The idea that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine or any thimerosal containing vaccine causes autism is not a scientific controversy.
It is an urban myth that exploded in 1998 when a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield performed intestinal biopsies on eight autistic children and claimed he found measles virus from their MMR vaccinations. His study has repeatedly been used to claim that the MMR causes autism. However, there was no scientific credibility to Wakefield’s study for a number of reasons:
• Wakefield previously had hypothesized that the MMR vaccine caused Inflammatory Bowel Disease and was proven wrong by all the experts in that field.
• Wakefield is a surgeon with no specialty training in immunology, virology, vaccines, pediatric psychiatry or pediatric neurology.
• This study was performed in only eight children.
• Wakefield’s research assistant performed all the research, and he testified under oath that the results did not show measles.
• Wakefield ultimately received $800,000 from a personal-injury lawyer who represented five of the eight patients as clients.
• Wakefield’s study did not go through legitimate scientific review.
• Wakefield has been debunked by every scientific organization and permanently barred from medical practice in the United Kingdom.
However, the myth that autism was linked to the MMR vaccine spread like a brushfire. When this fire began to die down, the theory about thimerosal (a preservative used in vaccines) ignited. Dangerous alternative treatments such as chelation appeared, causing deaths in some children.
Since the late 1990s, there have been 10 large-scale studies examining any possible link between autism and MMR and five large-scale studies examining any link between autism and thimerosal. The results showed no relationships between autism and vaccines. Perhaps the most convincing data is from California, where thimerosal was removed from all vaccines in 2002. Had any relationship existed between thimerosal and autism (or any other neurodevelopmental problem), there would have been a dramatic decrease in autism rates. However, by 2006, autism rates in the thimerosal-free population did not go down — in fact, they increased.
Parental refusal to vaccinate their own children seriously affects other children as well. In 1991, a measles epidemic swept through Philadelphia. The outbreak centered in a religious group that chose not to vaccinate its children. Seven children in this community died from measles. The virus then spread to a surrounding community, killing two other infants who were too young to have received their MMR vaccinations.
Hundreds of children throughout Europe and U.S. have gotten ill and died from measles. This is “collateral damage” from parents refusing to get their children immunized. It is time to quit fearing good science. It is time for every parent to want to immunize their children. Parents who choose not to vaccinate have some moral ownership in the potential demise of other children in addition to their own.
In 2006, more cases were reported in the United States than at any time within the past decade. By 2007, the number of measles cases in this country tripled. Hundreds of children throughout Europe and the U.S. have gotten ill and died from measles.
Vaccination is the best and most effective therapy in the history of medicine, responsible for saving billions of lives. There are some real, but extremely rare, side effects of some vaccinations. And there are some thoughtful and informed parents who do have legitimate reasons for refusing vaccination, based on religious beliefs. But whatever the reason — real or imagined – it must be weighed in proportion to the resurgence of diseases like measles and pertussis which harm and can kill young children.
For more information about this topic, see Paul A. Offit’s book “Autism’s False Prophets.”