Whenever a disease is on the rise, people search for answers and feel the need to find a reason for the cause. This is a naturally occurring human response. Since the rate of autism has been on the rise, it is understandable that people search for a cause for the debilitating developmental disease. In a few incidents, onset of autism has closely followed the administration of the MMR vaccine, resulting in increased scrutiny and scapegoating of this widely used immunization. In truth, we may not yet have all the answers to how and why the condition develops. Whereas there may have been some noteworthy correlations between the administration of MMR vaccine and the onset of autism in particular cases, a closer inspection of available research and suggested findings do not show causality. For the people whose children were affected, that will not provide them the answers they are looking for, and they will understandably continue to seek the truth regarding what caused their child’s autism. Data obtained via thorough and objective scientific studies provides the strongest evidence, and the results have concluded the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Though there is a present concern that the MMR vaccine may cause autism, numerous scientific studies disprove this theory and show zero causation between the seemingly meaningful correlation of the MMR vaccine and autism.
People are claiming that vaccinations caused their child’s autism because they are first realizing their child’s symptoms in the short time period after the child has received an MMR vaccination. Those who believe media over science have fostered the popular opinion that too many vaccinations, in particular, the MMR vaccine, will cause their child to become autistic. The MMR vaccine was introduced in 1980 and “combines three vaccines into one injection.”1 Three hypotheses that the anti-vaccine population proposes are that first, “the combination [of the] MMR vaccine causes autism by damaging the intestinal lining, which allows the entrance of encephalopathic proteins.”2 Second, thimerosal, which is an organomercury compound, thought to be found in the MMR vaccine, is toxic to the central nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. Lastly “simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms or weakens the immune system.”3 Various scientists have studied these claims and found them baseless and false. Andrew Wakefield, former surgeon and medical researcher, emphasis on former, published a fraudulent study in 1998 stating that there is a correlation-causation between the MMR vaccine, the appearance of autism and bowel related diseases in young children.4 His inaccurate research included only twelve subjects, which provides no statistical significance, and has thrown the world into a spiral of distrust of medicine and doctors. Wakefield’s article not only brought shame into the science world, but also has been retracted because of his inaccurate evidence and flawed findings that have yet to be replicated. Many scientists cannot prove his findings but instead they have found the opposite. In fact, ten of Wakefield’s thirteen coauthors have retracted the paper’s conclusions and their position on the debacle.5 Though Wakefield’s study is a completely false scientific research disaster, it gives hope to the grief stricken parents searching for something to blame.
A multiplicity of doctors has disproved the first hypothesis that must be addressed, which regards damage to the intestinal lining. Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia claims, “Measles mumps or rubella vaccine viruses have not been found to cause chronic intestinal inflammation or loss of intestinal barrier function.”6 Many studies were performed and from all the data, doctors and researchers were able to conclude that the date at which young children receive the vaccine, is not a risk factor of autism.7 One specific study headed in Finland by Dr. Annamari Patja, examined children with gastrointestinal symptoms after the MMR vaccine administration; none of which developed autism.8 A closer look into the study reveals that, there is “no vaccine-associated cases of autism among 1.8 million children.”9 1.8 million children is a significant sample size, which allows for correct statistical inference and analysis. Patja concluded that there was a “complete absence of an association between gastrointestinal disease and autism after [the administration of the] MMR vaccine.”10 Like this study, extensive others have been replicated and reveal similar results that there is no causation between the administration of the MMR vaccine and the onset of autism. Innumerable doctors agree with Patja that, “serious events casually related to MMR vaccine are rare and greatly outweighed by the risks of natural MMR diseases.”11 The majority of doctors would speculate that it is more common for one to obtain measles, mumps or rubella than to develop the rarity of a gastrointestinal problem from the MMR vaccine itself.
Thimerosal, the second myth, is one of the leading concerns of parents and those who believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism, but it “is not contained in live-virus vaccines, such as MMR”12 according to Offit. One main concern is the 50% ethylmercury that thimerosal contains.13 In 1999 the “American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service recommended the immediate removal of mercury from all vaccines given to young infants.”14 Thimerosal was completely removed from all vaccines by 2001.15 Clearly, this alarmed previously sensitized parents and rekindled their argument that vaccines cause autism. For those who aim to blame the MMR vaccine for their child’s autism, mercury poisoning shows fundamentally different signs and symptoms than that of autism. There is also “no evidence of elevated mercury levels in autistic children,” so the mercury could not have been the cause.16 To further refute the claim that thimerosal causes central nervous system damage that ultimately leads to autism, seven studies were performed which all concluded that there is, “no relationship between thimerosal exposure and autism diagnosis.”17 The idea that the vaccine could indeed cause autism is implausible to doctors at this point.
The third theory that too many vaccines can overwhelm the immune system and cause autism in children is absurd. Vaccines are not made to overwhelm the immune system and according to Offit, “even conservative estimates predict the capacity to respond to thousands of vaccines simultaneously.”18 The number of childhood vaccines has increased over the years because medicine has advanced. Doctors have discovered more medicines that can protect against a new array of diseases. The increase in vaccines administered is meant to protect the children, not to disable them. Contrary to popular sensationalized opinions fueled by media, Offit states, “autism is not an immune-mediated disease… there is no evidence of immune activation or inflammatory lesions in the central nervous system of people with autism.”19 This completely disproves the theory that too many vaccines can cause an exaggerated immune response that will precipitate autism. The three myths are ineffective in finding a link, and blatantly inaccurate.
One might wonder what does, in fact, cause autism? First of all, “autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in social reciprocity, communication deficits and restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests.”20 The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that autism is seen in one out of eighty-eight Americans.21 Doctors have seen a steady increase in the rate of diagnosis of autism over the past ten years.22 According to Dr. Vahabzadeh, “Countless different alterations in brain chemistry or anatomy, environmental exposures or genetic disturbances [can] lead to the development of [an] ASD [autism spectrum disorder].”23 Susan Brinks of National Geographic thinks that the best data to explain the rise in autism is genetics.24 She states that, “Some researchers have found a connection between older fathers and an increased risk of autism in their children. Or the increase could be due to more awareness of autism and a broader definition of the disorder.”25 Since the rate of autism is rising, and there has been an increase in the number of vaccinations children receive. Hopeful parents want a cause, and as a result, blame the vaccines. The exposure, however, has been steady and therefore cannot be the explanation for the increase in the diagnosis of autism. It is hard to completely resolve the theory until doctors find the true cause of autism. The fact is, “autism occurs after MMR vaccine at the same rate that it occurs in children who did not receive the vaccine.”26
The belief in vaccine-induced autism is causing parents to postpone or abstain from childhood vaccinations.27 200,000 people die each year from measles, which can be prevented by the vaccine.28 There are outbreaks on the rise, which endanger those who elect not to vaccinate. According to the World Health Organization, every year, 2.5 million unvaccinated children worldwide die of diseases that are preventable by vaccines, and those same vaccines do prevent the deaths of an additional 2 million children.29 The benefits of vaccines clearly outweigh their risks, especially if one of the risks is death! An outbreak of measles in 1989-1991 caused 11,000 hospitalizations and twelve deaths in the USA. Rubella, on the other hand causes deafness, blindness and mental retardation.30 Some anti-vaccine believers, like Rob Schneider, believe that vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe,” but that is a false statement.31 There are two courses of action: vaccinate your child and prevent curable diseases, or do not vaccinate, avoid the precaution, and be the victim of a presumably rare disease that can mentally and or physically be disabling. It’s a simple choice: avoid the outbreak, avoid the risks, and support vaccinations. There is a second trouble with not vaccinating your children; it can be spread to other children and adults that have not been vaccinated. If the vaccination rate drops below a certain point, heard immunity is no longer in place, which puts everyone at risk for an outbreak that could potentially be deadly. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics believe that “vaccines are an essential part of child health” and they “continue to recommend that children receive all vaccines currently approved for routine use.”32 These prestigious and trust worthy sources claim that there is no relationship between autism and vaccines and continue to encourage vaccination. Take their word!
The number one reason that people are claiming vaccinations cause autism is that parents are realizing their children’s symptoms shortly after the child is vaccinated. This is a coincidence because most children receive routine vaccinations at a young age. Children receive the first shot of the MMR vaccine around thirteen months and the second around four to six years of age.33 The official diagnosis claims that “symptoms must begin before the age of three although they are present much earlier.”34 Martin Downs MPH offers an explanation to the parents who said that, “their kids seemed to be developing normally, then suddenly stopped interacting with people and lost language abilities.”35 Downs calls this condition regressive autism.36 The average onset of regression is between fourteen and twenty-four months of age.37 In fact, “one third of children develop normally for the first twelve to eighteen months, then cease talking, become socially unresponsive and use objects in repetitive and inappropriate ways.”38 Regressive autism is quite common in autistic children. Notice the date of the first administration is around thirteen months, right around the average time that the regression symptoms begin to surface. Autism symptoms become apparent at the same time that children have routine vaccinations because it typically presents itself in the first three years of life, which is when most children are receiving the majority of vaccines.39 This correlation between the age of onset of symptoms, and the administration of vaccines is purely coincidental and not causational.
Jenny McCarthy, a past Playboy model, and mother of an autistic child, believes that her child developed autism because of the specific MMR vaccine. She is a false authority on the topic, contradicting the advice of the CDC, and urging mothers to avoid the MMR vaccine. She claims that doctors need to, “wake up and stop hurting our kids.”40 Doctors are, in fact, doing the exact opposite. Doctors do not aim to hurt children; they aim to provide the best medical advice and care. Regressive autism is not caused by vaccinations and unfortunately is incurable. Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccination groups have cost doctors a lot of money and time prompting them to research and disprove every theory they come up with. The doctors could use this time, to instead, research something else that could eventually save a life rather than to disprove something that has been proven wrong countless times.
Jenny McCarthy, along with other false authorities, such as Rosie O’Donnell, use the power of media to gain viewers’ support. McCarthy has appeared on numerous television shows and proclaimed that vaccines are toxins that are being injected into children’s bodies, which ultimately leads to the development of autism. These false authorities appeal to the distressed parents of autistic children who are looking for a scapegoat. Thousands, even millions, of people view these shows and public appearances, and this skillful use of the media is spreading the fictitious, but popular belief, that the MMR vaccine causes autism. McCarthy as well as others who are voicing inaccurate information, think they are helping other parents and preventing the future development of autism. They are preaching no vaccinations, which means they are accepting and discouraging the prevention of a disabling and potentially deadly disease in children. The media is the central contributor to this outbreak in incorrect thoughts and theories, and it has the power to put this debate to an end, but there is, and always will be, those nonbelievers in vaccinations.
Every scientific research study to date that has not been retracted, has concluded the same results: the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. There is no difference in occurrence in autism between children that were immunized and children who weren’t. There is even a theory out there that poor parenting causes autism.41 Theories are ideas that are possibly accurate but unproven, and the theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism is exactly that. The rumormongers do not have an actual theory, they think that they know what they are talking about but they cannot prove it. Their fears and irrationality lead them to pursue the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism, because they cannot accept the truth, and recognize that they do not have anything or anyone to blame for their child’s disease. There are an abundance of theories as to what causes autism, but no theory can be put to rest until the actual cause of autism is determined. The MMR vaccine saves, literally, millions of lives each year worldwide. Getting rid of the vaccine would put millions of lives at risk. The only real cause of pain this vaccine imposes is the sharp pinch when the needle penetrates the skin and the vaccine is injected. That pain is worth a life.
1. Laura Ellen Schreibman, “The Science and Fiction of Autism,” (Harvard University Press, 2005).
2. Jeffrey S Gerber and Paul A. Offit, “Vaccines And Autism: A Tale Of Shifting Hypotheses.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 48, no. 4 (2009): 456-461.
4. Maggie McKee, “Controversial MMR and Autism Study Retracted.” New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4743#.Uv5bmCgWKDo.
6. Paul Offit, “Communicating Science to the Public: MMR Vaccine and Autism,” Vaccine 22, no 1, 2003.
7. Brent Taylor, Elizabeth Miller, and Paddy Farrington PhD, “Autism and Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccine: No Epidemiological Evidence for a Casual Association.” The Lancet 353, no. 9169 (1999): 2026-2029.
8. Annamari Patja, Irja Davidkin, and Tapio Kurki. “Serious Adverse Events After Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination During a Fourteen-Year Prospective Follow-Up.” Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal 19, no. 2, 2000, 1127-2000.
10. Offit, “Communicating Science to the Public: MMR Vaccine and Autism.”
13. Gerber and Offit, “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses.”
14. Sarah Glazer, “Increase in Autism.” CQ Researcher 13, no. 23 (June 13, 2003): 545-68. Last modified July 22, 2010.
15. Eric Hollander, Alex Kolevzon, and Joseph T. Coyle, Textbook of Autism Spectrum Disorders, American Psychiatric Pub, 2011.
16. Schreibman, “The Science and Fiction of Autism.”
17. Gerber and Offit, “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses.”
18. Offit, “Communicating Science to the Public: MMR Vaccine and Autism.”
19. Gerber and Offit, “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypothesis.”
20. Janne Visser, Nanda Rommelse, and Lianne Vink, “Narrowly Versus Broadly Defined Autism Spectrum Disorders: Differences in Pre- and Perinatal Risk Factors.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43 (2012): 1505-1516.
21. “Autism Spectrum Disorder” Yale Medical Group, http://yalemedicalgroup.org/info/health.aspx?ContentTypeId=90&ContentId=P02556.
22. Gerber and Offit, “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypothesis.”
23. Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D., “What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?” The Huffington Post, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arshya-vahabzadeh/autism-causes_b_3652527.html.
24. Susan Brink, “One Thing We Know About Autism: Vaccines Aren’t to Blame.” National Geographic, July 16, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130716-autism-vaccines-mccarthy-view-medicine-science/.
26. Offit, “Communicating Science to the Public: MMR Vaccine and Autism.”
27. Rob Schneider, “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?,” YouTube, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xv_IaLHwgAQ.
28. Michelle A Recame, “The Immunization-Autism Myth Debunked.” International Journal of Childbirth Education 27, no. 4 (2012): 76, Academiconefile.
29. Martin Downs, “Autism-Vaccine Link: Evidence Doesn’t Dispel Doubts.” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/searching-for-answers/vaccines-autism.
30. Kathy Koch, “Vaccine Controversies.” CQ Researcher 10, no. 28, (August 25, 2000): 641-72, http://library.cqpress.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/cqresearcher/cqresrre2000082500.
31. Schneider, “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?”
32. Glazer, “Increase in Autism.”
33. Schreibman, “The Science and Fiction of Autism.”
34. Betty Fry Williams and Randy Lee Williams, Effective Programs for Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder Applied Behavior Analysis Models (New York: Routledge, 2011).
35. Downs, “Autism- Vaccine Link: Evidence Doesn’t Dispel Doubts.”
37. Sally Ozonoff, Brenda Williams, and Rebecca Landa, “Parental Report of the Early Development of Children With Regressive Autism.” Autism 9, no. 5 (2005): 461-486.
38. Williams and Williams, Effective Programs for Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder Applied Behavior Analysis Models.
39. MediLexicon International, “What is Autism? What Causes Autism?” Medical News Today, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism/.
40. Jenny McCarthy, interview by Kiran Chetry, American Morning, CNN, October 23, 2008.
41. Thomas L Whitman, The Development of Autism a Self-Regulatory Perspective, (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004).
“Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Yale Medical Group. http://yalemedicalgroup.org/info/health.aspx?ContentTypeId=90&ContentId=P02556.
Brink, Susan. “One Thing We Know About Autism: Vaccines Aren’t to Blame.” National Geographic, July 16, 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130716-autism-vaccines-mccarthy-view-medicine-science/.
Downs, Martin. “Autism-Vaccine Link: Evidence Doesn’t Dispel Doubts.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/searching-for-answers/vaccines-autism.
Gerber, Jeffrey S., and Paul A. Offit. “Vaccines And Autism: A Tale Of Shifting Hypotheses.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 48, no. 4 (2009): 456-461.
Glazer, Sarah. “Increase in Autism.” CQ Researcher 13, no. 23 (June 13, 2003): 545-68. Last modified July 22, 2010. http://library.cqpress.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/cqresearcher/cqresrre2003061300.
Hollander, Eric, Alex Kolevzon, and Joseph T. Coyle. Textbook of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Pub., 2011.
Koch, Kathy. “Vaccine Controversies.” CQ Researcher 10, no. 28 (August 25, 2000): 641-72. http://library.cqpress.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/cqresearcher/cqresrre2000082500.
McCarthy, Jenny. Interview by Kiran Chetry. American Morning. CNN, October 23, 2008.
MediLexicon International. “What is Autism? What Causes Autism?.” Medical News Today. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism/.
McKee, Maggie . “Controversial MMR and Autism Study Retracted.” New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4743#.Uv5bmCgWKDo.
Offit , Paul. “Communicating Science To The Public: MMR Vaccine And Autism.” Vaccine 22, no. 1 (2003): 1-6.
Ozonoff, Sally, Brenda Williams, and Rebecca Landa. “Parental Report of the Early Development of Children With Regressive Autism.” Autism 9, no. 5 (2005): 461-486.
Patja, Annamari , Irja Davidkin, and Tapio Kurki. “Serious Adverse Events After Measles- Mumps-Rubella Vaccination During a Fourteen-Year Prospective Follow-Up.” Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal 19, no. 2 (2000): 1127-2000.
Recame, Michelle A. . “The Immunization-Autism Myth Debunked.” International Journal of Childbirth Education 27, no. 4 (2012): 76. Academiconefile.
Schreibman, Laura Ellen. The Science and Fiction of Autism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Schneider, Rob. “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” YouTube. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xv_IaLHwgAQ.
Taylor, Brent, Elizabeth Miller, and Paddy Farrington, PhD. “Autism and Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccine: No Epidemiological Evidence for a Casual Association.” The Lancet 353, no. 9169 (1999): 2026-2029.
Vahabzadeh, Arshya M.D. “What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?.” The Huffington Post. 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arshya-vahabzadeh/autism- causes_b_3652527.html.
Visser, Janne, Nanda Rommelse, and Lianne Vink. “Narrowly Versus Broadly Defined Autism Spectrum Disorders: Differences in Pre- and Perinatal Risk Factors.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 43 (2012): 1505-1516. Doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1678-6.
Whitman, Thomas L.. The Development of Autism a Self-Regulatory Perspective. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004.
Williams, Betty Fry, and Randy Lee Williams. Effective Programs for Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder Applied Behavior Analysis Models. New York: Routledge, 2011.