Saturday, April 04, 2009

Is autism caused by vaccines? The straight truth.

More and more these days I notice parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella because they have heard that the vaccine causes autism. They are all shockingly uninformed, but don't realize it. Part of the problem lies in the fact that they don't realize the one bit of highly publicized research evidence that supports the autism link is riddled with multiple and damning problems. And just this week, it got a lot, lot worse.

According to an investigation by the Sunday Times newspaper, the doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine, Andrew Wakefield, fabricated the data that created the appearance of a possible link with autism. He lied. You can read the full article here.

Compared to lying, the other problems with Wakefield's research seem minor in comparison. But nevertheless, even if the results were not made up, the fake-o numbers still do not in any way warrant the autism hysteria that has erupted over vaccines.

And the effect of the hysteria is significant. After the publication of Wakefield's research in 1998, rates of vaccination fell from 92% to below 80% in the UK, according to the Times. And in just ten years, the number of confirmed cases of measles skyrocketed to 1,348 compared with just 56 in 1998.

Aside from the glaring problem with using fabricated data, the other problems with Wakefield's research are threefold, scratch that fourfold!

1. extremely small sample size: The research included only 12 kids!

2. relied on retrospective evidence: Rather than starting out with a sample of children who neither had autism nor had yet been vaccinated, the study used parents who reported autism symptoms after the child was vaccinated. In other words, the researchers relied on parents of autistic children’s memories of events — parents who were understandably upset and far from objective observers.

3. biased sample, i.e. not randomly selected: Almost half of the kids' parents were recruited by a lawyer who planned to sue the vaccine manufacturers. Even Wakefield himself received money to assist the case by finding scientific evidence of the link between autism and the vaccine. You can read more about that here.

4. conclusions overstated the data: The published article stopped short of concluding that there was a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, when Wakefield spoke to the press he made no such disclaimer. And to this day, outspoken celebrities jump on the bandwagon.

One reason some parents think vaccines caused their child's autism is the timing of diagnosis. The first signs of autism don't appear until around 18 months to 2 years of age, the same time period in which kids are vaccinated. It is this unfortunate timing that makes parents think the vaccines caused the condition. Another case of erroneous correlation = causation thinking.

If vaccines really were causing autism, you'd at least expect to see the incidence of autism rise and fall with the rise and fall of vaccination rates — but it doesn't. You can read the published research yourself here. The article also has an impressive list of other relevant research articles on the subject. I think it's pretty much overwhelming evidence that something other than vaccines causes autism.


Katie Lyons said...

WOW! That is certainly shocking news. I hope it helps parents realized they need to still vaccinate their children.
I didn't stop from getting my guy vaccinated because I figured, more kids died from diseases before vaccination then children that have "gotten autism" from it. And if we stop with vaccinating, we'll have the same kind of outbreaks as before. So I opted for vaccination. It's good to know I made the right choice :)
Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

Well at least Mercury is being pulled out of the vaccinations. Fuckers! they'll inject it into your kid but clear a building if a thermometer breaks!! neuro toxin to preserve the dose a little longer. two words: "Pink's Disease"

Virginia Burnett said...

Thank you! There is so much hysteria around this subject. I do have a concern with immunizations, though - today doctors want to give ALL the immunizations all at once - MMR, Varicella, Polio, Pertusus, etc . . . One really big day at the Doc's.

It may just be a difference in their metabolisms, but when my daughter had her immunizations 10 years ago back when they spaced them out by 3-6 months, she never had problems with fevering after an injection. When we took 4 year old Maxx in this summer, they stuck him 5 times with 6 different immunizations. I was up for the next 48 hours trying to keep his temp under 104. I was a wreck but his pediatrician was totally unconcerned because so many childern have that sort of reaction. If I could do it again - I would have insisted that they space the immunizations out over a period of 8 weeks or so to save us all from a lot of unnecessary stress.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not convinced. I have a close friend who 12 years ago had a very normal 14 month old son. Within a day after the vaccine he wasn't normal at all. He has severe autism and immediately after his vaccine stopped making any verbal sounds and hasn't to this day...and he's 14. Her and her family and her lawyers still believe it was the vaccine, as do I.

Larraine said...

Too many people both privately and in public discourse have chosen to distance themselves from science. Whether it is parents who are convinced that their child's autism was caused by a vaccine or politicians who refuse to acknowledge good research.

Both sides of the political spectrum are to blame. The Left, rightly so, went after the Bush administration regarding its policies.

However it is more of the Left than any group that joined the anti-vaccination brigade.

Recently I heard a report on NPR that the debate over changing the makeup of plastic for children's toys is also probably bad science. They interviewed an FDA scientist who discussed the meticulous methods that went into studying this subject.

Researchers watched young children at play for thousands of hours and documented that children didn't put things in their mouths nearly as much or for as long as people say they do. (Now if yours do, that's fine. I only had one child. He didn't put a lot in his mouth. So I always wondered what the fuss was really about.)

Now the latest law that was passed threatens second hand stores and libraries. If lead was used in a book, it has to go. If you are giving a baby toddler a book, yes, it should be lead free.

However, there are a lot of wonderful books that are out of print. The remaining copies are orphans. They deserve a home.

My son is 30 now. I started reading to him when he was just an infant. He never once put a book in his mouth. He would pick up a book and bring it to me. He would snuggle into my left arm on the sofa and together we would read (for the 100th time) a book called "Do You Know Your Colors?" At the end he would joyously announce "I do!" (Even it it did come out as EE Do!) It never occurred to him to suck on that book. He was too busy learning the joy of reading.

Field Notes said...

Anon #1, what you are referring to is called "thimerosal" It is a mercury-containing organic compound that was used to preserve vaccines.

According to the FDA, it has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children under age 6 years of age, with the exception of the influenza vaccine which is available, albeit in limited quantities for infants, children and pregnant women.

Nothing to worry about there at all.

AMIdesigns said...

I had always heard that the 'research' was flawed but this is unbelieveable. i got both my children vaccinated but as a parent you always worry you are doing the right thing for them.

Jennifer Lerner said...

Thank you for this very clear and compelling discussion. Such an important issue, so we need to be clear-headed about it.

Field Notes said...

All the stories in the world by parents or friends of friends are not scientific proof that vaccines cause autism.

For one, memories are faulty. And two, autism is a developmental disorder that unfolds over the course of time. Children do not wake up one morning with symptoms of autism. Parents get the sense that something is different about their child and eventually their suspicions cause them to seek medical attention. Autism is a condition that appears over the course of months. Lessened or lack of eye contact, lack of interest in social interaction, and delayed speech are the best early signs that a child may be developing autism.

I think some people who have an autistic child are looking for someone to blame and vaccines are the target now. It used to be that mothers were blamed for autism.

If my child turns out to have autism, I will know it's just bad luck. That's the way it goes. But being a psychologist with experience providing therapy for children with autism, I am in a much better position than most people to deal with it. Does that make me lucky? No, I worked my butt off to get educated and am paying my student loans off still. Everyone should and could become educated about autism if they really wanted to.

That's why I write blog posts like this one. It may be a drop in the bucket, but if anyone learns something useful, it is worth it.

Only rigorous, empirical research using the scientific method can answer these sorts of questions validly. And, it has.

There is not a single study that has proven that vaccines cause autism. Not a single one. And the only one that purported to has since been found to have been based on fake data, on an extremely small and extremely biased sample no less.

If people want to continue to be ignorant in the face of evidence, that's their prerogative. But, if that ignorance puts other people in danger, we have a problem as a society. And that is why this topic is such a hot button topic.

Joy De Vivre Design said...

A friend of mine has a little boy that they believed has autism. They didn't want to have his little sister vaccinated so I have seen this happen first hand. He is now starting to show signs of having epilepsy so it seems as if he was misdiagnosed possibly.

Dawn Crawford said...

Thank you so much for this article!

One of my favorite collections of articles on the issue of vaccine safety is from Stanford Medicine's Spring 2009 Issue which has an article by NBC's Chief Medical Editor Nancy Snyderman, MD and I quote...

"To date, 12 epidemiological studies have shown that MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Six have shown that thimerosal (the ethyl mercury preservative) doesn’t cause autism. And despite the removal of thimerosal from vaccines in 2001, the numbers of children diagnosed as autistic continue to climb. ("

We can't let the fiction of vaccines hurting our children prevail. We must work to ensure that all children get the vaccines they need to keep them healthy!

Wakee Wakee said...

This article is EXTREMELY biased and based on the allegations made by Brian Deer of the Sunday Times.

Dr Wakefield is currently bringing a case against Deer who was the originator of the complaint made against him currently being heard at the General Medical Council. Deer's allegations that Dr Wakefield lied have not been proven in this court or any other. Deer lied. He also failed to disclose his special interest in the case and continued to report on it for the Sunday Times even though he was the originator of the complaint. He is guilty of journalistic impropriety and has a clear conflict of interest. Despite this you have repeated the false allegations he made as the basis of this equally biased article.
It is not true to say that Wakefield research has been discredited. His findings have been reproduced on several occasions.

There have been, contrary to your claim, no studies which have disproven the link between MMR and Autism because there has never been a study which looked at unvaccinated versus vaccinated children and incidence of the disorder.

ALL the studies which have 'proven' the safety of the MMR have been conducted by the very companies who manufacture vaccines.

BTW the editor in chief of the Sunday Times and boss of Brian Deer James Murdoch, was recently appointed to sit on the board of directors of Glaxo Smithkline Wellcome. Is anybody beginning to smell a rat? No? Are we going to continue to 'thank' the authors of partisan articles like these like good little sheeple?
It would seem so.

Field Notes said...

Thank you for the great info and source Dawn.

And, dear Wakee Wakke, thank you for the info too. If you cannot point to a source for your claim that the author of the Times article lied, what you have to say is hearsay and cannot be taken seriously.

Even if it is true, it still does not invalidate the known methodological problems with Wakefield's study. I listed them in my article.

You will find this article, published in the British Medical Journal, informative. It elaborates on the ethical problems surrounding Wakefield's research.

Even so, we should not get lost on the ethical issues surrounding Wakefield's research and lose sight of the REAL problems with it. Namely, that it fails to show a causal link between autism and vaccines.

Give me one study that does, and I will read and evaluate it on it's scientific merits. And report it.

Richard Williams said...

Actually, I live in England and I can tell you that Brian Deer is amongst the most respected medical journalists in the country. I can remember why Wakefield was charged by the doctors' council: because Brian Deer exposed him in the Sunday Times years ago. If it is a conflict of interest for a journalist to expose a doctors' crimes, then I can't think of what isn't a conflict of interest.

The Quiet One said...

Brilliant evaluation. Vacines just have the misfortune of being given at the same time as autism signs start being noticed.

Of course, saying that if it had been true about vacines causing autism. I would hands down prefer to risk a child having a more unique point of view than usual than risk possible death through a disease.