Autism and vaccines: A failure to communicate

Scott Hensley

About Scott Hensley

Scott Hensley runs NPR's online health channel, Shots. Previously he was the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog and covered the drug industry and the Human Genome Project for the Journal. Hensley serves on AHCJ's board of directors. You can follow him at @ScottHensley.

When it comes to vaccine safety, findings that scientists regard as proven facts haven’t been strong enough to shake public suspicion about a link between childhood immunizations and autism.

broken-chain

Photo by slideshow bob via Flickr

One in four Americans still believes vaccines cause autism, notes an exhaustive and fascinating analysis of the enduring controversy over vaccine risk published by PLoS Biology. An unfortunate fact is now indisputable: As parents shun vaccines, infectious diseases ranging from measles to whooping cough have mounted a comeback.

Medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman finds profound meaning in the persistence of belief in the vaccine-autism theory. To her, the PLoS article says, the problem illustrates a broader, profound erosion of trust in experts. “People think if you blindly follow experts, you’re not taking personal responsibility,” Kaufman says.

The media is part of the story, says one of the world’s foremost vaccine experts. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells PLoS the vaccine myth is kept alive in part by the “journalistic mantra of ‘balance,’ ” when science supports only one side.

4 thoughts on “Autism and vaccines: A failure to communicate

  1. JOhnH Furlong

    As is often the case, BOTH sides of this debate tend to over-simplify & generalize. We do not know the CAUSE of autism…because only VERY rarely is there 1 single cause. (One of which, by the way, is vaccine exposure in children with a pre-existing mitochondrial defect.)
    In the vast majority of cases, it appears to be a multifactorial condition, brought about by as yet uncharted interactions between genetics, immune reactivity, viruses, environment, and in all likelihood, exposure to toxins. The permutations of these factors are myriad, and saying that the current studies are sufficient to RULE-OUT vaccines as a factor in some cases of autism is scientifically untrue. We need to further explore the following topics:

    1.) Why many children with autism have disturbed cytokine patterns (perhaps due to excessive immune response to vaccines?)
    2.) Why and how patterns of toxin accumulation relate to genetic glitches in enzyme systems.
    3.) Why some autistic children appear to have a subacute encephalitis after viral infection or immunizations, and how that might relate to development of autism.
    4.) How and why do some children get better? Is it developmental or are there changes that can be enhanced through nutrition or medication?
    Let’s stick to science and conclude what can truly be concluded… that the unacceptable ( aproximately 1 in 300 male children) incidence of autism continues, we don’t know all the causes,and that the immune disruption that MAY occur due to immunization could be an inciting factor in some children. The case is NOT closed on vaccines and autism!

  2. EJ

    Offit received $29MILLION from Merck for promoting their vaccine. He does not bring an unbiased opinion to this discussion.

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