No link of vaccine, autism
Posted on Tue, Feb. 06, 2007
Fact: No link of vaccine, autism
is the Emanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics at the
University of Pennsylvania, where he co-directs the Ethics and
What must it be like to spend a huge amount of time every waking day
trying to change public health practice - only to find out that you
That is precisely what has happened to the proponents of the theory
that mercury in vaccines - contained in the preservative thimerosal,
which once was used (and is used no longer) in vaccines - is
responsible for a nearly 20-year explosion in autism and other
neurological disorders among American children.
This urban legend has had very real - and terrible - consequences. It
has led, and continues to lead, many parents to avoid getting their
kids and themselves vaccinated against life-threatening diseases. The
failure to vaccinate has caused many preventable deaths and avoidable
hospitalizations from measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, flu,
hepatitis and meningitis. And fear of vaccines puts each one of us at
risk that we, our children or grandchildren will become part of a
deadly outbreak triggered by someone whose parents avoided getting
their child vaccinated for fear of autism.
Recent research on many fronts in medicine and science has nailed
the coffin shut on the mercury-in-vaccines-causes-autism hypothesis.
The connection is just not there. Perhaps the key fact, which has
garnered little attention, is that thimerosal has been removed from
vaccines in this and other countries for many years, with no obvious
impact on the incidence of autism. The most recent data point toward a
correlation with nothing at all to do with vaccines: the increasing
age at which people (particularly men) have children seems to be
associated with an increase in autism and other neurological
Still, some of the most fervent anti-vaccine critics cannot let go.
They continue to tell devastated parents of children with autism that
vaccines are to blame. Others are still out on the lecture circuit
peddling books and articles that bash vaccines and invoke mercury as a
problem. Still others pepper the Internet with the false message that
vaccines and autism do go hand in hand - it is just that the
government, or the pharmaceutical companies, or organized medicine, or
all of them, are keeping the truth from us all.
Less than two years ago, Robert Kennedy Jr. published an article in
Salon.com alleging that the government knew of and covered up the
autism-vaccines connection. Thimerosal was, Kennedy told large
audiences and many media reporters, to blame.
Kennedy was hardly alone in fingering vaccines as the cause of the
epidemic of autism affecting American children. David Kirby's 2005
best-selling book, Evidence of Harm, and many other articles,
newsletters and advocacy blogs fanned the flames. Some continue to do
Proponents of the thimerosal/mercury-causes-autism theory have
had a powerful impact on public opinion. When one of my students
recently conducted a pilot study of attitudes about the new
cervical-cancer vaccine, fears about autism were prominent among the
reasons many respondents gave for being wary of the vaccine. Friends
of mine continue to tell me of parents in Lafayette Hill, Voorhees,
Greenville and Downingtown who won't have their children vaccinated
because of the risk of autism. States continue to allow parents to opt
out of vaccines on "philosophical" grounds - perhaps the
only arena in American public life where "secular philosophy"
is given legal standing in public policy. And even some young
health-care workers report that they don't get important vaccines that
would protect them, their families and their vulnerable patients
against death because of worries about autism and vaccines.
Science and medicine have not bought the thimerosal/mercury-autism
link. For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the
American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's Hospital of
Philadelphia's Vaccine Education Center, the National Academy of
Sciences, the Food and Drug Administration, and countless other
prestigious organizations and scientists have said the data do not
support mercury in vaccines as the cause of autism.
Now, with the mercury long out of vaccines, what is there left to say?
Why won't the slandering of vaccines as the cause of autism stop?
There has always been a great deal of antipathy toward vaccines - in
part because vaccines do have a tiny chance of causing death or other
serious side-effects. Parents who have been through that hell have a
hard time hearing or sending any other message other than
"vaccines are bad." And those who made careers out of
peddling the vaccine-autism link - in the face of a lack of evidence -
have really been motivated by a distrust of medicine, science,
government and experts, a distrust that has little to do with
scientific studies or expert opinions. Even government officials have
never really cared enough about public health to do much to counteract
the incredible damage the autism-vaccine proponents have done. That is
Our nation is spending a fortune on plans to cope with the prospect of
a bioterror attack. State, city and federal agencies are trying to
figure a plan if avian flu mutates into a form in which it can start
killing people. Hospital officials are worrying over how to cut back
on preventable deaths in our hospitals and nursing homes. Those in
charge of keeping disease transmission in hospitals, schools and
public spaces to a minimum are fretting over what steps to take. The
answer to every one of these challenges involves - vaccines.
This nation's future, its national security, the safety of its
health-care institutions, and the safety of its citizens depends upon
vaccination. It is way past time that message got heard by parents,
teachers, nurses, doctors, hospital administrators, the media and
politicians. If there has been a more harmful urban legend circulating
in our society than the vaccine-autism link, it is hard to know what
it might be. At a time when vaccines may be our last best hope in
facing some of the greatest challenges we and our children face, this
legend needs to be put to rest. Vaccination, not vaccine-bashing, is
what this nation needs.