Do immunizations cause autism? Don’t ask a celebrity

We don’t take advice from celebrities on many issues, like how to avoid scandal or how to turn down Oprah’s request for an interview. Why? Because celebrities are renowned for both scandalous behavior and illuminating Oprah interviews. But it’s surprising what we do take advice from celebrities about and increasingly, that is whether or not to vaccinate our children.

There are a lot of wacky theories surrounding immunizations, from secret government microchips transmitted through vaccination shots to the effectiveness of faith-only “medicine”. Faith-only “medicine” is the practice of using religious devotion and prayer in place of real medicine to cure disease and heal the afflicted. While there is an abundance of evidence favoring science-based medicine with predictable results, faith-only “medicine” requires…well, faith; most often with unfavorable results, as in Texas right now. By the way, if this practice sounds medieval, it’s because it is.

However entertaining (or scary) the hokier theories sound, by far the anti-immunization myth with the most traction out there is the claim that immunizations cause autism. Because the idea is so popular, it is also the most damaging to children and public health.

Where the autism myth comes from

It all seemingly began in 1998. A study by discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield was published in the medical journal The Lancet. In the paper, Wakefield suggested a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. For the study, skillfully summarized here, the former doctor scrutinized a dozen children with “chronic intestinal disorders” and “severe mental regression”. He posited that the MMR vaccine could have caused an intestinal infection, and further, that infection instigated damage to the brains of his subjects.

After the paper was published, large numbers of fearful parents from the UK and Australia to the United States refused to have their children immunized. Preventable infectious disease, once all but eradicated from these countries, began to spread anew. When the vast majority of the public is immunized against deadly disease, a few people without the immunities are protected. This is called herd immunity. When the number of people without immunities grows, as it did following Wakefield’s paper, a large number of people are at risk of infection and that measure of protection disappears.

Another theory behind the immunizations-cause-autism myth is the idea that the preservative thimerosal, once used in vaccinations, caused autism. Due to this concern and a fear that another unfounded theory would prompt an even greater decrease in immunized children, thimerosal–which contains mercury–was removed from nearly all vaccinations well over a decade ago.

The science-based reality

Not only is there no causal evidence that merits debate on this issue, the elimination of thimerosal from vaccinations in 2001 has had no statistical effect on occurrences of autism. The Centers for Disease Control has a fairly extensive review of this and other autism-related subjects. Thimerosal is still used in one type of influenza vaccine, but according to the CDC, there is a non-thimerosal alternative available.

Three years ago, the journal that originally published Dr. Wakeman’s ill-devised study retracted the paper. The reason? It turns out Dr. Wakeman had treated the children he used in his study unethically and harmfully, subjecting them to invasive and unnecessary tests. Britain’s General Medical Council found that he “showed a callous disregard” for the pain of the youths he and his colleagues studied.

Furthermore, he had a ton of financial incentive to make his assertions: a year before the paper was published, he had patented his own measles vaccine that could be used in the event the MMR vaccine he was studying was discontinued. Additionally, his study was partially funded by attorneys representing a group of parents hoping to be paid damages in a lawsuit against vaccine makers. Given the council’s findings, Andrew Wakeman’s medical license was summarily revoked.

Despite the scandal—or maybe because of it–Dr. Wakefield now insists that he never suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccination. Just so, considering a laudable number of subsequent studies have found no causal link between autism and the MMR vaccination. Most pediatricians—including my children’s own, in the interest of full disclosure—continue to recommend life-saving vaccinations for infants and children.

A lack of evidentiary findings doesn’t necessarily mean definitive proof, as any scientist can tell you. Scientific theory changes when new evidence presents itself. That is the crux of the issue; there has been no corroborating evidence. Lack of evidentiary findings in addition to an inability to replicate Wakeman’s discredited assertions makes an autism-immunization link not only highly unlikely but has compelled general consensus in the medical community.

The bad news

The evidence, or lack thereof in this case, hasn’t stopped stars like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey from using their celebrity status and whatever soapbox they can borrow to disseminate these harmful anti-immunization theories. Jenny McCarthy has made many public appearances and wrote a book about her son’s experience with autism. Jim Carrey famously wrote an article that was published on the Huffington Post website. Both stars are part of a growing movement to resist vaccinations and were part of a “Green Vaccine” rally in 2008.

Meanwhile, preventable infectious diseases like measles and whooping cough are spreading; with deadly consequences. The number of people endangering the public’s health and helping to eliminate herd immunity has risen to such an extent that some areas of the country are revising immunization policy.

Even though we are only 99.9% sure vaccinations do not cause autism, the jury is not still out. Medical professionals and science-based medicine agree: immunizations save lives. So long as infectious disease exists, it is vitally important to immunize against it.