Parenting

The Autism and Vaccine Debate

There has been a heated debate across the US on whether vaccines could be potentially damaging to children. Some have strong opinions on this subject, but as always, people are encouraged to understand the facts to help them come to their own conclusions.

This article is not meant to change anyone’s mind; it is merely an observation of the facts.

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We do want to point out one thing. Autism is not a death sentence. Thousands of children and adults with autism lead healthy lives. Of course, there are going to be challenges and obstacles, but that doesn't mean that living with autism should be seen in a negative light.

Whatever side of the debate that you're on, remember that autism is not a disease, and should never, ever be treated as such.

The study that started it all

The idea that vaccines were linked to autism did not just appear out of thin air. One particular study was led by Andrew Wakefield, titled Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The biggest finding was that there could possibly be a connection between thimerosal, a chemical found in the mumps-measles-rubella vaccines, and autism.

While this certainly sounds alarming, the study ended up having many flaws. The labs that tested the children's gut samples used techniques that have proven to be inaccurate and cause false positives (showing that there was something in the samples that wasn't actually there).

There were also only 12 children tested. This is a much too small sample size to show any useful results. Wakefield was also found to have changed some of the data to fit his own personal motives.

It also didn't help that the supposed cause of autism found in vaccines, thimerosal, isn't even in use anymore.

While the study had a lot of problems, there was also a conflict of interest at play. Wakefield, the head researcher of the study, was hired as an expert in a case involving parents who claimed that the MMR vaccine caused their children to have autism. Even worse, he used some of these children as test subjects in the study.

It became clear that Wakefield wanted a certain result and specifically tried to design the study to produce that result—two things that fly in the face of evidence-based research in the scientific community.

At the end of the day, Wakefield merely wanted to use the study to make him more appealing to lawyers bringing vaccine injury lawsuits, not to take an objective look at how vaccines may or may not affect children.

Since the article’s publication in 1998, 10 of the 12 researchers involved in the study have retracted their support from it, stating that it was done poorly, the results were faulty, and there was no strong evidence.

The Lancet, the journal that originally published the study, completely retracted it, stating the obvious conflict of interest. Wakefield was eventually brought up on fraud charges, and he was essentially barred from being involved in the scientific community.

What do other studies say?

Ever since the autism vaccine debate has begun, researchers have put out numerous studies addressing the plausible correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. Below are just a few of those studies.

While many went against Wakefield's findings, another set of researchers, geneticists Mark Geier and his son David, pointed to data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a U.S. government reporting system that compiles vaccine related health complaints. The Geiers pointed to complaints that parents filed as proof that vaccines were causing numerous kids to develop autism.

Another conflict of interest

Once again, it was later revealed that the Geiers were hired as experts and consultants on a multitude of vaccine injury cases. Furthermore, the U.S. government pointed out that the VAERS system only collected complaints and did not verify or confirm them. That means that any parent whose child ends up being on the autism spectrum can file a complaint blaming vaccines when it is just as likely that the child was born on the spectrum.

The brothers also refused to show how their data was analyzed and generated, leading to difficulties in reviewing its legitimacy. The group that originally hired the brothers, the Institute of Medicine, eventually dismissed the findings and study as uninterpretable.

A study by the CDC

Another study was conducted by the CDC (Center of Disease Control), looking at the vaccine history of children with and without autism.

The study examined 1008 children, 256 of which were on the autism spectrum. When looking at the vaccine history of these kids, the researchers were unable to find even a slight correlation between vaccine usage and autism. Many of the kids who had the MMR vaccine showed no signs of autism, while others with autism had been diagnosed well before they were given the vaccine.

Another study looked at autism rates in Sweden and Denmark from 1987 to 1999. Thimerosal usage in vaccines was discontinued in those countries in 1992. If thimerosal was responsible for autism, researchers believed the autism rates in those countries would decrease. This was not the case, and in fact the autism diagnosis rates in both of those countries increased. It is possible that the rising rates were due to better diagnosing techniques used during that time period.

Still, this study seemed to show that the link between autism and thimerosal was theoretical at best.

The conclusion of five separate studies

The Institute of Medicine hired numerous different groups of researchers to study vaccine histories and autism cases in the United States, Britain, Denmark, and Sweden (including the Geier brothers although their study was later rejected).

Five separate studies involving thousands of different kids (some who had autism and some who did not) failed to find any evidence that could show a causal or even correlational link between vaccines and autism in children.

When taking these studies into account, the Institute of Medicine proposed a rejection of the notion that vaccines have any link to autism.

Takeaways

When taking all of the above into account, there are two things to consider:

  1. Thimerosal, the chemical that was said by some to cause autism in children, is no longer used in vaccines in most countries (including the United States).
  2. There are zero scientifically-backed studies that have been able to show a correlation between vaccines and autism in children.

Until scientifically-backed studies appear to find any link between vaccines and autism, there’s no reason to worry about vaccination. It won't suddenly put any child on the autism spectrum. And remember, having a child with autism is not the end of the world!

Autism brings some challenges but having autism is not something to be ashamed of. Compassion and understanding are the keys to helping children with autism grow up to lead happy and healthy lives.

We hope that in the future, autism is not used as fuel for vitriolic debates, and is tackled with compassion rather than condemnation.

For more information on autism symptoms, developments, and therapies, be sure to visit the rest of our website.

References

http://thesnapper.millersville.edu/index.php/2017/09/25/taking-a-hard-look-at-autism/

https://www.babycenter.com/0_vaccines-and-autism-separating-fact-from-fiction_1470554.bc?page=3

https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/lancet-retracts-wakefield-article/

https://www.passporthealthusa.com/2015/12/cdc-study-debunks-vaccine-autism-link/