When I was pregnant with my first child, I had read some of the literature on vaccinations and autism and how many parents believed there was a link between getting the MMR vaccination and their children "contracting" autism as a result.
So, needless to say, I was a bit circumspect when it was time for my son's MMR shot. The press about it certainly didn't prevent me from having him get it, since the benefits far outweigh any risk, but it did stay in my mind. So, we discussed the risks with his physician and, given the fact there is little if any scientifically proven link between autism and vaccines, we chose to vaccinate both our children.
Now, I know there are still many parents out there that believe that vaccines have played some contributing factor in their child's autism, but the scientific data just isn't there to either prove it or even suggest it. The main problem has been, what I believe to be, the confusion between cause and correlation and a fundamental distrust or misunderstanding of the scientific method.
Autism does not often become apparent until around the time when children receive their first MMR vaccination. So, to a parent, it may seem clear that their children regressed around the same time as they got their MMR vaccination, and that the vaccine must be the cause of their regression. When, in fact, it could be merely a correlation.
Obviously, this is still a heated debate, but not within the scientific community. I think that mainstream media has done a huge disservice to parents by essentially advertising alternative treatments or even "cures" by those profiting off of them. Once again, the media has sensationalized the misfortune of others, creating controversy where there really isn't any.
The acting surgeon general, Dr. Steven K. Galson, has issued a statement saying that "childhood immunizations are one of the greatest achievements of all time" and that "scientific evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not contribute to autism". In fact, for all the media coverage given the anti-vaccine crowd, his office said he had not been questioned by journalists about vaccines and autism. So much for equal coverage.
The other confounding issue with autism is that is can abruptly appear as well as improve. Parents will oftentimes see an improvement in their child that they will attribute to whatever alternative forms of therapy they are doing with their child. Again, this is a confusion between causation and correlation as there is no scientific evidence at this point showing any benefit to these therapies. Any evidence out there is all anecdotal at best.
Having an autistic child can be devastating. When my son was an infant he exhibited classic characteristics of someone on the spectrum. I fully believed he had Aspergers and it wasn't until he was formally diagnosed with a different neurological impairment at age 5 that I thought otherwise. Spectral disabilities are extremely difficult to diagnose and kids on the spectrum improve in some ways while regressing in others. We've personally seen that rather dramatically over the last few years.
We also have had our experience with trying alternatives such as the gluten-free/casein-free diet as well as other supplements and we still get advice from other well-meaning individuals who suggest we try different supplements or dietary restrictions or different courses of alternative treatments that worked for their child. I really don't think that any of these treatments have much merit and, generally, the only people who benefit are those who sell the "antidotes". But, one thing I cannot fathom is why millions of parents are taking the anecdotal advice of celebrities over the advice of their doctors and denying their children vaccinations.
Dr. Offit, author of Autism's False Prophets, makes the argument that "opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage. They don’t speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they’ve set up cottage industries of false hope, and they’re hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It’s just unconscionable."
There is a huge biological element to autism. How the environment fits into how it is expressed is definitely a complicated one. My main concern with this incessant focus on vaccines is that it is leading us down a never-ending rabbit hole that is precluding research from focusing on something else in the environment that may be a bigger contributing factor. It's a scientific sleight of hand because money that would go into autism research is being spent on something that has been proven for the last ten years to be a non-issue, whether the focus is on thimerosal or proteins in the vaccines.
At risk are thousands of children who are not getting vaccinated for truly deadly diseases because of a fear that is relatively unfounded. Also at risk are the millions of Americans who depend on the basics of universal vaccination to prevent and keep diseases at bay, without which it makes all of us (even those of us vaccinated) susceptible to these diseases since we lose some immunity over time.
All that said, what's your opinion on the vaccine debate? For those of you still on the fence (or not), I urge you to read the excerpt from the book mentioned above.
Book Is Rallying Resistance to the Antivaccine Crusade (from the NY Times)
Book Excerpt: Autism's False Prophets
Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child (by Dr. Sears)