Autism Controversy

A new study denies any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But parents who have heard anecdotal evidence to the contrary are already less likely to vaccinate their kids -- and we've got the measles outbreaks to prove it. Is there a scenario where anyone wins this battle?

Vaccine

There's a disease that affects the central nervous system as well as other critical systems in the body. If contracted, it can cause neurological symptoms months -- or even years -- after the original infection. At times, it's fatal. Fortunately, we've developed a vaccine to keep the measles from affecting our children. Unfortunately, many parents are choosing not to give their kids this immunization.

Well, of course they are! The MMR vaccine can cause autism. Everyone knows that, right?

"Vaccines cause autism!"… Or, maybe not

The link between autism and vaccines first burst into the limelight in 1998 thanks to a study published in The Lancet, a highly respected peer-reviewed medical journal. That study has been quoted and re-quoted over the years, and there are parents who know, with the same certainty as they know their children's names, that the study is right.

Here's the thing: the study looked at 12 children. Twelve. And six years after that study, 10 of its 13 authors retracted their original findings. They announced publicly that they did not have the evidence to support the theory that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

In the 10 years since that original study, several larger, more carefully controlled studies have proven that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But does it even matter anymore?

You know what you know

If you have a child with autism who got the MMR vaccine, or if you know a child with autism who got the MMR vaccine, or if you've heard that some children with autism had the MMR vaccine, you may already know, for sure, in your heart of hearts, that there is a connection. And your mind is made up, and your children are not getting the MMR vaccine, and that's all there is to it. There's just too much anecdotal evidence to ignore. You know what you know. And no doctor with his fancy degrees knows your child, your heart, better than you.

No one says, "Hey, I really want to have a child with special needs when I grow up." Parenting a child with autism -- with any developmental disorder -- is a long, tough road that you are forced to navigate, and you make the best of it, but no one sets off, checks out the two paths, one with flowers and sunshine, and one with abandoned land mines and says, "Hey, I've always wanted to risk life and limb!" (For more on that point, see our article "When autism is family: Everyday life with an autistic child.")

I have a son with a rare genetic syndrome, and I know, it's no walk in the park. And I know that there are things I know about my son -- and no one can convince me I'm wrong, no matter what medical evidence says to the contrary. So I get it. I know what it feels like to know you're right and to have to listen to the rest of the world not get it.

But what you don't know can hurt you

But. But. The New York Times says, "There has been an upsurge of measles cases in the United States." A Chicago Tribune writer agrees and adds that "parents who reject vaccination are shouldering much of the blame." Measles comes to the U.S. from foreigners, in most cases. Ten years ago, the disease might enter the states and quickly dissipate. But now, it's spreading to unvaccinated children. Don't we have a responsibility to our kids to protect them from a disease that could kill them?

So, perhaps the question we have to answer is, "How do we know what we know?" What makes us so certain that there must be a link between vaccines and autism, even when all the evidence says otherwise? So often, the decision not to vaccinate is made precisely because a parent believes she is an educated consumer, doing the right thing for her child. But where is that parent getting her information? And how does she respond to evidence that refutes her beliefs?

It's a genuine question. Please take the time to consider it carefully, and respond in the comments section below. Dialogue doesn't work if it's only one-sided.

Autism resources and information

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Comments

Comments on "The Autism/Vaccine (Dis)Connection"

Karen June 25, 2013 | 2:00 AM

@Mark, how could your vaccinated kids possibly be at risk? They're protected by vaccines, right? Our culture has a fear-based response to questions, and wants to muzzle the debate. I want to know the answer to this one simple question: How does the immune system deal with being simultaneously injected with three different viruses? Again, and again and again. BIG question mark. Is there a link between this kind of modern vaccination and the plethora of immune diseases on the rise? Is anyone allowed to study this?

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Mark May 14, 2011 | 4:37 PM

I find it amazing that there are so many ignorant people out there. The (inaccurate) study was done way back in 1998 - if the study was valid, there has been plenty of time since then to have eradicated autism. THIRTEEN YEARS! Hey, guess what? Autism is still showing up - and now, so is measles! So, all of you "common sense challenged" individuals continue to resist the measles vaccine among others. There's a reason why the phrase "survival of the fittest" exists. Morons.

Betsy September 15, 2008 | 12:28 PM

I also want to add regarding the specific question of "Don't we have a responsibility to our kids to protect them from a disease [or incident] that could kill them?" We take risks with out children's lives every day, including each and every time we strap them into a car with us. Even if the herd immunity for measles went completely away, there is a greater statistical likelihood that my child will die in a car accident than die of the measles. If I could administer the MMR vaccine 100% without risk I would do it, but it is irresponsible reporting to state that there is 100% no risk of the MMR (or any) vaccine. And the lack of statistical perspective is sadly lacking in reports from the medical establishment, the vaccine industry and, sadly, mainstream media.

Betsy September 15, 2008 | 10:55 AM

There are a lot of flaws in the reasoning of this article. First, it sets up the fallacy that every parent who chooses to not vaccinate does so because they "have a feeling" that vaccines cause autism. Straw man! Let's set the record straight here - I know a lot of parents, including myself, who have chosen to delay vaccinations because they DON'T TRUST the medical establishment and their propaganda on this issue - and with good reason. There is a billion dollar agenda on the line behind vaccine recommendations, and often they are pushed without adequate testing of their safety or efficacy. Secondly, studies that purport they "haven't found a link" between action X and consequence Y is not the same as *proving* no link exists. It's one possible conclusion - perhaps the most likely one, depending on how well the studies were conducted - but certainly not the ONLY conclusion. Another valid conclusion is that a link exists, but these particular studies didn't find it. Measles has the potential to be deadly, but the statistical likelihood of this outcome is teensy weensy. It is NOT the bubonic plague, for all that the propaganda would have you believe. Parents are right to be concerned, analytical and wary about vaccines. I wish MORE people, in general, looked at this issue (and the media reporting on it) with a critical eye. The question of autism causation aside, ALL of the recommended vaccines DO have a portion of risk. Not all of them even have a benefit that significantly outweighs the risk, especially amongst the youngest, most vulnerable members of our society. For a logical, reasoned and detailed analysis of risk vs. benefit for EACH recommended vaccine I encourage parents to read The Vaccine Book by Robert Sears, MD. And let me ask you this, readers: How many of YOU are up to date on your MMR - and any of the other 8+ recommended vaccines which are applicable to adults?

mark September 13, 2008 | 9:51 PM

for every new age nutcase who doesnt vaccinate their kids there are dozens of people like myself who follow the rules for the interest of their children and the public health. stop your suburban laziness and get the kid a shot and stop endangering the rest of us who read more than hollywood horsehockey to determine the well-being of our kids.

Shelly September 09, 2008 | 11:34 AM

My son just turned one and I'm terribly torn about vaccinations. Yes, I KNOW I was vaccinated and it didn't cause autism, but I also KNOW moms of kids with autism who attribute it to the MMR. Who's right?

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