A 5-year-old British autistic boy has died after undergoing a controversial form of alternative therapy.
His death has raised questions about whether a medical treatment, aimed at cleaning the body of heavy metals, should be used to treat the neurological and developmental disorder.
Officials are as yet unsure what killed Abubakar Tariq Nadama, but authorities have begun an investigation into his death.
Abubakar Nadama, 5, who lived in Batheaston, Somerset, went into cardiac arrest and died Tuesday after receiving his third chelation therapy treatment at a suburban medical clinic in Pennsylvania.
Because the condition raises more questions than answers, parents are all too often desperate to help their children and are willing to try anything.
During chelation, chemicals are administered under the skin or orally.
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 (ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid) is given to patients.
It is unclear exactly how many people undergo the treatment.
Apparently Abubakar underwent three rounds of chelation therapy at the Advanced Integrative Medicine Centre in Pittsburgh, when according to Deputy Coroner Larry Barrat, his heart stopped.
Staff at the centre were unable to resuscitate him.
More tests will be carried out in order to determine the precise cause of his death.
Marwa Nadama, the boy’s mother, said that she did not hold the therapy responsible for her son’s death.
It seems Rufai Nadama, the boy’s father, works at the Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust as a specialist registrar in respiratory medicine.
He remained at work in Britain while his son, wife and 11-year-old daughter moved to the U.S. so that Abubakar could receive the treatment.
He has flown to America to be with his family.
It appears that Abubakar’s parents were determined to do anything they could to improve their boy’s condition.
Carers visited the family in Batheaston three times a day and his diet was strictly controlled in an attempt to reduce the severity of his autism.
It is believed by some that autism can be linked to a mercury-containing preservative that was once commonly used in childhood vaccines.
Chelation therapy involves injections of ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid, a synthetic amino acid which acts by sticking to heavy metals that are then flushed out of the body in the urine.
Although the US Food and Drug Administration has approved chelation only for acute heavy-metal poisoning that has been confirmed by blood tests, the treatment has been available in the U.S. for several decades.
If Abubakar’s death is deemed to have been directly caused by chelation therapy it will be the first such fatality since the 1950s.
Many critics maintain that there is too little evidence to link autism to mercury or lead toxicity.
Howard Carpenter, the executive director of the Advisory Board on Autism-Related Disorders, said that it was just a matter of time before there would be a death linked to the therapy.
Autism, a neurological disorder in which sufferers have difficulty in communicating, socialising and empathising, has no known cure, at least according to mainstream medical opinion.
The first signs of the condition can become apparent within a few months of birth, but is more usually diagnosed when a child is three or four.
In Britain the condition was tentatively linked with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) in the 1990s, causing widespread concern among parents.
The research that prompted the link has since been discounted and a succession of large-scale research projects has failed to establish a link between MMR and autism.
Nevertheless, some parents remain concerned enough that they refuse to allow their children the MMR vaccine, which has in turn caused an increase in measles outbreaks.
A post-mortem examination on Abubakar proved inconclusive yesterday and it could be several months before investigations into the cause of his death are completed.
Gary Swanson, a child psychiatrist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsbugh, who works with autism patients, says he cannot endorse the treatment as viable, as there has not been nothing published regarding it in peer review journals and studies.
Unofficial estimates suggest that in 2000 only a dozen autistic children were treated with chelation therapy but that the figure has now risen to 10,000.