A federal court ruled over the weekend that a formerly common additive in vaccines does not cause autism. So will that be enough to prevent a new era of deadly but preventable epidemics?
The federal "vaccines court" ruled in three different cases that a mercury-containing additive, thimerosal, that was in many vaccine until 2001, does not cause autism. This comes on the heels of another recent decision that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine also doesn't cause the disease.
Last month, the British medical journal, the Lancet, withdrew a controversial 1998 article that had claimed the measles disease from the MMR vaccine could leak and cause autism. That article was the bedrock of the anti-vaccine movement. The MMR vaccine has never contained thimerosal, and rates of autism in children have continued to increase since thimerosal was removed from almost all childhood vaccinations in 2001. (Note: updated for accuracy.)
Special Master Denise K. Vowell wrote in one of the decisions:
Petitioners propose effects from mercury in [vaccines] that do not resemble mercury's known effects in the brain, either behaviorally or at the cellular level. To prevail, they must show that the exquisitely small amounts of mercury in [vaccines] that reach the brain can produce devastating effects that far larger amounts experienced prenatally or postnatally from other sources do not.
In a separate ruling, Special Master George L. Hastings wrote:
This case . . . is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners' causation theories.
But this won't stop the conspiracy theorists from insisting that correlation means causation. The plaintiffs in the cases claimed the federal government "funds the science that exonerates" the vaccine industry, and defends vaccines in court.
There's a great article in the Times Free Press about the widespread, ongoing belief that vaccines cause autism, and how it keeps spreading. One parent tells a haunting tale:
As a baby, Benjamin Ransom was ever-smiling and giggling. The photographer at Sears didn't even have to joke with him to get him to grin for a family photo, recalls his father, Jeff Ransom, of Fort Oglethorpe.
But soon after he reached 15 months, Benjamin seemed to change into a different child. He ceased smiling and avoided eye contact. His speech reverted from clear words into baby babble, and finally he stopped talking altogether, Mr. Ransom said.
"He just had a blank stare on his face," he said.
After a year of failed speech therapy, Benjamin — who is now 10 — was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, an increasingly common diagnosis characterized by a difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication and social interactions. Severity can range from very mild to debilitating.
But despite medical evidence to the contrary, Mr. Ransom is convinced that a series of recommended vaccines his son received at 15 months — including protection against measles, mumps and rubella, and Hib meningitis — prompted the sudden change in his son, who stopped talking in the weeks following his vaccination.
"You're not going to convince me vaccines did not change my child," Mr. Ransom said. "I saw it."
When you hear stories like that, it's hard not to feel freaked out and alarmed by the possibility that the vaccines could be causing autism spectrum disorder, which now afflicts one in 110 children in some form. (And that's a really alarming statistic.) But doctors say it's typical for that disorder to manifest around 15 months of age, regardless of whether the children are vaccinated — so it's easy to jump to conclusions.
What's also scary, though, is that the refusal to vaccinate could spark a new rash of cases of meningitis, whooping cough, polio and other diseases we had almost wiped out completely. Already, cases of measles, pertussis, meningitis and whooping cough have been linked to delayed or avoided vaccinations. And it's likely to keep getting worse. People are counting on "herd immunity" from all the other kids who have been vaccinated to keep their kids from getting sick — but that only works if your kid is the only one who skips the jab.
If you really want to blame something for autism in children, says pediatric development specialist Dr. Leslie Rubin, blame all of the toxins in the environment, including prenatal exposure to phthalates in perfume, makeup and nail polish. Instead of pursuing the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism, maybe parents should be lobbying the government to clean up the air. Good luck getting that to happen, though. [Los Angeles Times and Times Free Press]