By: Anna Kiesewetter
In 1998, English research scientist Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a controversial paper in the journal Lancet. He hypothesized that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine was linked to childhood development of autism. This astounding hypothesis resulted in many beginning to fear that infant vaccinations could cause developmental delay. However, several flaws have been discovered within this and Dr. Wakefield’s subsequent studies, and further studies elsewhere have found that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Despite this, many still believe that Dr. Wakefield’s claims hold some truth. So, in this article, we’ll be taking a look at the supposed correlation between vaccines and autism.
To begin with, what is autism? Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a bio-neurological developmental disability. It impacts the brain’s development of communication skills, cognitive functions, and emotional control. It is usually diagnosed during early childhood, and those with the condition often struggle with interacting with other people.
In Dr. Wakefield’s first study, he examined a group of twelve children with developmental delays. Of these twelve children, eight had autism. Dr. Wakefield found that all eight developed ASD, as well as several intestinal problems, within one month of receiving the MMR vaccine. Based on this, he made the conclusion that the MMR vaccine caused intestinal problems which led to the development of ASD.
However, scientists discerned that this study was flawed, for two main reasons. First, at the time of the study, about 90% of English children received MMR vaccines, which was typically administered at the same time when most children with ASD are diagnosed. Thus, it’s expected that some children will receive MMR and an ASD diagnosis in quick succession. Dr. Wakefield could have compared autism in both vaccinated and unvaccinated children to study any possible MMR-autism link, but he did not. Second, Dr. Wakefield contended that intestinal inflammation from MMR led to autism, yet intestinal symptoms were recorded after the symptoms of ASD in each of the eight children. There was no evidence of causation. With these flaws, the study was retracted and removed from the scientific record. In this case, this meant that the findings and data were found to be fraudulent and misrepresented.
In his second study, Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues published a paper testing for links between autism and measles. They found that 75 of 91 children with autism had measles virus in their intestinal tissue, compared with 5 of 70 children without autism. Although this finding sounds concerning, several flaws were again found with this study. First, the study did not determine if this discovery was specific for children with autism; children were not matched for immunization status or the length of time between the vaccine and the biopsy of their intestines. This information, though available to Dr. Wakefield, was specifically excluded from the paper. Second, the researchers didn’t discern whether the detected measles virus was natural or from the vaccine. Third, their laboratory used a very sensitive method to detect the virus, which is known for being at high risk of incorrectly positive results. Though this study was not retracted, it is widely discredited by other scientists.
There are also other subsequent studies that went on to prove that there is no relationship between MMR and ASD. In a 1999 study, Brent Taylor examined the records of 498 children with autism. Each case was identified as from before or after 1988, when the MMR vaccine was introduced into the United Kingdom. Taylor and his colleagues found that the percentage of vaccinated children was the same in those with autism as those without in the same region. There was no difference in the age of autism diagnosis between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and the onset of autism didn’t occur within six months of vaccine receipt. Even further studies, such as those of Madsen from Denmark, have gone on to corroborate these findings. The message is clear—there is no known link between vaccines and autism.
Though doubts continue within the public over the safety of vaccines, scientists have found clear flaws within Dr. Wakefield’s argument. Because of this, it’s safe to say that the MMR vaccine is a safe and necessary measure to prevent the onset of measles, mumps, and rubella, with no relationship to the development of autism.
What Did You Learn?
1. What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a bio-neurological developmental disability. It impacts the normal development of the brain’s social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function. Generally, it is diagnosed during early childhood, and those with the condition often have difficulty with interactions with other people.
2. Is there a link between the MMR vaccine and autism?
No, there is no known link between vaccines and autism. Although Dr. Wakefield found a relationship in two of his studies, his first has been retracted, and his second has been found to be flawed through an omission of vital data and use of an extremely sensitive and therefore inaccurate method of testing. Subsequent studies, such as that of Brent Taylor, have found that there is no difference in the percentage of vaccinated children between those with autism and those without autism.