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Monday’s medical myth: the MMR vaccine causes autism

Few medical myths have spread as feverishly and contributed to so much preventable illness than the theory that the triple measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine might be linked to autism. The tale…

Case closed: the MMR vaccine has no relationship with autism.

Few medical myths have spread as feverishly and contributed to so much preventable illness than the theory that the triple measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine might be linked to autism.

The tale was first suggested by Andrew Wakefield at a 1998 press conference following the publication of his now discredited (and retracted) Lancet paper.

The paper itself didn’t address such a connection but Wakefield raised concerns with journalists and called for a boycott of the MMR vaccine.

“I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination,” he said, “until this issue has been resolved.”

Wakefield said the vaccine should instead be broken into single components and given at yearly intervals.

We now know Wakefield had good reason to discredit the MMR: he had a patent for a single measles vaccine and he was being paid by lawyers who were assembling a case against MMR manufacturers.

None of these conflicts of interest were revealed when The Lancet paper was submitted for publication – if they were, it would never have been published. As the editor of the Lancet noted, Wakefield’s paper was “fatally flawed.”

Further investigation published this year in the British Medical Journal revealed what Wakefield did wasn’t just bad science, but deliberate fraud.

Andrew Wakefield’s actions were “callous, unethical and dishonest”. AAP

Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register in 2010 for “callous, unethical and dishonest” behaviour. But the damage had already been done.

A drop in MMR vaccination rates lead to inevitable outbreaks of preventable disease.

The episode also prompted research on possible links between MMR – and vaccines, in general – and autism. Now, 13 years after Wakefield’s paper was published, we have considerable evidence that MMR is not linked to autism.

One of the largest single studies to look for a link came from Denmark and covered all children born from January 1991 through December 1998. The study examined a total of 537,303 children, 82% of whom had been vaccinated for MMR.

It found no association between vaccination and the development of an autistic disorder.

More evidence comes from Japan, which stopped using the trivalent vaccine in 1993 over safety concerns with the anti-mumps component of the MMR formulation.

A study of more than 30,000 children found autism cases continued to rise even after the MMR was withdrawn and replaced with single vaccines, providing strong evidence that the MMR vaccine was not implicated.

Most recently, the United States Institute of Medicine completed an exhaustive review in August 2011 of all the scientific literature and concluded there was no causal relationship between MMR vaccine and autism.

So science has rejected such a link, but what have the courts found?

The US Court of Federal Claims (Vaccine Court) was established in 1988 as a no-fault system for litigating vaccine claims.

In 2007 the court began to hear the “autism omnibus” trials – a class action of almost 5,000 lawsuits attempting to demonstrate MMR played a causal role in the development of autism.

The group put forward the best three cases as a trial and the decision was handed down in 2010.

Judge Hasting wrote of one case, “Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that … the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction.”

Patricia Campbell-Smith, special master on another case, said “The petitioners’ theory of vaccine-related causation is scientifically unsupportable.”

This myth has been well and truly busted.

Science still doesn’t know exactly what causes autism, but researchers are continuing to look.

In the meantime, it’s important parents get accurate information about vaccines so they can protect their kids from preventable disease and avoid getting taken in by expensive and dangerous quack therapies.

Who knows, if we hadn’t been sent on a wild goose chase by the nefarious research of Andrew Wakefield we might be closer to understanding this syndrome.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Hartmann

    Epidemiologist

    Let's hope this myth can eventually be put to rest for good! The Panic Virus is a good read if anyone is looking for the whole story and where the myth began.

    Cheers, Mike
    _________________
    www.healthedin.com

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Mike Hartmann

      Oh yeah. I will look that one up.

      I am thinking though that some of the concerns being raised have some basis and haven't been addressed.

      For example, (and I really should apologise for the lack of linkage here) I had heard a claim that it's not so much the vaccine itself as it is the mercury used in the preservative in the vaccine Thimerosol I think (may not be the MMR vaccine though, I'm not an expert in virology so take what I say with extra caution). So I did a quick internet research…

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    2. Rachael Dunlop

      Post-doctoral fellow at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Hi Emma,

      I didn't address this issue because the MMR has never contained thiomersal (also known as thimerosal)

      There is absolutely no link between autism and thiomersal, just as there is none between MMR and autism. None. And it has been looked at EXTENSIVELY. I've written a much more extensive article on this which you can find here

      http://www.mamamia.com.au/news/vaccination-myths-busted-by-science-cheat-sheet-on-immunisation/

      Here is the section on vaccines and autism

      Myth 1…

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    3. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Mike Hartmann

      My previous comment about the research conducted in Poland about Thimerasol and the need to address the mercury side of the debate has been removed.

      However, in the meantime I found this link on this site:

      https://theconversation.edu.au/muddied-waters-setting-the-record-straight-about-mmr-vaccinations-and-autism-3391

      Which mentions Thimerasol but not the Polish research.

      So I stand corrected about this site not mentioning Thimerasol and again encourage people to vaccinate their kids.

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Rachael Dunlop

      Thanks Rachel

      Bizarrely, my first (less informed) comment is listed after my second comment.

      But never mind.

      To clarify, I've never been an anti-vaccination proposer. I think it's ridiculous - vaccines work - and may even the best thing medicine has ever come up with. Nonetheless, people were raising concerns and I wasn't going to dismiss them outright, seemed like a foolish thing to do.

      What I wasn't aware of in that process was that Thimerasol (the preservative)

      1. Had never been…

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    5. Rachael Dunlop

      Post-doctoral fellow at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Hi Emma, Actually just a few weeks ago India celebrated their first year without one case of polio. There are some parts of Africa where there are occasional epidemics still occurring - in some cases it's due to superstition and rumours spread about the vaccine being designed to cause sterility. In other cases, it's simply inaccessibility to the areas to administer the vaccine. This is why Bill Gates is devoting billions of dollars towards delivering vaccines to the third world (ten billion over…

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    6. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Rachael Dunlop

      Yay for India.....they're not sub-Saharan though! But it's still great to hear.

      RE: Sterility. That's another one of the claims some of the anti-vaxx people (less often) have brought up. I thought actually contracting conditions like rubella could lead to sterility. So the risk of sterility is actually reduced if the illness is prevented. On the other hand, if given a dodgy batch of rubella vaccine (containing a live virus instead of the neutered one for lack of a known word)....

      Got any epidemiological papers on this we could look at?

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