Do Vaccines Cause Autism? – Who Should You Trust?

June 3, 2009

By Terry Smiljanich:

As any parent of small children probably knows, a controversy swirls around allegations that childhood vaccinations may trigger autism, a devastating neurological disorder. Oprah Winfrey, whose daily television show garners between 6 and 8 million viewers per week, has touted these concerns through guest appearances by Jenny McCarthy, Playboy Playmate of the Year for 1994 and current spokesperson for “Generation Rescue,” an anti-vaccination lobbying group.

Most health care professionals discount allegations of a vaccine-autism connection, and argue that childhood vaccinations are a vital medical component in the proper care of infants. What is a parent to do?

Concerns about a potential connection between childhood vaccinations and the “triggering” of autism began in 1998 with a report by a British doctor postulating such a causation. In 1999, concern focused on the use of thimerosal, a mercury-based antiseptic found in several vaccines at that time. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted five separate tests, however, and concluded that thimerosal was not a causal factor in the onset of autism. Despite this finding, vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. ceased using thimerosal in their products.

Controversy continued, however, over an alleged connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine given to most children. Again, multiple studies by the CDC concluded that there was no association between the MMR vaccine and the condition.

Currently, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) all strongly urge parents to continue full immunization programs for children. The most recent AAP “Recommended Childhood Schedule” for children 0-6 years of age lists 11 vaccine series (including hepatitus B, rotavirus, MMR, polio, variella, diptheria, tetanus, pertussis and others) that should be administered. Adolescents 7-18 years old are recommended to take a further series of ten vaccines.

Benefit Outweighs Risk

According to all of these medical professionals, the risks that are inherent in any vaccine are far outweighed by the health benefits of immunizations from these diseases.

But the controversy lives on. If you google the word “autism,” the most cited resource you will find is a website by Jini Patel Thompson, a “health care advocate” and author of a popular anti-vaccine book, “Listen to Your Gut.” The popular website “Huffington Post” often carries articles by anti-vaccination proponents touting the latest medical news that runs contrary to the overwhelming advice of medical professionals. The popular “Imus in the Morning” radio show also carries interviews with such proponents. Presidential candidates and a few court cases have likewise weighed in against childhood vaccines.

In addition, research will disclose the fact that safety problems do occur in the mass production of vaccines. A recent FDA examination at a Merck plant uncovered several safety concerns that needed correction (although no contamination was found in finished vaccine products).

The Jenny McCarthy Campaign

And then there’s Jenny McCarthy, her partner (comedian Jim Carrey) and friends (including actor Charlie Sheen). No one can question her sincerity, having had a child diagnosed with autism (from which he has recovered, she claims, due to a gluten-free, vitamin supplication diet). Ms. McCarthy was an “Indigo Mom,” who believed that certain “crystal” children, such as her child, are exceptional and sensitive, with indigo auras that can be sensed by “angel therapists,” and are here to “change the vibrations of our lives.”

She later realized that her “indigo child” actually suffered from autism. Ms. McCarthy’s opinion, expressed recently on the “Larry King Live” show, is that given a choice between measles and autism (a false choice to be sure), “I’ll stand in line for the measles.”

She will have to stand in a very long line, indeed. The World Health Organization reported that in 2007, 197,000 people worldwide died of measles, mostly children under the age of five and mostly in low-income countries with little or no vaccination programs. As vaccination efforts spread in third world countries, however, there has been a 74% drop in measles deaths.

Meanwhile, in the United States fewer parents are immunizing their children, resulting in a record number of measles cases in 2008. Is this really a good direction for our country?

Oprah Winfrey likes Ms. McCarthy so much, however, that she is helping her launch a new syndicated talk show, just like she helped Dr. Phil launch his show. Ms. Winfrey herself is featured on the latest Newsweek cover, catching some flack for her rather strange opinions on vaccinations, among other topics.

Who Should You Trust for Information?

So, a concerned parent who researches the issue of vaccination safety is faced with these conflicting recommendations. He or she will find isolated medical studies suggesting a connection between autism and childhood vaccinations. He or she will worry over the manufacturing safety of vaccines. Entire organizations exist to promote the idea that many childhood vaccines such as MMR should be avoided. Yet the vast majority of the medical community continues to urge the vaccination of children from diseases that used to devastate past generations and have all but disappeared.

If you are looking for a complete history of this “controversy,” with detailed analyses of the faults in the few anti-vaccine medical studies, you should read this article.Make your own call. But when it comes to medical advice, I for one will take the recommendation of a medical consensus reached by professionals over that of talk show hosts, celebrities and “angel therapists.” We all have to weigh the risks, and doctors can be wrong (I forget, is eating eggs good for you or bad for you this week?). Following only “your gut,” however, seems like bad advice.