Monday, September 27, 2010

Vaccination and Autism: Is There a Link?

Last week, Anonymous Reader #1 wrote:

This raises an interesting question for me; what do you two think of the whole "Jenny McCarthy thinks vaccinations gave her son autism" thing? Is there any credibility to that theory, like, at ALL?
To which Anonymous Reader #2 replied:

Sorry, I just read "Jenny McCarthy thinks," which assumes facts not in evidence. Yes, drug safety matters. No, molecular biology claims from a professional ditz do not count. Those with the discipline to apply the scientific method and clinical double-blind studies have made enormous progress against devastating illness, and continue to do so.

Millie writes:

If there is one thing I've learned over the last 24 years, it's this: As soon as you take an immovable stand about anything pertaining to parenting, something will come along to prove you wrong.

People used to believe quite earnestly that picking up a crying baby would spoil its temper for life; now “everyone” knows that the more human touch a baby gets, the better it is for the baby. As recently as 30 years ago parents were advised to give their children sun baths until they turned a “healthy” shade of brown; now hospital personnel practically apply sunscreen as soon as they've washed off the vernix. New information comes along and forces us to re-think our old beliefs, which can often have the effect of making some of those beliefs look pretty darned stupid in retrospect.

Autism diagnoses have increased dramatically in the last 30 years, and when a British doctor published a paper in 1998 reporting on twelve of his patients who exhibited “autism-like” reactions (amongst other disorders) anxious parents seized on a possible link between the measles vaccine and their children's symptoms. The “autism community” was already suspicious of vaccines because some of them contained a high mercury compound called thimerasol as a preservative. New thimerasol-free vaccines have been used since 2001 – and the autism diagnoses continue to climb.

Enter Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy bunny turned famous author of Hollywood “mommy books.” Her two-year-old son suffered seizures and was diagnosed with autism and she delved into a highly-publicized struggle to heal him. She drew a parallel between the increase in childhood inoculations and the increase in autism diagnoses; well, here's a direct quote: “So it’s real easy when you look at that list of what it was like, and what it’s like now, to go, “Ah! I see the escalation of vaccines and I see the escalation of autism,” and that’s how we got there.”

This highly scientific conclusion started what amounted to a panic among young parents who were determined to decide for themselves what was best for their children and who felt disenfranchised by a medical community that was impersonal, condescending and distant. This mistrust manifested itself in ways ranging from parents' picking and choosing the vaccinations their children would receive – and when they would be administered – to a total refusal on the part of some parents to have their children vaccinated at all.

The scientific community has responded over and over again that fears about childhood immunization causing autism are groundless. The Institute of Medicine concluded that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism,” and the Centers for Disease Control are even more blunt: “Evidence from several studies examining trends in vaccine use and changes in autism frequency does not support such an association.”

What is supported by the evidence is the number of children who do not die every year of smallpox, diphtheria, polio and the host of other diseases that used to make it a crap shoot whether a baby would reach its first birthday or not. The majority of today's new parents have probably never known anyone who was scarred or rendered sterile by smallpox, crippled by polio or the only surviving sibling out of 12 after scarlet fever swept through a family. The Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 killed 16,455 people worldwide; in the early 1950s, there were approximately 50 MILLION cases of smallpox A YEAR, killing an estimated 12.5 MILLION people.

Now, thanks to the vaccine, it has been completely eradicated.

So – though I would probably have phrased it a little less bluntly than Anonymous Reader #2 – I think that I will cast my vote with the scientists rather than the starlets. I'm always ready to re-think any matter in the face of new facts; meanwhile, the medical and scientific community says there is no evidence of a connection between vaccinations and autism, whereas there is ample evidence that Jenny McCarthy wants to market more books and TV appearances. In the final analysis, parents must make up their own minds using the best information available to decide what is best for their children.

I get mine inoculated.

Jenny McCarthy on Healing her Son's Autism and Discovering her Life's Mission, Allison Kugel

Centers for Disease Control: Concerns about Autism

Institute of Medicine: Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism


  1. Well said. In recent news, devices intended to protect babies from SIDS have caused deaths by suffocation. See:

    As parents, we must do our best with what is known, and always be ready to know more.

    Not counting this recycled playmate, I am curious how people feel about celebrities with a mission. I think that Jerry Lewis has done a wonderful job opening hearts and wallets for a good cause. Others, from Lou Gehrig to Michael J. Fox, have increased our awareness through their own unfortunate experiences.

  2. this was extremely well written. Nearly all vax related posts come off as judgemental and sensationalist. This was neither. Whether we are in agreement or not, good for you.

  3. Bravo! This is the best you've done. I have a nephew with autism and the subject comes up about whether it stems from immunizations comes up. What we seem to forget is that the identification of a lot of medical conditions is rising because of advances in medical technology.

    Thirty years ago, people would roll their eyes when you told them you had MS, most folks just thought you were lazy and looking for a pity party. Now, with MRI's cataloguing lesions and plaque, it's as plain as the nose on our faces that there's a problem.

    I've often wondered that we are just "acknowledging" autism more now than before. It would be interesting to hear from folks who were parents in the 50's 60's 70's and 80's who sought medical assistance for behavioral problems when autism may have been accurate.


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