Vaccines and autism – what’s the scientific truth?

vaccines photo

You take your infant to the pediatrician, and they want your baby to receive a bunch of vaccines – at least five separate ones! You remember that there is a huge controversy surrounding giving children vaccinations, and that vaccines might even cause autism. You know that a lot of information has probably been misspoken, especially since celebrities are involved, but you don’t want to harm your child. What is the truth behind this controversy and is it really safe to vaccinate your baby?

The story began in 1998, when a doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet (a medical journal) claiming there was a link between autism and vaccines. Afterwards, parents mistrusted vaccines and Dr. Wakefield became rich, collecting $674,000 from lawyers who benefited from lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Eventually, it was found that Dr. Wakefield’s study wasn’t based on sound statistics and his conclusions were made up.

The Lancet apologized for publishing Dr. Wakefield’s paper and eventually released a statement in 2004 refuting the original findings. Several other, more rigorous studies have since been conducted. From 1999 with a study of 500 children to 2012 with a review of 58 various types of studies including over 14,700,000 children, not one has found even the slightest hint that vaccines could be “associated with,” much less cause autism.

Falsified study

Unfortunately, for many parents the damage from this one, falsified study has been done. More and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children over personal or religious beliefs. Vaccines are lifesaving – for example, use of the smallpox vaccine has eliminated the deadly, smallpox virus from the world – but they rely on something known as “herd immunity” in order to be maximally effective.

“Herd immunity” occurs when a certain, threshold portion of a population is vaccinated against a contagious disease, then the majority of that population is protected because there’s such a small chance of an outbreak. Even that very few portion of the population who isn’t medically able to be vaccinated is still protected because of the decreased risk.

But when so many people are choosing not to vaccinate and the number of vaccinated people falls below that critical threshold, then everyone who isn’t vaccinated (whether they chose to or were medically unable to) is at risk. In recent years, the decrease in vaccination has led to spikes in preventable childhood illnesses, like the measles and whooping cough, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

There are still many myths surrounding the safety of childhood vaccinations, but they are just that – myths. The only vaccine on the market that still contains thimerosal (a preservative with trace amounts of mercury) is the seasonal flu vaccine, and there are many thimerosal-free options available. While it may seem like giving your infant five or six vaccines at once is overkill, their immune system is capable of handling even more serious bacteria and viruses, and most vaccines are inactivated (not live).

Unintended consequences

Lastly, the decisions you make regarding your child’s healthcare will always be ultimately yours, but they may also have unintended consequences. As mentioned above, your decision, plus hundreds of thousands of other parents’, could decrease the population’s herd immunity to the point where all unvaccinated children are at risk. With porous world borders, and essentially nonexistent states, it’s very easy to imagine a sick traveler starting an epidemic that costs untold preventable deaths.

Vaccines help to do more than prevent deaths, though. They prevent disease and reduce complications from the illnesses they protect against. For instance, the Shingles vaccine can decrease the severity of your Shingles outbreak if you do have one, and the seasonal flu shot helps prevent hospitalizations by minimizing your illness if you contract it.

It can be hard to determine which side is right and how it will affect your child. Whether you believe the scientific proof or the celebrity hoopla, though, take a good hard look at the facts before making the decision about vaccination.

About the Author

Julie Kaplan, Pharm. D.
Julie Kaplan is a licensed pharmacist in Virginia and the District of Columbia. She received a Bachelor’s of Arts in English from The College of William and Mary and a Doctor of Pharmacy from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has experience in patient communication from working as a retail pharmacist.