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The Truth About Vaccines and Autism

What grandparents should know about the medical community's stance

By Andrea Atkins | Grandparents.com | June 5, 2014
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(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

Thousands of Americans are putting their children's health at risk, because they mistakenly believe that vaccines — the shots given to children in the first years of life — are responsible for causing autism in young children.

And recent health reports show that cases of previously-eradicated infectious diseases are now on the rise:

  • In 2009-2010, 3,000 people in New York City were diagnosed with mumps.
  • As of mid-May 2014, U.S. health authorities logged 464 cases of mumps — already more than the total for all of 2013 (438).
  • In April 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that measles cases are at their highest level in 20 years, with 13 outbreaks across the country.
Officials are worried.

(MORE: Shots and Boosters Every Adult Needs)

The Anti-Vaccine Back Story


When Jenny McCarthy, a television personality and co-host of ABC's The View, took the position in 2007 that her own child's autism was caused by vaccines, many moms believed her, further fortifying the anti-vaccine movement. (McCarthy has since softened her position on vaccines, saying that she was not anti-vaccine, but rather favors an approach that encourages parents and doctors to discuss vaccine options.)

This persistent misconception may seem puzzling to children of the 1950s or '60s who remember polio, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). Before immunizations became common practice, these diseases were the scourges of their time: 450 people died from measles each year, Hib meningitis killed 600 children each year, whooping cough claimed 9,000 lives each year, and in 1964, an epidemic of rubella resulted in 2,100 neonatal deaths and 11,250 miscarriages, according to the CDC.

Why Infectious Diseases Are Making a Comeback


With the advent of vaccines, these diseases were essentially eradicated in the United States. Until now. Many parents are deciding that the vaccines themselves are too dangerous to administer to their kids. As a result, in the last several years, outbreaks of measles, mumps, and whooping cough have been reported in the United States, with some cases resulting in death.

"I think vaccines are a victim of their own success," says Dr. Paul Offit, chief of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and author of Deadly Choices: How The Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. "Take measles...most of today's parents have not even seen measles. They have no memory of measles. They think measles can make you sick and you take a pill and your better. But measles can kill you. Measles killed 500 people per year before we had vaccines."

Still not sure if vaccines are worth it?

4 Vaccine Myths — and the Truth about Them


MYTH No. 1: A study from Great Britain proved that vaccines cause autism.

TRUTH: Vaccines do not cause autism. Dr. Ari Brown, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, pediatrician in Austin, Texas and author of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice For Your Baby's First Year, says: "The question of the vaccine/autism link has been asked and answered...and thoroughly debunked with scientific research and evidence."

In 1998, a now debunked study was published in a British medical journal by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield who said that eight vaccinated children developed autism as a result of having received their vaccines. The paper was later found to be fraudulent, but the damage was done. As the number of autism cases in the United States rose, people began pointing to vaccines as the culprit. Read the latest study debunking the vaccine-autism connection from The Journal of Pediatrics.

(MORE: Older Fathers More Likely to Have Children With Autism)

MYTH No. 2: Vaccines contain toxins.

TRUTH: Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines, has been eliminated from vaccine serums since 2002, though no study has ever proved that it was dangerous to children.

MYTH No. 3: It's dangerous for kids to receive so many vaccines in such a short time frame.

TRUTH: Spreading out the 26 vaccines that most kids get in early childhood doesn't offer any health benefits, says Offit, who adds the vaccination schedule does not add up to an increased risk of developing autism.

"The goal is to protect children from disease as soon as it is safe and effective to do so," says Brown. "There was also a study showing that receiving shots on the same day versus staggering them made no difference. Spreading out shots means waiting on shots, which means delaying protection. There is no benefit to this decision — only risk."

A study in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated that there is no benefit at all to spacing out a child's vaccines.

(MORE: A Generation Comes Together for Hepatitis C)

MYTH No. 4: Getting measles (or mumps) is far more acceptable than risking vaccine-related illness.

TRUTH: Getting these diseases is risky, uncomfortable and can be fatal. "Parents today have absolutely no idea what these diseases are because they have never seen them (because vaccines work!)" Brown says. "That is the greatest irony of vaccine success — it has produced a generation of parents who are more concerned about the perceived risk of vaccination than the real risk of infectious diseases....I have seen what they can do, and I have watched a child die from chicken pox, knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do as a doctor to stop this illness once this child had become infected."

Brown says she tells patients that she had her own children vaccinated on schedule and that she "would do it all over again in a heartbeat." On top of that, recent measles and whooping cough outbreaks (and deaths) have helped underscore the need for vaccines to many parents.

"Vaccines are not 100 percent effective, but they are the best protection we've got," Brown says. "And the more people who are vaccinated, the less chance a disease is able to penetrate a community. So it really does take a village — and grandparents — to know that, and to share it with their adult children."

So Why Is Autism on the Rise?


It's true that children receive more vaccines than we did as kids and yes, more children are being diagnosed with autism. But, says Brown, "many, many other things have changed in the past 15 to 30 years as well."

The rise in autism may be linked to couples having babies later in life, to more babies being born prematurely, to fertility treatments and to more women being obese during pregnancy. It may be linked to environmental factors, which are being studied, but Brown adds, "to connect vaccines and autism just does not play out when you look at the data, which has been examined several times over now."

Offit puts it more stridently: "In order to believe that the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine causes autism, you have to believe there's a massive international conspiracy to hide the truth from people — that all of these medical personnel are all in a massive collusion to hurt children. But those who research this — we're all parents. I'm a parent. We've sat around the table and said, 'Would I give this to my own child? To my grandchild?' The answer is yes."

For a schedule of what vaccines are recommended and when, visit Vaccines.gov.