The unsubstantiated belief that vaccines are to blame for increasing rates of autism has diverted too much attention from the quest to find the causes of this complex syndrome. Sadly, a decision by the nation's vaccine court won't make much difference to the very vocal parents who refuse to let this theory die.
The court, which was set up to consider claims of harm caused by vaccines, ruled this month that inoculations did not cause the autism of three children, as their parents alleged. The cases were considered among the strongest of 5,000 autism claims before the panel, which determined that a convincing body of research has found no significant link between the two.
Anti-vaccine parents first targeted thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury that was used in vaccines, as the culprit. When thimerosal was removed from vaccines with no effect on autism rates, they focused on the inoculations themselves, especially the one for measles, mumps and rubella. Backed by a mountain of solid research, the court rejected both hypotheses. Yet the anti-vaccine fervor only grows stronger, supported in part by a tiny number of cases in which vaccines are believed to trigger autism among children with certain rare preexisting conditions or genetic predispositions.
At this point, more than enough energy has gone into blaming or defending vaccines, which were first suspected because an ever-lengthening schedule of inoculations coincided with the surge in autism cases over the last 20 years. But vaccines weren't the only changes during that time that deserve examination. A large-scale study in 2006 found that fathers over the age of 40 at the time of conception were six times more likely than younger men to have autistic children. This fits with other research indicating a genetic link in autism, or a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Yet this possibly important correlation has never gained much public attention.
There's a reason why vaccines might be seen by parents as an acceptable culprit. Age, or a genetic link, could imply that the parents were at fault, no matter how unwittingly. Inoculations are an external factor, encouraged by the medical establishment. Refusal to vaccinate might be behind recent outbreaks of whooping cough and a disease that can cause bacterial meningitis. Sadly, many in the anti-vaccine camp are too young to remember the anguish of parents in previous decades who lost their children to German measles or whose babies were born with congenital defects after the mothers caught the disease during pregnancy. Now known as rubella, it has been largely eliminated in this country by vaccines.