A Closer Look at the Vaccine Debate
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The British Medical Journal published a series of investigative reports in 2011 detailing Wakefield's fraud. He had not disclosed a major conflict of interest: he had received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from a law firm that intended to sue MMR vaccine manufacturers. He altered information provided by parents whose children were part of the 12-person case study, falsifying the timing of vaccinations and the onset of developmental issues. BBC News also reported that Wakefield paid children at his son's birthday party 5 pounds each for blood samples to use in his study. The media reported on Wakefield's "elaborate fraud," but by then the misinformation had spread.
Concerns About Mercury
Meanwhile, concerns about mercury in vaccines grew in the 2000s. Some vaccines contained a preservative called thimerosal, which contains a form of mercury (ethylmercury — which is not the same as toxic methylmercury found in fish). In 1999, a group of physicians in the U.S. launched a study on the effects of thimerosal on infants' brain development. The study found "no significant associations" between thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurodevelopment. The U.S. eliminated thimerosal from vaccines (other than some flu vaccines) in 1999 to help maintain the public's confidence in vaccines — but their efforts backfired. The notion of making safe vaccines even safer confused people.
Extensive U.S. studies and high-profile U.S. federal court cases in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding have found no link between vaccines and autism, but some parents struggled to understand or accept these scientific and legal findings. A 2009 Pediatrics study found that more than half of parents surveyed had concerns about serious side effects of vaccines.
The media focused more on parents' fears than scientific facts, and gave famous vaccine skeptics — including Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Bobby Kennedy Jr. — a platform to spread their beliefs.
Autism Experts Urge Full Vaccination
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that most experts agree that autism is a condition that begins before birth. Autism is often first identified in toddlers from age 18 months to 30 months, and the MMR vaccine is administered just before the peak age of autism onset. "This timing leads some parents to mistakenly assume a causal relationship," the AAP says. "There is no evidence that MMR causes autism." The AAP offers this summary of 40 studies on vaccine safety, and encourages parents to have their children fully vaccinated.
Autism Speaks, a leading autism advocacy organization, also supports full vaccination and released this brief statement in February 2015 in the wake of the measles outbreak: "Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated."