U.S. Debunks Autism Myth
It's official: Vaccines don't cause autism, rules a special U.S. court. But will it put an end to parents’ dangerous fear of inoculating—or only make them more skeptical?
On Friday a special “vaccine court” charged with adjudicating claims against vaccine makers ruled that there was no causal connection between childhood vaccines and autism. The court—formally known as the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims—was created by Congress in the 1980s to centralize lawsuits brought for injuries resulting from vaccination. The court labored in obscurity until recently, when it began to hear cases involving autistic children whose condition, their parents alleged, was triggered by vaccines that contained thimerosal, a preservative that once was common many vaccines.
In yesterday’s ruling, the court definitively declared that there is no merit to the notion that thimerosal causes autism. As one of the court’s Special Masters wrote, the parents’ claims were “speculative and unpersuasive.” To conclude that vaccines caused autism, the Special Master wrote, “an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll’s White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or at least highly improbable) things before breakfast.”
One of the remarkable aspects of this story is how much ordinary people distrust the major medical associations and health organizations whose sole objective is to watch out for those people’s health.
For years parents have worried that vaccinating their children could lead to autism. The fear was sparked by a 1998 study by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s study, which was published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, suggested that children who received the MMR vaccine had higher rates of autism. Although Wakefield’s study only involved a dozen children, it caused a major uproar. In country after country, parents stopped vaccinating their children. In England, inoculation rates dropped from 92% to 80%. Immediately, in the United States fingers began to be pointed at thimerosal, which was used in some vaccines administered to children. One of the ingredients in thimerosal is mercury, a known toxin.
There were several major problems with Wakefield’s study. The first was that it couldn’t be replicated. Numerous researchers were inspired by the controversy to conduct their own studies on the effect of the MMR vaccine and of thimerosal. None found any statistically significant link. In fact, several of the studies found that children who received vaccines with thimerosal were less likely to develop autism.
The second problem with Wakefield’s study came when the vaccine makers stopped using thimerosal. Thimerosal was dropped as a preservative in MMR vaccines in 1999, but since then autism rates have skyrocketed. In 1999, the autism rate in the United States was just over one case per 1,000 children. Today, with no thimerosal used in vaccines, the autism rate is over five cases per 1,000 children. Clearly, something other than thimerosal is to blame for this troubling trend.
This was enough for all the major medical and health associations to announce that thimerosal had no connection to autism. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Medical Toxicology, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization all came out against the purported link between autism and vaccines.
But the evidence was not enough to convince parents of autistic children. One of the remarkable aspects of this story is how much ordinary people distrust the major medical associations and health organizations whose sole objective is to watch out for those people’s health. Many people feel these groups are beholden to pharmaceutical and other major corporations, promoting their interests over those of the common person. This is a worrisome phenomenon, especially as major health threats like avian and swine flu grow in importance.
Ironically, it was Dr. Wakefield that people shouldn’t have trusted. It turns out that Wakefield’s study was financed by lawyers interested in bringing lawsuits on behalf of parents who were sure that vaccines caused their children’s autism. The law firm involved paid Wakefield approximately $1 million to undertake his study, a conflict of interest that Wakefield failed to disclose. Investigators also found that Wakefield’s study misrepresented the data upon which he based his findings. In 2004, ten of the doctors who co-authored Wakefield’s paper issued a statement disassociating themselves from Wakefield and the conclusions reached in his study. The Lancet issued a formal retraction of the study soon after.
Despite all this, the US special vaccine court was inundated with claims brought against vaccine makers by parents of autistic children. High-profile celebrities like Jim Carrey and his wife, actress Jenny McCarthy, supported the parents and led the “blame-the-vaccine” parade. Friday’s decision was just the most recent to conclude that there was no convincing evidence linking vaccines and thimerosal to autism.
One can only hope that the decision will put an end to the panic among parents about vaccines. For every new parent, the decision about whether to vaccinate his or her child has been unduly stressful. When my daughter was born six years ago, I lost many nights of sleep worrying about vaccination. Those nights were when I first realized how difficult it was to be a parent: you have to make hard choices and someone else—your innocent little one—suffers the consequences. It wasn’t until I went online and researched the studies myself (thank you, Google Scholar) that I found comfort in vaccinating my daughter.
Failing to vaccinate children could result in outbreaks of preventable diseases—diseases that devastated earlier generations. Moreover, the attention of parents of autistic children has been unnecessarily diverted to a red herring. The sooner we get over the idea that vaccines are the cause of autism, the sooner we can find what is really to blame.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that thimerosal was found in the vaccine for M.M.R. According to the CDC, it has never been an ingredient in the MMR vaccine. We apologize for the error.
Adam Winkler is a constitutional law professor at UCLA.