For the past several years I have found myself on the defensive over a very fundamental treatment I provide as a pediatrician. I have been giving children vaccines according to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for 22 years. But in recent years there has been a backlash against the very vaccines we use to prevent known serious illnesses. As a response to this backlash I built a file of articles that supported the use and defended against supposed side effects of the vaccines. In recent days there has been great news about vaccines to add to my file. The news is they are safe and do not cause autism.
In the late nineties two events stoked the fires of skepticism about vaccines. First, in 1998, a well known British medical journal, the Lancet, published a report based on work of thirteen prominent physicians stating that the MMR vaccine was associated with autism. A storm of controversy over the use of the MMR vaccine followed. The second event in the late nineties that caused a furor was the removal of thimerosal from vaccines. Thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines, contains mercury. It has never been shown to be a health hazard. However, because of the potential for buildup of mercury in the body, it was prudent to remove thimerosal from vaccines. This was done on a voluntary basis by the manufacturers. Just that move caused speculation that vaccine manufacturers were hiding something. Further speculation followed that thimerosal was associated with autism – with no medical evidence proving it.
Through the early part of this decade, scientists and lay people have battled on both sides of the argument. Advocates for parents of autistic children questioned the MMR and thimerosal link while doctors and researchers tried to study the association. Now, within the past two months two news reports help clarify the reality.
First, in April, ten of the original thirteen investigators who published the link between the MMR vaccine and autism retracted their conclusions. It was revealed that the study, which was funded by lawyers who focus on vaccine damage cases, was markedly flawed. The original study that served as a basis for legal cases involving the MMR vaccine around the globe was biased. The lead investigators in the study are currently under legal investigation for conflict of interest.
A second story about vaccines came out in May 04. The Institute of Medicine released a report by its thirteen member panel saying that there was “little credible evidence that thimerosal was associated with autism“. Autism is a complex and difficult problem for parents and children. I know many autistic children and their families. There is still no clear explanation for autism. I wish there was. But at least we can learn some lessons from these two reports.
These two reports are of great value to physicians who promote vaccines for kids. The first report about the authors of the Lancet article takes the wind out of the sails of the MMR – autism relationship. It had been viewed with skepticism and was never supported by other research. But now to have the original authors retract their opinions makes the original article meaningless. Coupled with research disproving the MMR autism association we can now put this speculation to rest.
The thimerosal argument was piggybacked onto the MMR argument for those who wanted to link vaccines to autism. But with “no credible evidence” for such a link we can now be doubly reassured that vaccines have no connection with autism.
The general public never sees the illnesses we seek to prevent with vaccines. The illnesses are awful and often deadly. It is one of the miracles of medicine that we have vaccines for our children. Due to vaccines far fewer children need respirators, spinal taps, intravenous medicines, hospitalizations, ER visits, and intensive care unit treatments. We see far fewer cases of meningitis than we saw even 10 years ago. And in our lifetime – we will see polio eliminated worldwide because of vaccines.
So when I give immunizations to children these days, because of the recent news, I give them with renewed confidence that they are the most valuable preventative care treatments I give to children. I feel so lucky to have them. Now, I just hope more people can be reassured about their safety.