Let’s start out with the easiest vaccine-related myth to debunk: the fear that vaccines might cause autism.
The Source of the Vaccine Autism Myth
This myth started several years ago when a study with an extremely small sample size claimed to have found a link between autism and vaccines. The study has yet to be duplicated, and all but one of its original authors has since rebuked its finding. The lead author of the study, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, later had his medical license revoked because of this study: it turns out he had taken large amounts of money from lawyers looking to sue vaccine companies and had doctored the data to suggest a link between vaccines and autism – a link that has never been replicated by other researchers.
The non-existent link between vaccines and autism
Time and time again, researchers from all backgrounds have examined this possible link and found no evidence whatsoever to support it. They have yet to turn up even the slightest hint of a link between the two throughout numerous large-scale studies. To put in perspective how big of a rebuke this is against the vaccination-autism link, take a look at some of the tenuous correlations that HAVE been found:
1. New findings based on tests of amniotic fluid and follow-up studies over nine years suggest that higher levels of testosterone in the womb could be to blame. Noting that four out of five autistic kids are male, Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre in the U.K., has long theorized that the traits we associate with autism are the effects of an exaggerated male brain. (The Week, 2009) The theory remains controversial, but it has much more scientific evidence to support it than does the link between vaccines and autism.
2. Research by Daniel Campbell suggests that a gene associated with gastrointestinal disorders is also responsible for autism. Autism rates were three-times what they are for people without this gene mutation. (Szabo, 2009)
3. An analysis of data from three states suggests that counties with higher precipitation levels have higher autism rates. In other words, rain causes autism (or it might). Researchers speculate that the precipitation itself could carry pollutants or cause secondary effects, such as more time inside which leads to increased vitamin D deficiency, which can be associated with autism,. Or, more likely, it could be just a statistical fluke. (Rubin, 2008)
4. A 2006 paper entitled “Does television cause autism?” found that homes with cable TV had higher rates of autism. (Rubin, 2008)
Furthermore, as scientists learn more about autism, it appears that there is not a single disease but a spectrum of disorders with common symptoms and different causes. (Szabo, 2009) Dozens of papers have found a variety of tenuous correlations. Yet one area where increased rates of autism have not been found is through vaccinations. So if you’re worried about a child developing autism, you better not live in an area where it rains and you should get rid of the television as well, both of which have stronger links to autism than do vaccines. So to skip vaccinations over a fear that they might cause autism is, in both scientific and mathematical terms, completely absurd.
Why some parents think vaccines cause autism
Countless studies have shown there’s no link between vaccines and autism. Yet the Internet is awash in anecdotal reports of parents who swear that their child was fine until getting a vaccine, and then slowly deteriorated. Who’s right, and who is wrong? The answer is that they could both be right. Vaccines don’t cause autism, but we need to further explain why some parents could become convinced they do.
Vaccine timing coincides with the emergence of autism
Children are scheduled to receive a slate of vaccinations around the time they are two years old. Coincidentally, this is also around the age when symptoms of autism first become most readily apparent. “As many sCientists have noted,” writes Amy Wallace, “It has long been known that autism and other neurological impairments often become evident at or around the age of 18 to 24 months, which just happens to be the same time children receive multiple vaccinations.” (Wallace, 2009) Symptoms of autism are easily masked in a toddler, whose behavior is unconventional (to say the least) and who verbalize much less, and mainly through shrieks and short, broken speech.
As children progress beyond their second birthday, speech acquisition rapidly picks up. The difference between normal children and other children starts to become readily apparent. Which means in a very short span of time you have two random things that can often seem to follow one another: A) Children getting a heavy slew of vaccines around their second well-child checkup, and B) Parents beginning to notice differences between their child and other children shortly thereafter.
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Vaccines may trigger (but not cause) certain rare autoimmune disorders
There may be certain rare cases where vaccines trigger autistic-like symptoms, even though they don’t cause autism. This is because some children may have conditions that put them at risk for genetically determined neurological deterioration.
A vaccine introduces either a dead or weakened strain of the pathogen into a child’s body. A live weakened virus, for example, may be alive but genetically altered so that it can’t reproduce. A child’s immune system encounters these intruders and attacks them. Their immune system then keeps a memory of these agents and the antibodies it needs to fend them off, so that if they ever encounter such pathogens again, their immune system can attack them straight-away and eradicate the intruders before it ever has a chance to make them sick. Vaccines are, in effect, a safe, more sophisticated version of letting your child play in the sandbox with other kids; You’re exposing them to nasty stuff in a comple-te-Iy “‘Ife ~nrl rontrollerl environment so as to toughen up their immune system, building natural immunity without the hassle of having to get sick.
Vaccines trigger an immune response, that’s how they work. So a child will get a fever (fever is the body’s natural way of helping fight off infections) and may even get the sniffles. This is not the result of the pathogen, but the consequence of the immune system kicking its defenses into gear.
The immune system is a wonderfully complex beast, but it doesn’t always work right. People can suffer from autoimmune disorders, and things like allergies and asthma are a consequence of the immune system attacking things it shouldn’t. For instance, people don’t die from exposure to peanut butter; they die from the over-reaction of their body’s immune system to this otherwise harmless substance, which leads to anaphylactic shock.
The immune system can also have a complex relationship when it comes to pathogens. Take strep throat, for instance-a normally harmless illness that is common to childhood. Except a small subse-t of children dewlap PANDAS ~fterw<lrds (Pedi<ltric Autoimmune Neurological Disorder After Streppococcus)-a neurological condition marked by tics and OCD-Iike behaviors. The reason? While fighting off the virus, the immune system errantly attacks the child’s own brain cells, essentially waging war on their own body. The child recovers from strep just fine, but they are left with neurological symptoms as battle scars from their fight with the virus.
Vaccines don’t make children sick enough to provoke the same reaction. (The diseases they vaccinate against, however, certainly can; for example, encephalitis, a type of damaging brain inflammation that can occur when a child gets really sick, is one of the worries with many of these vaccine-preventable illnesses.) However, if a child has a pre-existing genetic vulnerability to some type of neurological autoimmune disorder, then it is conceivable that the immune response that comes with vaccination could trigger the onset of this condition. So did the vaccines “cause” the autism, then? Not at all. The child was predestined to develop this condition anyway, and would have done so the next time their immune system was called into action in a significant way, irregardless of whether they got their shots or not.
For example, neurologist Michael Segal reports on a study conducted by Dr. Samuel Berkovic: “Dr. Berkovic and his colleagues studied a genetic form of epilepsy caused by mutations in the SCN I A gene, a DNA sequence that specifies part of a channel in nerve-cell membranes that allows sodium ions to enter the cell. Children born with such SCN1A mutations are destined to develop seizures and regress neurologically. The researches found that the onset of these seizures peaked in the days after vaccination but then dipped below baseline in subsequent week. The net result was that vaccines had no effect on the likelihood of developing the inevitable deterioration from these mutations.
“That is, vaccines did trigger the deterioration-but had the children not been vaccinated, the same deterioration would have occurred anyway the next time they had a cold. These results are fully consistent with the large-population studies.” (Segal, 2019)
Such rare genetic disorders could fully explain why some parents swear that their child seemed to deteriorate after receiving their shots, while also explaining why the most careful, concise, meticulously crafted population studies have failed to turn up even the slightest hint of a credible link between vaccines and autism.
Even if your child did happen to fall into this extremely rare group of kids with an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack their brain, the ultimate outcome would be exactly the same whether your child got their vaccinations or not. So you shouldn’t let this unlikely possibility (which is literally somewhere in the area of a I in a million chance) keep you from protecting your child.
The court battles over vaccines and autism
The courts have overwhelmingly ruled against a link between vaccines and autism, based on the evidence. However, last March, the family of 9-year-old Hannah Poling won a claim in the Federal Vaccine Court, ruling that the autism she developed as a toddler might have been triggered by the 5 shots against 9 diseases which she received all in one day. However, this girl’s situation is a unique case. She was determined to have a rare genetic disorder which in combination with the shots may have caused a chain of events that led to her autism. The science is still contested, and it was not an admission that vaccines cause autism in normal children. (Courts routinely rule in ways contrary to science.) In fact, the rare genetic disorder would have put this girl at risk even if she hadn’t received her immunizations.
As stated by Ned Calonge, chief state medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, “The recent legal decision has been miscast by vaccine opponents. In truth, this case was treated separately from other autism cases being evaluated by the federal court because the child involved has a rare mitochondrial disorder leading to an encethalopathy or neurological condition with autism like symptoms, and thus is unrelated to the rest of the population.” He adds, “This was a legal decision, not one supported by scientific evidence. (Calonge, 2008)
“The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories,” writes George Hastings in another vaccine-autism case. (Ruben, 2009) Paul Offit, a pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, urges the public to shift focus away from this “dead-end hypothesis.” He adds, “It would make more sense to devote our energies toward how we can best get the resources the kids need.” Once again, we urge parents to look objectively, and not emotionally, at the evidence. While nobody can be sure that there aren’t a few anomalies such as Hannah out there, vaccinations by themselves do not cause autism among normal, healthy kids. Assuming these anomalies do exist, they are so rare that there isn’t even a hint of them in the data of large-scale studies. Your children are much more likely to catch autism from the rain. (Which, for those who might be inclined to panic over such a statement, the rain-autism link is also unproven.)
Perhaps the biggest curiosity of the argument is that it is still going on today. The original theory was that thimerosal, a type of mercury used in trace amounts as a preservative in vaccines, is what was causing autism in children. Mercury is a poison that specifically acts on brain development. Yet thimerosal was removed from vaccines in 2001, so the common belief that it’s the mercury in vaccines that causes autism is no longer relevant, although some flu vaccines still carry trace amounts deemed to be safe.