New crossroad for anti-vaccine movement

April 8, 2010 — by Alex Ju and Denise Lin

“In eight children, the onset of behavioral problems had been linked, either by the parents or by the child’s physician, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination.”

This excerpt from gastroenterologist Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was enough to strike fear into the hearts of thousands of parents, and seemed to confirm their belief that vaccines can, indeed, cause autism.

However, on Feb. 2, the controversial study was officially retracted by the Lancet, the British medical journal that originally published it in 1998.

This study, which was widely discredited even from its inception, spurred the belief that vaccines cause autism in children. Although the study has been officially revoked, some will still cling to the theory and blame vaccines for what is, today, still inexplicable.

As vaccines have become more accessible, the rate of vaccination in children has increased dramatically. Similarly, as autism becomes better understood, it, too, has been more readily diagnosed. These two phenomena collectively spur on parents’ belief in the vaccine-autism connection. It doesn’t help that the signs of autism appear at about the same time vaccines are given.

The actual cause of autism is still a mystery, though many scientists believe it is caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Vaccines have been proven innocent multiple times. However, Wakefield’s faulty study cast a dark shadow over the rest of the science in this area.

This study was shown to be especially faulty when Wakefield was found to have used unethical methods in his study. For instance, it was revealed that he had ulterior motives vested in the research, being a paid adviser in legal cases involving autism and vaccines. In addition, he selectively chose the participants of his study and shockingly obtained blood by paying children at his son’s birthday party.

The results were even previously publicly rejected by 10 of the 13 co-authors. However, people continued to blindly believe the results, despite the official revocation by the Lancet.

Even in the midst of this scandal, the anti-vaccine movement is still going strong, with the help of proponents like celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who supposedly cured her formerly autistic son. She claimed that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine led to her son becoming autistic. Parents, who are justifiably frightened by the onset of autism in their children, clung to this isolated incident, using it as evidence for the largely improbable.

Despite the lack of legitimate evidence connecting the use of vaccines to autism, parents continue to fear the effects of vaccinating their children. According to Time, 25 percent of parents think that vaccines can cause children to develop autism. Although most of these skeptics still allow their children to be vaccinated, the vaccination rates have dropped.

Many of these well-meaning parents fail to realize the many risks that accompany not vaccinating one’s children. It leaves them unnecessarily vulnerable to completely preventable diseases and puts other children at risk. It is also essentially a step backward for medical research, disregarding the improved health care that has extinguished many diseases.

Such dreadful viruses can easily spread in crowded environments, such as schools, leading to outbreaks of ailments such as measles. This is unfair not only to that parent’s particular child, but to the child’s classmates as well, even those who have gone through the proper vaccination methods. The swine-flu epidemic is a reminder that vaccines are by no means the “end-all” of infectious diseases.

But while the spread of diseases is preventable and mostly curable, autism is not, apart from certain precautions during pregnancy. This kind of news may be hard for frustrated parents and caregivers to swallow, but, like all complex issues, autism lacks a blanket solution.

For the safety of one’s child and the sake of other people, it is best for parents to allow their children to be vaccinated. Vaccinations have been used for decades, and of course, like all other medical treatments do, they do have risks; however, are, for the most part, quite successful.

Most doctors and scientists hope the dismissal of Wakefield’s faulty paper will coax skeptical parents into vaccinating their children. On the whole, they are an essential part of health care. And while some may continue to cling to the belief that vaccines can cause autism, the hope is that the retraction of this study will encourage people to take advantage of the incredible medical advancements at their fingertips.