Fact Or Fiction
Autism can be an extremely challenging diagnosis for parents and physicians. Some parents might attribute a connection between vaccines and their child’s autism diagnosis because of the timing when children begin exhibiting signs of autism.
Even with the best diagnosis available, children do not start showing the earliest signs of autism until 6 to 18 months. Sometimes, these signs are so subtle that physicians and parents miss them.
The CDC recommends that children receive the MMR vaccine at 12 to 18 months -- the same time frame children begin to show diagnosable signs of autism. This is likely one reason why some parents confuse a connection between the MMR vaccine and their child’s first signs of autism.
There are a lot of theories but no definitive causes of autism. Researchers continue to search for potential causes and cures. The Autism Science Foundation is dedicated to supporting autism research and providing funding to scientists and organizations conducting, supporting, and publicizing autism research.
Many parents may have heard that vaccines cause autism from a now-retracted study released in the late 1990s. A British physician, Andrew Wakefield, performed a study of twelve children that concluded that the children experienced the onset of developmental regression shortly after children received the MMR vaccine. Though there was no clear scientific link between MMR and autism, Wakefield stated that the vaccine should stop being used and his study was published in the British Medical Journal's (BMJ) Lancet.
This study has had a challenging past. Soon after publication, his fellow researchers began to question his findings. By 2004, ten out of Wakefield’s 12 co-authors had retracted their involvement in the study. By 2009, the U.K.’s Sunday Times revealed evidence that Wakefield had manipulated his data.
In 2010, BMJ's Lancet fully retracted the study, discounting it as false. The Lancet discovered that Wakefield acted unethically, taking blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party and performing other questionable actions. Wakefield also failed to disclose that he received funding from parents who believed that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The Wakefield study is one of less than fifteen studies the Lancet has retracted in its 186 year history.
The concern over a possible link between MMR vaccine and autism prompted many scientists and researchers to produce more studies. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and scientists around the world have conducted over two dozen studies in the past twelve years.
None of these studies has been able to recreate Wakefield’s findings or find any connections between the MMR vaccine and autism.
In March 2010 three judges ruled in three separate cases that thimerosal, preservative containing mercury, does not cause autism. And in 2009 The U.S. Court of Federal Claims found that after reviewing 5,000 tapes of transcripts, 939 medical articles, 50 expert reports and hearing testimony from 28 experts that MMR and thimerosal-containing vaccines do not cause autism. In September 2010 the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study adding to the evidence that there is no link. The study found that prenatal and infant exposure to thimerosal in vaccines does not increase the risk of autism.
Additionally, in May 2010 the British Medical Council barred Dr. Wakefield from practicing medicine, and his license was revoked. The council found Wakefield guilty on 30 charges of professional misconduct and determined that the only way to protect patients, the medical profession, and preserve public interest was to prohibit Wakefield from practicing.
To add to the study's list of faults, in January 2011 the BMJ released a special three-part series of articles, "Secrets of the MMR Scare," that reported the children’s conditions were intentionally falsified in the 1998 Lancet article as part of 'an elaborate fraud.' In the series, BMJ exposed the data behind the false claim that launched a worldwide scare over the MMR vaccine and revealed how the appearance of a link with autism was manufactured at a London medical school. The latter part of the series by journalist Brian Deer also revealed how Wakefield's scheme was designed to make Wakefield millions of dollars.
Wakefield’s single flawed, fraudulent study has led to parental distrust of the MMR vaccine, vaccine refusal and, ultimately, the resurgence of measles. Millions of dollars have been spent on research trying to recreate what is now known to be a false study.
What does the retraction of this study mean for parents? It means parents can be confident in choosing to immunize their children. It also means that we can focus our attention on researching causes of the devastating diagnosis of autism, which now affects 1 in 110 children in the U.S.