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Vaccine-Autism study retracted

Posted by medconsumers on February 25, 2010

A prestigious British journal has retracted a 1998 study that purportedly showed a link between autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. This now-discredited study spread fear among parents in the U.S. and other countries where autism is on the rise. Many parents either refused to let their children receive the MMR vaccine or demanded that each of the three vaccines be given separately and at wide intervals to reduce any possible risk.

The February 3 retraction by The Lancet is the culmination of an investigation of the work of British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, MD, who is the lead author of the study that found a persistent live measles viral infection in the intestines of vaccinated autistic children. The same viral infection was not found in the intestines of vaccinated children who are not autistic. Although the study included only 12 children, its impact on the public was all out of proportion to its size. There is no confirmed cause of autism, and Dr.Wakefield’s findings suggested environmental (i.e., external) factors could be involved.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), as it is now called, is “an urgent public health concern,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty years ago, autism occurred in one of every 10,000 children in the U.S.; the ASD rate was recently estimated to be one in 100 children by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The Lancet’s retraction of Dr. Wakefield’s study means it is withdrawn from the published medical literature and electronic databases. The decision was based on the findings from Britain’s General Medical Council, which licenses physicians and regulates their practice. The Council concluded that Dr. Wakefield and his co-authors had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” They were described as acting with “callous disregard” for the children—subjecting them to invasive and unnecessary procedures such as lumbar punctures and colonoscopies.

While the apparent deceptions of Dr. Wakefield and colleagues deserve condemnation, they do not close the door on a possible link between vaccines and ASD. (The General Medical Council made it clear that it was looking solely at this one study.) Nor should it stop researchers from looking into other possible environmental causes. Like the many untested chemicals in the environment and the drugs given during pregnancy and childbirth.

As more and more children are diagnosed with ASD, the standard explanation—doctors are just getting better at recognizing the disorder—becomes less believable. And it’s hard for parents not to see a vaccine connection when their child goes from developing normally to abrupt regression after an MMR shot. (This is dismissed as coincidence because ASD symptoms usually show up at age 15 to 18 months when the shot is typically administered.) The debate over vaccine safety is not going away as long as there is no understanding of the cause or causes of ASD.

Another major reason for keeping the vaccine-ASD debate alive is the Hannah Poling case. In 2008, this nine-year-old child won a judgment in the federal vaccine court, set up specifically for those who claim vaccine-related injury. This case is noteworthy because it was the first time that the federal officials acknowledged a connection between her autistic symptoms and the vaccines she received. The child had an undiagnosed and uncommon disorder affecting her mitochondria. This may have either aggravated or caused the autistic symptoms that appeared soon after one doctor visit in 2000, when Hannah Poling, then a toddler, was given five shots against nine different diseases. Click here for more about this case.

Vaccines are a multi-billion industry and financial ties to vaccine companies are common among physicians who serve on panels that evaluate vaccines and set policy (click here). Many parents are justifiably uneasy about the sheer number of vaccines that have become mandatory over the last 40 years. A baby born this year is expected to receive at least 30 vaccines against 11 infectious diseases before the age of six. By age 18, the child will have received an additional 21 vaccines against six infectious disease. Even more vaccines are recommended for the child with a serious underlying medical condtion and the child at high risk for one.

More information

Click here for information about a new government-financed study called the National Children’s that will follow unborn children and their parents for 21years. The New York Times says, “It will examine how environment, genes and other factors affect children’s health, tackling questions subject to heated debate and misinformation. Does pesticide exposure, for example, cause asthma? Do particular diets or genetic mutations lead to autism?” This study intends to enroll 100,000 pregnant women in 105 countries.

Click here for the blog of Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, who continues to defend Dr. Wakefield’s work. Although her organization is often mischaracterized as anti-vaccination, it is against mandatory vaccination without informed consent. (In the U.K. and Canada, childhood vaccinations are not mandatory.) National Vaccine Information Center’s mission is vaccine safety. Read this: “If you vaccinate ask eight questions.”

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers(c)

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