Junkfood Science: Help for parents worried about vaccines and autism

April 01, 2008

Help for parents worried about vaccines and autism

Two noted doctors have written articles on childhood immunizations this week, attempting to give parents the best available science to help them sort through recently resurfaced concerns over a link between vaccines and autism. While no amount of science will assuage the fear some are attempting to foster, hopefully this information will answer a lot of questions for parents who are seeking facts.

What may surprise some readers, for example, is that the recent vaccination court decision actually had nothing to do with mercury.

The first Op-Ed was written Dr. Ned Calonge, M.D., the chief state medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. [Follow links in titles for full articles.] Writing in the Denver Post, he says:

Fear over vaccines and autism

Vaccinations do not cause autism... The worst decision parents could make as a result of this isolated event would be to avoid immunizing their children against serious childhood disease, where the risks are real and proven...

The recent legal decision has been miscast by vaccine opponents. In truth, this case was treated separately from other autism cases being evaluated by the federal court because the child involved has a rare mitochondrial disorder leading to an encephalopathy or neurological condition with autism-like symptoms, and thus is unrelated to the rest of the population. And, despite the findings of the court, there is no scientific evidence that this child's condition was affected by her receipt of recommended childhood vaccinations.

This was a legal decision, not one supported by scientific evidence.

There now have been 16 separate, independent studies undertaken in five countries, involving millions of children, that have found no link between vaccination, vaccines or vaccine preservatives (namely, the mercury-based thimerosal) and autism. We have more data supporting this lack of association than for most other "known facts" in medicine. The sheer number of children included in these studies precludes the theory that there may be even some small but significant number of children for whom vaccination was at fault for, or contributed to, any measurable degree of autism. There simply can be no other scientific conclusion than that reached by the Institute of Medicine: Vaccination does not cause autism...

He goes on to describe the risks of infectious diseases should parents not vaccinate their children over concerns about a non-existent risk. And finally, he urges readers that the continued attention to disproven fears distracts from real research for real causes for autism, and diverts healthcare resources that could be used to help children.

The second Op-ed was written by Dr. Paul A. Offit, chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In the New York Times, he discusses the federal vaccine case in more detail, writing:

Inoculated Against Facts

On March 6, Terry and Jon Poling stood outside a federal courthouse in Atlanta, GA, with their 9-year-old daughter Hannah and announced that the federal government had admitted that vaccines had contributed to her autism. The news was shocking. Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at the American Academy of Pediatrics have steadfastly assured the public that vaccines do not cause autism. Now, in a special vaccine claims court, the federal government appeared to have said exactly the opposite. What happened?

The answer is wrapped up in the nature of the unusual court where the Poling case was heard. In 1986, after a flood of lawsuits against vaccine makers threatened the manufacture of vaccines for children, Congress created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, financed by a tax on every dose of vaccine. As part of the program, a group of scientists, doctors and lawyers listed all the health problems that might be linked to vaccines.... If, at a trial in a special court, a preponderance of scientific evidence suggested that a vaccine caused one of these problems, a family would be compensated quickly, generously and fairly... The system worked fine until a few years ago, when vaccine court judges turned their back on science by dropping preponderance of evidence as a standard. Now, petitioners need merely propose a biologically plausible mechanism by which a vaccine might cause harm - even if their explanation contradicts published studies...

In 2000, when Hannah was 19 months old, she received five shots against nine infectious diseases. Over the next several months, she developed symptoms of autism. Subsequent tests showed that Hannah has a mitochondrial disorder - her cells are unable to adequately process nutrients - and this contributed to her autism. An expert who [submitted a written affidavit] in court on the Polings' behalf claimed that the five vaccines had stressed Hannah's already weakened cells, worsening her disorder. Without holding a hearing on the matter, the court conceded that the claim was biologically plausible.

On its face, the expert's opinion makes no sense. Even five vaccines at once would not place an unusually high burden on a child's immune system. The Institute of Medicine has found that multiple vaccines do not overwhelm or weaken the immune system. And although natural infections can worsen symptoms of chronic neurological illnesses in children, vaccines are not known to. "There is no evidence that children with mitochondrial enzyme deficiencies are worsened by vaccines," Salvatore DiMauro, a professor of neurology at Columbia who is the nation's leading expert on the disorder, told me. Indeed, children like Hannah Poling who are especially susceptible to infections are most likely to benefit from vaccines.

Supporters of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program argue reasonably that the program should err on the side of overcompensation - a relief valve that is needed in a society that mandates vaccines. But there is a price for this largesse... In the name of trying to help children with autism, the Poling decision has only hurt them.

Here are posts with additional information for parents concerned about mercury:

When you feel scared and worried... [evidence and expert reviews on link between autism and vaccinations]

The body of evidence — Flip-flopping Headlines Part One and Part Two

Fishy sushi scares

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