Editor’s note: Part one of this series appeared in the March 13-19, 2013, issue.
By Zachary Crees & Shawn Joseph
Medical students and members of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford
In part one of this series, we discussed the myth “the annual flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s” and concluded there is NO proven link between the two. On the contrary, we discussed reliable research showing important, protective benefits from routine vaccination that may decrease risk of Alzheimer’s.
Next, in this part, we explore the myth “childhood immunizations cause autism.” The link to autism is one of the most popular anti-vaccinationist myths, and it has been widely exploited in recent years. The unfortunate effect has been more parents choosing to not immunize their children, leading to tragic and preventable diseases.
So, let’s explain where this myth comes from, what the anti-vaccinationists fail to mention, and the bottom line regarding childhood vaccines and autism.
Childhood vaccines and autism
Myth: Anti-vaccinationists claim the components of childhood vaccines cause autism, which is a developmental disorder impairing social interaction and communication. This myth began with Andrew Wakefield, a discredited researcher who reported a possible association between the MMR vaccine, the vaccine preservative thimerosal, and autism. Furthermore, rising rates of autism and an increasing number of recommended childhood vaccinations has fueled the myth of a link between them.
What the anti-vaccinationists fail to mention: Andrew Wakefield’s research was retracted when an investigation revealed he falsified evidence and treated patients unethically, for which he lost his medical license.
Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a complete review of ALL past and current evidence related to MMR vaccines and autism, concluding there is NO link between the two.
Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used in certain vaccines. Several studies found NO association between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism.
Nevertheless, as a result of public concern, the Public Health Service agencies (PHS), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and vaccine manufacturers voluntarily agreed to phase out thimerosal in 1999. Despite the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines 14 years ago, autism rates continue to climb.
Concerning autism rates and vaccination, the error is assuming that the correlation of two things like autism and more vaccines implies that one caused the other. For example, more Americans drive cars today than 100 years ago and autism is more common, but no one would argue that driving cars causes autism. Despite a rise in both autism rates and childhood vaccinations, strong evidence shows they are unrelated.
Autism is a serious health concern, and the cause of increased rates remains an area of serious debate and ongoing research by experts. Nevertheless, a much more common and deadly health care concern is childhood infections. Infants and children are at high risk for infectious disease because they have immature immune systems. The CDC schedules the timing and dose of childhood vaccines through careful scientific testing, to optimize the child’s immune response and protect them when they are most vulnerable. The life-saving success of childhood vaccination is indisputable. In 1980, before widespread global vaccination, 2,600,000 children died every year from measles. By 2011, concerted measles vaccination efforts lowered that number to only 158,000 kids worldwide. The same example is true for polio, pertussis, diphtheria, rubella and many more infectious diseases.
The bottom line: The rate of autism diagnosis is increasing; however, the cause is likely because of multiple reasons unrelated to childhood vaccines or their components. Children are especially susceptible to vaccine-preventable disease and should be vaccinated to reduce risk of serious illness and death. The evidence suggests getting children routinely vaccinated is safe and effective.
Stay tuned for “Common vaccine myths and what the anti-vaccinationists fail to mention, part 3,” where we’ll examine the anti-vaccine myth “Vaccines contain toxins and poisons.”
Zhou, et al, “Economic Evaluation of Routine Childhood Immunization with DTaP, Hib, IPV, MMR and Hep B Vaccines in the United States,” Pediatric Academic Societies Conference, Seattle, Washington, May 2003
From the April 10-16, 2013, issue