A lot, actually. And I mean that as a society, not as my individual family. With Internet access and resources like PubMed open to the public, society has a lot of access to information that can be confusing. We’re going to discuss some facts, myths, and history in this post. Keep reading to learn more about the supposed association between vaccines and autism.
When I was a kid, there was never any doubt about vaccines. At least, not in the social circles I was in. Then when I was a young teenager, my nephew was diagnosed with Autism. I did not know anything about Autism at the time. I just heard someone say vaccines were the cause.
As years went by, I’d had the doubt for so long; I began to see it as truth. Then I met my husband. Vaccines came up during a conversation, and I learned that he believed differently.
Disagreeing about vaccines is a big deal for any couple planning to have kids. I didn’t take it too seriously at the time, but I know this could have ended badly. If we had had our little girl without being on the same page about such a controversial topic, we would be at odds.
Thankfully, over the following couple of years of that initial conversation, accurate information got pushed on me without me having to search for it. It’s hard to know what to believe and what not to believe when so many sources present conflicting information. I didn’t know what I could trust, or what was true.
Autism is the biggest concern for most who are anti-vaccine.
The first major publication was back in 1998 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. He published an article, along with 12 other individuals, claiming a link between Autism and the combined vaccine for measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) in the Lancet.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say that their article said they could not find a causal relationship (meaning they had no proof that MMR caused Autism). But they went on to publish a video that said there was. The recommendation was to use the single vaccine instead.
According to their claim, the single dose was harmless. Interestingly enough, Dr. Wakefield had applied for a patent of a version of the single dose vaccine a few years before.
If people were afraid of using the combined MMR, they would flood to using the single dose instead, including his patented version. His published article gave him a monetary gain.
Understandably, the public reacted to his findings. The idea that a vaccine can adversely affect your children is frightening.
The article was published in a renowned medical journal. There was no reason to doubt it.
But in the world of research, every finding must be checked. So researchers set out to conduct their own studies. For research to be considered reliable, the results need to be reproducible.
Reliability is an important factor to determine how trustworthy research is. The other determining factor is validity. You can read more about the two factors here.
The research community set out to determine the reliability of Dr. Wakefield’s results.
it’s reliability was zero.
No one could reproduce his results. People tried for a decade, but they had to come to the conclusion that his research was wrong.
Most of the individuals who published the article with him retracted on their claims. In 2010, the Lancet retracted the paper itself.
Within a few months of the retraction, Dr. Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in Britain. It had been uncovered that his research was funded by people planning to sue vaccine manufacturers by lawyers representing parents of Autistic children.
In other words, he was paid to publish there was a link between MMR and Autism. With an article in a well-known medical journal claiming a link, the lawyers had grounds to fight on. Without it, they did not have a case.
The following year, a British journalist examined the research. He found that what was published did not match the data of the study. Twelve children were studied. The claim was made that eight of them showed signs of Autism or other issues following a vaccine.
When the journalist checked the data, he found that only two of the children showed signs of symptoms. He also found that at least two of the children in the study were already marked in their records as being delayed before they received vaccines.
Dr. Wakefield picked children who could produce the results he wanted. His research was biased and flawed.
Source: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 2018. “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” History of Vaccines. Retrieved November 6, 2018 (https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/do-vaccines-cause-autism).
Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative. We all know mercury is bad. Pregnant women avoid eating too much fish during pregnancy because the mercury levels could harm their babies. Thimerosal was never used in live vaccines like the MMR.
So why is it allowed in other vaccines? Why do vaccines even need a preservative?
A need for preservatives in vaccines was found in the early 20th century. People were dying from contaminated vaccines across the globe. With no preservative to protect against contamination, vaccines were turning out to be more harmful than helpful.
Preservatives before thimerosal would decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine by reducing potency. Thimerosal maintained potency.
Thimerosal was used because of the type of mercury it is. It is ethylmercury, not methylmercury. Methylmercury is what’s found in fish. It does not absorb and excrete well in the human body. Ethylmercury does.
Researchers had found that people could withstand a high dosage of ethylmercury without negative effects and thimerosal worked well as a preservative. It was deemed safe to use in vaccines.
Then at the end of the 20th century, people started to get concerned about mercury, and the FDA required everyone to claim the amount of mercury their products contained.
The amount of ethylmercury in vaccines was more than the recommended amount of methylmercury in fish. No one knew if that was a problem. While researchers had deemed it safe to use in the early 20th century, they never really looked into how much was safe to use. They just noticed people had a higher tolerance for it than they expected.
So to be on the safe side, the FDA worked with other groups, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, to call on vaccine manufacturers to eliminate or heavily reduce the amount of ethylmercury in their products.
The problem resulted in people conducting research to determine if thimerosal was harmful. It was found that it wasn’t. Before the research was completed, manufacturers removed thimerosal from their products.
Today, all but a few vaccines are thimerosal-free.
The CDC has a list of other ingredients in vaccines and their purposes.
Baker, Jeffrey P. 2008. “Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism One Controversy, Three Histories.” American Journal of Public Health. Retrieved November 6, 2018 (https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2007.113159).
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 2018. “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” History of Vaccines. Retrieved November 6, 2018 (https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/do-vaccines-cause-autism).
I’ve cited two sources of information up to this point. One is an actual research article. The other compiles information from research articles and shortens the read. The latter is shorter and easier to understand. The former is long but full of great information like why it was expected for diagnosis rates of autism to increase.
If this is a subject you are concerned about, I highly recommend reading both of them.
Another source is the Autism Science Foundation. Their organization (and all their money) is dedicated to uncovering the cause of autism. The link is for their page which unravels the connection between vaccines and autism.
They have literally dozens of journal articles ready for you to read to debunk this myth. At the very bottom of the page, there are links to pamphlets that break down the information into an easier to read form.
To Be Continued:
What are your thoughts on this controversial subject?