Although the latest study to deny the link between autism and thimerosal does not seek to explain possible causes for the overall increase in diagnosed autism cases across the country, many doctors believe the increase is due simply to heightened awareness of the disorder and improved methods of diagnosing children with autistic behaviors.
"Physicians know a lot more about autism and are much more aware of the wide spectrum of autistic disorders," said Dr. Robert Davis, director of the Center for Health Research Southeast at Kaiser Permanente and former director of the CDC's Immunization Safety Office. "Doctors today are much more likely to classify child or adolescents with minor characteristics of autism as being autistic, even though 20 years ago we might have labeled them differently -- as having a speaking disorder or even a retardation."
While many doctors continue to hope this study provides the final nail in the coffin for the link between autism and thimerosal, Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and chairman of the department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at George Washington University, believes the debate over this issue has already done damage to progress against the disorder.
"Unfortunately, this whole dialogue around vaccines and autism has been a distraction," Hotez says. "It's focused around an erroneous association between vaccines and autism, and it's sucked away resources from what we really need, which is more and better research into causes of autism and support for families."