CDC launches study to find causes of autism 

Atlanta to be included in five-year project

It's scary when one out of every 166 children is diagnosed with autism and no one really knows what causes the disorder. But that might change soon.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced it will fund the largest study to date to explore the cause of autism. The five-year undertaking will track approximately 2,700 children ages 2 to 5 in six parts of the country, including Atlanta, to hone in on the factors that may contribute to the disorder.

"The study will give us a much better understanding of the characteristics and prevalence of autism," says Diana Schendel, the CDC lead scientist on the study. "And that could help us prevent it in the future."

Autism impairs a person's ability to interact and communicate effectively. Individuals with the disorder often appear to be in their own world or exhibit bizarre behaviors.

So far, scientists have only surmised that autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some parents and health advocates believe the chief suspect is thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury that was once used in most vaccines. However, recent studies have discounted that possibility, leaving officials at a loss to explain how autism develops in children.

"These vaccines aren't preventions," one protester remarked, "they're poison."

The study won't determine if mercury is a factor, though, because the children are too young; thimerosal was phased out from most vaccines by 2001. Schendel says the age group was capped at 5 because young children will have the most recent medical records and their parents will recall memories better.

To sift through factors of autism, researchers will conduct interviews, review medical records and collect blood and hair samples. Scientists hope to get started by early spring.

Heidi Fernandez, a Woodstock resident who has an autistic son, says she hopes the study helps curb the growing autistic population.

"Any time we educate the community about autism it helps future families and children," she says. "Finally autism is getting the attention that it needs."

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