Friday, July 15, 2011

Destroying the "MMR Vaccine Causes Autism" Myth

In 1998, a unethical doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study which suggested the MMR vaccine may be responsible for autism.  This claim came from his observations of a whopping 12 children.  Not 12,000, not 1,200, not even 120... but 12 children. 

Wakefield didn't come right out and claim the MMR vaccine was entirely responsible for autism, nor did he claim the vaccine was the only thing responsible, but he instilled enough fear about the vaccine in parents that vaccination rates plummeted as a direct result.  In parts of the UK, at one point only 60% of the children had received both doses of the MMR vaccine which lead to outbreaks of the measles to the point of it becoming an epidemic.  Children were hospitalized as a result, and there were even some deaths.

Granted Wakefield's "study" was originally published in a reputable medical journal (the Lancet) so people assumed it was at least factual.  With time however, people soon discovered that Wakefield acted unethically when he performed his research.  He manipulated and fabricated patient records.  He paid children to give him blood samples.  He left out key information that would have countered his claims, and he failed to mention that he had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from trial lawyers for testifying against vaccine manufacturers (a blatant conflict of interest that he never disclosed).

As Brian Deer from the UK's The Sunday Times reported:
However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.
Eventually Wakefield's dishonesty and unethical behavior did in fact catch up with him, and ten of the original thirteen co-authors of the original study formally retracted their names from it.  Eventually the General Medical Council in the U.K. recommended that his license to practice medicine be revoked, which it subsequently was.  His original study was retracted from the very journal that had originally published it, he was forced out of the organization he was working for here in the US, and his follow-up study where he attempted to blame autism in animals on vaccines was also withdrawn.

However, even after all of this to some degree the damage has been done.  In some areas vaccine rates still not not risen to the levels they were prior to Wakefield's fraud being published, and of course we have seen a number of celebrities and reporters bring this issue to the surface which only serves to spread fear to parents who are ignorant of the facts and/or don't have time to learn the full story.  Although vaccination rates are once again on the rise, we continue to see the "MMR vaccine causes autism" myth repeated from time to time just as we continue to hear from Wakefield sympathizers (like Mr. Hubbs) who claim the entire ordeal was some massive conspiracy to unfairly target a man who dared challenge 'the medical system'.

Interestingly enough, I stumbled across a study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry entitled "No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study".  This study (an actual peer-reviewed study published in a reputable journal mind you) examined the incidence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in Japanese children who were born between 1988 and 1996 to determine if the incidence of ASD would rise after the MMR vaccine was no longer being administered (Japan stopped using the MMR vaccine in 1992).

The end result of the study was that although usage of the MMR vaccine had been falling for several years (and eventually was no longer administered) the incidence of ASD continued to rise.  The incidence of ASD ranged from 47.6 to 85.9 cases per 10,000 children before the vaccine was withdrawn to 96.7 to 161.3 per 10,000 after it was withdrawn. A very similar pattern was witnessed for children diagnosed as having ASD with episodes of definite regression.  This is the form of ASD where the child appears to develop normally up to a specific age and then appears to regress (which is the very same form of ASD that Wakefield attempted to blame upon the MMR vaccine).

In needs to be stated that the authors of this study did not suggest the rise in the incidence of ASD was in any way related to the removal of the MMR vaccine and that was not the purpose of the study.  However, the results of the study did openly state that countries that withdraw the MMR vaccine cannot be expected to witness a reduction in the incidence of ASD as so many antivaxxers would like to believe.

Therefore, if autism isn't caused by the MMR vaccine (and the antivaxxers know the science has discredited that idea) and if autism isn't caused by thimerosal (as the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines has not resulted in any decrease in the incidence of ASD) what are we left to believe?  The antivaxxers such as Mr. Hubbs continue to see their theories debunked by sound science, so instead of acknowledging the science or admitting that their conclusions may have actually been wrong, they simply retreat and pretend that nothing ever happened.  They will then come out with yet another theory as they try to move the goalposts without anyone noticing. 

One thing is for sure... momentum is not on the side of the antivaxxers, and with so much science stacking up against them they have done the only thing possible - they have started speaking in such incredibly general terms that it makes it much more difficult to challenge them (albeit much more difficult for them to be taken seriously as well).  In the past they had focused upon the MMR vaccine or upon thimerosal or upon aluminum... but when science shows none of those have any statistical weight upon the incidence of ASD, they have now shifted to making unsubstantiated claims about various unnamed "toxins" in vaccines or in the body, and they are now attempting to claim that ASD isn't caused by a specific vaccine alone or even by a number of vaccines, but merely that it is 'triggered' by the sheer volume of vaccines given to children.
In 2012 and beyond we can expect to see a new round of antivaxxer hypocrisy as they develop new and improved "detoxification" techniques and products that will claim to improve health and magically cure autism or other conditions caused by these mystery toxins, yet don't expect to see any peer-reviewed science supporting these claims as it won't be available.  The only question that remains is... how much longer will the scientifically ignorant wing of the public continue to trust a group which changes their point of focus more often than Harold Camping and his Rapture predictions?


  1. Everyone knows Andy is a fraud which is why nobody else has ever been able to reproduce any of his findings. You would think Generation Rescue or AOA would fund a study if they really thought they could prove vaccines cause autism, but they don't even try.

    Or maybe they have tried but since the results didn't work out they swept it under the rug. Of course I'm sure we would be told it could never be published due to the medical journals being in bed with big pharma etc, but they haven't even tried to publish anything in one of their own antivax journals or in a non-reputable publication.

    Since they aren't publishing anything, that should be enough to prove they have no credibility, but it won't stop the devoted antivaxers from continuing to drink the koolaid.

  2. When you say "everyone knows Andy is a fraud" I suspect what you really mean is "everyone who understands matters of science and/or is educated on the data knows Andy is a fraud" and I can't disagree.

    However we all know vaccine conspiracy theorists like Mr. Hubbs, as well as the "leadership" of antivaxer groups like Generation Rescue along with the Snakeoil salespeople like Andrew Moulden and Sherri Tenpenny will never admit what Wakefield has been proven to be. They will keep beating that drum as long as it continues to confuse people into thinking they might have some level of credibility. Only when people educate themselves to the point they no longer fall for the gimmicks will these trolls disappear back into the darkness where they belong, but unfortunately the average person doesn't have the interest, time, or ambition to educate themselves on matters of science. Those that do are most often pushed there by some other force in their lives whether it be career choice, a personal relationship, or a life event which spurs them to action.

    Unfortunately in our modern 'shock media' society where people have the attention spans of squirrels, a story about a celebrity dealing with an autistic child is likely to get much more press time than a story about a life saving vaccine which has spared millions from pain an suffering, and this is one of the core reasons why people remain so confused.

    I'm probably a tad pessimistic on the subject although based upon the trends in vaccinations I may be off base. Vaccination rates are clearly on the rise as they have been for several years, and although there will most likely be bumps along the way and attempts to derail the effort, it appears that the public is finally starting to see some of these frauds for what they are.

    Wakefield may have been one of the first major players to have his soapbox kicked out from underneath him, but I dare say he will not be the last.


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