Vaccines and Autism: Lies and Fear Mongering
It doesn’t matter how bad the horror movie is: Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw XII (or whatever one they are on now), all terrible. And all of them kill (pun intended) at the box office.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love watching disembowelments as much as the next guy. But even those who like these movies admit they are poorly crafted, poorly acted, and poorly written.
So that is all well and good when it comes to entertainment, but when people use fear to promote bad science, then it pisses me off. Pisses me right off.
There is no greater example of this right now than the Anti-vaccine movement. These chuckleheads (that’s me cleaning up my language) have been fear mongering for years now, scaring parents into thinking that vaccines are linked to autism.
Let me say this loud and clear. Vaccines are NOT linked to autism. There is NOT A SHRED of scientific evidence which links vaccines to autism.
Now a bit of history, as this is the first time I’ve discussed this on this blog.
In 1998, a man named Andrew Wakefield published a study in a prestigious scientific journal called The Lancet. This study reported bowel symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders. Wakefield used anecdotal evidence from the parents of these children to draw a causal link between the receipt of the Mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism.
This study was riddled with bad science. You can read a great debunking of the paper here, but the end result was in February 2010 the Lancet formally retracted the paper, stating that
“…it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.”
In May 2010, Wakefield had his medical license revoked in the United Kingdom, and is no longer allowed to practice medicine.
Unfortunately, none of this has swayed his supporters. He has moved to the United States and is now being portrayed as a martyr, wronged by the government and his peers. He is also profiting quite nicely from the whole debacle, having just written a book supporting the anti-vaccine movement (you can read a great skeptical review of the book from Science-Based Medicine).
But the real truth is that he is a douche. No nice way of putting that one.
So that is the history, what about the science? Well there have been many studies looking for the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine. For a small sampling of these studies, see ‘Further Reading’ below.
At first it was thought that it was the Thiomersol, an ingredient in the MMR vaccine. Thiomersol is an organomercury compound used as a preservative in the MMR vaccine. Although no scientific evidence found a link between Thiomersol and autism, fears of a link lead the FDA to remove Thiomersol from the MMR vaccine in 2001. It was predicted by the anti-vaccine movement that a decrease in the rate of autism diagnosis would be seen. However, cases of autism continue to increase despite the removal of Thiomersol.
It was also thought that the “large” number of immunizations given to infants at a young age overloaded the immune system, leading to negative effects such as autism. However, a recent study reveals that there is no benefit to any alternative immunization schedules. In fact, children are constantly exposed to many more antigens on a daily basis than they are exposed to in a round of vaccines.
There are lots of tidbits such as that these which completely disprove the Anti-Vaccine arguments. Yet they refuse to accept the scientific evidence and vaccination rates all over the world are dropping.
This has led to an increase in diagnosis of measels and pertussis all over the world. These diseases can be fatal in infants, and unfortunately, incidence of these and other preventable diseases will continue to increase if the anti-vaxxers get their wish.
This HAS to stop. Children are dying. Parents are scared. And for no reason whatsoever. I know it is tough not to listen to Jenny McCarthy, but she is not a scientist. Listen to your doctor. Listen to the scientists.
Let’s get something straight about Jenny McCarthy. She is misinformed. She is misguided. She has been duped by bad scientists (read: douchebags). But she is a mother, and her child has been afflicted with an illness. Can we really blame her for overreacting? She truly believes she is fighting for children, and in the end, we are all on the same side. Nor do I blame parents for being apprehensive about getting their children vaccinated.
So who are the enemies? Who are the bad guys in this story? Well, Andrew Wakefield for one. The media is another. Picture yourself watching TV. On one channel is an unattractive scientist in a white lab coat, holding up a black and white graph and saying “Look, vaccines don’t cause autism!”. Now change channels. There is pretty Jenny McCarthy with a tear in her eye, saying how she watched the “life go out” of her child’s eyes as he was inoculated (she has since changed her tune about this, now saying it was a gradual transition in her child’s behaviour). Obviously McCarthy will make more of an impact. This is the fear they use to try to sell their story. Clearly, they have no science to back it up, so they need to use fear. Rarely do studies that contradict the Vaccine-Autism link get top billing. But anything that will instill fear in a parent will get the lead story on the evening news.
Now, we may not be able to win this fight overnight. But we can make whatever difference we can. Tell your friends and family that vaccines are safe. If you are a new parent, please read about the safety of vaccines. It will take some effort to find the good information, but you can find it.
Honda H, Shimizu Y, Rutter M (2005). “No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study”. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 46 (6): 572–9.
Doja A, Roberts W (2006). “Immunizations and autism: a review of the literature”. Can J Neurol Sci 33 (4): 341–6.
Mrozek-Budzyn D, Kiełtyka A, Majewska R (2010). “Lack of association between measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and autism in children: a case-control study”. Pediatr Infect Dis J 29 (5):397-400.
Miller L, Reynolds J (2009). “Autism and vaccination – the current evidence”. J Spec Pediatr Nurs 14 (3):166-72.