Autism and Vaccination: Doctors vs. Spin-Doctors

SCOM1001 Vaccine Pic

Illustration by Matt Golding

When the prevalence of debilitating infectious diseases subsides, regard for vaccine value fades and complacency thrives. The efficacy of worldwide vaccination programs in reducing disease incidence fuels this ‘out of sight, out of mind mentality’, and abets vaccine sceptics to inject fear into the minds of parents, perpetuating misinformation. The recent decline in childhood immunisation rates and consequent increase of infectious diseases, such as measles, has prompted ‘No Jab, No Pay proposals by the government to boost vaccinations. It has been a bitter pill to swallow for some parents, reigniting the voracious vaccination-autism debate.

Bad Science

A 1998 study conducted by former medical practitioner, Andrew Wakefield, first proposed a link between vaccination and autism, specifically risks associated with the combined mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Before a scientific re-evaluation of Wakefield’s methods found the data to be fraudulent, extensive media coverage entrenched the unsubstantiated claim. With the added support of celebrity spin-doctors, the controversy perpetuated a wildfire of baseless fabrications still ablaze; the ‘autism link’ remains the top concern of parents considering vaccination today.

The Pointy End

Anti-vaxxers frequently quoted increasing autism rates to frame the MMR vaccine as a culprit, without consideration of the broadening diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). After the MMR scare, Japanese practitioners switched to separate vaccinations for mumps, measles and rubella, but ASD incidence continued to rise. After studies shot that horse in the face, anti-vaxxers shifted their concerns to vaccine ingredients like thiomersal and formaldehyde, known to be harmful in high concentrations.

Minute amounts of these substances can be included; formaldehyde for example, inactivates viral components in vaccines. It also occurs naturally in significantly higher quantities in our bodies and is abundant in potatoes. Consideration of dose is required in any assessment of toxicity; high enough consumption of even water can kill you.

Today it’s about vaccine load; multiple shots prescribed in the Australian immunisation schedule have floated notions that autism is related to administering too many vaccines too soon. To address this concern a recent wide-scale study comparatively assessed vaccination histories of children, with and without ASD and found no change in the risk of developing autism across both groups.

No Pain, No Gain

High vaccination rates within populations are necessary for sustained disease control – a fact often evaded by anti-vax advocates. The decision to not vaccinate may be an individual’s freedom of choice, but compromises both the child’s health, and community well-being through reduced ‘herd immunity’. This statistical concept describes a threshold percentage of the population that must be vaccinated to successfully break chains of disease transmission. The 20th century eradication of smallpox is an outstanding example of how herd immunity works.

Anti-vaxxers continue to discount the overwhelming body of scientific evidence, and invent new slants to link autism with vaccinations. Effective disease control is likely to remain unrealised until there is widespread acceptance of vaccination benefits in society.

Don’t let the sceptics inoculate you, step up and take the shot!

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