Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

Scott 9
Jennifer asks: I’ve read that vaccines cause autism and that they don’t. What’s the truth with this?

vaccinesIn 1998, there was a groundbreaking study telling parents that their children were at risk of getting autism from vaccines. Parents everywhere collectively gasped. After all, they had been told for years vaccines were the best way to prevent any number of unwanted diseases. Now they find out the very treatment they thought was making their children better could potentially result in devastating consequences, at least in the case of low-functioning Autism.

The only problem was that same study published in the Lancet was later retracted. Its author, Andrew Wakefield, was shown to have falsified data. His “science” proved to be fraudulent, and riddled with conflicts of interest. His research was so void of ethics that the British General Medical Council removed him from the medical registry and he’s no longer allowed to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.

The damage, however, was done. As with so many other societal perceptions based on debunked science, vaccines causing autism is still a very real concern for many parents. In a survey published in Health Affairs in 2011, 30%-36% of parents were concerned that their children were given too many vaccines in the first 2 years of life, and that those vaccines might cause learning disabilities (like autism). 10% say they will delay, or refuse vaccinations believing it’s safer than following the recommended CDC schedule.

To put this issue to bed, let me say, as a medical professional who has researched this extensively (and someone who has two members of my family who are on the autistic spectrum; so this is a subject I was already quite familiar with even before doing the necessary research to answer this question)- there has never been a single reputable study ever performed that demonstrates any link between vaccines and autism. In fact, countless studies have shown there is absolutely no link between the two.

No, vaccines do not cause autism. To understand why I’m so confident in saying that, let’s throw some good science at this myth, learn a little about Autism and vaccines, and see if we can’t quiet down the naysayers.

Autism, in general, is a broadly defined developmental “disorder”. Those diagnosed can have a wide range of cognition issues and abnormal behaviors. They can have significantly different social, behavioral, and intellectual abilities. Due to this, the term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is now used to describe the many differing presentations.

Because there are so many misconceptions about these presentations, even among psychiatrists and doctors (and I think in many instances the prevailing views are just flat wrong from my experience), I’ll just refer you to an absolutely phenomenal article by Maia Szalavitz about the work of famed neuroscientist Dr. Henry Markram (director of the Blue Brain Project, an attempt to create a synthetic mammalian brain, and director of the Human Brain Project, an attempt to simulate the human brain using supercomputers).

Dr. Markram also found that the prevailing views among scientists and psychologists about autism simply didn’t line up with what he was seeing with his own son’s autism and other cases he studied.  Being one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, he has since leveled his amazing brain at the problem.  Joining him in this endeavor is the equally impressive brain of his wife, Dr. Kamila Markram.

After a breakthrough involving observing hyper-connected cells in the subjects they were studying, the two came up with a theory which, in my experience (and, of course, theirs as you’ll see), seems much closer to the mark when you actually live with people on the spectrum and get to be around them all the time.  For instance, among other things, you’ll see he debunks the whole “lack of empathy” thing.  Here’s the article: The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism

They also note in their research that the cells in question aren’t defective nor under-responsive, but in fact have many more connections than normal, making the network able to learn significantly quicker, which if not controlled correctly in the learning, particularly in the early stages, can have amazingly negative results.  For instance, in testing, rats with this abnormality not only learned much more quickly to get scared of something that would shock them, but they also quickly became terrified of not just the electrified object, but everything they associate with the shocking, such as colors and smells, and the like.  The rats also had a significantly more difficult time unlearning all these very strong associations.

Imagining an entire world where experiences are bombarding the autistic brain in this way led to the Markram’s “Intense World” theory of autism, which also perhaps explains why it takes so long for babies to manifest strong symptoms of autism in many cases.  They start out more or less with a blank (apparently hyperconnected) slate, after all.

In any event, whether Dr. Markram turns out to be correct or the more widely touted classical views, the exact mechanism within the brain that causes these wide ranging neurodevelopmental problems is still up for debate, though the Markram’s research is very promising.

But back to vaccines, if the Markram’s are correct, vaccines wouldn’t have any affect on the situation.  This hyperconnectivity is a prenatal development.

But what about the more commonly accepted theories?  After all, the Markram’s work needs thoroughly vetted before we should accept it, no matter how promising it looks.

For the more commonly accepted theories, it’s thought likely that not any one disease process, but a group of conditions with related symptoms, is occurring. Genetics and environmental conditions both playing a role in those affected. (Which still *sort of* is in-line with the Markram’s theory, which is why they recommend “toning down” the autistic baby’s environment in early development, but I’ll stop harping about it.  Go read Maia Szalavitz’ article on the Markram’s work right now! I’ll wait…)

Again, going back to the commonly touted line of thinking, we know that those diagnosed have atypical neural connectivity within their brains, such as different neural processing of eye gaze direction using EEG (Electroencephalography). We know genetics plays a role, as studies have shown siblings of children diagnosed with ASD have a 15%-20% chance of showing symptoms compared to just 1% for those at low risk. Several known chromosomal deformities, such as Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Joubert’s syndrome, and duplications of the chromosomes 15q11-13, can result in a diagnosis of autism.

As to vaccines, there are many types. Some have live microbes that cause an immune response, some have inactivated microbes that also cause an immune reaction. Others have just the antigens that cause an immune response and not the entire microbe itself. The one that gained such popularity as the potential cause of autism was the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella).

In his study published in the February 1998 issue of Lancet, Dr. Wakefield stated

Onset of behavioral symptoms was associated by the parents with measles, mumps, rubella, vaccination in eight of the 12 children…. All 12 children had intestinal abnormalities…..behavioral disorders included, autism (9), disintegrated psychosis (1), and possible postviral or vaccinal encephalitis (2).

His interpretation was that the gastrointestinal problems and the developmental regression (associated with autism) were associated with environmental triggers. Basically saying the trigger was the MMR vaccine.

Immune system responses have long been shown to come with some gastrointestinal symptoms. It’s not too far fetched then, to try and show a link between those symptoms and vaccines. A person might also try and postulate a theory to show how those symptoms that are associated with certain disorders (like the often proposed gastrointestinal problems with autistic children) might be caused by those vaccines.

The fraudulent disconnect with this myth is trying to say the cause of the symptoms is also the cause of disease processes that results in those same symptoms, even though it has never been shown that ASD sufferers are actually more prone to GI problems than the general population.

It probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Wakefield, who used the GI problems as a link in his now defunct study, was a paid consultant to attorneys who represented parents that thought their kids had been harmed by vaccines.

The question Mr. Wakefield presented isn’t inappropriate to ask. The problem came when others looked at his falsified methods, and attempted to replicate his results. Falsified data aside, numerous studies performed between 2002-2005 showed no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

In April of 2013, another study published in The Journal of Pediatrics once again showed no link between exposure to vaccines and autism. As others before, this study showed that it didn’t matter how many vaccines the children received, whether all at once or given over time- there was no increased risk of developmental problems.

Due to so many conditions potentially affecting symptoms of ASD, this study, like so many others, points out that possible effects of immunological exposure in early infancy can’t be ruled out altogether.  However, as noted, our lack of understanding of exactly what is going on with autism is the primary driver of that small shred of doubt, not any indicator.

However, they also stated, “We found no association between exposure to antigens from vaccines during infancy and the development of ASD with regression”.  Further, “The possibility that immunologic stimulation from vaccines during the first 1-2 years of life could be related to the development of ASD is not well supported by the known neurobiology of ASD, which tends to be genetically determined with origins in prenatal development.”

Based on the study published by Mr. Wakefield in 1998, parents were right to be concerned about vaccines causing autism. In the end, though, good science prevailed and has since shown us that there is absolutely no observable link between vaccines and autism.  Babies that are vaccinated and those who aren’t have the same rates of autism.

So while the choice is yours on whether to have your baby vaccinated, at least you now know autism isn’t something you should consider when making this decision.

*Editor’s note:  If you’d like to hear Scott discuss this article further, he spoke with The Tim Denis Morning Show on New Talks 610 CKTB.  You can listen that here

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9 Comments »

  1. Annette February 25, 2014 at 8:34 am - Reply

    Well that’s funny. Jeana and Darrell Smith of Baton Rouge have identical twins with different vaccine histories. The one vaccinated months sooner got autism, the other did not. Coincidence?

    Also the fact there was a congressional hearing on it and the pro-vaccinators pretty much got ownd speaks for itself. The fact remains they REFUSE TO STUDY VACCINATED VS UNVACCINATED KIDS.

    http://healthimpactnews.com/2012/video-highlights-from-first-congressional-hearing-on-autism-in-10-years/

  2. Todd February 25, 2014 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Annette’s comments completely disregard science. Vaccines are one of medicine’s greatest boons to society. Countless lives have been saved by vaccines. The US is becoming more and more at risk of outbreaks due to people who absolutely have no regard for the actual welfare of their own children or those of others. Polio. Measles. Pertussis. Diphtheria. Smallpox. These were scourges of mankind until vaccines were developed. I have seen an infant with pertussis (whooping cough) and it is terrifying to see.

    If you want third world medicine please move there and keep others safe.

  3. Derek February 26, 2014 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Annette has a point… She just proved that as far as that website is concerned there is 1 case. 1 case out of millions who have gotten Vaccies. Better stop all kids because there is no way it was a by chance for fluke.

  4. Scott February 27, 2014 at 7:43 am - Reply

    @Annette- It’s unfortunate for you that you chose that reference to make your point. If you watch the congressional hearings you will find that the representative from Indiana (Dan Burton) stated as proof that the mercury in vaccines can cause neuro-degenerative problems he showed a study done by the university of Calgary that showed mercury causing axon degeneration. The problem is, the mercury they were studying was the type found in amalgam tooth fillings which is a completely different type of mercury than is found in thimerosal (the preservative in vaccines containing mercury). So let me give you a little chemistry lecture.
    .
    The mercury is thimerosal is ethylmercury one of two types of biomercury. The type in amalgam tooth fillings is elemental mercury. Elemental mercury has long been known to cause neuro-degenerative problems. It has an extremely long half life in the body (about 44 days) and isn’t completely eliminated in the body for about 70 days. As such it can accumulate to levels that cause problems.
    .
    The two types of biomercury are ethylmercury and methylmercury. Methylmercury is the type found in high levels in seafoods and rice and can be changed into elemental mercury with high enough doses and repeated exposure.
    .
    Ethylmercury in thimerosal only has a half life of 3.7 days and is completely eliminated in the body shortly after that, primarily in your stool. In the end, countless studies have shown ethylmercury does not accumulate in the body, reaches its peak levels at around 24 hours after exposure however those peak levels are so low that even if it was elemental mercury it wouldn’t cause problems.
    .
    In the end Annette, look at my references, read the 2013 study published in the journal of pediatrics. It shows how and why thimerosal isn’t a problem.
    .
    But hey, you could always continue to ignore good science in favor of ignorant rants by uneducated representatives. It’s just not going to get you far in your doctor’s office.

  5. John Knuckey March 1, 2014 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    Couple comments/questions:

    1) What are the author’s thoughts on the Hannah Poling case?

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/family-to-receive-15m-plus-in-first-ever-vaccine-autism-court-award/

    2) In the majority of the “Vaccines don’t cause Autism” articles I read, I don’t see any mention of the Vaccine Injury Court. I think it does the audience a great disservice to neglect to state that vaccines are not 100% completely safe. I’m guessing many people would be surprised to hear that the Vaccine Injury Court has paid out over $2.6B in claims since 1989:

    http://www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/statisticsreports.html#Claims

  6. Mike Willner August 20, 2014 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Scott writes, “It probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Wakefield, who used the GI problems as a link in his now defunct study, was a paid consultant to attorneys who represented parents that thought their kids had been harmed by vaccines.”

    Practically all expert witnesses who provide consulting services to attorneys in legal cases are paid. Should all testimony provided by a paid expert witness be disregarded due to an appearance of a conflict of interest? That would be a huge blow to the legal system. The fact that Wakefield was a paid consultant is not irrefutable proof that his study was fraudulent.

    Scott writes, ” … Andrew Wakefield, was shown to have falsified data. His “science” proved to be fraudulent, and riddled with conflicts of interest. His research was so void of ethics that the British General Medical Council removed him from the medical registry and he’s no longer allowed to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.”

    All I see here are unsubstantiated accusations. What falsified data? What conflicts of interest, other than the standard practice of being paid to be an expert witness. How was his research void of ethics? Scott says he’s conducted a great deal of research on vaccines. Was he being paid to conduct any of that research? If so, by whom? Is Scott hoping a pharmaceutical company will give him a grant to conduct research in the future?

    I wonder if any pharmaceutical companies that make huge profit margins on government-promoted, if not -mandated, vaccines, had any influence on the British General Medical Council or the Lancet’s publisher. I wonder if any pharmaceutical companies advertise in the Lancet? Would that mean the Lancet is “riddled with conflicts of interest?”

    Scott writes, “…numerous studies performed between 2002-2005 showed no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.” Who funded those studies? Pharmaceutical companies maybe? Were any studies discontinued (and, therefore, not published) when it appeared they would show a link between autism and the MMR vaccine?

    So I guess all these parents who swear their kids were perfectly normal before receiving an MMR vaccine and soon thereafter began showing signs of autism are to be ignored because they have no scientific backgrounds? Chalk all their cases up to coincidence? Is Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center, http://www.nvic.org/about/barbaraloefisher.aspx, an idiot or a charlatan or both?

    Why has the Vaccine Injury Court paid out over $2.6B in claims since 1989? And why did a court issue a judgment that could amount to $20 million in damages to a family whose child allegedly developed autism after being administered a vaccine cocktail? Is it possible that the issue of whether some vaccines or vaccine cocktails can cause autism or other disorders is not as black and white as Scott would have us believe? Does Scott’s article really put this issue “to bed” once and for all?

    Just because some vaccines have been a boon to mankind, does not mean all vaccines are safe. Where pharmaceutical companies stand to generate tremendous profit margins from the sale of their vaccines, and where numerous scientists, doctors, universities, publications, and politicians, benefit from grants, advertising dollars, campaign contributions, or other pharmaceutical company largess, maybe Wakefield is not the only one whose conflicts of interest should be examined.

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