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.

7 thoughts on “With autism, vaccines aren't the problem, misinformation is

  1. And this is another reason why we get our care at Mass General’s THE LADDERS program. Stop beating a dead horse by continuing to mention this old study. Take a look at this and write a blog on this

    The British medical journal, BMJ, has published a report by an investigative journalist on the first study to link a childhood vaccine to autism and inflammatory bowel disease. The article in the BMJ called the study an “elaborate fraud,” and claimed that the “appearance of a link with autism was manufactured at a London medical school.”

    Dr. Andrew Wakefield linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism in a study published in the medical journal Lancet more than 10 years ago. Lancet retracted the study last year after the British General Medical Council found that Wakefield had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his research.

    Richard Deth is a professor of pharmacology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the School of Pharmacy at Northeastern University. His research suggests that vaccines containing aluminum and/or the mercury-based preservative thimerosal could contribute to the development of autism in children who lack the genetic capability to excrete neurotoxic metals. The MMR vaccine does not contain aluminum or thimerosal.

    Deth, who is currently attending a vaccine safety conference with Wakefield and other scientists, clinicians and legal experts, offers his response to the controversy.

    What are your thoughts on the BMJ report?

    I think it’s very unusual, but at the same time revealing, that the BMJ chose to publish this story. Investigative journalist Brian Deer has been on a mission to discredit Wakefield for years. His report is not a scientific article, but rather an opinion piece that doesn’t focus on the scientific finding of whether or not autistic children have inflammation in their gastrointestinal tract, which I believe is the crux of the original paper. That paper never set out to prove an explicit link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Nobody studying 12 subjects could conceive of proving a link. Wakefield found that subjects had gastrointestinal inflammation and at least some of parents reported that they thought this occurred after their children received the MMR vaccine.

    Our recent research has identified an amino acid transporter that may be involved in gastrointestinal inflammation and might also contribute to the neuronal inflammation that others have found in the brains of autistic children. A connection between the gut and the brain in autism makes sense to me.

    What is the link between vaccines and autism?

    Vaccines provoke an immune response to an antigen derived from a virus or bacteria. They can also contain agents, called adjuvants, such as aluminum, which augment the antibody response and can provoke inflammation throughout the body, as well as preservatives such as mercury, in the form of thimerosal.

    Aluminum and mercury can enter the brain and remain for years, where they provoke neuroinflammation. Inflammation during childhood can interfere with the normal mechanisms by which gene expression is controlled, leading to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.

    While the MMR vaccine does not contain aluminum or mercury, simultaneous exposure to these three viruses induces inflammation, which contributes to the cumulative effect of vaccines on children.

    It’s common for children to receive several vaccines in a single doctor’s visit. As a result, they receive a tremendous dose of aluminum, well beyond limits set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This increases the chance of excessive inflammation and a metabolic condition known as oxidative stress, which can disrupt development and/or precipitate regressive autism. Studies of autistic children show that they have inflammation and oxidative stress.

    Why haven’t other studies shown a link between the MMR vaccine and autism?

    Most vaccine safety studies have been epidemiological in nature. They examine large population-based datasets rather than individual autistic subjects. The latter type of study has revealed the central role of oxidative stress and inflammation, which could not be identified in epidemiological studies.

    Epidemiological studies are intrinsically unable to uncover causal mechanisms, even if an association was found. In my view, MMR vaccination is only a partial contributor, while other vaccines contribute to the total risk of autism. Vaccines are certainly not the only agents contributing to autism, but it’s likely that the major cause is some kind of environmental exposure, as opposed to a genetic abnormality.

    In light of this, should parents have their children vaccinated against MMR and other diseases?

    Yes. I support vaccination and safer vaccines that don’t contain aluminum or mercury.

    Britain stripped Andrew Wakefield of his right to practice medicine. Was this justified?

    No, not in my opinion. The ethical issues he was found guilty of were not of sufficient magnitude to justify this penalty. Moreover, doubt remains about whether there was significant and willful misconduct.

    The British General Medical Council and Brian Deer have conspired to make an example of Wakefield for daring to suggest that vaccination may cause disease in some individuals.

    Wakefield’s identification of gastrointestinal inflammation in autism will remain an important scientific contribution. The magnitude of the effort to discredit him betrays a strong fear that his suggestion of a link to vaccination may be correct. It amounts to a public pillorying that frightens others from investigating this controversial but important issue.

  2. It’s always hard to know what methods are best to use in the doctor’s office or at home. While it’s important to listen to the doctor’s recommendations, it’s necessary for patients to explore and be aware of all their options before committing themselves to one method. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Please explain the enormous increase in autism. Why are 1 in 70 boys in the US being diagnosed with autism which, according to experts at the UC Davis MIND Institute, is not due to over diagnosing. The increase is genuine NOT due to so called improved diagnosing. According to Senior scientists from EPA, NIEHS and UC Davis MIND Instiute who testfied before a US Senate panel last August, environmental factors(toxins) are involved. Autism clusters have been reported in California, Minnesota and NJ. 1 in 28 Somali children in Minneapolis, MN has severe autism. Cluster strongly suggest an evnrimetnal exposure so perhaps this should be looked at as an environmental health issue.

    What environmental (toxic) exposure could these children be having very early in life that results in their losing previously aquired skills such as language and regressing into autism?

    Has anyone considered the problem of countefeit drugs coming into the US? Before anyone dismisses vaccines as the culprit, we must remember we live in a global economy. 80% of the active ingredients in US pharmaceuticals are manufactured in China, a country with notoriously poor (abyssmal) track record for quality control. The FDA only inspects 5% of the incoming shipments. Maybe we need to take a hard look at the quality control, the integrity of the drug supply chain and ask whether tainted products and/or counterfeit (vaccine, medicine, cough syrup) is making it into the country from overseas.

    Could tainted products, including pharmaceuticals, from overseas be poisoning our kids? It’s a hard question but it has to be asked.

    There’s been a 600% increase in autism the last two decades. Something is terribly wrong. It’s time to take the blinders off and investigate at all possible scenarios.
    Read more here:

    Tainted Chinese Imports Common- In Four Months, FDA Refused 298 Shipments

    Bad Medicine in the Market

    From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine- NYT article
    Counterfeit Drug: Coming to a Pharmacy Near You

  4. I would like to see the focus of autism articles to be on helping the kids. With all due respect, our kids need medical help not a lecture on whether vaccines do or do not cause autism. Medical help please!!

  5. Parents were blaming vaccines long before D. Wakefield did his study. Parents will continue to blame vaccines for the simole reason that they are seeing these kids in the communites and schools. This terrifies them. The CDC has provided no answers so, new parents listen to the autism parents many of whom say their child regrssed after receiving the vaccines. Just about everyone knows someone wit a child on the spectrum. There are five people at my office with kids on the spectrum. Three boys on my street including my son on the spectrum. I have seen kids at the playground, at the store, at the beach displaying autistic behaviors like toe walking, stimming, flapping or covering their ears. Again, it’s the fact that autism, a condition, once very rare, is now showing up 1 in 110 kids.. that’s alone is frightening.

    Autism has become frightfully common and that is what is scaring people not Dr. Wakefield study.

    BTW, other doctors including Dr. Timothy Buie from MGH have found inflammation in the guts of children with autism. Dr. Pardo from Johns Hopkins found inflammation in the brain. Dr. Wakefield idenfitied inflammation in the children he examined which is consistent with the findings of many other scientists. I don’t believe he deserves to be raked over the coals by the medical establishment who obviously feel very threatened.

    I think the fact that inflammation has been in the guts and brains found proves that our kids need medical help which many are nit currently getting.

  6.  Wow, this arrogant attitude is exactly why parents are getting more of their health care information elsewhere!
    It sounds like Dr. McCarthy is telling parents that no matter what their concerns or experience, the doctor, not you, always knows what is best for you and your family.
    Those days ended a long time ago Dr. McCarthy. You need to earn your patients’ trust, not demand it.
    No one other than a doctor vetted by McCarthy knows anything?
    I guess McCarthy’s answer is to shut down the internet and protect parents from themselves and any information Dr. McCarthy approves of?
    Wake up Dr. McCarthy – join the discussion, start listening and stop talking, you just might learn soemthing.
    Parents are concerned about vaccine safety for good reasons.

    Autism Research Institute, TACA or NAA websites.

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