Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dan Burton: Statement of Support of the Combating Autism Act (S.843)

Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of the Combating Autism Act of 2006 (S.843) as amended. I want to thank Chairman Nathan Deal and Chairman Joe Barton, and the Energy & Commerce Committee staff, for bringing this bill to the floor today.

Over the last five years or more, many of you have heard me speak many times on this floor about the subject of autism and you will likely continue to hear me speak on this issue because I believe we truly have our work cut out for us. About 20 years ago, autism was considered a rare disease, affecting about 1 in 10,000 children. Now, that rate is about 1 in 166; making autism the third most common developmental disability that children face, even more prevalent than things such as Down's Syndrome and other childhood cancers. In my own home State of Indiana we experienced a 923% cumulative growth rate for autism from 1992-2003. The annual growth rate of autism in Indiana averaged 27 % compared to an average of 7% for the growth rate of all disabilities.

This literal epidemic of autism is a looming and immediate economic crisis to our education system, our health care systems, our long-term housing and care system for the disabled, and most especially, to an ever increasing number of families across the country. Autism is a condition that has no known cure which means that this is a crisis that is simply not going to ``go away.''

Today we take a huge step forward in terms of dealing with this problem. Although in my opinion, only a down payment on the resources that we must invest in order to defeat this terrible scourge, the Combating Autism Act, commits nearly $1 billion - in essence almost a doubling of funding for autism - to autism research, including essential research on environmental factors, treatments, early identification and support services. This bill amounts to a long over due and vitally needed declaration of war by the Congress of the United States on autism.

Even so, while a needed step forward, this is not a perfect bill, because I believe we are missing a crucial opportunity to use this bill to help unravel the mystery of autism. Specifically, while the bill before us does include language on the need to research the environmental factors which may contribute to autism, it does not include a specific mandate that environmental research topics must include vaccines, other biologics, and their preservatives. Now I am not against vaccinations, but I do believe, as do many of my colleagues that there is a strong link between the mercury contained in a product called thimerosal - commonly used as a vaccine preservative - and children developing neurological disorders such as autism. In fact, my own grandson became autistic after receiving 9 shots in one day, 7 of which contained thimerosal.

Because of what happened to my grandson I took it upon my self to learn about autism and what I discovered during my research was deeply disturbing. During my tenure as Chairman of Government Reform Committee (1997-2002), and as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights & Wellness (2003-2005), a number of very credible national and international scientists testified at a series of hearings that the mercury in vaccines is a contributing factor to developing neurological disorders, including, but not limited to, modest declines in intelligence quotient (IQ), autism, and Alzheimer's Disease. And the body of evidence to support that conclusion gets larger every day.

Yet we continue to hear repeatedly in Congressional hearings, in media communications, and through government and scientific reports that ``there is no evidence that proves a connection between vaccines and autism." This conclusion is not too surprising when you consider that our health agencies seem to routinely dismiss out of hand any scientific study that does conclude thimerosal is a danger.

Experience tells us that, as with any other epidemic, while there may be underlying genetic susceptibilities, there usually is some type of environmental trigger as well, such as a virus, fungus, heavy metals, pollutants, or whatever. There has never, to the best of my knowledge, been a purely genetic epidemic. So, genetics alone cannot explain how we went from 1 in 10,000 children with autism spectrum disorders twenty years ago to 1 in 166 today. Considering that mercury is a base element and the most toxic substance known to science outside of radioactive materials, it is biologically plausible that mercury is an environmental trigger of autism.

Recent studies indicate that more than half of pediatricians said that in the previous year they had encountered at least one family that refused all vaccines, while 85 percent said they'd had a parent turn down at least one shot. Whether it's because of fear that mercury used as a preservative in childhood vaccines causes autism, or that the dangers of immunizations far outweigh their benefits, or that there is a conspiracy by drug companies, doctors and vaccine makers to conceal the harm, the facts are clear, more and more American families are fighting immunization.

It is imperative that we do all we can to restore the public's trust in vaccinations. And the only way we are going to resolve the conflict of opinion over thimerosal is through more research. Unfortunately, if the Department of Health and Human Services never funds or conducts the right studies, and given their current track record on the subject that is very likely what will happen, this question will forever remain unanswered. That will be a national tragedy because often once an environmental cause is discovered, immediate steps can be taken to prevent new cases and abate the epidemic. In addition, knowledge of the environmental cause or triggers often leads directly to more effective treatments.

For example, this bill promotes the use of evidence-based interventions for those at higher risk for autism. However, so long as we ignore the potential danger of mercury many biomedical interventions, such as restricted diet, applied kinesiology and/or chelation therapy - which many families have found to be the best treatments for their children with autism - will be excluded from the list of evidence-based treatments.

I stand here today not just as a concerned grandfather of an autistic child but as the voice for the hundreds of parents and families who continue to contact my office looking for help for their children. They are our constituents, we represent them in the People's House, and I hope we are all listening to them. The debate about mercury in vaccines must be addressed, investigated and resolved. Parents have a right to know what happened to their children regardless of where the truth lies. And we have a responsibility to those children and families already suffering. In the meantime, we should err on the side of caution and remove thimerosal, even trace amounts, from all vaccinations.

By failing to provide a clear Congressional mandate to research ALL of the potential environmental causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), including vaccines and their preservatives, I believe we are handicapping our efforts to give all ASD patients the best possible quality of life and the ability to make the greatest possible contributions to society. I hope that in the coming weeks, months and years this Congress will push for further research into the question of thimerosal and autism so that one day we will be able to say that we have done everything possible to stop and treat this epidemic. In the meantime, I urge my colleagues to support this very good bill.

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