The needle and the damage(not) done

After scientific study linking autism to vaccines turned out to be a fraud, belief persists


In 1721, after New England Puritan preacher Cotton Mather had started an inoculation program—the ancestor of today’s disease-preventing vaccines—to combat a raging smallpox epidemic that eventually killed 800 Bostonians, someone firebombed his home. “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam [sic] you,” ran a note that accompanied the lit grenade tossed through his window, “I’l [sic] inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.” There are two good reasons for Seth Mnookin to include the incident in The Panic Virus, his riveting account of the rise of the popular—but scientifically baseless—belief that vaccinations cause autism. Mather’s ordeal demonstrates both the surprisingly ancient pedigree of humanity’s best weapons against its worst enemies (smallpox regularly killed up to 400,000 Europeans a year in the 18th century), and that the counterintuitive idea of deliberately infecting ourselves—or worse, our infant children—with disease has always creeped us out.

That instinctive repulsion is one of the root factors in the long and bitter controversy over the causes of a neurological disorder, usually diagnosed in childhood, that can physically exhaust, financially drain and emotionally devastate families. It is now known that autism and the related conditions grouped together as autism spectrum disorder are physical disorders, meaning that the social impairment aspect—serious language difficulties, avoidance of eye contact and lack of interest in others—is no longer blamed, as it once was, on uncaring “refrigerator parents” who were reaping what they had sown. But what does cause ASD remains unknown, although a genetic “component” is clearly involved. Thus the feeling that ASD is a poisoned chalice parents have brought to their children—”What, after all,” remarks Mnookin in an interview, “is more you, than your genes?”—still provokes guilt, anger and a burning desire to find an outside agent.

No such agent could be more intuitively obvious than vaccines. Beyond their ancient emotional baggage, vaccinations are now given to very young children often within weeks—even days—of the ages at which many autistic kids first display symptoms. And from the1990s onward, both the number of vaccines administered and the incidence of ASD diagnoses have increased. Autism was once thought to affect four or five people in 10,000; today one in 280 girls and one in 70 boys is diagnosed with ASD, for an overall rate of one in 110 children. Intuition is further reinforced by the usual suspects Mnookin fingers: the Internet echo chamber that allows partisans to filter out contrary opinions, and the media’s casual standards of balance, easily satisfied with one source providing evidence-based (if uncertain) science and another offering passionate certainty and compelling stories.

All those factors mean that Andrew Wakefield was less a cause than a trigger in bringing the supposed vaccine-autism link to prominence, even if the British doctor’s 1998 paper in the prestigious medical journal Lancet—recently exposed as an exercise in not just shoddy science but flat-out fraud—gave the theory what scientific gloss it had. Which was never very much, even before Wakefield was exposed: study after study has failed to unearth any evidence for the link.

Yet vaccination rates have continued to drop and 200 California schools are now entering probable disease outbreak situations. One, Ocean Charter School in Del Ray, where half of all kindergartners since 2007 have not been vaccinated, is an epidemic waiting to happen. Ten children died of whooping cough in California last year, part of a state epidemic of 4,000 cases, a rate not seen since the vaccine was introduced in 1955.

The anti-vaccine activists are not likely to abandon the cause any time soon—many, in fact, see Wakefield as more persecuted than disgraced—at least not before there is progress in finding the real cause of ASD. And, more importantly, why its incidence is rising. Better diagnoses explain much of the increase, but not all. An unknown environmental factor is somehow involved in triggering the genetic component, as Mnookin readily admits. “It’s just that it’s not vaccines.”

Related: The problem with science

To understand science, you need to think like a scientist


The needle and the damage(not) done

  1. Wakefield aside, there are hundreds of studies in peer reviewed scientific literature linking autism to immune system abnormalities, gastrointestinal abnormalities, oxidative stress and autoimmunity. The idea that Wakefield’s one study (which was not a study of a vaccine/autism link but rather a study of the severe gastrointestinal issues faced by this small group) caused a worldwide “anti vaccine” agenda is ludicrous.

    An educated person simply has to review these hundreds of studies and make an educated assessment on what is going on within a certain group of children with autism.

    Fundamentally, the issue is NOT closed. What many people do not realize is that science has not yet carried out two MISSING and long overdue studies:

    Confirming the safety of the administration of the current various doses of vaccines at once and on the current recommended schedule to infants;

    Analyzing the overall health outcomes (good or otherwise) of fully vaccinated vs unvaccinated children OR primates;

    Only then will this controversy end. CONDUCT THE SCIENCE.

  2. -Give a 12 month old with low body weight fluorated baby water with formula, and 4 vaccines. (Autism, lower IQ and brain damage?) (vaccines are not bad they just need to be spread out)

    How much toxins can a infant’s brain take? How much can a adult take? Our
    kids are the victims. Don’t ask a doctor, ask a toxicoligist. How much toxins can a infants brain take?

    Spread the shots out, and keep toxins like mercury, fluoride and aluminum away from our kids! Vaccine studies need to focus on total toxins give to children at one time.

  3. Mainstream media is too much dependent on money from pharma ads to let the truth out! Vaccines cause autism period!

  4. I am a father with an 11-year autistic son. I used to work for a pharma company (8 years) that makes MMR, Hepatitis, chickenpox vaccines etc. I am not surprised by what is happening and the scenario that vaccine-autism link is being pounded upon in the mainstream media. It is a very typical pharma strategy to always repeat the tag lines, “no evidence between autism and vaccines”,”Autism and vaccine study a hoax”. The way Dr Wakefield was interviewed by Mr Cooper and Mr Stephanopoulos were very similar in that they were like prosecution lawyers cross examining and discrediting a witness. Clearly, there is a cover up going on. I myself believe that vaccines played a role in my son’s autism. I know that millions if not billions of dollars are at stake for both the pharma companies and the pediatricians who profit from vaccines. With patents expiring and generic brands eating away their business, vaccines are seen as pharma companies’ future milking cows. It’s very easy to generate profit from vaccines really, just give it more than once (3 times or maybe 5 times,. who would care as long as the company making it recommends doing it as being safe with a double blind multicenter safety study to back them up)even if just giving it once is just as effective. I am often surprised whenever a usually not deadly disease becomes a “concern” whenever we launched a new vaccine, e.g. chickenpox vaccine. Suddenly studies and materials would come out persuading everyone to go to their pedia or GP to be vaccinated. So you see its really about money. Money!Money! Money!

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