The Decade’s Most Overblown Fears

By Alison Singer

Newsweek  has just posted a special “end of the decade project” in which the editors attempt to recap the last ten years. They have produced twenty different top 10 lists, including one on overblown fears; threats that fortunately didn’t materialize or were later debunked. Topping this list are Y2K, and the threat of shoe bombs (and frankly nothing is more annoying than having to take off your shoes at airport security, especially in winter when the floor is cold. Number 3 on the list is “Vaccines and Autism”.

More than a dozen studies done over the past decade indicate that neither vaccines nor any specific ingredients in vaccines cause autism. While research on environmental factors is important in autism, it makes little sense to continue to pursue a specific study of vaccines, the one environmental factor that science has already ruled out.

Writing in Newsweek, Dr. Paul Offit explains the origin of the disproved notion that vaccines cause autism, and concludes with the following: “In the meantime children whose parents were frightened by MMR have died from measles and those frightened by thimerosal have died from bacterial meningitis: sacrificed at the altar of poorly conceived ideas. The tragedy is, given all we now know about the neurological basis of autism, these hypotheses had no chance of bearing fruit.”

As we approach a new decade, let’s keep focused on areas in autism research that have potential to yield new, actionable information for families. Let’s commit to asking new scientific questions in the coming decade and to putting the vaccine-autism myth squarely behind us.

7 Replies to “The Decade’s Most Overblown Fears”

  1. I read a few anti-vaccine blogs, and the reasoning all of these bloggers use is that no large-scale, population-based study has yet been carried out that compares autism rates in vaccinated vs. unvaccinated groups. These bloggers claim that they’ll stop ranting about vaccines if this study is done, but I doubt it. Besides, don’t they realize how costly a large-scale, epidemiological study is.

  2. There has been no study showing the efficacy or safety of chelation as a treatment for autism, yet most of the bloggers you’re referring to endorse it. These people simply reject any science that disagrees with their worldview. Even if a vaccinated/unvaccinated study were ethical and possible and showed that vaccines were safe, the vaccines-cause-autism crowd would not be convinced. They’d move the goalpost again, and reject the study claiming “conflict of interest” or something of that kind.

    To people who feel sure their child’s autism was caused by a vaccine, I recommend the book How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich.

  3. Why is the “no link between autism and vaccines” poster boy a doctor who has such an obvious conflict of interest? Offit has made millions from his Merck vaccine, and he is certain that there is no link between vaccines and autism – he’s far from unbiased. Why is he more credible than someone like Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the NIH?

    No, parents don’t want an epidemiological study. We want a well-designed, scientifically valid study comparing autism rates in kids who receive vaccines based on the AAP’s recommended schedule and unvaccinated kids. This would not be an unusually expensive study – if we redirected just a small portion of the money we now funnel into the “let’s find that autism gene” research, that would be more than enough.

    My question to Astrid is this: how expensive would any study comparing vaccinated and un-vaccinated children have to be to come close to the cost of providing behavioral therapy and long-term care for the 1 in 100 children who have autism?

    A recent study in the Annals of Epidemiology showed that boys who received Hep B vaccine in the first month of life were almost 3 times as likely to be diagnosed with autism as boys who were not vaccinated against Hep B or received the vaccine later. Alison, it’s unclear to me how and why you’ve discounted studies like this one, or how you can read this study and say that the autism-vaccine link has been “ruled out.”


  4. The hepatitis B study you talk about has several problems. Since the vaccine started widespread use in the mid 1990s, and autism rates increased in the 1990s, anything introduced during that time period will correlate with increasing autism rates when regression analysis is used. The overall incidence of autism was about 1 in 250 in the study and was the same whether or not they received the hep B, and girls who received hep B at birth were protected against autism, which makes no sense.

    I have Gilovich’s book, which I learned about at a Cornell reunion, and I thought it was great. People who think their child has autism due to vaccines will never change their mind, regardless of the science.

  5. Astrid knows, or should know, that in addition to people who “rant” about vaccines as she says there are also people who simply question whether vaccines have been studied properly with respect to autism.

    In particular she refers only to “anti-vaccine blogs” and makes no mention of the fact that both former NIH head Dr. Bernadine Healy and former CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding have said that a comparative study comparing autism rates of existing vaccinated and non vaccinated groups COULD and SHOULD be done. Pro-vaccine neurologist Dr. Jon Poling has also called for more environmentally focused research including vaccine research.

    Let the research be done and let the questionable claims that science has spoken be shelved.

  6. Harold,

    What you’ve mentioned Poling has said, I agree with. There is clearly need for environmentally focused research (and this is coming from a geneticist) because the answer is never nature OR nurture, especially with such a complex human disease.

    However, vaccines are one of the few places we HAVE looked and the more rigorous the study, the less likely it has been to show a link between autism and vaccines. I’m not ruling out the possibility that something in vaccines could be a trigger for some small sub-population of people with ASD, but I’ve been convinced that it is not a large factor by any means. On the other hand, there have been single genetic abnormalities linked to as many as 15% of cases. At this point, we’re seeing the law of diminishing returns with vaccine studies, where do we draw the funding line?

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