A new, privately funded survey finds vaccinated U.S. children have a significantly higher risk of neurological disorders -- including autism -- than unvaccinated children.

In one striking finding, vaccinated boys 11-17 were more than twice as likely to have autism as their never-vaccinated counterparts.

The telephone survey of parents representing a total of 17,000 children appears to be the first of its kind -- and contrasts starkly with several government-backed studies that have found no risk from vaccines.

"No one has ever compared prevalence rates of these neurological disorders between vaccinated and unvaccinated children," said J.B. Handley, father of a child with autism and co-founder of Generation Rescue, which commissioned the $200,000 survey conducted by SurveyUSA, a respected marketing firm. "The phone survey isn't perfect, but these numbers point to the need for a comprehensive national study to gather this critical information.

"We have heard some speculation that unvaccinated children would be difficult to locate," Handley said. "But we were able to find more than enough in our sample of more than 17,000 children to establish confidence intervals at or above 95 percent for the primary comparisons we made."

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., reintroduced a bill first submitted last year calling for the National Institutes of Health to conduct such a study.

"Generation Rescue's study is impressive and forcefully raises some serious questions about the relationship between vaccines and autism," Maloney said. "What is ultimately needed to resolve this issue one way or the other is a comprehensive national study of vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

"The parents behind Generation Rescue only want information. These parents deserve more than roadblocks, they deserve answers. We can and should move forward in search of those answers."

Both Maloney and Handley said their efforts were sparked by Age of Autism columns that found anecdotal, unscientific evidence of less autism among the Amish, who have a lower vaccination rate. The column also reported on Homefirst Health Services in Chicago, whose director said there is no autism or asthma among several thousand never-vaccinated children who were home-delivered and remain patients of the family practice. The U.S. autism rate is 1 in 150 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A spokesman for the CDC, which recommends the childhood immunization schedule and has conducted studies that found no link to autism, said the agency has not seen the Generation Rescue data.

"We look forward to learning more about the survey," spokesman Curtis Allen said. "It's important to note that self-report surveys on topics like this often have significant limitations, so one must be cautious with respect to interpreting the findings.

"It's also important to note that previous studies involving hundreds of thousands of children have failed to find an association."

Generation Rescue's Handley, however, said those studies never compared vaccinated with unvaccinated American children. He also said his survey took its cue from the CDC's own phone-survey approach to estimating the incidence of such disorders among American children.

"Listening to the CDC talk about the reliability of parent reporting, we thought there's a quick way to get a proxy for whether or not there's any truth to the hypotheses that vaccines and all these neurological disorders are related," Handley said. His organization believes that mercury, including a type used for decades in routine childhood immunizations, is a major factor in the ten-fold increase in reported autism cases over the past 20 years.

Handley said the survey, conducted in nine counties in Oregon and California, asked parents "whether their child had been vaccinated, and whether that child had one or more of the following diagnoses: attention deficit disorder, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, or autism."

Results highlighted by Generation Rescue:

-- "Among more than 9,000 boys age 4-17, vaccinated boys were 2.5 times (155 percent) more likely to have neurological disorders, 224 percent more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and 61 percent more likely to have autism."

-- "For older vaccinated boys in the 11-17 age bracket, the results were even more pronounced. Vaccinated boys were 158 percent more likely to have a neurological disorder, 317 percent more likely to have ADHD, and 112 percent more likely to have autism."

Handley said he believes the higher results for the older boys are probably more complete because not every child in the younger age group would have received a formal diagnosis.

Concern that vaccines are linked to the rise of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders has been largely dismissed by public health officials and mainstream medical groups, especially since a 2004 report by the respected Institute of Medicine found no such evidence -- and suggested research money go to more "promising" areas.

But parents -- some of whom say they watched their children regress into autism immediately following physical reactions to vaccines -- have continued to press the issue. A U.S. vaccine court in Washington is currently hearing argument over whether nearly 5,000 such claims should be paid by a federal vaccine injury compensation fund.

Handley said the fact that his organization could produce such a study on a relative shoestring while the U.S. government has not suggests it is hesitant to confront the possible ramifications.

Two years ago CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told UPI that "such studies could and should be done" but offered several reasons why they might prove difficult, including the variability of autism diagnoses, possible genetic differences in the Amish and the small number of never-vaccinated children in the United States.

"They haven't lifted a penny since then," Handley said.

Full results of the study are at generationrescue.org.

(The entire Age of Autism series is accessible at upi.com under Special Reports.)

(e-mail: dolmsted@upi.com)