A huge scientific review that shows no link between autism and vaccination was published in Vaccine on May 9, 2014. Australian researchers Luke Taylor, Guy Eslick, and Amy Swerdfeger found no relationship between vaccination and autism, autism spectrum disorder, mercury, thimerosal, and multiple vaccines (MMR) among five cohort studies involving more than 1.25 million children and five case-control studies with over 9,900 children. The case-controlled studies compared patients who had been previously diagnosed with autism with other closely matched patients who were never previously diagnosed with autism to see if there were any differences to exposures of vaccines. While the review shows no link between vaccination and autism, why do people insist there is a link?
Why is there still a huge number of “non-believers” and skeptics among the public? “Well I think it’s multi-factorial,” said Ali Kashkouli, M.D., in an online interview, who is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia. “For one, there was that article in The Lancet back in ’98 that suggested a causal link. The anti-vaccine movement really started getting popular in the following years, but the article was later retracted in 2010, citing erroneous results and questionable methods.”
Kashkouli refers to the 1998 article that was published in The Lancet that fueled the belief that vaccines can cause autism. The British Medical Journal stated that lead researcher Andrew Wakefield, Ph.D., and his colleagues “are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation.” Since the publication of Wakefield’s research, “epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism,” according to BMJ.
Aside from the “dubious science,” Kashkouli added another reason why some parents became overly concerned with vaccination. “The second part is the rise of the nervous mother and celebrity endorsement coupled with the paranoia of the modern age.” The “celebrity endorsement” refers to Generation Rescue, a non-profit founded by former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, who was in a five-year relationship with actor Jim Carrey. Some parents insist there is a link between autism and vaccination, and celebrity endorsement is partially to blame.
Kashkouli continued, “Every mother wants what’s best for their kid, but the advent of an easily accessible Internet has changes everything. Anyone with a computer and an opinion can spread unverified half-truths and manic misinformation while presenting them as fact. The mother feels that she has to be an advocate for her child, but the cacophony of voices makes it difficult for the average parent to make a scientifically sound choice. This mass of information really just allows the public to consume the information they choose to consume. If they wish to believe conspiracy theories that depict the medical community as having a hidden agenda, they have numerous outlets to choose from.“
Sometimes understanding the cause-and-effect relationship can be tricky in data and what the media portrays. “For example, there was a time when people thought that ice cream caused polio outbreaks,” Kashkouli explained. “Polio outbreaks rose as the sales of ice-cream rose. The graphs match up extreme closely. But, the polio virus has a ‘season’ (like a lot of these things). That season was generally around summer when ice-cream sales rose. Clearly, they have nothing to do with one another, but there was a legitimate scare about ice-cream — a panic even.”
While the huge Australian review provided more solid evidence that there is no link between autism and vaccination, it may take some time to assuage the fears and concerns of parents who still cling to their unwavering beliefs and who insist that there is a link. This is a lesson of what happens when science goes “bad.”
By Nick Ng