Take three deep breaths

Childhood vaccines and autism. Are you enraged yet? Yeah, me too. Figured I might as well start off by making some enemies.

The British Medical Journal just published a report demonstrating once and for all that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study supposedly demonstrating a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and childhood autism was flat out faked. Not just wrong, an innocent error of a well-meaning scientist, but an “elaborate fraud.” Of the twelve children whose cases formed one of the most influential public health papers in years, five actually showed symptoms of autism before receiving the vaccine and three were not actually diagnosed with autism at all. And finally, the study was conducted for planned litigation that profited Dr. (I use the title loosely) Wakefield £435,643 plus expenses.

The study was retracted by the Lancet last year but in the years since it was published, millions of dollars and countless hours have been spent researching this potential link and demonstrating again and again that MMR vaccine is not linked to autism. Still, I read today that according to the US Centers for Disease Control, nearly 40% of parents are delaying or refusing at least some childhood vaccines, up from 22% only five years ago. The damage has been done. The seeds of doubt have been planted and they’ve grown deep roots.

I am not a parent nor do I closely know anyone with autism. I cannot pretend to know the suffering that parents go through upon learning of this diagnosis and their fight for answers. However, I do work in science and I see first hand the fight that goes on for limited research funds. Even a seemingly simple study can cost millions of dollars and the kind of large-scale, clinical studies that have been conducted to examine the link between autism and the MMR vaccine… well I couldn’t even guess at the figure but I guarantee you, it is astronomical. And it is a zero-sum game – that is money that did not fund other, potentially much more fruitful, studies into the causes of autism.

We are bombarded with endless media articles about health research, all giving the impression of such confidence (“Go ahead and eat that chocolate, it’ll cure cancer!”), when no such confidence can ever given to a single study. The Wakefield study is the worst example of a study gone wrong, but sometimes innocent mistakes happen or the findings occur by chance or they are simply not generalizable to the population. Looking at one study is like looking at a single pixel – it only makes sense when viewed in the context of the hundreds of pixels surrounding it. So who should compile that image? There is no easy answer to how science should be communicated to the public, so in the meantime I’ll just try to take three deep breaths when the rage takes over.

What issues reliably get you on your soap box?


Posted on January 7, 2011, in Health and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Love.

    I was left un-vaccinated as a kid because my parents didn’t believe in the government and homeschooled us. Luckily, we remained safe from horrible diseases, and we were all vaccinated for college.

    I also was ranting just this morning about how autism is the ADHD of 2005–everyone thinks their kid has it when their kid is just being a child. Sometimes I hate the internet because of armchair diagnosers.

    • Yeah luckily most kids who are not vaccinated are protected anyway due to herd immunity – enough people are vaccinated that the disease doesn’t thrive. But it’s risky business, childhood infectious diseases are very dangerous.

  2. This one INFURIATES me as well. And has made for some very uncomfortable discussions with a good friend who has a child with ASD.

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