Reports last week from California showed that autism rates are still on the rise. These statistics show many things.
First, they shoot a huge hole in the theory that autism is caused by a vaccine preservative that contains mercury, called thimerosal.
An alarming increase in the number of autism cases coincided in the 1990s with a much more aggressive vaccine schedule in the United States.
That, coupled with a handful of studies showing a possible connection between autism and thimerosal, left many certain that these injections caused the disorder.
But the preservative has been removed from most vaccines long enough ago that autism rates should have shown a major decline.
California tracks its autism rates more closely than other states. The news doesn't completely debunk the theory that there may be some connection to thimerosal among a portion of autism cases. But it doesn't appear that vaccines triggered the epidemic we know today as autism.
The numbers also show how little we know about what causes autism. The rates are growing too quickly for autism to be solely a genetic disease, although almost everyone agrees there is a genetic component to the cause.
The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control estimate one in 150 children are autistic. But these children are more than statistics. There's a broad range of severity under the autism spectrum, and it's critical that families with autistic children get support. That's why it was good to see Gov. Matt Blunt announce recently an earmark for $12.4 million in new autism funding statewide, including $480,000 locally.
As these children get older and more younger children are diagnosed, a huge burden will be placed on society to help take care of them. Autism is treatable. It is essential that young children are diagnosed and treated as early as possible -- before they reach school age. And many autistic teenagers and adults can learn how to handle themselves socially so they can live productive lives.