Many of my skeptical and pro-science friends are extremely passionate about the issue of autism and vaccines. The scientific data indicates, very compellingly, that vaccines do not cause autism. So when a press release came out claiming that a new vaccine could actually reduce autism, many jumped on and posted it all over social media feeds, as if it was vindication of the positive effects of vaccines and science in combating disease and disorders.
But lest be careful, because it’s not quite what it seems.
First Vaccine to Help Control Some Autism Symptoms
A first-ever vaccine created by University of Guelph researchers for gut bacteria common in autistic children may also help control some autism symptoms.
The groundbreaking study by Brittany Pequegnat and Guelph chemistry professor Mario Monteiro appears this month in the journal Vaccine.
They developed a carbohydrate-based vaccine against the gut bug Clostridium bolteae.
C. bolteae is known to play a role in gastrointestinal disorders, and it often shows up in higher numbers in the GI tracts of autistic children than in those of healthy kids.
More than 90 per cent of children with autism spectrum disorders suffer from chronic, severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Of those, about 75 per cent suffer from diarrhea, according to current literature.
“Little is known about the factors that predispose autistic children to C. bolteae,” said Monteiro. Although most infections are handled by some antibiotics, he said, a vaccine would improve current treatment.
“This is the first vaccine designed to control constipation and diarrhea caused by C. bolteae and perhaps control autism-related symptoms associated with this microbe,” he said.
Autism cases have increased almost sixfold over the past 20 years, and scientists don’t know why. Although many experts point to environmental factors, others have focused on the human gut.
Some researchers believe toxins and/or metabolites produced by gut bacteria, including C. bolteae, may be associated with symptoms and severity of autism, especially regressive autism.
There are some real red flags that stand out right away. First, the statement “Autism cases have increased almost sixfold over the past 20 years, and scientists don’t know why.” In fact, most scientists agree that the apparent rise in cases is simply due to greater awareness and broadening of diagnostic criteria.
Anyone who knows the first thing about autism will realize that it’s not a digestive disorder. Autism is primarily a social development disorder, which also has cognitive and general behavioral symptoms. It’s neurological, not gastric. The hypothesis that autism was caused by or exacerbated by gastric problems has been around for some time, but has never gained much favor in the mainstream scientific community. In part, because no known mechanism could account for how a change in gut flora would have such profound neurological effects, and in part because there is no real scientific data to show a causal link. Also, this seems to apply mostly to those with severe autism.
There is some truth that autistic children will have a high incidence of gastric problems, although a large percentage of children who are non-autistic will also suffer gastric discomfort at some point. The fact that severely autistic children tend to be more prone to some gastric issues has been the subject of research, and the conclusion has generally been that it is the behavior that causes these issues, rather than the other way around.
As constipation and feeding issues/food selectivity often have a behavioral etiology, data suggest that a neurobehavioral rather than a primary organic gastrointestinal etiology may account for the higher incidence of these gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism.
In other words, the fact that autistic children do not behave and eat in the same manner as non-autistic children is then most likely cause of differences in gut flora, rather than the other way around.
As such, this vaccine really does not treat or prevent any symptom associated with autism. What it does is possibly suppress one strain of bacteria that is known to cause gastric problems. These problems do not cause autism or the symptoms of autism. But, of course, gastric discomfort can certainly make a difficult child even more difficult.
Therefore, while it might be able to help some autistic children with gastric problems, it does not actually have much to do with autism itself.
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