Fears About Vaccines and Autism Endure In the Face of Scientific Evidence
Fewer US parents had their children vaccinated in the wake of the controversy over a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, according to research from the University of Cincinnati. Lenisa Chang, an assistant professor of economics, based her findings on an analysis of data from the National Immunization Survey from 1995 through 2006. Not only did she find that the MMR vaccination rate declined by about two percentage points between 1999 and 2000, after the publication of Andrew Wakefield’s now-retracted study linking autism to the MMR in The Lancet. The drop-off rate continued even though evidence, in the form of a number of scientific studies, continued, and has continued, to accrue disputing any link.
Chang also found that, the higher the education level of mothers, the less likely a child was to receive the MMR vaccine. In fact, as noted in Science Daily,
After epidemiological studies refuted the MMR-autism link, the difference in MMR usage by mother’s education level persisted and became more pronounced in 2003, 2004 and 2006, possibly as previous negative information received more weight than positive information in the parental decision-making process on whether or not to vaccinate.
In addition, the fears about the MMR vaccine led to a “spillover” effect, with vaccination rates for polio and other measles-containing vaccines (including DTP, the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine) declining.
My 15-year-old Charlie was diagnosed with autism in July of 1999, not longer after Wakefield had published his now-infamous article. I still remember my husband logging off the internet after spending hours pouring through websites about autism (there were scores even then and none too positive or hopeful) and saying “and there’s some link to autism and…. vaccines?”
It was a time when the news was also filled with reports about significant increases in the prevalence rate of autism. As Charlie was being diagnosed, we had been told by a team of psychologists and therapists in Minneapolis that autism was “rare,” occurring in 1 in 10,000 children — then the numbers dived down to 1 in 1000, 1 in 500, 1 in 166. The most recent study puts the rate at 1 in 88.
It was also a time when we heard, from the internet, from parents, from books about numerous “alternative,” “biomedical” treatments for autism, often involving nutritional supplements and also drugs, based on theories about what causes autism that sounded scientific enough but did not stand up to sustained inquiry and scrutiny.
We never thought that Charlie was autistic from a vaccine; as the years have passed, my husband and I have noted more and more how he has numerous traits from us and our family members, that he is autistic due to genetics. But all the talk — buzz — about autism and vaccines led us to delay giving Charlie the immunizations recommended at 5 years of age and even at one point to seek a religious exemption from him being vaccinated. By the time he was 8, he was up to date again on his vaccinations and has remained so.
Looking back, I realize how much all the attention and coverage about purported links between vaccines and autism gave us pause. So many other parents were refusing vaccines for their children, or delaying them, or having them spaced out. An irrational dread hung over all of us, that an additional vaccine could make things worse for our children, whom we could already see struggling so much to sit still in a chair, focus their eyes on alphabet flashcards, talk, take turns while playing Candyland.
Questionable theories of what causes autism and dubious treatments (such as a recently publicized one involving bleach) for autistic children still proliferate and parents still seek them out, in the name of keeping their children safe and even in the face of more and more scientific studies.
Does the idea that vaccines could be linked to autism persist due to Americans’ lack of understanding of science? due to their lack of faith and trust in it? due to a need for some straightforward answer about a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder and to how to best care for a child with many, many challenges?
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