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Autism, vaccines and fear

Posted in News by Skepdude on February 4, 2010


In 1998, The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, published a research study that triggered one of the biggest health scares of modern times. It claimed that autism was linked to children’s vaccines. The evidence was sketchy – it was based on only 12 cases – but Andrew Wakefield, its lead author, became an instant media celebrity.

Over the next few years, Dr. Wakefield was depicted as a courageous maverick who dared to defy the medical establishment. People’s trust in public health – already tested by the mad-cow scare – collapsed and vaccination rates plunged. Before The Lancet article, the vaccination rate for MMR – the three-in-one shot for measles, mumps and rubella – had reached 91 per cent. A few years later, the rate had slipped to less than 50 per cent in some parts of London, and was far too low to prevent serious outbreaks. In 2008, measles was again declared endemic in the U.K.

The vaccination hysteria proved contagious. In Canada and the U.S., anti-vaccination groups warned about the dangers of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines (although never used in the MMR one). Parent groups blamed vaccines and environmental toxins for what they said was an autism epidemic. They launched multimillion-dollar lawsuits (all unsuccessful) against vaccine makers, whose product costs, because of legal bills, went up.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accused the U.S. government and top scientists of a vast conspiracy to cover up the link between vaccines and autism, and celebrity autism mom Jenny McCarthy argued the case on Oprah .

It’s hard to blame parents of autistic kids for grasping at causes and cures. The causes are poorly understood, and the chance of cure is exceedingly remote. Life with an autistic child is unrelentingly hard. Untested treatments, and claims of cure, run rampant. The field is prone to “pseudoscience and quackery,” says Michael Fitzgerald, a British autism expert and long-time critic of Dr. Wakefield.


5 Responses

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  1. Martin Williams said, on February 4, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    I can’t help but imagine that this recent news and removal of Dr. Wakefield’s study from the medical journals will spark lawsuits from parents of injured children, those who opted to believe what Wakefield was stating. I agree with you though, it is hard to blame the parents. Autism is a tragic condition that affects far too many children here in the US.

    • Skepdude said, on February 4, 2010 at 5:03 PM

      Well I think it will be hard for parents to sue Wakefield if that’s what you mean, unless they can show intent to deceive they’ll have a hard time at it.

      PS: Please note that I am not the author of this article. The two red links at the top and bottom will take you to the original page where you can read the full article. This is only a partial reproduction here.

  2. notesofasexiststayathomefather said, on February 7, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    People feel both ways about the subject, doctors and scientists usually are pro-vaccine, and non-scientists that are usually consipracy freaks or some other form of counter-culture twits become anti-vaccine.

    I have yet to meet a professional (doctors that treat me or my family, and we ask every one that looks at are children their opinion) that takes the anti-vaccine view, and this includes two people I know personally. One worked at WHO in Geneva for 30 years (he went to college with my parents, graduate school at MIT, and remains one of their best friends). The other is a high school classmate who went on to Stanford and the UW School of Medicine. They are both experts, and to them its a no-brainer: tested vaccines benefit mankind.

    Aside from media, conventional wisdom, and counter-culture (there is value in some of it), the pro-vaccine opinions hold weight. Vaccinations have more benefits than not getting vaccinated. Yes, in specific cases vaccinations do harm, but because some is bad I do not see how people make the leap to ‘all is bad’. What’s wrose, people who do not vaccinate and keep strains of diseases alive are harming society far more than what they fear.

    Furthermore, there are the bullshit paranoia arguments about ‘corporate interest’, ‘what governments don’t want you to know’, and random example (one person was harmed by a vaccine, thus all vaccines are bad…) silliness.

  3. Snow said, on February 8, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    Did you not read the following in the above article. Law suits? What about the law suits that parents who have children with autism could file if it was proven. Why is there an epidemic of autism in Africa? I do not trust the medical field and all other professions assoicated with them. It is all about the money. Nothing HOLY about them.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accused the U.S. government and top scientists of a vast conspiracy to cover up the link between vaccines and autism, and celebrity autism mom Jenny McCarthy argued the case on Oprah

    • Skepdude said, on February 9, 2010 at 10:55 AM

      “If it was proven” sure, until then cool your horses. Who says there’s an autism epidemic in Africa? The medical profession is not meant to be holy, I don’t know why you’d expect that.

      Far as RFK and Jenny go, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

      PS: Oprah may not be the best place to get sound scientific advice!

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