This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Breaking the Link: Misconceptions of the Autism/Vaccination Relationship by Jordan Pyle
Throughout the years, we have seen groundbreaking research in the field of modern medicine, but possibly none as important as the discovery of vaccinations. A vaccine is the product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, thus protecting that individual. Vaccines save millions of lives each year and are among the most cost-effective health interventions ever developed. They have decreased the likelihood that anyone globally will catch horrific diseases such as polio, which averaged of over 35,000 cases in the 1940’s through the 1950’s. That number has substantially decreased in recent years to almost zero cases. However, it is estimated that every year, 2.5 million unvaccinated children worldwide die of diseases that vaccines could have prevented. Statistics like these show how detrimental vaccinations are within large societies and how important they are for a healthy existence. Only one in five children worldwide are not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines. Why would any rational human opt out of vaccinating their children, you ask? A large majority of parents have been ill informed over the “dangers” it may cause their children’s health, specifically because they believe it increases their children’s chance to be diagnosed with autism. The question on many individuals’ minds is, how did this misconception of the correlation of vaccinations and autism come about?
A question no one seems to be answering, is why autism? Why is it this disease that is most commonly linked to vaccines? Before the 1970’s, the diagnosis of autism was 1 in 10,000 but steadily increased to 1 in 150 by 2008. Since Wakefield’s study, no other medical research has shown a valid link between vaccines and mental disorders. Nevertheless, many parents still hold reservations when making decisions on whether or not they should vaccinate their children. In the years since the initial study conducted by Wakefield and his colleagues, at least 14 studies including millions of children in several countries consistently show no significant difference in autism rates between children who got the MMR vaccine those who didn’t. Could the answer be as simple as maybe children are just developing social skills around the time they are being vaccinated? For example, an anti-vaccination organization ran an advertisement stating that in 1966, when children received 10 vaccinations, autism rates were 1 in 10,000. Today, when children receive 36 vaccinations (though many of those shots are for the same disease), autism rates are 1 in 150. Therefore, many believe vaccinations are causing neurological injuries including autism. Majorities of the anti-vaccination following are also informed that mercury within the vaccination could be the cause of the diagnoses of autism. In a group of studies that encompass nearly 1.3 million children, there was no hint of an association between vaccination and autism or between vaccination and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and no relationship between mercury exposure in vaccines through thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.
Research has shown that there are many other factors that should be considered before vaccinations are ever considered. Some risk factors scientists agree on are specific genes that can make a person more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD), certain prescription drugs taken during pregnancy can also be linked to autism, and children born to older parents are at greater risk for having ASD. People are disregarding the facts and relying on what they see in the media, something that needs to stop.
Due to this misinformation of the dangers vaccinations may cause, many countries continue to see rises in prevalence of diseases that had previously thought to be all but eradicated. Hospital records all across America are showing that diseases such as the measles and whooping cough are becoming more prevalent as the years go on. In the first half of 2012, Washington suffered 2,520 cases of whooping cough, making it the largest outbreak in the state since 1942. Parents continue to support the association between vaccines and diseases such as autism and have subsequently stopped vaccinating their children – as evidenced by the recent outbreak of over 130 measles cases in the United States alone. In Britain, MMR vaccinations fell from 92% to 73%, resulting in measles outbreak and the first measles death in the United Kingdom in more than a decade. One study showed that more cases of whooping cough occurred in the clusters of unvaccinated children than not, resulting in 9,120 instances of the disease and 10 deaths in California alone. Because of one senseless doctor and his followers, we are seeing people die from very easily prevented diseases. I find myself hoping this vaccine-autism link is only a trend that will go away; yet, I know stupidity always finds a way to survive.