by Vejay Steede
Vaccines are more relevant in the global consciousness today than they have been for many years. Prior to COVID-19 triggering a mad scramble for effective vaccines to alleviate the current strain on the international healthcare industry, however, perhaps the most controversial debate around vaccines concerned their connection to autism in children.
Essentially, there was a suggestion that early childhood vaccines had a large role in the development of autism in children. The story of this theory is an interesting one, and the debate has been comprehensively shut down by the worldwide medical fraternity in the years since it was presented.
The story now is more about the dangers of wild speculation and the damage that conspiracy theories and fantastical suggestion can do to human lives. This is a brief synopsis of the debate; its origins, debunking, and why we need to stop allowing irrational paranoia to inform life altering decisions.
The connection between vaccines and autism was first hypothesized by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who published a study suggesting that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was increasing autism in British children. The 1998 paper was published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, and immediately triggered widespread fear amongst parents with young children.
“The paper itself later was officially labelled “fraud” by England’s General Medical Counsel, but it triggered a lot of debate over the safety of the vaccine which continues to this day.
“The paper’s findings led other doctors to do their own research into the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. At least 12 follow-up studies were done. None found any evidence the vaccine caused autism.
“An investigation into the 1998 study also uncovered a number of problems with how it was conducted. The journal that published it eventually retracted it. That meant the publication no longer stood by the results.
“In 2010, the General Medical Counsel declared that the paper was not only based on bad science, but was deliberate fraud and falsifications by the head researchers, Dr Andrew Wakefield and revoked his medical license. Investigators learned that a lawyer looking for a link between the vaccine and autism had paid Wakefield more than £435,000 (equal to more than a half-million dollars).” (webmd. com, reviewed by Dan Bennan, MD, 2020)
None of these details alleviated parent fears at the time, so several major studies were conducted to determine a link between vaccines and autism. None of the studies found evidence of any link at all.
One major study was commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is described here: “WHO, based on the recommendation of its advisory body the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), commissioned a literature review by an independent researcher of the risk of autism associated with MMR vaccine. The existing studies did not show evidence of an association between the risk of autism or autistic disorders and MMR vaccine.
“Based on the extensive review presented, GACVS concluded that no evidence existed of a causal association between MMR vaccine and autism or autistic disorders. The Committee expressed its belief that the matter would likely be clarified by an improved understanding of the causes of autism.”
The fact that the debate continues to drag on in some quarters is probably due more to the fact that the true causes of autism remain a mystery than any actual evidence connecting vaccines to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It has been an easy rallying point for the anti-vaccine faction, and no amount of rational, science-based evidence will completely eradicate some brands of irrational thinking.
Local paediatrician extraordinaire, Dr Sylvanus Nowab sums the debate up like this: “There is no proven evidence that any vaccines cause autism. There is a developmental stage between 15- 18 months when children start to develop more socially and increase verbal expression. That period coincides in the western world with when they get their MMR (measles mumps and rubella vaccine).
“So, kids who haven’t been diagnosed earlier with autism show their delay, then the anti-vaccine camp says that was caused by vaccines. When you look at other places like India and Africa, children get these vaccines earlier and more and the incidence of autism is not higher.”
Still, without a strong determinant of what causes autism, the anti-vaccine camp will continue to hold on to their hypothesis. The danger is clear when you consider that lowering immunization rates have already caused an increase in previously controlled diseases in young American children.
“Researchers now link falling immunization rates to recent resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases. In 2010, California saw 9,120 cases of whooping cough, more than any year since the whooping cough vaccine was introduced in the 1940s. Ten infants too young to be vaccinated died of whooping cough during the outbreak. The CDC warns that events like these will become more frequent and harder to control if vaccination rates continue to fall.
“Fears over the safety of vaccines are understandable. The CDC vaccination schedule calls for children to receive up to 14 inoculations by the age of six – many of them vaccines developed within the last twenty years. Many parents distrust these vaccines, worried about the potential for risks and long-term side effects. Research, however, shows that most of our biggest fears about vaccinations are unfounded.” (publichealth.org, 2021)
In essence, humanity has developed vaccines to immunize against life threatening diseases, made these lifesaving medicines readily available, and some folks have formed irrational anti-vaccine theories and put themselves and their communities at severe, undue risk. Can you imagine your infant child dying of a disease that humanity had eradicated through immunization because persons in your community refused to get vaccinated? It’s a bona fide tragedy that this can happen.
Recent studies have identified symptoms of ASD in children well before they receive the MMR vaccine, which further debunks the myth that vaccines cause autism. Dr Nowab asserts that, “Autism is multi-factorial. Genetics play a role. Early detection and early intervention are key.”
Indeed, research is now emerging with evidence that ASD develops in utero, which completely removes vaccinations from the equation. So, in conclusion, here’s a comprehensive closing statement from webmd. com (reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD, 2020): “The research is clear: Vaccines don’t cause autism.”