Autism

Vaccines Cause Autism: The Lie That Never Dies

A fraudulent study from 1998 continues to have negative impact on health.

Posted Dec 21, 2018

This past week, Dr. Mark Green, M.D., who was recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Tennessee declared: “Let me say this about autism, I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County [Tennessee], to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines. As a physician, I can make that argument and I can look at it academically and make the argument against the CDC, if they really want to engage me on it,"[1]

As a clinician dedicated to serving people with autism and their families, I am both appalled and disheartened that a physician — and future member of Congress — has once again promulgated the "vaccines cause autism" narrative that has led to so much misinformation and fear regarding vaccinating toddlers and preschoolers against deadly diseases. Moreover, these shameful comments demonstrate why this lie has proven extremely difficult to overcome.

A crucial and indisputable fact about the “vaccines cause autism” narrative is that it is founded on fraudulent research. This is not simply an opinion. The original article appearing in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in 1998[2] with Dr. Andrew Wakefield as the lead author who reported that “Onset of behavioral symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children…” was retracted in 2010 by the editors of The Lancet. They stated: “Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect…”[3] Moreover, Dr. Wakefield, the clinician who pushed this false narrative, lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.[4] In concise language, the original “vaccines cause autism” research was fraudulent, plain and simple.[5]

It is perhaps ironic that this original "vaccines cause autism" lie was based upon only 12 children, but refuting this lie by disproving this fraudulent research required studies that now include literally millions of children. This disproportionality is due, in part, to the scientific problem of “proving a negative.” It is certainly true that science can indeed disprove a falsehood (see the Psychology Today article by Stephen Law, Ph.D.),[6] but the process requires multiple replications with negative findings to prove that vaccines do not cause autism. There are now multiple comprehensive scientific reviews showing that vaccines do not cause autism that combine public health data and scientific studies in the U.S. and data from other countries as well.[7] Despite the overwhelming evidence indicating that vaccines do not cause autism, too many people — including physicians — continue to hold Dr. Green’s misguided point of view.

Another important challenge for clinicians, scientists, and public health officials is that the actual cause of autism is not yet known. Parents ask me whether vaccines cause autism, and I can (and do) confidently answer “no” and provide the sources included in this article for them to read. But then they ask what causes autism, and I have to say, “We do not yet know the cause.” The confident assertions that vaccines cause autism is met with an intellectually honest uncertainty that is not very comforting or reassuring to families. To be sure, I can offer honest hope in the form of effective, evidence-based treatments that will improve the symptoms of autism in their child, but it would be much more powerful to know the cause.

Not knowing what causes autism creates a knowledge vacuum that can be readily filled with the “certainty” that people, such as Dr. Green, who “know” vaccines cause autism and who argue that the CDC, federal government, “Big Pharma,” and the media are in an evil cabal to cover up the truth.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider a similar situation for Down Syndrome prior to the discovery of the cause — an additional copy of Chromosome 21 — in 1959.[8] It is important to bear in mind that Dr. Down first reported the condition in 1866![9] So, for almost 100 years, clinicians would have to answer the question, “What causes Down Syndrome?” with the same “We do not yet know” that we do today for autism. Because autism was first described in 1943 (by psychiatrist Leo Kanner),[10] we can only hope that discovering the cause (or causes) of autism doesn’t take quite so long!

It is also instructive to study the proposed “causes” of Down Syndrome prior to 1959, when the actual cause became known. For example, there was considerable belief that “retroflection in the uterus” was a key cause. Others argued there were viral causes or environmental exposures that were responsible.[11] It is all too easy to imagine that these well-meaning, but misguided “experts” promulgated false information and “certainty” when none actually existed, just as the advocates of “vaccines cause autism” are doing today.

The truth is that vaccines do not cause autism, and they prevent a pantheon of devastating — and in some cases, deadly — diseases. One can look forward to the day when the cause (or causes) are discovered. But until then, it is becoming increasingly clear that “vaccines cause autism” will remain the lie that never dies.  

References

[1] https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/12/12/tennessee-mark-green-vaccine-autism-cdc-congressman-anti-vax/2288164002/ accessed December 18, 2018.

[2] Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell J, Casson DM, Malik M, Berelowitz M, Dhillon AP, Thomson MA, Harvey P, Valentine A. (1998). RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637-641. Quote on p. 637.

[3] Retraction—Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.The Lancet, Volume 375, Issue 9713, 2010, Pages 445. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673697110960?via%3Dihub accessed on 12/20/2018.

[4] Time, May 24 2010 http://healthland.time.com/2010/05/24/doctor-behind-vaccine-autism-link-loses-license/ accessed on 12/20/2018.

[5] Godlee, Fiona, Jane Smith, and Harvey Marcovitch. (2011) "Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent." British Journal of Medicine, 342, c7452.

[6] Law, S. (2011). You can prove a negative. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/believing-bull/201109/you-can-prove-negative accessed 10/20/2018.

[7] Dudley, Matthew Z., Daniel A. Salmon, Neal A. Halsey, Walter A. Orenstein, Rupali J. Limaye, Sean T. O’Leary, and Saad B. Omer. "Do Vaccines Cause Autism?." In The Clinician’s Vaccine Safety Resource Guide, pp. 197-204. Springer, Cham, 2018.

[8] Lejeune, Jérôme, Marthe Gauthier, and Raymond Turpin (1959). "Les chromosomes humains en culture de tissus [The human chromosomes in tissue culture]". CR Hebd Se ́ances Acad Sci (248): 602–603.

[9] Down, JLH (1866). "Observations on an ethnic classification of idiots". Clinical Lecture Reports, London Hospital. 3: 259–62

[10] Kanner, Leo (1943). "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact". Nervous Child.

[11] Ingalls, Theodore H. "The problem of mongolism." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 57, no. 5 (1954): 551-557.