WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – An American scientist whose research replicates a connection published in England in 2002 between the measles virus and bowel disease in autistic children strongly warns against making the “leap” to suggesting that the measles vaccine might actually cause autism.
“That is not what our research is showing,” said Stephen J. Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Walker and colleagues have issued an abstract to be presented at this week’s International Meeting for Autism Research, indicating that a high percentage of autistic children that they have tested with chronic bowel disease show evidence of measles virus in their intestines.
Some observers have said that the presence of the measles virus indicates a strong possibility that the measles vaccine, a possible source of the virus, could have caused the children’s autism. That possible connection has caused a major controversy in the United Kingdom, where the connection was first made in 2002. The vaccine is first given as part of a triple vaccine called MMR – for measles, mumps and rubella – at ages 12-18 months. That is shortly before a particular type of autism (regressive) begins to appear in children afflicted with the condition, which has fueled the speculation about a connection.
Walker says the new research does not support the connection, and he notes that the results have not even been published in a peer-reviewed journal. “Even if we showed association (between measles virus and bowel disease) and we published it in a peer-reviewed journal, the conclusion will be simply that there is measles virus in the gut of a large number of children who have regressive autism and bowel disease. End of story.
“We haven’t done anything to demonstrate that the measles virus is causing autism or even causing bowel disease.”
Walker explains that exploring the causes of chronic bowel disease in autistic children is the major impetus for his research. “There are lots of viruses in the gut, and any one of them could be causing inflammation. If it truly is from a vaccine and this virus causes inflammation and a chronic bowel condition in some susceptible children, then that’s something that needs to be known.”
The main task at hand, Walker said, is to determine what is causing the bowel condition in the autistic children, a condition that has a direct influence on cognitive and behavioral issues associated with autism.
A high percentage of autistic children have chronic bowel disease, a discovery in the late 1990s that eventually led to the measles virus connection.
“If anybody has severe GI problems, it causes problems with focus, it causes problems with everything. You can’t do anything until you get that resolved. We’ve all experienced that.
“These kids experience it hour after hour every single day of their lives. Many of them are non-verbal so they can’t tell anybody what the problem is, and the behavior that they exhibit as a result of a severe stomach ache was once attributed to just being autistic and having weird behaviors – for example, leaning over the sharp edge of a coffee table for hours at a time. That seems weird, but what they’re doing is relieving pressure on their lower abdomen.”
Walker said that relieving the bowel discomfort has been shown to improve other conditions associated with autism, such as cognition and the ability to learn. “There’s case after case where kids improved cognitively, behaviorally and biomedically when you treat the bowel disease. There is a great improvement from better nutrition alone. You see improvements in their overall condition.”
Walker said he will continue to look for possible causes, the biological mechanism, and new treatments of the bowel condition. “That’s the goal for me: understanding the biology of what’s causing the disease and then gaining insight into the most effective way to treat it, so that clinicians will not have to go through a trial and error approach.”
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.