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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Autistic boy's death raises questions about medical treatment

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - The death of a 5-year-old autistic boy undergoing chelation therapy has raised questions about whether the medical treatment aimed at cleaning the body of heavy metals should be used to treat autism.

Officials said they don't know for sure what killed Abubakar Tariq Nadama, who went into cardiac arrest and died Tuesday after receiving his third treatment at a suburban medical clinic. Chelation, pronounced key-LAY-tion, is often used in patients with sickle cell anemia, lead poisoning or other maladies and its use dates to the 1940s.

And while some medical experts say the treatment isn't scientifically proven to help autistics, many parents of sick children say it's simply another tool they can use to combat symptoms of the puzzling disease. Autism is a developmental disability that affects a child's social interaction and communication and there is no cure; some people believe the disease is caused by mercury found in vaccines.

"If I were a parent considering it, I would probably stop considering it. There is no clear evidence that you can make kids better with this," said Dr. Gervasio A. Lamas, a cardiologist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center-Miami Heart Institute.

Because there are more questions than answers about autism, parents often desperate to help their children are willing to try anything, said Lamas, who is leading a $30 million government-funded study into chelation therapy and heart disease.

Geoffrey Dubrowsky, of Brick, N.J., said his 10-year-old autistic son, Daniel, has been sleeping better and responding more to learning since starting chelation.

"These are caring parents doing whatever they can to help their child," Dubrowsky said. "We're desperate because there are no answers and the government is not willing to put up any answers."

During chelation, different chemicals are administered under the skin or orally to patients. The chemicals bind to heavy metals in the body, and patients then excrete the chemicals through urine.

One of the most common uses for chelation is lead poisoning, in which a synthetic chemical called EDTA is given to patients. It's unclear exactly how many people undergo the treatment.

"There are thousands of patients getting chelation at home at night in many parts of the world. And it's generally considered quite safe," said Dr. Lakshmanan Krishnamurti, a pediatric hematologist and director of the Sickle Cell Program at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

In 2001, the San Diego-based Autism Research Institute issued a position paper saying that 73 percent of more than 23,000 parents surveyed reported that mercury detoxification helped their children.

Lamas said the therapy does come with risks, including causing kidney damage and in some cases heart problems.

Nadama, who lived in Monroeville, was undergoing the therapy at the Advanced Integrative Medicine Center in Portersville, about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Neither the boy's doctor nor a representative from the center returned a call for comment Thursday.

State police were investigating the boy's death.

Dr. Cynthia Johnson, director of the Autism Center at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said autistic children often undergo a variety of therapies so it's difficult to pinpoint what's working and what isn't.

"I tell families frankly that I don't see (chelation) as benign and it's really very scary to me," Johnson said.

But Dubrowsky, who works with a group called Parents of Autistic Children, cautions people not to jump to conclusions and blame the therapy for Nadama's death. Dubrowsky said his son was developing normally until he received six immunizations at age 2.

"Until the government gives me another option or tells me what happened (to my child), then I'm going to try what I can," Dubrowsky said.

Posted by Becca

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