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Autism and Vaccines

For most people, vaccinations are seen as necessary to prevent the spread of contagious and fatal disease. However, there are those who believe vaccinations are actually causing more harm to the individual receiving these inoculations than good. It has been speculated that there is a correlation between receiving vaccinations and the onset of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are several explanations as to why the theory of vaccinations causing autism spectrum disorders came to be. For one, the onset of autism and the delivery of vaccinations typically occur around the same time in an infant’s life. Other speculation suggests that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine can create intestinal problems leading to the development of autism in children. This idea originally stems from the 1998 Wakefield study, which concluded the MMR vaccine was the root cause of ASD in several test subjects, however the publication of this study was later retracted.1 Another theory conjectures that mercury present in thimerosal, a preservative designed to increase the shelf life of vaccinations, can cultivate developmental disorders.

The Wakefield Study
The controversy surrounding vaccines and autism surfaced in 1998 with Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study on 12 children with gastrointestinal difficulties and developmental problems.1 The Wakefield study, which was published in a February 1998 issue of The Lancet, concluded the MMR vaccine was the root cause of developmental disorders in 8 of the 12 children studied.1 The published study “sparked a worldwide debate over the safety of inoculating children against diseases like the measles and inspired a health scare that still persists to this day – including among medical professionals.”2 In fact, a 2006 study published in the European Journal of Public Health concluded the “MMR uptake has been remaining at sub optimal levels in the UK since the controversial study by Wakefield was published.”3 Naturally, the drop in MMR vaccinations has resulted in an increase of measles outbreaks in different regions of the globe. For example, “In the UK, vaccination rates fell from 92 to 73 percent. In 2008, measles were declared endemic in England and Wales. In northern Germany, an outbreak of mumps in a school where parents opposed vaccinations revealed that of the 71 children infected, 68 hadn’t been iummunized.”4 The effect of reduced vaccination rates can be felt in the states as well, as “[a]cross America vaccinations have fallen below the acceptable ‘herd immunity’ rate of 90 percent.”4 The idea of herd immunity makes sense in that if a large number of people are immunized against a particular disease, the outbreak of that disease will be contained, instead of spreading throughout the entire population.5 The alarming decrease in vaccination rates seemingly stems from the publication of the Andrew Wakefield study and the resulting media coverage, despite the fact that the study was later found to be poorly constructed with no experimental control subjects, riddled with inaccuracies, and unable to be replicated by the scientific community.6

In 2004, a Sunday Times article by Brian Deer exposed the devious nature of Wakefield’s study.7 The accusations against Wakefield include subjecting children to unnecessary tests, receiving funds from lawyers (reportedly in excess of £435,000 or $675,000) who were seeking to create lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, falsifying data to hide the fact that five of the children within the study had previously been diagnosed with developmental disorders prior to receiving the MMR vaccination, and filing for a patent for a new measles vaccine prior to the study.4 As a result, ten of the twelve original co-authors of the Wakefield study have retracted their names from The Lancet publication.8 The [i]Lancet retracted the entire publication altogether in 2010.1 In addition to these criticisms, Wakefield was disallowed to practice medicine in 2010 when the British General Medical Council ruled his “conduct was irresponsible and dishonest.”9 The mass amount of social and financial damage caused by the Wakefield study is indefinite. However, the financial costs of failing to vaccinate our children are quite substantial, which is made apparent by the CDC’s 2010 budget justification report that explains for “[e]very $1 spent on childhood series seven vaccines (DTaP, Td, Hib, polio, MMR, hepatitis B, and varicella) saves $16.50 on medical spending later.”10

Another component of the theory that vaccines lead to the development of autism spectrum disorders is the presence of the preservative thimerosal, which contains mercury, in vaccinations. Thimerosal is designed to increase the shelf-life of vaccinations and has been used in the United States for decades.11 There are primarily two types of mercury. One type, known as methlymercury, can build up in fish and remain in humans for long periods of time when digested.12 The other form of mercury used in thimerosal, known as ethylmercury, is broken down and excreted at a much faster pace than the potentially toxic methylmercury.11

Vaccines with the thimerosal preservative were discontinued by the FDA in 1999, and all but trace amounts were removed by 2001 (except for some influenza vaccines) as a precautionary measure.13 A 2008 article from the ScienceDaily reports “autism cases continued to increase in California after the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal was eliminated from most childhood vaccines… This suggests that exposure to thimerosal is not a primary cause of autism.”14 A 1992 study in Denmark concluded that there was no scientific evidence of a link between autism and thimerosal. Thimerosal was removed from all vaccines and “[d]espite this move, autism rates in the country continued to rise until 2004, the year in which the Danish study was terminated.”15

For most children, the MMR vaccine does not result in any side effects. However, 5% to 15% of children can develop fevers in excess of 103 degrees 7 to 12 days after receiving the injection; also a mild rash where the shot is given is a common side effect of the inoculation.16 There have been dozens of scientific studies conducted on the subject of the possible link between vaccinations and autism in an effort to reassure the public that vaccinations are indeed safe. These epidemiologic studies conclude “the findings have been quite consistent in indicating that thimerosal exposure is not responsible for the dramatic increases in autism cases witnessed over the past few decades.”17 However, more research into the potential link between the MMR vaccine, thimerosal containing vaccines (TCVs), and ASD should be a high priority of the medical community to ensure these vaccinations are indeed safe for our children.

Parents are urged to have their children undergo all vaccinations deemed necessary by their physician. Failure to vaccinate your children can result in an outbreak of any number of highly contagious and potentially fatal diseases.