With autism, vaccines aren't the problem, misinformation is

The news that Dr. Andrew Wakefield appears to have invented some of the information in his famous 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine and autism is shocking. But it’s old news that the study was not a good study. A year ago, The Lancet retracted it. And even before that, nobody had been able to replicate it, and many studies contradicted it.

Yet some people still want to believe the study. This is really frustrating to me.

I’m not frustrated because people want to believe Dr. Wakefield’s idea. We don’t know what causes autism. Hopefully we will soon, but until then any idea is open for discussion and investigation. What frustrates me is that even before these revelations, it was clear that the study was flawed. The study isn’t good science; it doesn’t show anything, let alone prove anything. Nevertheless, people have made decisions about immunizing their children based on it. That is really frustrating, especially when there is so much good science to show that vaccines don’t cause autism—and do save lives.

To make good health decisions, we need good health information. By good information, I mean information that is based on solid medical research, information that comes from a source that is recognized by the medical community as being knowledgeable and reliable, and information that isn’t biased. It’s especially important when you are making a decision for your child—because the decisions you make can affect the rest of their lives (gulp).

In my practice, I often hear “my friend said,” or “my mother said,” or “I heard about this kid who…” when parents talk about their health decisions. If the friend or mother is a doctor or nurse, okay—but usually they aren’t. Not that their opinions aren’t worthwhile, but they aren’t enough to make an important decision. And the story of that kid may or may not have anything to do with your child. Most likely, it doesn’t.

Or, increasingly, what I hear is, “I looked it up online.” Now, there’s a lot of great health information online. I use the Internet myself, all the time. But you have to know where to look. You need to be sure to use good websites from reputable organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control, or the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many people don’t know how to sort out the good websites from the not-so-good ones, and end up with not-so-good information. To get good health information from the Internet you also need to know what it is you’re looking for, and be able to sort through the huge quantity of available information—both of which can be hard. I’ve found that often parents end up more confused—and scared—than they were when they started.

The best place to go for your health information, truly, is your doctor. Not only does he or she have the years of medical training and experience, your doctor knows you and your situation best. That can be key when it comes to sorting out what information you need, and how (or whether) information you find is relevant to you and your family.

Your doctor may not know everything about everything (few of us do). But your doctor should be your partner as you look for information. He or she can help you find the right people to talk to, the best websites, the best journal articles, or whatever other resources make sense.

After all, your doctor wants what you want: for you and your family to be healthy and happy.