Ask anyone for advice: friends, family or physicians, and you are likely to hear a myriad of opinions, such as vaccinations are outdated, or vaccinations cause autism. If you search the Internet for answers to these questions, you are likely to stumble upon websites blasting the medical community, or mother’s blogs whose children experienced a1-in-a-trillion side effect that will scare you away from modern medicine forever.
So what is a new parent to do? If they choose to vaccinate their child, what is the likelihood that their child may develop autism?
What is autism?
First and foremost, what is autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a development disorder that presents during childhood. Typical symptoms include abnormalities in social functioning, language, communication and unusual behavior or interests. It is referred to as a spectrum disorder because its symptom patterns, range of abilities, and characteristics are expressed in many different combinations and in any degree of severity. For example, children with autism may possess any level of intellectual ability, may vary in the severity of their language problems, and their behavior changes with age.
There are a lot of unknowns about autism. Currently, causes are believed to be tied to prenatal complications, genetic and neurological causes such as prenatal viral infection or exposure, family heritability, and differences in the amount of blood flow and structural differences in certain areas of the brain.
Research shows that 50% of families believe that there is a link between the onset of autism spectrum disorders and standard childhood vaccinations. The Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine (MMR) has been implicated as a possible cause of autism for the past two decades, yet current research does not support this link. According to the Center for Disease Control, less than one percent of children were not vaccinated in 2011, however, states such as California are reporting drastic increases in the number of parents who choose to not vaccinate their children, and many give the possible link to autism as the primary reason for this decision. In 2009, for example, California schools granted 10,000 parents permission to exempt their children from mandatory vaccinations.
If there is no supporting research, then why the debate?
The story behind the vaccine-autism link is actually pretty interesting…
In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, published a paper claiming that he found a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the onset of autism and bowel disease. He reported that 8 out of the 12 children he studied had contracted what he called autistic enterocolitis within two weeks of having their MMR shot. Dr. Wakefield suggested that it was safer for children to receive three separate vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella, rather than the standard three-in-one shot.
Numerous researchers at medical facilities worldwide tried, but could not replicate Dr. Wakefield’s findings. As news of Dr. Wakefield’s results became more widespread, parents began questioning if their children should be vaccinated. Numbers of vaccinations dropped and the reported incidence of the measles increased. In the UK, the number of children receiving the MMR vaccination dropped from 92% in 1996 to 84% in 2002. As of 2003, 5000 had contracted measles in Italy and outbreaks of the measles have been reported in the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, resulting in thousands of children being hospitalized.
A number of people became skeptical though. Why could no one else find a link between the vaccine and autism? Why was no one else able to replicate Dr. Wakefield’s study? A journalist by the name of Brian Deere started doing some investigating. His research uncovered some interesting findings, included conflicts of interest, manipulation of data and unethical behavior on the part of Dr. Wakfield:
1. He lied about his income: Dr Wakefield was hired by a lawyer who specialized in clinical negligence to conduct scientific research to show that the MMR vaccine was harmful. Deere discovered that Dr Wakefield was paid over $600,000 for his work. Additionally, when publishing research in peer-reviewed, scientific journals as Dr Wakefield did, it is required to disclose all financial interests related to the research and Dr Wakefield did not report these payments.
2. He stood to make billions of dollars: Several months prior to published his findings, Dr Wakefield had filed for a patent for his own single-shot measles vaccine. That means that if the three-in-one MMR vaccine was considered dangerous, it was estimated that Dr Wakefield stood to profit billions of dollars off of his single-shot version of the vaccination.
3. He fabricated his data: Deere also found major discrepancies between the description of the diagnosis and health of the children in the study as reported by Dr. Wakefield, and their actual clinical records. This means that Dr. Wakefield’s claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism is based on falsified, or fabricated data.
4. He treated children in the study unethically: It was found that Dr. Wakefield subjected these children to extreme medical procedures, such as spinal taps, that were not approved by the hospital’s ethical committee.
As a result of Deere’s research, the journal that original printed Dr. Wakefield’s research printed a retraction and ten of his 12 co-authors on the study have since printed personal retractions and withdrew their support from their research. Dr Wakefield was fired from the hospital he worked in, and lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.
Dr Wakefield was found guilty of ethical and professional misconduct, and his “alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” Medical professionals agree that there is no link between vaccinations and autism, yet unfortunately, decades later, a legacy of doubt still exists.
A parent’s decision to vaccinate their child is a personal one and it should be based on factual information. Hopefully, with this one misconception cleared up, you can make a more informed decision related to vaccination. It is important to continue to educate yourself by reading other sources and conduct your own research. Be sure to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 9/7/2012
Flaherty, D. K. (2011). The vaccine-autism connection: A public health crisis caused by unethical medical practices and fraudulent science. The Annals of Pharmacotherapy.
Gao, H. (2010). More kindergartenders enter schools without vaccines; Trend worries health officials. Inewsource.org
MacIntyre, P. & Leask, J. (2008). Improving uptake of the MMR vaccine. British Medical Journal ,336, 729-731.