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The autism/vaccine myth

Parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated are putting them, and other children, at risk.

May 03, 2009|Ryan Coller | Ryan Coller is a physician and incoming chief resident in pediatrics at UCLA's School of Medicine.

Amother gently places her beautiful 1-year-old boy on the examining table, unwrapping his soft, blue blanket. To my opening question, his mother says "No," she has no concerns.

A thorough exam confirms the boy's good health. His heart and lungs are clear; his growth and development right on target. Even his crying as we screen his blood for anemia and lead are signs of a normal child.

This kind of "well-child check" is about keeping children healthy, and it is the cornerstone of pediatrics. The final step is the vaccinations.

To my surprise, the mother objects. She explains that she works as a nanny for a Malibu family and was taught by her employers that vaccines cause terrible illnesses, such as autism.

The child's mother, striving to do what's best for him and trusting the family she works for, is convinced that she should decline inoculations we know prevent potentially deadly diseases in order to "prevent autism."

I found the encounter disturbing. A healthy and vibrant child was leaving my clinic vulnerable to illnesses that could lead to his death or that could spread disease to a vulnerable child who could not be vaccinated for medical reasons, such as cancer.

As this newspaper recently noted, an increasing number of parents are opting out of vaccinating their children. Up to now, they have tended to be affluent families. But I fear we are starting to see a new contagion, a terrible idea spreading.

The anti-vaccination movement has its roots in a 1998 study in the journal Lancet suggesting a possible link between autism and the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, and recommending that the MMR components be given individually. The subsequent hysteria caused British vaccination rates to fall below 80% in 2008. That year, there were 1,348 cases of measles and two deaths in England and Wales (compared with just 56 cases in 1998) according to the London Sunday Times.

But the Lancet study, which included more authors (13) than patients (12), had severe ethical and scientific flaws -- and 10 of the 13 authors have since retracted their conclusions. Right now, the lead author is facing disciplinary proceedings by Britain's General Medical Council for professional misconduct during the study. One allegation is that he received funding from lawyers representing a group who believed their children were harmed by the MMR vaccine. He also was allegedly seeking a patent for a separated measles vaccine, corresponding nicely to his recommendation to split MMR vaccine's components. Attempts to repeat his findings have failed.

Vaccine critics point out that the number of vaccines has increased dramatically over the last decades. Thankfully, that is true. We also have more antibiotics, newer chemotherapies and different medicines for stroke and heart attack. And 10 years from now, I hope we have vaccines for HIV and more cancers, so people can begin forgetting about their devastation as well.

In countries without pneumococcus and H. influenza type B vaccines (HIB), the World Health Organization attributes more than half of all pneumonia deaths in children under 5 to these infections. Since their introduction in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s, these vaccines have revolutionized pediatrics.

In 2008, likely because of a vaccine shortage in the U.S., 10 cases of HIB were reported. Three of these children died. This is foreshadowing.

It's no wonder the public is confused, with competing celebrities saying vaccines do or don't cause autism and a lot of media attention on the subject. Vaccines, like every medicine, can have real side effects. Autism, however, is not one of them. Though I believe those who decline vaccines are doing what they believe is best for their children, their fears about vaccines and autism are not only unsubstantiated, they have been fully refuted. There is no rational reason to put children in harm's way by declining vaccinations.

We are retreating into illnesses that had nearly vanished, and we are stalling research progress by deferring enormous sums of money to dismantle autism/vaccine theories and establish campaigns to educate families. Wouldn't that money be better spent understanding the true causes of autism and pursuing effective therapies?

We must vaccinate against this misinformation, and stop its spread.

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