One of the worst things I see on the internet, as both a parent of children on the spectrum and as scientifically-based, rational person who works hard to instruct my students in critical thinking skills and being able to detect pseudoscience, is the woo that abounds relating to alternative autism treatments.
The charlatans and snake oil salesmen abound, and one of these individuals, who promises to cure your child of his autism is a chiropractor named Chun Wong who really, really likes the woo. His latest article on his site, dated May 10, is about helminthic therapy for autism, or as I've decided to call it, Wong's wormy wormy woo.
Wong loves to say there are studies, blah blah: "For example, it has been shown that some Autism symptoms are the result of malfunctioning immune system. Studies are also suggesting that removing helminths from the body is the start to obtaining a malfunctioning immune system. There have also been cases reported in which Autism symptoms decrease significantly when the child is sick or with a fever." What the heck does that have to do with worms, Wong?
Even Mercola is not inclined to deal with the worms: "Treating MS Without Toxic Drugs, or Parasites."
Of course, his idea of treating MS is to check your vitamin D, take omega-3, ALA, progesterone, go dairy free, some other woo and, I kid you the frak not: "Resolve past emotional traumas -- Probably the single most important resource for improving MS is finding a solution for the previous emotional traumas in your life. In my experience nearly every MS patient has some unresolved emotional trigger that caused their immune system to become impaired, eventually progressing to MS. Clearly, issues related to this event need to be addressed to resolve the disease."
It's not just Wong pushing hookworms for autism, though. The New York Metro Chapter of the National Autism Association appears to be, as well: "What we learned is that TSO was available first. It is the Pig whipworm. The way it's administered is that the ova come in a glass jar with saline. This parasite is microscopic so it is not visible to the naked eye and the solution has no taste. As a mom who just started this therapy only weeks ago, I have to say it is up there with one of the easiest things to administer that I have tried." And, hey, if you decide it's not for you, no biggie, you can give your kid the meds to kill the worms. No big whup. Easy to do. Give your kid worms because you're so woo-driven you can't see your head from a hole in the ground.
The mom writing the piece admits: "I have to admit I did feel a little bit like a crazy person when I did it and when I first gave it to my little guy. However on day 3 when I saw a significant cognitive improvements it was difficult to feel that I was doing anything but really trying to help my son." Ya think?
This guy wants to give helminth to babies: "What I propose instead is that these benign organisms once identified be given to children as part of their well baby care and beyond as a prophylactic measure." Just as bad, he justifies his high prices: "Before I get into it let me remind everyone that it is our objective to
popularise this therapy to that it becomes widely available, and in so doing to drive down the price. The only way to accomplish what we want requires a strong and dedicated company focused on nothing else. That in turn requires people work on it full time, the only way we can pay for that is to charge prices which will allow it. Michelle and I do not own a car, or a house, we have no savings or insurance, all our possessions fit in two back packs. We own and have next to nothing. No one here is even comfortably well off. So if you are pissed off about what we charge console yourself with the knowledge that we are broke." This last bit is from a really long, really defensive post. No doubt it will convince his devoted followers to keep ponying up the bucks.
And they are big bucks, but that's okay, because "No one knows as much as we do about the use of human helminths outside the research centers. If you proceed with therapy you will find that we follow up with clients constantly. This focus on you helps us to tailor therapy to the person and to continuously refine our approach. For instance, if we find you are an exception to a rule, your therapy will be adjusted without additional charge. If additional doses are required for you to see the results you want additional doses are yours for the asking and the cost of shipping."
How much will it set you back? According to the website, a cool $2900 to $3900 bucks. Holy pig! And yet the AoAers are having a frikking conniption over the porcine virus DNA snips in the rotavirus vaccine. But, I betcha they'd be all in favor of this treatment.
It's not clear, though, whether they can legally do this. On another Woo Worm site, I found this: "The FDA has ruled that intestinal worms used to regulate the immune system are a drug. Any drug that has not passed the FDA's review process is an experimental and therefore illegal drug in the United States. The FDA allows, via the personal import policy, for patients in which there is no comparable therapy to import a drug started under the direction of a physician in a foreign country for personal use. It should be noted that the FDA reserves the right to change this policy at any time. The personal import policy is not a right or law but rather an enforcement reprioritization. Should they change their mind they can do so without notice."
The interesting thing, upon further digging, is that the guy charging the fortune for worms, has had to leave the country leaving his kids behind: "We have largely come to terms emotionally with the trauma of having to leave our home in the US. It is hard still of course, and always will be. But it is no longer oppressive or a crisis, we have settled into something approaching a routine." Later he writes, "We have come to a consensus on how to proceed with Autoimmune Therapies, and we made some good decisions early on about some changes to our business model and to how we produce doses. In some ways the FDA decision to classify helminths as a drug have been good for us. It lit a fire under us and has also resulted in much more media attention."
This guy may beat Wakefield for having a martyr complex: "To have one’s life turned upside down for making sick people well,, sick people mainstream medicine has nothing as effective, safe or cheap to offer, is infuriating." Oh, poor, pitiful martyr.
Moving on, Autism TSO writes a bunch of nonsense about autism and autoimmune, blah blah, before offering this nugget: "Helminth worms, in particular the porcine whipworm (Trichuris Suis), have been studied as a potential treatment for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis." Of course, since the woo-meisters love to push gastrointestinal issues as the causative factor in autism (thank you Wakefield), their conclusion: "In summary, there is evidence to suggest a possible causal relationship between increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines and symptoms of aggression and agitation in autism. New immunomodulatory treatments for other autoimmune disorders should be investigated as possible treatments for these symptoms. The recent extremely promising results from the use of TSO in the treatment of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis warrant examination as a potential treatment for symptoms of agitation and aggression in individuals with autism."
The Autism TSO site, of course, links you to a site where you can get some pig worms. Can't ship them here, though.
Here's another site pushing TSO for autism, with one case study as proof. It, of course, links you to the Ovamed site linked in the paragraph above. Hey, you can always take your kid to Thailand, if you're not fond of Mexico.
Again, I really have to ask: will AoA leap to the idea of pig worms as a cure all while lambasting the porcine virus DNA in the rotavirus vaccines? Will they give their children worms, worms that can have seriously deleterious effects?
Real science on helminth infections:
"However, recent studies have provided evidence indicating the exacerbating effects of helminths on bacterial as well as non-infectious colitis in animal models" (Wang, Cao, Shi, 2008). In other words, maybe (maybe) it is helpful in Crohn's for poorly understood reasons, but it sure as hell can make things a lot worse:
"Most helminth infections, if left untreated, result in multi-year, chronic inflammatory disorders that will eventually cause disability. The chronic, disabling and disfiguring consequences of helminth infections, together with their high prevalence, make them a global problem of significant medical, educational, and economic impact" (Wang, Cao, Shi, 2008).
"Protective immunity to helminths depends on T lymphocytes. It is now well established that the CD4+ subset of T cells plays a major role in the generation of the host protective response that expels the worms, and that CD4+ T cells regulate many of the inflammatory and immune parameters that accompany expulsion of the parasites from the gut" (Wang, Cao, Shi, 2008).
"The major importance of helminth infections includes not only the direct pathogenic effect of the worms as described above, but also the modulation of the host immune system, which may alter the response to other pathogens and antigens and cause additional immunopathology" (Wang, Cao, Shi, 2008). Again, screw things up worse.
But, hey they're your kids, and it's so terrible, and you can always give the kids pills to kill the pig worms if it doesn't work out, so what's the big deal with going to Mexico to infest your kids with worms and pissing thousands of dollars down the drain?
What I see when I look out there on the internet, when it comes to not just autism treatments, but treatments for all host of diseases and illnesses, is an abundance of woo. Woo is a highly profitable industry. And yet the folks at AoA decry big Pharma.
Addendum: Thanks to a friend looking into this (and for passing along the catalyst for this article in the first place), here's a new study comparing rates of helminth infections in the general population to a sample of intellectually disabled children in Norther Iran. If the hypothesis that those using helminthic infection to "treat" autism is that there an absence of these parasites causing the intestinal issues which somehow manifest as autism, then the finding that there is no difference between the general population and the ID population studied would suggest that there is no reason to conclude that helminth infections or lack thereof contribute to cognitive impairment. I don't know why the wackaloons I found once I started looking past Wong thought it would, but there you go... hmmm.