Vaccines and Autism: Debunking the Myth

By Daniella Gimbosh

“Myths and controversies have defined, and always will define, human views about the cause-effect relationship of diseases” (Davidson, 2017). 

As a second wave of SARS-CoV-2 is being observed around the globe, now, more than ever, an effective vaccine remains the greatest hope to every nation. With the ground-breaking news of an mRNA-based vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech being 90% effective after phase three trials (Pfizer Inc., 2020), the scientific community remains cautiously optimistic that a SARS-CoV-2 solution is on the horizon. 

Vaccines are undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary medical developments in history; the complete eradication of diseases such as smallpox, and the drastic effects on a myriad of infectious and potentially life-threatening diseases such as polio, hepatitis and rubella, can all be attributed to the development of vaccines. Nonetheless, despite years of scientific research and evidence supporting the use of vaccines as a safe method of protection against pathogens and disease, the World Health Organization had declared ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as one of the ten major threats to global health in 2019 (World Health Organization, 2019). 

The global movement of “anti-vaxxers”, individuals who refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children due to a variety of complex and misunderstood reasons, resulted in a resurgence of multiple vaccine-preventable diseases in 2019. Most notably, outbreaks of measles were seen in a variety of countries, such as the United State, which declared a ‘state of emergency’ in Washington and New York City due to the immensely contagious nature of the disease (Benecke and DeYoung, 2019). 

The central dogma of the anti-vaccine movement stems originally from an entirely disproven and discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, as well as conspiracies that governments and pharmaceutical industries are refusing to recognize the negative effects of vaccines in return for financial gain. In order to understand the root of the anti-vaccine ideology, it is imperative to evaluate and debunk the myth of vaccine-related autism.

In 1998, an article published in The Lancet proposed the explosive claim that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine may increase the risk of colitis, behavioural regression and developmental disorders in children (Wakefield et al., 1998). Some characteristics of this study, conducted by Andrew Wakefield and twelve other scientists, included an outrageously small sample size (n=12), speculative and non-evidence-based conclusions, as well as a flawed experimental design (Sathyanarayana Rao and Andrade, 2011). Despite the precarious nature of the study, it grabbed the attention of the press and was widely publicized by the media, making headlines in renowned media outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times. The coinciding of both the MMR vaccination and the development of primary symptoms of autism during early childhood meant that this possible correlation was extrapolated and abused. Soon thereafter, countless reports of distraught parents appeared, claiming that their children, who had received the MMR vaccine, had developed autistic symptoms and behaviours overnight. 

Inevitably, the rates of MMR vaccination decreased dramatically, dropping from 92% in 1996 down to below 85% in 2002 in the United Kingdom (Hussain et al., 2018). Following this decrease in vaccination rates, and the subsequent outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases around the world, an almost immediate backlash against Wakefield’s paper ensued. Multiple epidemiological studies had been conducted, studying the claims and conclusions proposed by Wakefield. The scientific community definitively refuted and invalidated any possible link between autism and the MMR vaccine, leading to 10 out of the 12 co-authors of the initial paper to retract their conclusions on the experiment due to the data obtained being deemed “insufficient” (Murch et al., 2004). 

Furthermore, following the retraction, it was discovered that Wakefield had received funding for the study from lawyers involved in cases of prosecution by parents against vaccine manufacturers. The severe ethical and scientific misconduct committed by Wakefield et al. (Wakefield et al., 1998), although initially exonerated by The Lancet, eventually resulted in the complete retraction of the paper in February of 2010 (Horton, 2004), (Eggertson, 2010). 

Even more worryingly, the authors were then held guilty of numerous ethical violations, scientific falsifications and even deliberate fraud (Sathyanarayana Rao and Andrade, 2011). Wakefield et al. carried out invasive experimentation on children without the necessary ethical precautions; misrepresented data as consecutive instead of selective; and blatantly manipulated the study by selecting specific data which would have proved their hypothesis. Andrew Wakefield was subsequently removed from the medical register, and dozens of studies, which all have found no links between the incidence of autism and MMR vaccine administration, have now been performed (Davidson, 2017). 

The appalling failure of the system of academic vigilance can, therefore, be largely to blame for the ongoing anti-vaccine movement. Although the sheer spread of misinformation and lack of research prevalent in this movement may be astounding, it is the ominous, ever-growing support for such misguided ideologies that poses a menacing threat to global health.

References: 

Davidson, M. (2017). Vaccination as a cause of autism-myths and controversies. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, [online] 19(4), pp.403–407. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5789217/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2020].

Pfizer Inc. (2020). Pfizer and BioNTech Announce Vaccine Candidate Against COVID-19 Achieved Success in First Interim Analysis from Phase 3 Study | Pfizer. [online] Pfizer.com. Available at: https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-announce-vaccine-candidate-against [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

World Health Organization (2019). Ten health issues WHO will tackle this year. [online] http://www.who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2020].

Benecke, O. and DeYoung, S.E. (2019). Anti-Vaccine Decision-Making and Measles Resurgence in the United States. Global Pediatric Health, [online] 6, p.2333794X1986294. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6657116/ [Accessed 5 Nov. 2020].

Wakefield, A., Murch, S., Anthony, A., Linnell, J., Casson, D., Malik, M., Berelowitz, M., Dhillon, A., Thomson, M., Harvey, P., Valentine, A., Davies, S. and Walker-Smith, J. (1998). RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet, [online] 351(9103), pp.637–641. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9500320/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2020].

Sathyanarayana Rao, T. and Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, [online] 53(2), p.95. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136032/ [Accessed 5 Nov. 2020].

Hussain, A., Ali, S., Ahmed, M. and Hussain, S. (2018). The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine. Cureus, [online] 10(7). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6122668/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2020].

Murch, S.H., Anthony, A., Casson, D.H., Malik, M., Berelowitz, M., Dhillon, A.P., Thomson, M.A., Valentine, A., Davies, S.E. and Walker-Smith, J.A. (2004). Retraction of an interpretation. The Lancet, [online] 363(9411), p.750. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15016483/ [Accessed 9 Nov. 2020].

Horton, R. (2004). A statement by the editors of The Lancet. The Lancet, [online] 363(9411), pp.820–821. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15022645/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2020].

Eggertson, L. (2010). Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. Canadian Medical Association Journal, [online] 182(4), pp.E199–E200. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831678/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2020].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s