Why Vaccinate?

Despite persistent rumors, it’s a well-documented fact that childhood vaccines do not cause the onset of autism. (A 1998 study that suggested otherwise has since been debunked.) But many new parents remain concerned about a possible link – so pediatricians are making an effort to get the word out about the positive effects of vaccination.

“It’s the devil you don’t know” that can be the most dangerous, says Durham-Orange County Medical Society president Dr. Kunal Mitra of Burlington Pediatrics. Mitra says parents often fail to recognize the danger of not vaccinating their children – because vaccinations have been so prevalent for so long, we’ve forgotten the horrors of the diseases (like polio) that they prevent.

Vaccines do come with possible side effects, and for some kids they’re not an option – but Dr. Mitra says that’s all the more reason everyone else should make it a point to vaccinate. Doing so helps develop what doctors call “herd immunity”: the more people are vaccinated against a disease, the less of a chance there is of an outbreak, and that lowers the risk for unvaccinated kids too.

Kunal Mitra spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


Dr. Mitra says he’s always willing to talk with parents who are unsure about vaccination or have questions. Ultimately, though, he says if a parent does decide not to vaccinate their kids, he generally refers them to some other doctor.


UNC TEACCH Continues to Lead in Helping Autism Patients, and Their Families

April is Autism Awareness Month.

UNC’s TEACCH Autism program, now in its 43rd year, continues to be a leader in providing information, training, clinics, housing, and research to help families living with autism.

“We work with people with autism across the entire life span,” said Turner-Brown. “So we see kids as young as toddlers, and all the way through adulthood.”

Lauren Turner-Brown is the assistant director of UNC TEACCH Autism. Based at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC TEACCH has seven outpatient clinics throughout the state.

“In each of those clinics, we provide a range of services for families,” said Turner-Brown, “including diagnostic evaluations, therapy, support groups, consulting with schools and teachers – kind of a wide range of things.”

Residential services are provided at a group home in Pittsboro for adults, where residents participate in farm work.

“And then we have a Supported Employment program in the Triangle and Triad,” said Turner-Brown,” and we work with adults with autism who need a little bit of help to stay employed.”

UNC TEACCH trains educators locally, nationally, and internationally.

The organization is also involved in various research projects. Those include determining the best early intervention strategies for parents of recently diagnosed children; and assessing adult outcomes.

Turner-Brown said that reactions from parents of newly diagnosed children run the full range of emotions. Some parents are almost relieved – for lack of a better word – that the diagnosis confirms what they already suspect.

Others have a harder time accepting the diagnosis.

“We can kind of liken it to the grief people feel when they lose someone,” said Turner-Brown, “because parents have these ideas of who their child’s going to be, and who their child may grow up to be. And they kind of have to shift that, because this diagnosis does last a lifetime.”

Turner-Brown also mentioned the Autism Society of North Carolina, which facilitates parent-to-parent support.

“It’s great to hear what professional have to say,” said Turner-Brown, “but when you hear another parent say, ‘Well, I’ve been here, what you’re saying sounds like what I went through, and this is what helped me’ – it can go a really long way.”

For example: Advice from peers can provide parents with a guide for finding the best professional services for a child with autism, from dental work to just getting a haircut.

Back in the late 1990s, one in 10,000 kids was born with autism. Now, it’s one in 68.

It’s a staggering statistic. Turner-Brown said that autism is more broadly recognized than in the past.

“Some of that increase comes from better diagnostic practice,” said Turner-Brown. “We know what we’re seeing when we look at it, and we’re more aware of autism. But that’s only a small piece of it. And we’re also diagnosing more mildly impaired people as being on the autism spectrum than we used to.”

That’s only a small part of it, though. Research is ongoing, regarding possible environmental factors, including pesticides and air pollution.

Genetic issues are also acknowledged as a factor, but that still doesn’t provide a full explanation.

If you’d like to donate to the TEACCH Autism program, you can click here.


‘Autism Speaks’ Pushes NCGA to Pass Health Insurance Law

Representatives of a nationwide autism organization are lobbying the North Carolina Senate for health insurance that covers autism treatments.

And one of those advocates tells WCHL they’re not leaving Raleigh until an autism insurance bill gets passed into law.

“What I can tell you is that we’re an army of people down here, including families,” said Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks, a national organization that advocates for people with autism and their families.

“There are more than 60,000 families here in North Carolina right now who are waiting for autism insurance coverage.”

Feld said that for the past two years, people from the organization have been “on the ground” in North Carolina, lobbying the General Assembly to pass a law that would require private insurance companies to provide coverage for autism therapies, including Applied Behavioral Analysis.

Thirty-seven states plus the District of Columbia have enacted autism insurance laws, and Autism Speaks aims to make North Carolina one of them by the end of this summer’s contentious short session of the legislature.

Such a provision already passed through the N.C. House of representatives in May of last year. Now it’s up to the State Senate, which is currently sparring with the House over the budget.

Feld said she’s hopeful it will get done.

“We know we have the support of the broader body, and we’ve been speaking to every single senator,” said Feld. “So what we need now is for the leadership to move along. And they’re obviously focused on their budget right now, and it’s just part of regulatory reform. So, we’re hopeful that they’re going to get this done sometime within the next 10 days, or certainly before they go home for the summer.”

Feld notes that providing support for families with autism is a rare bipartisan issue these days, and here in North Carolina, her organization hails Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis as a “champion” for the issue of autism insurance.

One reason for the bopartisanship, she said, is that people on both ends of the political spectrum realize the long-term savings accrued by providing autism treatments to kids as young as age 2, which is when children can be diagnosed.

She points to a Harvard study from a few years ago, which concluded that taxpayers spend about $3.2 million per child with autism over a lifetime.

And it’s likely to remain that way, said Feld, in states where children with autism are more likely to fall way behind in school.

“You know who’s picking up the tab for this?” she said. “The schools. Property tax payers. Ultimately, it’s going to be the government. These states are sitting on a ticking time bomb of cost.”


UNC Researchers Find Possible Cause For Autism

CHAPEL HILL – Researchers at the University Of North Carolina School Of Medicine have discovered a possible cause of autism.

A key group of enzymes, called topoisomerases, can have profound effect on the genetic factors behind brain development.  Associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, Mark Zylka, says that these enzymes work to help keep DNA normal during developing times in a child’s life.

“These are enzymes that are called topoismerases, we like to think of them as the scissors and glue for DNA,” Zylka said “so DNA is a molecule that often gets tangled up inside of cells, and to relieve these tangles, these enzymes can cut the DNA, untangle it, and glue it back together.”

When topoisomerase inhibitors are present it may limit what genes are “untangled.”  Zylka said that he found when these inhibitors are present long genes and genes related to autism are the most affected.

“So what we found was that these enzymes seem to play a very important role in neurons in the brain, these are brain cells, and in particular these enzymes seem to be important for allowing genes that are very long to be expressed, and in particular a large number of genes that have been linked to autism spectrum disorders” Zylka said.

These inhibitors that affect the enzyme topoisomerases are known to exist in chemo-therapeutic drugs and have been around for over 40 years.  It was while studying these drugs that Zylka first began to study the effect the inhibitors would have on neurons.  Zylka says they noticed that the drugs had effects on long genes, and that autism genes are also very long.

“So that’s when we sort of put two and two together and realized that inhibiting these enzymes could have a profound effect brain development” Zylka stated.

Discovering these enzyme inhibitors can lead to new discoveries for autism and diagnosing what exactly is happening.  Zylka says that he thinks studying these inhibitors can help us identify what in nature may have inhibitors like these that could cause autism.

“We found that if you inhibit these enzymes, the expression of a lot of very long genes is impaired and so a lot of these genes are autism genes,” Zylka said “and so we think this could be used as a way to diagnose or to identify other factors or chemicals in the environment with similar effects.”

Currently the known inhibitors that Zylka is studying are in Chemo-therapeutic drugs and would only affect cancer patients that are going through Chemo-therapy.


Studies On Diabetes and Autism; OWASA Fixes Pipe

CHAPEL HILL – A study by the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC found that diets rich in amino and omega-3 fatty acids help young people with Type One diabetes. It helps them continue producing insulin for up to two years after their diagnosis.

Researchers specifically looked at leucine, an amino acid found in soy and whole wheat products, as well as nuts, eggs and some meat and dairy. While the diabetics in the study still required insulin doses, researchers said this study points to a reduced risk of diabetes complications later in life.


Researchers at UNC found that preschoolers and preschool-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder saw improvements from high-quality early intervention treatment, regardless of treatment model.

The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute study looked at the various treatment models for children with ASD and found that, as long as it was a comprehensive early program, children improved at largely equal levels.

The study involved 198 three-to-five year old children in public school districts across the country.


OWASA crews replaced a broken water pipe Tuesday on Old Forest Creek Drive.

Part of the road was closed as the repairs went from 3:00 to 10:30 a.m.

The number of customers who were left without water during the repairs was four, according to OWASA.


UNC Researchers Tackle Autism–And Stereotypes

CHAPEL HILL – UNC is doing its part in a global study on a potential new treatment for autism.

UNC ASPIRE Program clinical research manager Cheryl Alderman says the study will look at how an experimental drug known as memantine affects the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders—and researchers have already begun enrolling patients.

“The first part of the study, they’ll receive open-label medication,” she says, “(and) if they have a positive response or no response, they’ll be randomized into a separate study where they may get active medication or a placebo…(then) if the participant does not do well, they can go straight back into an open-label phase.”

UNC’s ASPIRE program, which is orchestrating the university’s involvement in the project, is dedicated to doing research on children and adolescents who are suspected to have an autism-related disorder. The study will take place at more than 80 worldwide sites; UNC-Chapel Hill is the only one in North Carolina.

Alderman says autism-related disorders fall on a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity.

“The symptoms that are common to most autism spectrum disorders are deficits in social interaction, deficits in language and communication, (and) repetitive behaviors and restrictive interests,” she says. “The severity of the deficits in those three core areas help determine (the) specific diagnosis.”

Autism spectrum disorders have received increased media attention over the past month, after some reports suggested that the gunman in the Sandy Hook tragedy might have been suffering from one—but Alderman says no evidence exists to link autism spectrum disorders to violent behavior.

“Just because someone has a mental health diagnosis, (that) does not make them more prone to violence,” she says. “It might make them more prone to certain types of behaviors, but just because someone has an autism-spectrum diagnosis, (that) does not automatically assume that they’re going to be violent or have the capacity to do that.”

And licensed psychologist Dr. Barbara Low-Greenlee says while school shooters and autism patients might share certain characteristics, violent tendencies isn’t necessarily among them.

“One of the characteristics of school shooters can be poor social skills,” she says, “but when you really look through the predictors, the truth is there are many people with many predictors that will never be a school shooter…

“Autism truly has nothing to do with a propensity towards being a school shooter.”

Researchers will be enrolling patients in the study until March. The first phase is expected to run for about 48 weeks.