In recent years, there has been an outbreak of paranoia regarding a possible vaccine-autism link. This assumption was based on a study of just 12 children conducted by Andrew Wakefield that has now been completely discredited (Norton, 4 January 2010). The Lancet, a respected medical journal that originally published Wakefield’s paper, has since retracted it and apologized for publishing it in the first place. Furthermore, Wakefield was asked to resign from the Royal Free Hospital, and the General Medical Council has charged him with professional misconduct, including “ordering invasive and potentially harmful studies” that caused serious medical problems for several children (Hall, 2009).
Unfortunately, many people still believe in the vaccination-autism link, including former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who has written a number of bestsellers in which she claims that vaccines gave her son autism (Mnookin, 10 January 2011). Other celebrities, such as Charlie Sheen, have also publicly asserted that vaccines are dangerous (Mooney, 2009).
Studies Show That Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism
Many rigorous international studies encompassing millions of children have shown that vaccinations don’t cause autistic spectrum disorders, and that the thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) they contain is safe (Begley & Interlandi, 2009; Hall, 2009; Miller & Reynolds, 2009; Norton, 4 January 2004). In fact, a recent study of nearly 300 children in Poland found that children who received their Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccinations actually had a rate of autistic spectrum disorders that was 83% lower than that of unvaccinated children. Even children who received the measles vaccine only had a prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders that was 56% lower than the children who hadn’t had any shots at all (Norton, 4 January 2010). Another study of 14,000 British children “found that the more thimerosal the children had been exposed to through vaccines, the less likely they were to have neurological problems” (Begley & Interlandi, 2009).
Also worth noting is that autism rates have increased steadily in the United States and the United Kingdom, whereas vaccination rates have stayed relatively constant or even dropped in some areas. Also, in a Japanese region where the MMR vaccination was withdrawn, autism rates have continued to increase. If vaccines really caused autism, then autism rates should rise and fall in conjunction with vaccination rates (Miller & Reynolds, 2009).
Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism, the anti-vaccine movement has flourished, and scientists whose research has disproven the link have been harassed and threatened (Hall, 2009; Mooney, 2009).
Why Do Some People Believe That Vaccines Cause Autism?
There are two typical patterns of autism: one in which an infant fails to acquire certain skills, and the other, regressive autism, which is characterized by the loss of those skills within a certain age range. With regressive autism, children seem to be following a normal developmental trajectory for the first one to two years, but then begin losing social and communication skills, typically between 16 and 20 months of age (Ozonoff et al., 2008). According to HealthLinkBC, the MMR vaccine is usually given at 12 months of age and again at 18 months, around the same time that many children with regressive autism begin to lose communication and social skills. This unfortunate coincidence has led many to believe that vaccinations cause autism (Begley & Interlandi, 2009).
Sadly, as a result of parents believing in the autism-vaccine link, autistic children have been subjected to dangerous, harmful treatments (chelation, chemical castration, etc.) in an attempt to remove mercury from their systems (Hall, 2009).
Vaccinations Save Lives
Diseases that are now controlled by vaccines took a terrible toll in the past, particularly on children. In recent years, many of these diseases have been resurfacing because of reduced vaccination rates due to scare-mongering.
Vaccines are best given at a very early age; the longer they’re delayed, the greater the risk to children (Miller & Reynolds, 2009). Children who contract measles can develop brain inflammation or pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. Mumps can also cause brain inflammation, excruciating testicular swelling, and even hearing loss (Norton, 4 January 2010).
According to Mnookin (10 January 2011), problems associated with failure to vaccinate children have included the following:
- Measles outbreaks have cost Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, and California tens of millions to contain.
- Two unvaccinated children in Pennsylvania have died of Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a disease that has been nonexistent in the United States for the past 20 years (another four children were infected but survived).
- California residents have recently suffered more cases of whooping cough (pertussis) than had been seen since 1947, before widespread vaccinations; this outbreak has killed 10 children.
Failure to vaccinate not only endangers children, but also everyone around them. When rates of vaccination are high, the entire group is protected by “herd immunity” because very few people are susceptible certain diseases, which means that they can’t spread throughout a community like wildfire. When the vaccination rate drops even slightly, herd immunity is endangered, and it is children who are most likely to suffer the consequences (Hall, 2009). Therefore, failure to vaccinate is a serious public health issue.
This has already occurred the UK, where rubella has again become a major threat in recent years. Rubella is typically a mild infection in children, but if it spreads to pregnant women it can cause significant harm to the fetus, triggering problems ranging from blindness to mental retardation to heart defects. Prior to the widespread use of vaccines, such rubella-related defects afflicted many children, and the recent reduction in the vaccination rate has led to a sharp increase in these devastating birth defects (BBC News, 18 March 1999). Measles has also again become endemic, after having been under control in the UK for many years (Mooney, 2009).
To read more articles about autistic spectrum disorders, visit the main Autism page.
Famous People Who Support Vaccinations
Many celebrities have contributed to the pro-vaccine movement via a number of different campaigns, including:
- BBC News. (18 March 1999). “MMR Fears Raise Rubella Risk.” News.BBC.co.uk.
- Begley, S., & Interlandi, J. (2009). “Anatomy of a Scare.” Newsweek, 153(9), 42-47.
- Hall, H. (2009). “Vaccines and Autism.” Skeptic, 15(2), 26-32.
- HealthLinkBC. (November 2009). “Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) Vaccine.” HealthLinkBC.ca.
- Miller, L., & Reynolds, J. (2009). “Autism and Vaccination – The Current Evidence.” Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 14(3), 166-172.
- Mnookin, S. (2011). “Autism and the Affluent.” Newsweek, 157(2/3), 11.
- Mooney, C. (2009). “Vaccination Nation.” Discover, 30(6), 58-75.
- Norton, A. (4 January 2010). “Another Study Finds No MMR-Autism Link.” Reuters.com.
- Ozonoff, S.; Heung, K.; Byrd, R.; Hansen, R.; & Hertz-Picciotto, I. (2008). “The Onset of Autism: Patterns of Symptom Emergence in the First Years of Life.” Autism Research, 1(6), 320-328.