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Getting the facts straight on autism
Sitting in his new office, crammed with books and cluttered with a couple of unpacked boxes, Eric Fombonne still seems a little surprised as he recalls the unexpected path that's brought him to McGill.
Just last spring, the 47-year-old was quite content working as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in London, where he'd developed an international reputation for his research into autism and depression. A native of France, Fombonne had happily crossed the English Channel in 1993, to join London's Maudsley Hospital as well as the famed Institute of Child Psychiatry. England had called, he explains, "since it's the cradle of child psychiatry and is at the forefront of research."
So when he attended a child psychiatry conference in Barcelona this past spring, the last thing he expected was to be recruited by McGill. While Fombonne didn't entertain an initial job offer, he did accept an invitation to visit the University.
Because he was scheduled to give a conference at Montreal's Ste-Justine Hospital during the same period, Fombonne figured he might as well see what McGill had to offer. "Although, I had no intention whatsoever of leaving London at that moment," he says.
After touring the University and meeting several McGill researchers and administrators, Fombonne changed his mind. "I was intrigued by McGill," he says. "It's a University with many strengths, where scientific research is a priority. That seduced me, along with the fact that McGill is a place where people collaborate and seem open to change."
With that in mind, he became a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at McGill, and a Canada Research Chair recipient, this September. He was also hired as the head of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Montreal Children's Hospital site of the McGill University Health Centre.
A second factor that persuaded Fombonne to jump to our side of the pond was that his three children wished to attend American universities. Jonathan, 19, has begun his first year at a Philadelphia college, while Daniel, 16, and Benjamin, 14, plan on following suit.
The impending move left Fombonne's wife, Rebecca Fuhrer, on the lookout for a job. She found it, at McGill, as the chair of the joint Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. "It seemed part of our family's destiny to move to North America," Fombonne says.
Now that the fate of the Fombonne family has been settled, he can hardly wait to initiate changes at McGill. His staff at the Children's has already been alerted that patient services need to be quickly improved "to state-of-the-art" levels.
He plans on making McGill a leader in new treatment techniques and vows to provide personnel with additional training to do so. "A strategy for implementing those changes should be completed by January," he says.
Another prime mandate is to improve services for autistic individuals, not only at the MUHC, but across Quebec, and throughout their entire lifespan. "These people and their families need our help from birth onwards," he says.
A final and essential item on his to-do list includes expanding research, in autism and beyond, at his unit. Fombonne feels advancing knowledge is crucial to advancing treatment, he says, "since I'm an epidemiological researcher by training."
Indeed, Fombonne has a history of participating in or launching monster studies. One of his major studies on depression, which linked alcohol abuse to increased suicidal tendencies in boys aged 8 to 18, was conducted using data on 6,000 subjects.
And Fombonne's work often garners worldwide headlines, including last winter, when his investigations helped refute a peer's claims that autism had risen in the past three decades because of the standardized vaccination of babies for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). Fombonne discredited that "fallacious" claim, he says, "which was an important issue, because people who are not vaccinated against measles still die."
Armed with his own research, and using the media as his tool, Fombonne quelled parental fears by countering that autism cases had risen mostly because doctors now apply a broader definition of the disease and possess better diagnostic tools.
Some parents have raised suspicions about a link because their children seemed to be developing normally prior to being vaccinated. But Fombonne says that, in about 20% of cases involving autism, children appear to develop normally up to about 18 months, then regress and show signs of autism.
"There is no scientific evidence," he insists, "that an association between MMR immunization and autism exists."
But Fombonne cautions there are still many unanswered questions that remain about autism. Not to mention other mental ailments. "My role is to investigate, while helping to bring McGill to the forefront of research in my field, and hopefully create a positive impact on society."