Learn About Vaccines and Autism

Read about the long, sad story of this controversy.

Pediatrician giving baby girl vaccination in clinic
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Nearly all of the leading health organizations including the CDC and the NIH say that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism. Multiple massive studies have been conducting showing no causal connection between vaccines and autism.

Yet many parents are convinced there is more to the story, and doubts about the safety of vaccines linger in their minds. How did this controversy get started -- and why is it still such a concern? Before launching into the issues surrounding vaccines and autism, it's important to note that, with very rare exceptions, no one on either side of the vaccine issues is "anti-vaccine." 

Every doctor and researcher with any real credentials acknowledges that vaccinations have saved thousands and possibly millions of lives -- and even those doctors who are most vocal in their concerns about vaccines offer recommendations for what they consider to be "safe" vaccines.

Why We Still Discussing Vaccines and Autism

Back in the dark ages -- the 1990's and early 2000's -- there were big headlines supposedly linking vaccines and autism. Why? Here are a few of the major reasons:

  • Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose work has been debunked and whose license has been revoked in the UK, published a small study that purported to link measles virus in the gut and autism. While Wakefield didn't directly state in his (now retracted) findings that measles (MMR) vaccine caused autism, it was implied -- and the idea took root.
  • Several very active campaigners against vaccines grabbed the idea that autism was caused by vaccines, and ran with it.  Primary among these were journalist David Kirby, celebrity writer Robert Kennedy Jr., and an ex-Playboy centerfold -- Jenny McCarthy. These individuals wrote articles and books, made appearances, and stirred the flames.
  •  Katie Wright, daughter of the mega-wealthy head of NBC, had a son with autism. Katie's parents formed the non-profit Autism Speaks.  Autism Speaks proceeded to acquire many of the smaller autism research non-profits.  Katie Wright was convinced that her son was vaccine injured -- and as a result, Autism Speaks focused on the question.
  • Quite a few questionable online "medical sources" took up the gauntlet and began to warn parents against vaccines. As a result, many parents chose not to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism. The result, of course, has been measles and mumps outbreaks in the US and UK.

You would think that these questionable and outdated sources (some of which are no longer involved with autism or vaccines) would have faded into obscurity.  But no.  They are still a major source of anxiety for parents faced with the question of whether or not to vaccinate.

Exploring Vaccines and Autism

Why does the vaccine/autism connection still resonate?  Here are a few theories:

  • It is scary to watch a doctor irrevocably inject your helpless infant with anything. It is easy to believe that it is a bad thing to do.
  • It is logical (though incorrect) to believe that a baby is not yet able to handle "so much so soon" in the form of vaccines.
  • Many children begin to show obvious signs of autism at about the same time that they receive MMR vaccinations.
  • Many people are frightened by technologies that are difficult to understand.  Vaccines are a technology that is difficult to understand.
  • Quite a few Americans really do believe that the government is out to injure citizens -- and are actively looking for "proof" of conspiracy theories.
  • There is no agreement among members of the medical profession about causes of autism, reasons for the rising number of people with autism diagnoses, treatments for autism, etc.  This leaves a vacuum -- and (human) nature abhors a vacuum.
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