Mailbag: Robert Hinkley on David Kirby, Autism, and Vaccines

To those of you just joining us, I recently stirred up a hornet’s nest by writing on the alleged link between autism and vaccines. Since then, I’ve gotten a crash course in the subject, from a few friends, and now, a reader and a writer in his own right, Robert Hinkley. Mr. Hinkley writes to debunk some of Kirby’s claims that were made at a lecture in London earlier this month. I’ll reproduce his e-mail, edited for inline links and pictures, but nothing else, below. Be warned that some of his links are down: server problems.

I went to David Kirby’s lecture in London a week ago (I wrote about it here) and would like to tip you off to a couple of slides he used in his presentation then, in case he uses them when he speaks at NYU School of Law on the 26th. Kirby presents the slides as supporting his mercury/thimerosal/vaccines-cause-autism case, but in reality they do nothing of the sort. I thought I’d mention them to you in case you do manage to go along, as Kirby throws out a huge
volume of stuff and it might help to be prepared about a couple of specific things he says.

One slide he uses (see ‘chelate-result.jpg’, right) shows the results of an analysis of the urine of an autistic child, showing levels of mercury far higher than those found “within the reference range”, ie what would be expected in the urine of a healthy person who hadn’t suffered mercury poisoning. Kirby presents this as evidence that the child’s body had retained unusually high amounts of mercury, thus they’d been poisoned by mercury and their problems could be a result of their unusually high burden of mercury. This actually produced murmurings of amazement in the London audience and it does seem very compelling. The truth, however, is different. The urine was analysed after the child had been given a chelating agent: a drug specifically designed to cause their body to excrete the heavy metals it contains. But the reference concentrations for the amount of expected mercury in the urine are for urine from people who haven’t been given a chelating agent. Anyone givena chelating agent would be perfectly expected to produce urine with levels of mercury higher than those normally found in the urine of people who haven’t been given a chelating agent. The use of such “provoked” urine tests being compared to “unprovoked” reference results is explained better than I can do it by Steven Novella here. I also guess Kirby’s not aware of the 2007 paper published in ‘Clinical Toxicology’ which found that autistic children didn’t generally excrete higher levels of mercury (or arsenic, or cadmium, or lead) than non-autistic children (see here). That paper is of course a preliminary pilot and the number of subjects is low, but it certainly shows that not all autistic children exrete large amounts of mercury.

Another slide (see ‘denmark.jpg’, right) shows autism diagnosis rates in Denmark before and after the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines. Kirby says that people use this (autism rates apparently increasing after removal of thimerosal) as evidence against a thimerosal-vaccine link but claims they are wrong to do so. Kirby says that before 1994 the Danish healthcare system was only diagnosing a small proportion of autism cases (13% was the figure he gave), so the autism rates recorded pre-1994 were artificially low. Leave aside for a moment the fact that Kirby is willing to embrace the notion of different diagnostic methods producing an apparent rise in autism in Denmark while denying it can have happened anywhere else. If you multiply the diagnosed pre-1994 autism rates by 8 to approximate Kirby’s claimed “true” rate you still get cases of autism – at least before 1990 – lower than they are in the late 1990s after the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines.

As Hinkley indicates, you can probably expect more information on his own site soon. I’ll link to it when it comes up.

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  1. Billy McDoniel · ·

    Ames, I didn’t know you were doing this. I found it from Pharyngula via Tangled Bank. Good show. Get in touch and let me know how things are going with y’all.

  2. Mary Parsons · ·

    Rob, thank you for taking the time to attend and to write this up in such a thoughtful manner.

  3. Very interesting. It raises some questions. The rate of Autism went up dramatically in the US around 1980. Was this also do to changes in methods of diagnosis? Did it take the Danish 15 years to adopt this methodology? According to your acquaintances analysis of this paper, there has always been this high rate of Autism. I have read that 1 out of 150 births in the US become affected. Anyone over the age of 30 should have had brothers and sister of friends brothers and sisters affected. It was not there. I am going to be much harder to convenience that the addition of Mercury and the increase in the number of drugs used per vaccination do not have some relationship to the unbelievably high rate among our children.

    I would like to see the statistics related to deaths from childhood diseases as they relate to the number of children we are turning into vegetables. I have read that the CDC has that info but will not release the data. I hope that both the medical and legal community is working with all do diligence to find a solution to this problem. I am not one who is anti vaccine, but I am waiting for someone far more intelligent than I to start giving us some answers after almost 30 years. Hopefully we are not protecting the medical community or big pharma.

  4. Billy McDoniel · ·

    Sailing, are you sure that that ’1 in 150 births’ statistic isn’t for autism spectrum disorders? I was glancing through Wikipedia, and they’re apparently all sometimes referred to as autistic disorders. Further, it cited a 2007 journal article for the claim that true autism was 1-2:1000 while ASDs in general were 6:1000. That second statistic is so close to 1:150 that it seems likely to me that you (reasonably) misinterpreted something you read or the source you read it in was (reasonably) confused. If the true rate of autism is only 1:150 if we include ASDs, then there’s no problem. I could likely have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, for example, but no casual observer would have guessed that.

    One also has to remember that, if the ‘improved diagnosis rate’ hypothesis is correct, the extra cases found are likely to be the marginal ones. That is, the additional and previously unknown cases were not as obviously autistic as what we were conditioned to see as autistic by the diagnoses of 30 years ago. While the medical establishment has been diagnosing autism more liberally, laymen like us are stuck on the very obvious sort of classical autism, which still has a very low incidence.

    Also, doesn’t autism become less obvious with age? It primarily acts to delay development, and an autistic person might well come across as much more normal at 30 than at 3.

    More depressingly, I expect that children with autism are significantly less likely to make it to adulthood. A quick google seems to confirm that there’s at least some truth to this. This would further explain why you don’t see many 30 year old autistics.

    So, in the end, it seems to me that your reason for believing that the autism rate has increased doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There are two reasons to think that you’re just not noticing the autism that’s actually there in people your age and two reasons to think that it’s actually harder to notice in them or is less prevalent for reasons beyond an increase in childhood autism rates.

    (usual caveats about being completely unqualified)

  5. Billy McDoniel · ·

    Ah, I’m noticing that much more qualified people than I are saying similar things with much more authority over on another thread. So much for originality.

  6. [...] and follows Kirby to stay up-to-date. The question for me is, we’ve already heard how some talking points come up [...]

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