Autism and vaccines - seeking a US perspective


This debate – about a supposed link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism - has been raging away in the UK for 5 years and shows no signs of going away. I’m wondering how it is playing in the US – if at all. Latest news (see link) is a row between the 2 docs who ignited the whole thing back in 1998, with one crying betrayal, the other saying his position has been misrepresented.

I don’t have an axe to grind here (no children, not working in medical profession), but I’m struck by how polarised the discussion has become – at least as it is represented in the media. It seems to be a choice between deciding it’s a conspiracy on the part of the medical establishment to keep awkward research findings from the public, and arguing that Dr Wakefield is a dangerously irresponsible maverick who is risking a measles epidemic by scaring parents off the MMR triple-vaccine.

I understand that Dr Wakefield’s hypothesis is regarded more sympathetically in the US, is this right?

On balance it looks as if the weight of evidence is against a connection between MMR and autism – the increase in autism cases over the last decade probably being a result of a widening of the diagnostic criteria for autism and greater awareness of the condition among professionals. Also the increase in new cases appears to have levelled off, whereas if MMR was triggering autism, cases should be increasing steadily.

However I think parents’ confusion is understandable (for every scientist who appears on TV dismissing fears, they see another parent insisting his/her child’s regression started dramatically, a week or so after the vaccine). To dismiss these parents as irrational (as the government is inclined to do) seems patronising to me – it’s a lot to do with how people perceive risk – if someone told you there is a 1 in 50 chance a vaccine would give your child a nasty flu, you’d probably accept it, but a 1 in 10million chance of severe brain damage might inspire caution.

Anyway, I’d be interested listen to American views on this.

The MMR battle, in the U.S., tends to follow the battle over the DPT (Diptheria, Pertussis, Tetanus) program. It waxes and wanes, with the majority of people simply following the state regulations (whether they have examined the information or simply gone along with authority) and a vocal minority resisting.

I looked into both series before my kids were given their shots and did not find the opponents’ arguments persuasive. For the DPT, it seems that there is a very tiny number of genuine reactions–that may or may not actually lead to brain damage–but since the DPT is given as a series, there is generally a mild reaction after the first administration that will warn of a more severe reaction in the later doses. I still can’t tell from the literature whether the brain damage claim is proved for that tiny minority of reactions, but I can clearly see the damage that preceeded the DPT with epidemics of pertussis killing hundreds of children before DPT was presented. To me the (unproved) risk is more than outweighed by the (proved) protection. The MMR diseases were slightly less lethal than the DPT diseases, but they also have a higher incidence of inflicting harm than the shots to prevent them.

The only recent vaccine that I am still not persuaded about (one way or the other) is the one for chicken pox. I have seen some (unproved) claims that the shot will open up future adult populations to shingles and other viris infctions, and I have not yet been persuaded that that is less of a threat than a childhood bout of chickenpox.

The existing evidence indicates that autistic children may be identifiable several months before they receive these innoculations, which would suggest that the vaccines are not solely responsible even if they did have an effect.

Changes in the diagnosis of autism don’t seem to be affected by rates of vaccination, which also suggests that they’re not affected.

Mercury should never have been used in vaccines in the first place, but it doesn’t seem that the existing evidence supports the claim that the vaccines are a significant factor.

I am a pediatrician in a suburban practice. We still get a handful who are concerned about vaccine safety but fewer than last year when 60 Minutes and its ilk were giving the vaccine conspiricy theorists lots of airtime. We usually win them over after a few visits.

The science behind it is now conclusive. Big studies that left even Wakefield (in a letter to the editor) concluding that if the MMR is etiologic in autism, then it is a factor in so few cases as to make finding statistical evidence of such impossible.

The seperate concern over mercury (present in trace amounts in the preservative thimerosol) is settling out for two reasons:

  • it has been out of routine US vaccines for about three years so the issue is moot (and no decrease in new rates has been found); and
    -a study in Denmark, I believe, where thimerosol was removed over a decade ago, and which found similar increases in autism diagnoses over the following years as the rest of the world. That is, thimerosol was removed and autism went up. “You eat all your thimerosol young man, or there will be no dessert!”

The biggest problem is that which TVAA has been crowing about in other threads: the fuzziness of diagnoses that rely exclusively on subjective measures. Today we (I believe appropriately) call kids “autistic” who we never would have labelled as such ten years ago. We identify it much earlier and much milder and look much harder for it because we have become convinced that early identification and early intervention can make a big difference. Give me something to do to help someone with a condition and I’ll look for it much harder.

Without an objective measure to use we really do not know if true rates have increased or not. Have just expanded the diagnostic umbrella?

No one can blame a parent for wanting a strawman to blame, and rates might be really increasing some. But vaccines are just a convienient scapegoat and the result of the blame is that good money is being diverted defending good medicine against bad science, instead of being spent on improving models aimed at understanding how autism occurs and what to do about it.

BTW Tom, I am one of the few docs published on record as being skeptical of the chickenpox vaccine, but it is a done deal. Your child won’t be likely to catch natural disease and getting chickenpox for the first time as a teen or adult is very bad. It may be that boosters will be needed. This has been my concern because adults tend to comply poorly with vaccine schedules. Any small increase in adult disease is a likely large increase in serious complications. We will have to see. Vaccinees get shingles less often than those who had natural disease. But those of us who had natural disease may be more prone to shingles because of the lack of a booster effect from exposure to natural disease, as natural disease rates plummet. Don’t be surprised to hear that Varivax becomes advised for adults who had natural childhood disease sometime in the next decade or so.

Thank you for your replies. The small number of them indicates that this is not such a hot issue in the US - starting a thread on this subject on a British site would be like shoving a hot poker into a hornets’ nest.

DSeid - yes, I agree that the diagnostic umbrella has greatly expanded, making it difficult if not impossible to say whether cases of autism are really increasing. (It might also be possible to argue that the definition of autism has become so elastic it’s in danger of including the mildly eccentric/obsessive?). However, as I understood it, Dr Wakefield and co were not claiming that MMR was responsible for large numbers of autism cases, but suggesting that it could trigger a particular form of regressive autism (ie where the child was apparently developing normally until the jab) in predisposed individuals. On the other hand, the MMR jab is given at the same time that symptoms of autism usually become obvious…

BTW, according to today’s papers over here, Dr Wakefield has just published his latest research early, in the Journal of Clinical Immunology - just in case this is your preferred reading matter on a Sunday;)

For those who like cites from government agencies, there is this one.
From the CDC Vaccines and Autism Theory home page:

There is a whole lot more linked on that page, including thermisol related concerns.


They made up for it with extra doses of contact lens solution. :smiley:


I think it’s the general nature of this board that you’re not getting the responses – I can assure you that if you went on a US parenting board or asked on an autism email list, there’s a lot of people with lots of opinions. DAN and NIDS are US based organisations after all.

I’ve got two kids both diagnosed on the spectrum, both unvaccinated. My developmental paed, GP, paediatric gastro all support me in my position that we still don’t know enough about regressive autism and the triggers and thus it is reasonable not to vaccinate. My younger son was developing ahead of the curve, got salmonella, nearly died, had huge amounts of anti-biotics and within days of returning from the hospital was retreating into autism. Was it trauma or was it gut damage? If it’s gut damage, then if we vaccinate what then if he retreats again? We’re doing bio-medical intervention with him and it is working.

I had an emotionally driven response but I have to put that aside because I honestly don’t know what to believe. I have a 4 year old boy with Autism. I have heard many compelling stories of why it would not be in the best interest of the pharmaceutical companies to admit that there is a possible problem. And there was a last minute inclusion of a get out of jail free rider in the Patriot Act added by Sen. Frist to prevent pharmaceutical companies getting sued if it turns out that their meds do cause severe reactions or death.

I just wanted to also comment that I have read that the amounts of mercury in thimerosol in a vaccine suspension exceed the accepted levels of mercury by EPA. Also, the production may have stopped in 1999 but it doesnt mean the Dr.s weren’t advised to finish using the surplus meds before moving on to the new Rxs. I am trying to focus not on the why anymore, because it won’t change what has happened, but on the who- as in who will take care of my son when we are gone.

Nvme77, none of us docs ever stock more than a month’s supply in inventory. Too expensive. Goes bad too.

And to clarify, total of all thimerosol containing vaccines administered in the first year exceeded the arbitray limit for the age group set by the FDA, but was still less than in a tuna fish sandwich.

And that the rider didn’t say that; it said that additives like thinerosol were included under the current laws covering adverse reactions to vaccines which require a step of going through a government compensation program first before resorting to the courts. The lawyers didn’t want that, they wanted to get to the courts where they would get their one third cut of any settlement, and to get there before time passes and shows the lack of a decrease in autism rates that the thimerosol as a significant factor hypothesis would predict.

Well, yes, but I think tuna fish should be banned. What’s your point?

Certainly there have been some bad (even fatal) reactions to vaccinactions. Some kids have rare syndroms etc. I certainly recommend a careful consultation with a (legitimate) Medical Professional before willy-nilly injecting your kids. But then- do as he/she recommends. Of course, for every kid in danger from vaccines, there are a thousand or more lives saved. Given the odds, it is clearly safer to vaccinate than not. Fortunately, most families in the USA do not have to play the odds- they can have their kids tested and follow the advice of an informed Medical Professional based upon their particular health & medical history.

But the OP asked about links of Autism to Innoculations. This has been carefully studied, over & over- and not just by the “Pharmacuetical companies”. There is NO LINK between the two. None. Zip, zero, nada. We are here to work against Ignorance, not spread it.

Nvme77- you are basicly incorrect about the rider. Read up on it in an unbiased site. It basicly prevents lawsuits based upon Bad Science, where Juries of laymen often make uninformed decisions. The Gun industry got the same sort of protection. Note that if a “ACME” pistol blew up in your hand becuase it was poorly & negilently made you can still sue- you just can’t sue because “guns are inherently unsafe & evil”. Maybe they are, but you can’t sue for that anymore.

The OP was specifically about the US reaction to immunizations and autism, compared to the UK. I regularly read some UK news web sites, so I’m familiar with the MMR controversy over there. They call it the “triple jab” - I like that. I’ve read that vaccination rates against measles has fallen in some areas to levels that are frighteningly low - like 60% or so.

This has not happened in the US. There has been some news, specifically about Thimerosal, but the vast majority of parents are getting the immunizations. Thimerosal has been mostly phased out in kids vaccines (although I got a dose a couple of weeks ago with my flu shot), and any controversy over here died down, though it wasn’t big ever. Sure, you could find people who are vocal about it, but they’re very rare.

It’s clear that health scares are much more prevalent in the UK and Europe than in the US. A good example is the noise about Genetically Modified foods - there are some fringe groups in the US who are against it, but the vast majority of people are not concerned. From what I read, this is not the case in the UK/Europe. Health scares just don’t seem to get the traction over here that they do over there. The jumpiness on your side of the pond might be related to the Mad Cow problem you’ve recently been through.

I cannot put my son in school if he does not get his shots. He gets his shots, I watch for problems, and that is all I can do.

When you first get diagnosed, you are looking at everything that can possibly be thrown your way- diets, vaccinations, silicon valley incidences. None of it makes sense but at the same time the grief stricken will take things to heart and accept it because at the time, it sounds like the most logical scapegoat.

Thank you all for your input-its reminded me that I need to refresh my information before I react like a crazy mom.