Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Vaccines and Autism: A Deadly Manufactroversy

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Vaccines and Autism: A Deadly Manufactroversy

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after."--Jonathan Swift

DURING A QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION after a talk I recently gave, I was asked for my opinion about the vaccine/autism controversy. That was easy: my opinion is that there is no controversy. The evidence is in. The scientific community has reached a clear consensus that vaccines don't cause autism. There is no controversy.

There is, however, a manufactroversy--a manufactured controversy--created by junk science, dishonest researchers, professional misconduct, outright fraud, lies, misrepresentations, irresponsible reporting, unfortunate media publicity, poor judgment, celebrities who think they are wiser than the whole of medical science, and a few maverick doctors who ought to know better. Thousands of parents have been frightened into rejecting or delaying immunizations for their children. The immunization rate has dropped, resulting in the return of endemic measles in the U.K. and various outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. Children have died. Herd immunity has been lost. The public health consequences are serious and are likely to get worse before they get better--a load of unscientific nonsense has put us all at risk.

The story is appalling. It involves high drama, charismatic personalities, conspiracy theories, accusations, intimidation, and even death threats. It would make a good movie. It does make a good book: Dr. Paul Offit has explained what happened in Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. (1) I can't tell the whole story here, but I'll try to cover the highlights as I understand them. I'll include some new revelations that were not available to Offit when his book went to press. As I see it, there were three main stages to this fiasco: (1) the MMR scare, (2) the mercury/thimerosal scare, and (3) the vaccines-in-general scare.

The MMR Scare

In 1998 a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published an article in the respected medical journal The Lancet. (2) He did intestinal biopsies via colonoscopy on 12 children with intestinal symptoms and developmental disorders, 10 of whom were autistic, and found a pattern of intestinal inflammation. The parents of 8 of the autistic children thought they had developed their autistic symptoms right after they got the MMR vaccine. The published paper stated clearly: "We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue."

Despite this disclaimer, Wakefield immediately held a press conference to say the MMR vaccine probably caused autism and recommended not stopping MMR injections, but giving the 3 individual components separately at intervals of a year or more. The media exploded with warnings like "Ban Three-in One Jab, Urge Doctors." The components were not available as individual vaccines, so people simply stopped immunizing. The immunization rate in the U.K. dropped from 93% to 75% (and to 50% in the London area). Confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008; two children died. In one small hospital in Ireland, 100 children were admitted for pneumonia and brain swelling caused by measles and three of them died. So, 14 years after measles had been declared under control in the U.K. it was declared endemic again in 2008.

Wakefield's data was later discredited (more about that later) but even if had been right, it wouldn't have been good science. To show that intestinal inflammation is linked to autism, you would have to compare the rate in autistic children to the rate in non-autistic children. Wakefield used no controls. To implicate the MMR vaccine, you would have to show that the rate of autism was greater in children who got the vaccine and verify that autism developed after the shot. …

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