
two-year investigation, no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism. It
urged the government to continue to try to inoculate 95% of the population
against basic illnesses.
The parents had told the committee of their concerns during its
investigation. Medical experts supported their case. Why would a group of
politicians dismiss their argument so bluntly? The number of Irish people
diagnosed with autism has increased dramatically over the past decade. A
survey carried out during 1993 and 1994 in the east of the country found that
about five people in every 10,000 suffered from the disorder.
A survey to be published later this year by the Irish Society for Autism will
show that this ratio has increased to 15 in 10,000. "We believe that could
well be an underestimate," said Pat Matthews, executive director of the
society. "It could be as high as 20 in 10,000." But higher numbers have been
reported, some as high as 1 in 1,000.
Research by the Hope project, a Cork-based support group founded by Sinnott,
said that, in one part of Cork, there were 33 cases in a sample of 13,000:
about one case for every 390 people. Similarly stark figures have been
reported in America. Autism was only identified as recently as 1943 by Leo
Kanner, an American psychiatrist. He used it to describe withdrawn,
self-obsessed children with developmental problems.
At first, only severe autism would have been recognised by researchers trying
to find out how common the condition was in the population. But extensive
research in the area over the past 20 years has broadened the definition of
the affliction. Public awareness of the condition means parents are more
likely to have their children thoroughly checked if they show signs of
Brian Houlihan, a consultant child psychiatrist at the Mater and Temple
Street children's hospital, said that while more children were being brought
to him for examination, "a dramatic increase in the severe end of the
spectrum - which leads to significant delay in the core triad of language,
socialisation and behaviour - has not yet been demonstrated". Neither has any
link been proven between autistic disorders and the MMR, the most
controversial of the vaccines.
Spurred by concerns from consumers, the Institute of Medicine in America last
year appointed a group of 15 independent experts to review all the available
research on the connection between autism and the MMR. There was, they
decided, no cause for concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) concurs,
advising the vaccination of 95% of the population.
What concerns some parents about the MMR is that it is a potent biological
cocktail containing traces of three diseases which is injected into
15-month-old babies. By coincidence, the first signs of autism usually appear
between 18 and 24 months old, not long after the injection is administered.
The research that arouses the most alarm is that of Andrew Wakefield, of the
Royal Free hospital in London.
With help from Professor John O'Leary, an Irish pathologist, he sought to
show that autistic children had problems in their gut linked to the measles
virus. The virus and the bowel problems, he suggested, could be linked to MMR
injections, and the bowel problems then stopped vital nutrients reaching the
Though Wakefield's methodology has been heavily criticised by some
researchers, there are other studies that show there may be medical, not just
psychological, symptoms of autism. About 5% of autistic children have rare
chromosome abnormalities, and their brain tissue seems to be physically slow
Like Sinnott, Wakefield and O'Leary are keen to point out that they are not
anti-vaccine. They both urge parents to inject their children, but believe it
could be done more safely - perhaps by giving the jabs one at a time. Some
parents feel they are not given enough information when they take their
children to be vaccinated. "I feel doctors have a lot to answer for," said
Maurice Gueret, a Dublin GP. "There is no time for a proper consultation - it
would be five to 10 minutes on average. And sometimes the vaccines are given
by a nurse in the office."
But the cause of those who want blanket vaccination of the public has already
been heavily damaged by the research of Wakefield and others. The suggestion
of a link between autism and a vaccine is enough to make parents hesitant.
Without injections, children die. The Irish have been slow to achieve high
levels of protection against measles - last year, an outbreak saw 1,600
children fall ill, and three die from related diseases.
Doctors and politicians had hoped to eradicate measles, rubella and mumps -
as they have got rid of diptheria and typhoid. But that only works if most of
the population is immunised. Their efforts, as the Dail report noted, have
probably saved more lives than any other public health measure - apart from
the provision of clean water.
Politicians say that, in the absence of a proven link between vaccines and
autism, it is their duty to pursue vaccination to protect public heath. But
should they not have been more vigilant about the possible link to the rise
No, says John Clements, a medical officer at the vaccines department at the
WHO in Geneva, because there is no evidence that autism is linked to
vaccines. "We are monitoring vaccine-preventable diseases in areas where we
are giving vaccines. But are we monitoring the emergence of six-toed children
in the same places? No. There is a limit to what you can monitor."
The case of Cecelia Young, a Dublin mother, is not unusual. Adam, her son,
was given the MMR jab in November 1995 when he was 15 months old. About 72
hours later he developed a high temperature, and started screaming and
blacking out. Eventually, he settled down but five months later, his
behaviour started to change. He became quiet and sullen, and started to lose
In January 1997, Young's sister, who taught autistic children in Australia,
suggested during a phone conversation that Adam might have the disorder. His
mother hung up. Adam lost all of his speech, keeping only "Mammy", "Daddy,",
and "coke". He was diagnosed as severely autistic, and also had attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Unlike many parents, however, Young refused to be beaten by the condition.
Having educated herself and consulted doctors in London, she put her son on a
gluten-free diet. The results were astonishing. His progress so far has been
so rapid, that Young believes his condition might actually be reversed. "You
can trust him now," she said. "He will get up in the morning and get
something for himself, and sit down and watch television. Before we started
him on this treatment, he used to run away. He could have been playing with
knives or anything."
Young is now involved with the Irish branch of Allergy Induced Autism, a
group that lobbies for awareness of autism that appears to be linked to
vaccinations. The entire issue will soon take centre stage in the Irish
courts. Lavelle Coleman, a Dublin-based law firm, has agreed to represent
more than 100 families who want to sue vaccine manufacturers - and the
government - for, they believe, poisoning their children.
The overwhelming conclusion of doctors and biologists is that vaccination is
safe, that it is, in fact, vital to a child's health. However, the WHO is
investigating the possibility that mercury-based preservatives used in
vaccines could be a factor in illnesses, including autism, arising from
immunisations. But saying the MMR vaccine causes autism is a bit like saying
a car crash can be caused by someone wearing a brown jacket nearby, Clements
"It's highly unlikely, but it might be the case. Anyone can have a good idea
about what causes an event, and they are welcome to make their hypothesis and
test it. "But it becomes a lot more perilous in medicine when you
hypothesise, and then start making national policy decisions based on good
Kathryn Sinnott thinks it might have been better never to have had her
children vaccinated. "Who knows what I would have done, if I knew what I know
now?" she said. "Jamie might have never become autistic."