Autism and Vaccines: The Public Debate Rages On
Parents have been trying to find answers to the autism riddle for years. Is it vaccine-related? Is there an environmental cause? Is it purely genetic? The only thing for sure is that there are no absolute answers, nor are there promises of any for some time to come. With autism spectrum disorders affecting 1 in every 150 children today, families are hard pressed to find accurate information.
The blogosphere has been abuzz since early February with the latest round in the autism – childhood vaccine debate when the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet formally retracted Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study published twelve years ago that purported a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Comments are still coming in response to Kristina Chew’s Care2 blog post about the retraction. More on those comments later, first here’s some background:
The controversy swirls around Dr. Wakefield’s original 1998 report, co-authored with colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London, which drew a connection between autism and MMR — the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine — but did not establish a cause. Dr. Wakefield advised instead to administer the vaccines separately.
That report spurred a number of parents – both here and in Great Britain, many of whom were wary of vaccines to begin with – to opt out of vaccinating their children altogether. In the U.S., the numbers rose from 0.77 percent in 1997 to 2.01 percent in 2000 according to an article in the journal Pediatrics. Britain saw a similar spike, and a measles outbreak. The BBC reported in 2006 that measles cases were at the highest they had been since 1988 – the year the MMR vaccine was introduced. As recently as 2008 – cases were up 36% from the year before, according to Britain’s Health Protection Agency. A handful of children died as a result.
One of the more plausible autism – vaccine links that surfaced last decade questioned whether or not thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria, could be a culprit. Concerns and a public outcry about thimerosal prompted its removal, or reduction to trace amounts, in 2001, from all vaccines administered to children younger than 6.
Despite all of this, opposition to vaccines remains strong, equally as strong as the vilification of Dr. Wakefield and his report (which The Lancet partially retracted in 2004 before the full retraction on January 28th of this year).
“Unfortunately the idea that vaccines cause autism is already out there and the damage has already been done,” said Dr. Robert Field professor of health management and policy at the Drexel School of Public Health in Philadelphia in a report by ABC News just a few weeks ago on February 3rd. “Years of research have clearly disproven the vaccine-autism link, yet many people continue to believe in it. If all that research hasn’t changed their minds, The Lancet’s retraction is not likely to make much difference,” he continued.
“The retraction by The Lancet came far too late,” said Dr. Paul Offitt, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a strong critic of the anti-vaccine movement, in a Wall Street Journal article, also on February 3rd. “It’s very easy to scare people; it’s very hard to unscare them,” he concluded.
Defenders of Dr. Wakefield stand by him, and to this day he has a strong following. “In this field, Dr. Wakefield’s contributions to our families and members are greatly appreciated and there are many who support him in his research efforts,” claimed the Autism Society, an advocacy group, in a statement in the same ABC News story.
And according to a New York Times February 3rd article “Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents. “Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous,” he said. “This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again.”
There seems little question the argument is not going away anytime soon. Kristina Chew’s Care2 post has become a de facto podium for the pros and cons, with over 1,400 comments to date.
Many anti-vaccination proponents raise concerns about Big Pharma’s influence on vaccine makers, and the scientific community in general. “Why is it deemed acceptable for a doctor to be paid by a drug company in order to evaluate the efficacy of that same company’s products? The profession has no problem with that direct economic conflict of interests,” raised Suzanne F.
Chew’s blog also pointed up another issue echoed by many: “Had The Lancet’s editors chosen not to publish the 1998 study, the whole panic about the MMR may not have happened… As noted in the LA Times’s Booster Shots blog, “since the paper’s publication, millions of dollars of research funds that could have been spent looking for the causes of the disorder have instead been diverted to investigating the potential link to vaccines.”
Carla S. commented: “Rejecting decades of information, trials, studies and actual evidence in the face of one poorly-constructed trial is simply not the answer. If MMR or any other vaccine is the cause of autism, I believe the cases would number in the tens of millions, but they do not. And what of all the children not vaccinated who are still diagnosed with autism? This complicated condition simply cannot be wished away by exposing millions of children to the disease that killed so many.”
Indeed from a medical standpoint, there is no question that vaccines have been a crucial weapon in eradicating deadly diseases worldwide. The Lancet retraction of the Wakefield study does, for all intents and purposes, discredit the link between autism and vaccines. But parents who bear the emotional burden of caring for a disabled child in a world seemingly devoid of answers, just want clarity, and unfortunately the only thing that’s clear right now is science does not yet know the absolute cause of autism.
Suzi Schiffer Parrasch