By Lauren Dwinell, M.D.
The contents of this web site are provided as an informational tool. This is not intended to replace medical advice or care administered by a healthcare professional. Common sense should always be used when referencing this site. If, at any time, you feel your child is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.
Anyone in the field of pediatrics today has heard the question about vaccines and autism from the families in our practices. The media seems obsessed with the topic and wherever you go, people are talking about it. In this internet age, there are endless amounts of information at our fingertips. However, the validity and credibility of this information can be suspect and we have to navigate carefully to make sure the information we get is accurate. Immunizations, once revered as necessary, important and life-saving have undergone so much scrutiny in the recent years that they are now viewed almost as a necessary evil. Hopefully, after reading this you will be a bit more educated on autism and vaccines, as well as the relationship between the two.
Autism is a significant medical problem in this county. With an incidence of 1:160 children, there are large numbers of children and their families affected by this disease. There is a male to female ratio of 4:1. Autism is a disorder that affects communication and social interaction. Impaired functioning must be present in three different areas for the diagnosis to be made; social interaction, language (usually both receptive and expressive) and symbolic and imaginative play (they don’t mimic things like talking on the cell phone or feeding or rocking a baby doll). The question in everyone’s mind is…what causes it? At this time we do not know. Recently there have been some research breakthroughs on gene mutations that could account for higher risk in an individual. This is a big step but only in the beginning stages. We know there is a genetic component; siblings of autistic children have higher incidences of autism than the general public. Perhaps 2-8% of subsequent siblings also meet criteria for autism. We also know that advanced parental age seems to be a risk factor.
Why is it increasing? That seems to be the big question looming out there. The answer is that we are not even sure that it is increasing. We have become much better at diagnosis over the last few years. Children are being labeled now that may never have been in the past. Parents are much more educated and asking many more questions and healthcare providers are screening children routinely now for behaviors that may be red flags. All of this is leading to better and more frequent diagnosis. Several studies have been done and they have come to opposite conclusions as to whether the actual numbers are really increasing or we are just becoming more adept at diagnosis.
There is no treatment that “cures” autism. Treatment involves language, social and occupational therapies and has been shown to be extremely successful in developing skills that autistic children lack. Early intervention seems to be the key. These children get better with the appropriate therapies.
We rely on immunizations to protect everyone from diseases that are potentially life-threatening. Vaccines contain antigens, these cause the body to work and protect it from future illness. Vaccines are not the only place children are exposed to antigens. Playing outside, eating prepared foods, contracting an illness, all these things also expose children to antigens. Our immune systems are designed to handle these multiple exposures.
Many argue that several of the immunizations we are giving are for diseases that we don’t even see in this country anymore. It is because of vaccines that these illnesses have dropped in numbers and it is because we continue to immunize that they stay in such small numbers. Polio is currently not found in the U.S., however, it is still in six countries around the world. That is one plane flight away from a new case in the U.S. Before the Hib vaccine there were 20,000 cases a year in this country. Over 600 children died yearly and many of the rest were left with deafness, seizures and severe developmental delay. In San Diego this year there was a recent outbreak of measles. Eleven children contracted measles, none of whom had been immunized.
These are just a few examples of why vaccines are important. Some that do not immunize feel that their decision only affects their child. In order for vaccinations to work, and protect against the diseases they are meant to, you need to immunize 85-95 percent of the population. With the increasing trend to hold or delay immunizations this puts everyone at risk. When you get below these numbers you start to see a resurgence of the diseases we are trying to prevent.
There has been much discussion about thimerosal (the mercury based preservative that was used in several vaccines). All the studies that have been done in the U.S. and Europe have shown no link between this compound and the incidence of autism. In fact, thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines (with the exception of some flu shots) in 2001. The autism incidence has not decreased. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration and the Institute of Medicine all agree that there is no scientific evidence to support a link between thimerosal and autism.
More recently there has been a case settled involving a child with a mitochondrial disorder. The judgment was that the child’s disease was triggered by the immunizations. Mitochondrial disorders are extremely rare and they can also be triggered by a fever, infection or other illness. There has been no scientific evidence that immunizations in any way exacerbate this type of illness.
Vaccines save lives; this has been proven over and over again. They are important to ensure our children’s safety as well as that of the world we live in. Autism is a huge problem in the world, this we also know. There is more and more research being done all the time to help shed some light on the problem and find out how to prevent the disorder. In 1998 there was s study published discussing the link between MMR and autism. This study has since been discredited, 10 of the 13 investigators have stated that the conclusions found were not accurate and the journal which published it retracted the article. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the controversy over vaccines was fueled. The bottom line……..there has not been a single study since (they are being done all over the world) that has found any evidence to link autism and vaccines. We do, however, have overwhelming amounts of evidence that vaccines protect our children and save lives.
Below is a list of reputable and credible websites where you can get more information: