Earlier this month, researchers at Columbia University concluded that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine doesn’t raise a child’s risk for autism. It was the most rigorous look at the issue to date. Since 1998, more than 20 scientific studies have reached the same conclusion.
With all that data, one might consider the matter settled. But many activists and celebrities – most notably comedian Jim Carrey and actress Jenny McCarthy – are continuing to perpetrate the myth linking autism and vaccination. In the process, they’re endangering public health.
McCarthy, for example, said in an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” earlier this year, “parent after parent after parent says I vaccinated my baby, they got a fever and then they stopped speaking and then became autistic.” In an article authored for CNN.com, McCarthy and Carrey wrote, “We believe autism is an environmental illness. Vaccines are not the only environmental trigger, but we do think they play a major role.”
Actress Holly Robinson Peete attributes her son’s autism to the MMR vaccine, despite the evidence to the contrary. “My study is my kid,” she said. “I took him to get his shot, and he was never the same after that.”
But the facts are clear – vaccination stands out as one of the most effective medical advances in human history. Using vaccines, we’ve been able to eradicate such diseases as smallpox, polio and measles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that vaccines save an estimated 33,000 lives a year.
That hasn’t stopped activists from latching onto a half-baked hypothesis that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative sometimes present in trace amounts in vaccines, causes autism. These advocates claim that many children are diagnosed with autism right around the time they receive their measles-mumps-rubella shots.
The contention is flawed for a number of reasons.
First, the so-called thimerosal hypothesis has been debunked over and over again, in numerous studies addressing the problem from a variety of experimental angles.
Second, thimerosal is not even present in the vast majority of vaccines anymore. Public health officials and manufacturers agreed in 2001 to eliminate thimerosal from virtually all vaccines as a precaution. Even so, the number of autism cases diagnosed has increased steadily. If thimerosal were linked to the disorder, autism rates would be going down, not up.
Denmark’s statistics on autism provide even more compelling evidence. Authorities there eliminated thimerosal from vaccines back in 1992, and yet autism rates among Danes continue to rise faster than they did prior to 1992, according to Drs. Benjamin Kruskal and Carole Allen of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.
It’s far more likely that autism rates are going up because health professionals have expanded the definition of what it means to be autistic. Increased awareness of autism has led to the diagnosis of cases that might have previously gone undetected or unreported.
Meanwhile, the hubbub over the supposed thimerosal-autism connection has led many confused parents to keep their kids from being inoculated. Such action poses an enormous threat to the health of both their children and the public at large.
For example, before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, between three and four million people were stricken with the disease annually. Between 400 and 500 of those afflicted died each year.
Today, we’re seeing similar effects as a result of fewer vaccinations. In the first seven months of this year, 131 cases of measles were reported, according to the CDC. That’s the highest total in over a decade. Ninety-five of those 131 cases were in children who were eligible for vaccination but did not receive a shot.
In Britain, where the bogus link between vaccines and autism first gained popularity, decreased immunization rates have led to measles epidemics that have killed several kids, according to Dr. Gary Freed, director of general pediatrics at the University of Michigan.
Autism exerts a heart-wrenching toll on the families affected by it. But that doesn’t excuse the campaign of misinformation advanced by celebrities and prominent activists against vaccines.
“The bottom line is that vaccines prevent life-threatening and life-risking diseases,” says Dr. Julia McMillan of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents should ignore the junk science peddled by anti-vaccine activists and make sure that their kids are inoculated.
Pipes is president & CEO of the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book, “The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care,” will be released this fall.