chelation quackery around vaccination

By Alison Campbell 03/11/2010

You may be aware that November 1-6 is ‘Vaccine Awareness Week’ (a reminder from Darcy, over at SciBlogs, prompted my previous post.). Those who originally gave the week this label are actually strongly-antivaccines, so all the more reason for some science-based discussion around it as well :)

In one of our first-year labs we get students to compare the rates at which pancreatic lipase (a fat-digesting enzyme produced in the pancreas) breaks down fat in the presence and absence of calcium ions, Ca^2+. Calcium is a co-factor, needed to optimise the enzyme’s action. It’s normally present in pancreatic secretions, which are what we start from in the lab, so in order to look at the lipase’s action in the absence of Ca^2+, we have to remove the ions using dialysis and a chelating agent, EDTA.

Chelating agents are an important tool for doctors treating patients suffering from heavy-metal poisoning, as they bind to the metal ions and these chelator+ion complexes can then be removed, typically by excretion through the kidneys. This isn’t as straightforward as it might sound: some types of chelator bind may not bind strongly to their targets but are readily excreted, while others bind quite well but may just shift the metal ions from one part of the body to another. So using chelators is a skilled process used by people who really, really know what they’re doing.

Nonetheless, in the US – and elsewhere – many of those who are anti- vaccination because they a) wrongly believe childhood vaccines to cause autism and b) believe that this is due to mercury (Hg) in the vaccines, have seized on chelation as a ‘cure’. It would be nice to say that NZ was excluded from ‘elsewhere’ but I’m afraid this isn’t so. A quick search finds nzhealthnet providing in full US-based material that makes all sorts of claims about the supposed links between autism and exposure to mercury (ably debunked elsewhere, by Orac and Ben Goldacre among others), and actively promotes chelation as a ‘therapy’ for autistic children.

Discussing the use of chelation, in the context of a proposed ‘trial’ with autistic children was later withdrawn, Orac has commented that the

hypothesis is that autism is in fact a form of mercury poisoning is the basic hypothesis being tested here, with the corollary being that chelation can remove that excess mercury and alleviate the symptoms of autism. Neither the main hypothesis, nor its corollary is supported by compelling evidence. Indeed, it doesn’t even have biological plausibility going for it, as it in essence postulates that some sort of mercury exposure (from those evil vaccines, naturally) caused some sort of brain damage in infants that led to autism months to years later. Even if mercury in vaccines did cause damage leading to autism, that such damage could be reversed months or even several years later by chelation defies scientific plausibility based just on biology alone.

And he goes on to say:

But it’s more than just scientific plausibility. In any normal trial, especially on children, there has to be good preclinical evidence supporting the hypothesis. There should, for instance, be animal models showing that mercury exposure does indeed cause autistic symptoms and that chelation therapy alleviates those symptoms. There should be cell culture and animal models showing a plausible physiological mechanism. (Throwing a bunch of thimerosal on neurons in cell culture then noting that some of them die doesn’t count. I could do that with bleach, but that wouldn’t prove that bleach causes autism.) Absent strong animal data, there should be high quality observational data in humans that support the hypothesis; for example, compelling, strong, and consistent evidence that autistic children do have higher mercury exposures and higher mercury levels indicative of chronic mercury poisoning. There are no such data, and the usual data presented as “evidence” that mercury poisoning causes autism is of such poor quality that they don’t deserve to be called “data.” Most of all, however, the drug to be used, DMSA, is not risk-free.

Now, this rang alarm bells, because back on nzhealthnet their expert is claiming that DMSA is perfectly OK to use. In fact, an examination of DMSA used for lead toxicity in rats found it worked just fine in animals given a toxic dose of lead. But – a big but – a control group, not exposed to lead but treated with DMSA, suffered ‘lasting cognitive impairment’, & the study’s authors went on to conclude that treatment [with this chelating agent] should be strongly discouraged for children who do not have elevated tissue levels of Pb or other heavy metals. In the States EDTA has also been promoted as a chelator for purposes of removing mercury from children’s bodies. Unfortunately, as students learn in our first-year labs, EDTA is a strong chelator of calcium. Used wrongly (eg at high levels over short periods of time) it can cause blood & tissue Ca^2+ levels to drop very rapldly indeed. Calcium’s involved in muscle contractions (among other things), so a deficit of calcium can really mess up muscle action – including of that very important muscular organ, the heart…

So… there is no good evidence of a causal link between mercury in vaccines and development of autism. (And besides, childhood vaccines have been mercury-free since 2001 – with no decline in reported rates of autism.)

There is no good reason to expose children to chelation for supposed mercury ‘toxicity’, and good ethical reasons not to.

And – given that so many in the anti-vaccine movement seem to espouse ‘all-natural’ & eschew ‘artificial’ – I find it gobsmackingly hypocritical that they can also promote use of chemical ‘cures’ … (Not least, in the US again, the use of an industrial chelating agent as a ‘food supplement’…sold, I am saddened to see, by folk who also promote the dreadful MMS.)

0 Responses to “chelation quackery around vaccination”

  • Doh, I didn’t read your last sentence properly, Alison. Not surprising that it is indeed the same people peddling chelating agents AND bleach as treatments. Shall we hold a sweepstake on what the next “big” thing will be? Battery acid perhaps?

  • As I said, gobsmacking hypocrisy. I’m sure we could get takers for a sweepstake :) Did you get that CAM flowchart I forwarded? We could pick things from that!

  • I have it! The next big thing will be ….

    ….. colonic irrigation using household bleach!

  • “..childhood vaccines have been mercury free since 2001…”
    According to the IMAC website under “Topics of Special Interest” ( ” there is no Thimersol in routine schedule childhood vaccines given in New Zealand to to children.” However further down it also says that “Thimersol continues to used in many countries around the world.” I understand that the US is one of those countries. Even if I am mistaken its irrelevant really because in the in the US compensation has been paid in cases where vaccines had caused autism and autistic like symptoms. That makes chelation a side issue really. Follow this link –

    • I can’t see how it ‘makes chelation a side issue’ – people are actively promoting a ‘treatment’ that doesn’t do what they claim, where there is no evidence that the supposed mercury poisoning actually exists, and it’s a ‘treatment’ that has serious & potentially lethal side effects. How, exactly, is that a side issue?

      The US uses thimerosal in some adult vaccines but not in childhood vaccines (even for the flu vaccine a thimerosal-free version is available. So that is a side issue.

      The ‘link’ between vaccines and autism has not been proven in US courts – the ‘Vaccine Court’ requires a much lower standard of proof than the mainstream legal system does. As I recall, the majority (almost all?) of claims before its last sitting were rejected. (If we’re talking Hannah Poling, her condition was ruled to be due to a mitochondrial disorder.)

  • I’m sorry to say it appears the dreadful MMS will be promoted on tomorrow night’s ‘Close Up’ programme on TV1. I guess those who knowingly ingest industrial bleach are examples of natural selection in action, but it galls me that other people are making money from it!

  • mythbuster,

    Do they say who is presenting it? TV1’s coverage of the vitamin C and cancer work was OK. Peter Griffin wrote about it a little while back. Simon Mercep (ex-FairGo) did that one. If he’s doing it, perhaps it’ll be an expose? Let’s hope so. Thanks for the heads’ up.

  • ‘Closeup’ & Mark Sainsbury did a pretty good job, I thought – a fairly good job of showing what a total crock MMS is. I was a bit disappointed with Stewart Jessamine’s comments though; they sounded a bit toothless which is a pity. The guy selling the stuff here (his name’s slipped straight out of my memory) has already had one ‘stop advertising this stuff & making these claims for it’ notice & simply uses weasel words on his website to get around it (‘Medsafe says we’re not allowed to tell you that this stuff cures x y & z’).

  • I was a bit disappointed with Stewart Jessamine’s comments though

    He rambled weakly a little in his first response, but I think he did better the second (final) slot.

    I couldn’t follow the “undercover” videos.

    As you describe it, his website statements do sound like trying to advertise by inverting the statement.

  • I’ve only just seen it – thanks to the school choir festival being on tonight – and I think it was pretty damn good. You’d have to be an utter loon to try MMS after seeing that.

    If Stuart Jessamine is right, and prosecution is possible, why stop at MMS? Homeopaths, kinesiologists, chiropaths and all those other snake oil salespeople should be in the firing line too. After all, they offer false hope, – making claims that are ridiculous and more often than not, just downright lies.

    I’d often thought we should pop in and explore the Ngatea Water Gardens but we won’t be going near the place now!

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