Autism and Vaccines? Try French Fries

In the last decades, the anti-vaccination crowd has, in some parts of the country, succeeded in driving up rates of whooping cough, rubella, and other potentially fatal diseases after universal vaccination had all but wiped them out. Their arguments first gained traction after a single study claimed to show a link between vaccination and autism. This study was soon exposed as a hoax perpetrated under contract to a company hoping to sell its own vaccines, but the crazy horse was out of the barn. A long list of rationalizations have since been added to the anti-vaccination docket, most dreamed up by hucksters hoping to sell books to the desperate. All are false, and most are covered here: http://antiantivax.flurf.net/.

Ultimately, though, the anti-vaccination movement is primarily driven by parents of autistic children who feel understandably frustrated and powerless, and who are easy prey for their own little branch of the pseudo-science industry. These folks want to have a definite cause that they can point to. They don’t understand the science, but they can easily understand the coincidence that autism has been on the up tick over the last forty years that vaccination rates have also been increasing. When two things change at the same time, the one must cause the other, right?

Wrong.

Previous studies have uncovered genetic factors that appear to explain 15% of autism cases, and exhaustively refuted any link to vaccination. Now, the largest autism study ever done has pointed the causal blame directly at something else that has been growing for the last forty years—fast food consumption. Autism, it turns out, is strongly linked to folic acid deficiency before and during pregancy. This is hardly surprising. We have known for a couple of decades that folate deficiency can cause spina-bifida and increase the risk for a host of neurological developmental disorders.

More work will have to be done, but unlike the vaccination link, which was never more than grasping at straws, this link makes clear cultural and biological sense. Previous studies have found that the reason American blacks became less healthy even as their incomes rose is that they started eating more steak and potatoes and less beans and other vegetables. In my lifetime, eating out has—for millions—gradually gone from an occasional luxury to a daily routine. Pizza and coke have gone from party foods to lunch and dinner on a regular basis.

The study appears in the current issue of JAMA. I have only read summaries, so I cannot attest to the validity of the experimental method. The findings, though, are sensible and compelling. They found, for example, that nutritional improvement during pregnancy made little difference, while serum levels of folic acid at the time of conception accounted for a 40% swing in incidence. This is to be expected if autism results from subtle, but early, developmental problems.

So, for those who have autistic children, relax. You didn’t know. This isn’t your fault and is only part of the story. But for the love of reason, go out and get your child vaccinated before she catches something you actually could have prevented—or before you contribute to a resurgence in polio, and threaten all those around you.

And for everyone else, stop making dietary decisions based on what is easiest for an unsupervised staff of teenagers to prepare. Eat a real, human diet rich in all kinds of vegetables and light on meat, pasta, bread, and processed baked goods of all kinds. The life you save me be your own.

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