What do actress Jenna McCarthy, U.S. Senator John McCain, and several other prominent leaders have in common? This sample critical essay will explore whether there is any truth behind the claims.
The vaccines and autism debate
Before understanding the tedious reports generated to prove or debunk the autism and vaccination controversy, it is prudent to understand how and why this started. The first instance of widespread fear that vaccines cause autism spectrum disorder originated began with a study conducted by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon, in 1997 (Willingham and Helft).
Once the study was published in the prominent United Kingdom (UK) science journal, The Lancet, the information was recognized as true and undebatable (Willingham and Helft). Dr. Wakefield suggested the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine – a required vaccine by most western nations – was increasing autism in British children (Willingham and Helft).
Dr. Wakefield’s controversial report
Dr. Wakefield held a press conference and said it was his “feeling that the…risk of this particular syndrome developing is related to the combined vaccine, the MMR, rather than the single vaccines” (Willingham and Helft). Prior to releasing his report, more than 90% of all children were reported as receiving the MMR vaccination in the UK (Willingham and Helft). Over the next five years, those rates declined to 80% (Willingham and Helft).
Once parents started taking his recommendations to heart, several local medical organizations investigated his claims and rejected his report as inaccurate (Willingham and Helft). There were serious accusations regarding the ethical actions during the tests and whether he reported truthful results in the study.
The paper has since been completely discredited due to serious procedural errors, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, and ethical violations. Wakefield lost his medical license and the paper was retracted from The Lancet. (Willingham and Helft) Still, his reports were public, and parents started wondering if the reports were true. Conspiracy theories started circulating, and the rest was history.
Vaccination myths and facts
There’s more than some debate whether the vaccine actually causes autism in children. Wakefield’s study left a sour taste in medical research, and parents wanted to know the truth. Most of this information comes from inaccurate research, physician corruption, and parental paranoia (Immunization Safety Review Committee).
Though there are a few legitimate organizations that state the vaccines are dangerous and does cause autism in children, the actual evidence proves autism is not caused by vaccinations (Immunization Safety Review Committee).
Parental fears and the impact on childhood vaccinations
These fears persisted even as evidence mounted that they were completely unfounded. Scientific verification relies on a process of testing and confirmation, not on a single observation. Researchers sincerely grappled with the question of a vaccine-autism link in numerous studies following the publication of the 1998 Lancet paper. Some of these studies analyzed data from millions of people, in the quest to see if vaccines and autism might be linked. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that they are not. (Willingham)
Several case studies have been conducted by medical organizations and government health officials in the United States (U.S.) One of the most recent, and largest, studies conducted 2015 (Downs). In 2015, during a large-scale, controlled test – different from the uncontrolled test Wakefield performed nearly 20 years earlier – researchers again found the MMR vaccine did not increase the risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Scientists analyzed health records of 95,727 children to make this determination (CDC). Records included more than 15,000 children unvaccinated at age two and more than 8,000 still unvaccinated at age five (CDC). Researchers found there was no increase in autism-related symptoms, even in the nearly 2,000 children who were already considered at risk for autism because they were born into families that already had a child with the disorder (CDC).
The autism-vaccine debate enters the courts
In the U.S., courts were created to rule on the benefits and risks of vaccinations (Gorski). While different from the traditional jury courts seen on television, the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP) coordinates cases regarding vaccinations relating to autism (Gorski). This court is the recommending power to the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, also called the vaccine court (Gorski).
The special court rules on the 5,000 vaccine petitions involving claims children who received vaccinations have developed autism (Gorski). The main interest surrounds the MMR vaccines and its thimerosal-containing ingredient (Gorski). To date, the court has denied all claims that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine (Gorski).
The Court found that Bailey’s ADEM was both caused-in-fact and proximately caused by his vaccination. It is well-understood that the vaccination at issue can cause ADEM. Furthermore, Bailey’s ADEM was severe enough to cause lasting, residual damage, and retarded his developmental progress. The Court found that Bailey would not have suffered this delay but for the administration of the MMR vaccine and that this chain of causation was… a proximate sequence of cause and effect leading inexorably from vaccination to Pervasive Developmental Delay. (Gorski, “The incredible shrinking vaccine-autism hypothesis shrinks some more”)
These claims –on both sides of the fence – are scary. Parents want the best for their children, and there is no fear worse than major illnesses inflicting your child. However, pediatricians, public health administrators, and scientists all believe the case is moot. Vaccinations are necessary for children’s well-being. The vaccinations help prevent diseases and spreading an infection to other children.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccine Safety. 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 March 2016.
Downs, Martin MPH. “Autism-Vaccine Link: Evidence Doesn’t Dispel Doubts; Many major medical groups say vaccines don’t cause autism. Many parents say they do. So who’s right?” Louise Chang, MD, ed. WebMD Special Report: Autism – Searching for Answers. N.d. Web. 10 March 2016.
Gerber, Jeffrey S. and Paul A. Offit. “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 48. 4 (2009): 456-461. Web.
Gorski, David. “The incredible shrinking vaccine-autism hypothesis shrinks some more.” Science Based Medicine. 2 March 2009. Web. 10 March 2016.
Immunization Safety Review Committee, Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism.” The National Academies Press. 2004. Web. 10 March 2016.
Willingham, Emily and Laura Helft. “The Autism-Vaccine Myth.” NOVA. 5 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 March 2016.
— “Is the CDC Hiding Data about Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism?” Forbes: Pharma and Healthcare. 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 March 2016.