The (non)link between MMR vaccine and autism

To vaccinate or not is a hot button issue with new parents these days, thanks in no small part to one 1998 article published by the British medical journal The Lancet.

The article in question was written by Andrew Wakefild, which made the claim that there might be a connection between the MMR  (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. Many see this controversial report as the beginning of the current anti-vax movement.

This month, 2 new pieces of information have been added to the debate that might influence the immunization decision for parents.

On February 13th, a special federal court in the U.S. ruled that vaccines do not cause autism. The case is significant for 2 reasons. For one, there were three separate cases involved in this ruling, each with their own judges acting independently of each other. And in all three cases, the rulings were similar in that all three judges found no evidence that the vaccines caused the children’s disorders. That’s three judges independently supporting each other with similar decisions.

In each of the cases, the plaintiffs did not have to prove their case with scientific certainty. They they only had to show that there was a preponderance of evidence or, as the article puts it,  “50 percent and a hair”. All three cases failed to do that.

Meanwhile, a related story from the Sunday Times earlier this month reexamines that original 1998 research by Andrew Wakefield, with disturbing allegations that Wakefield manipulated data and misreported his results to add weight to his claim that there is a link between MMR and autism.

In evidence presented to the GMC (General Medical Council), however, there has emerged potential explanations of how Wakefield was able to obtain the results he did. This evidence, combined with unprecedented access to medical records, a mass of confidential documents and cooperation from parents during an investigation by this newspaper, has shown the selective reporting and changes to findings that allowed a link between MMR and autism to be asserted.

The article also goes on to say that since Wakefield’s results were originally published in 1998, no other researcher has been able to reproduce the findings.

Some used statistics to see if autism took off in 1988, when MMR was introduced. It did not. Others used virology to see if MMR caused bowel disease, a core suggestion in the paper. It did not. Yet more replicated the exact Wakefield tests. They showed nothing like what he said.

As a result of the 1998 report, parents in Britain immediatly began questioning whether or not they should vaccinate their children for MMR. As a result, immunization rates in Britain fell from 92% to 80% and measles in Britain is now “endemic”. In 1998, there were only 56 cases of measles reported. Last year there were 1,348. Since 2007, cases of the measles has increased by 36% in Britain. 2 children have died from measles, a disease that had not taken a British life in 14 years.

There is no doubt that immunization is a controversial topic. There are dozens of websites dedicated to both sides of the issue, some vitriolic to the point of rage, others more reasoned and sensible. As a parent, immunization is just one of those areas where you have to do a bit of research and make a decision that sits right with you and your beliefs.

Flickr Photo credit: The children who will die this year from diseases for which there is a vaccine by grewlike. Used under Creative Commons license.

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2 responses to “The (non)link between MMR vaccine and autism

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