Government researchers are pushing to test a controversial treatment on autistic children. We talked to two pediatricians about it, plus a mom who is trying it with her 8-year-old daughter.
Dismissed by some scientists as "voodoo medicine," a proposed chelation therapy study is sparking debate in the autism community, with doctors and moms eager for a cure on one side and concerned researchers on the other. This treatment uses a variety of drugs to remove metals from the body, and while many moms are currently using the treatments, there have been several lawsuits and at least one chelation-related death. Side effects for one chelation drug can include rashes and even the possibility of dumping the metals into a child's central nervous system.
Pediatrician and mom Dr. Cara Natterson weighs in: "Because there is no consensus on the underlying cause of autism, there is no way to target a medical treatment. There is no obvious pill or liquid to try because the biology of autism continues to be a mystery. A parent's desire to attempt "everything possible" is completely understandable, but at this stage in the game throwing a medication at autism is like throwing a dart in the dark. Yes, there have been anecdotal reports of improvement with chelation therapy, but there have also been reported dangers, including death.
Doctors take an oath to "First do no harm." In the case of chelation therapy, it is not entirely clear that offering it doesn't cause known harm. As a result, parents of autistic children are left struggling with a medical dilemma familiar to cancer patients and others with illnesses whose treatment is currently evolving: how aggressive can I be in attacking a disease without causing more harm than good? In the case of autism, no one--not doctors, not parents--knows the answer to this yet."
Said pediatrician Dr. Gwenn: "This makes me nervous. Chelation therapy removes heavy metals and is not benign. This is how we treat lead poisoning, for example. The medications are intense and almost always cause some sort of side effect.
This is a case of grasping at thin air and attempting to push the issue of mercury causing autism, despite current studies supporting the opposite. Keep in mind that the most recent study we have of vaccines in infants proves that any elements like thimerosal do not stay in the infants long enough to cause any harm.
In addition to the risk vs. benefit analysis, there is cost to consider -- and it would be considerable. So, under the "do no harm" charge of caring for kids, this falls under "causing harm." I can't justify using chelation for autism given what we know today."
"It seems to be helping and working. We've done four or five sessions over the last year. Every two and half months we give our daughter this supplement in powder form, and we hide it in something sweet like a marshmallow. The supplement stirs up the heavy metals in her system. Then we give her these minerals that bind to the metals so that she can excrete them.
This treatment is followed by a blood draw at a local hospital so that we can monitor how her body responds to it. It tests what metals are being pulled out, and monitors her organ function because it's possible that as these metals are being stirred up that it will affect her kidney and her liver. We have to safely pull out the metals without hurting her. The blood draw can be traumatic every time because she doesn't understand why it has to happen or why it's going on.
"It's very experimental still, but in our experience it's helped, though I have heard a few horror stories from a while back. It's important to have a doctor who knows about it and is willing to help you through it, and to know other families who are also doing it."
Do you think the chelation therapy study should be approved?