The MMR Vaccine and Autism Connection (or Lack Thereof)

In 1971, Merck – the (once German, now US) pharmaceutical giant – started marketing what is known commonly as the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The vaccine worked wonders – reducing inevitable diseases like the Measles down to a mere 1 percent. Since the 70’s, the MMR vaccine has become a global staple with 500 millions doses of it being administered in over 60 countries.

Photo: guilemuirprimary.co.uk
Photo: gylemuirprimary.co.uk

Then, in 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper on The Lancet claiming a link between MMR Vaccines and Autism. His arguments spread like wildfire. However, till now, other published researchers & scientists have said that they can’t reproduce Wakefield’s results or confirm this hypothesis of a relationship between certain childhood intestinal problems (caused by MMR) and Autism. To make things worse, news soon surfaced that Wakefield had collected blood samples at his children’s birthday-parties and paid £5 to each donor – and that he was in serious breach of ethics. In 2010, Wakefield’s research was found by the General Medical Council to have been “dishonest” and The Lancet fully retracted the original paper. Wakefield’s paper has been described as one of the greatest hoaxes in medical science.

Supporters of Wakefield tried pointing fingers at Big Pharma for launching an assault to discredit the report. And to be honest, this wasn’t the first time Merck was accused of bending rules to retain its monopoly of a vaccine market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Accusations against Wakefield haven’t pacified families living with autistic children either. In 2007, 4800 families filed the Autism Omnibus Trial – contending that their children had developed Autism from the MMR vaccine and/or Thimerosal (a mercury compound, mostly banned now).

Two things are again challenging the absolute denial of any link between MMR and Autism. Towards the end of 2012, the US ‘vaccine court’ awarded millions to two children with Autism. However, the US government did not admit that vaccination caused encephalopathy (syndrome of brain-dysfunction) or autism, but merely decided not to spend any more in defending the case. Huffington Post adds, “What’s more, these cases fit the pattern of other petitions, (i.e., Poling and Banks) in which the court ruled (or the government conceded) that vaccines had caused encephalopathy, which in turn produced permanent injury, including symptoms of autism […]” Many, including Wakefield, are claiming that these awards, in addition to mainstream-media’s complete silence on the matter, hints towards something fishy.

***

To further complicate things, new research appears to support the MMR-Autism link.  Dr. Vijendra Singh and team – at the Utah State University – are talking about a strong correlation between MMR vaccine and the immune system’s reaction to it that plays a role in Autism. The National Autistic Society said the new study offered a ‘plausible’ explanation of how some children with autism came to be suffering the disorder. Many parents are now renewing their demand for single shots instead of the 3-in-1 combo.

Meanwhile, Autism prevalence diagnoses in the USA has jumped 600% since the 1990’s. This may provide some insight into the disorder as it occurs, but remains unreported or not investigated, in other parts of the world.

autism-occurrence-latest-statistics_2011
USA shows a spike in Autism cases – which may be indicative of its dynamics in the rest of the world (source: tacanow.org)

* Information provided in this post are collected from various online sources and do not constitute scientific or medical facts. Please consider the following further reading:

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6 comments

  1. Since the Lancet report there have been some massive epidemiological studies across Europe that have shown no detectible difference in autism rates between those who have received MMR and those who have not.

    Unless these studies (none of which are drug company funded) are a fraud I think it’s safe to say there is neither cause nor correlation linking MMR to autism. However the increase in mumps rates and resultant disability in English speaking countries since Wakefield’s report has been clear and easily measurable (there is currently an epidemic underway in England and Wales).

    I’m a huge critic of Big Pharma and wouldn’t trust them as far as I could spit them, but I think Merck copped a bum rap on MMR. I am glad it has led to the near elimination of mercury based preservatives in pharmaceuticals though.

    BTW, it is autism diagnosis not prevalence that has spiked in recent decades. The distinction is an important one. The diagnosis of a whole range of childhood mental illnesses in the US has skyrocketed over the same period (e.g. childhood bipolar diagnoses have risen by more than 400% since 1995).

    In the 1970s the term ‘autism’ applied only to severely disabled people. With the introduction of the notion of an ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD) it is now applied to those who have only relatively mild impairment in social functioning. I myself qualify for ASD but would not have come even close to an autism diagnosis when I was schooled in the 60s and 70s.

    Here in Australia autism diagnoses went through the roof after government begun allocating specific educational resources to kids who were so labeled. When a diagnosis like that reaches a certain prevalence threshold much of its stigma disappears and parents who would have tried to avoid thusly labeling their kids begin to actively seek out such a diagnosis to try to get accommodation made for their differences.

    Also, keep in mind that the Daily Mail has championed Wakefield from the outset and now has a big stake in trying to ‘prove’ him right.

    Singh’s research is not ‘new’ at all, it dates from the early 90s and was part of the reason Wakefield began investigating the MMR autism link in the first place. The notion that autism is connected to demyelination is very much a fringe scientific opinion, as is any link at all between autism and antibodies – except inasmuch as autistic people suffer from higher levels of infection (probably due to behaviour, not biology) and so tend to have more frequent immune responses.

    • Thanks for that great comment – sets a few things in perspective. The Mail is reporting Dr. Singh’s research as something that happened on August 4, 2013. I understand that while Singh has spoken about the MMR-Autism connection before – this is a new report and authorities are yet to comment on it. I, however, was not aware of Daily Mail’s investment in championing Wakefield’s cause. Also, I have corrected the word ‘prevalence’ in my post – though if you read the next line about ‘unreported and unexamined cases’ it was implicit.

      You raise a great concern with regards to parents trying to get their children diagnosed with ASD. Additional resources and benefits for children with ASD could explain (at least partially) why parents’ associations are so vocal – even litigious – when it comes to establishing a link between the two.

      I guess the world just needs more clarity and transparency so that parents stop dropping out of vaccination programs. At the end of the day, no one wants that. Thanks for reading, taking interest and sharing your valuable thoughts.

  2. I too am an Aspie, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndorme, (AS) now subsumed into Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM V. I live with my sister who is a special education teacher who has been working exclusively with high functioning autism for the last two decades. I think her experience with me has been helpful to her in being able to empathize with and understand her students in ways that many teachers cannot, and who identify people like myself as arrogant, defiant, oppositional, attention-seeking among many other pejoratives, resulting in unsuccessful and inappropriate educational interventions (note that living with my sister, and having been recently fired from my job as a college professor, are both probably symptomatic of my non-neurotypicalness).

    What cabrogal says about the diagnoses increasing mostly due to including those of us who have milder symptoms is accurate, as well as the efforts to gain services. This is also the reason so many in the Asperger’s community were opposed to the change in the DSM V, as they feared they might lose services. Tthe hallmark distinction between what used to be called classic or Kanner’s autism and Asperger’s was early childhood language development, where Kanner’s were severely delayed and Asperger’s were actually accelerated. The think one of the things that has caused the APA to unite the diagnoses is that in later development, the two conditions can often appear almost identical. It is amazing and tragic to understand that so many of those institutionalized in the past with autism diagnoses, mostly based on their aphasia and stimming behavior, and mostly assumed to be severely retarded, often had active, and brilliant, if pathologically overactive, minds. Look at the writings of these two men, Larry and Tracy, the subject of the film: http://www.wretchesandjabberers.org.

    Studies like this one: http://jpeds.com/webfiles/images/journals/ympd/JPEDSDeStefano.pdf
    are continuing to find no connections between vaccines and autism. But with the support of organizations like DAN! (Defeat Autism Now!) and TACA (Talk About Curing Autism) there is a lot of push behind this idea of a distinct and curable medical cause. All of this is understandable, as being the parent of a child with autism is extremely frustrating. The essential feature of the disorder is a deficit in appropriate social behavior and bonding, something that must be heartbreaking for a parent who feels little or no return of love from their child. They want a cure, but what will better serve them and their children is acceptance. Tony Atwood, a leading researcher in the diagnosis of AS, begins his presentation of the diagnosis with ‘congratulations.’

    People like Temple Grandin show that with solid therapeutic intervention, rather than a cure, people with sever ASD can have satisfying and productive lives. It may be difficult for those around us, and it may be hard for us to have normally fulfilling social lives, but many mental illnesses, including ASD, bipolar and even schizophrenia, can be seen as gifts that allow humanity a broader and deeper vision of our existence. In fact among artists and academics, I suspect these disorders may affect the majority.

    However, the work of immunologists like Judy Van de Water http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/7762 have been demonstrating a link between some subset of autism and the immune system. Perhaps this may lead to some medical treatments, especially in maternal screening and prenatal mitigation. It seems that in some small fraction of cases, a challenge to the immune system, like a vaccination, or the flu or other infection, may trigger or cause an exacerbation of symptoms, but last time I saw Dr Van de Water, despite the efforts by the DAN! contingent to get her to support their MMR hypothesis, even she, with the best studies that establish an immunological link, was unwilling to assert the vaccine connection.

    I had a student in one of my classes who I had previously seen held out at various DAN! events has having been ‘cured’ by some of their dietary and other interventions, and I can attest that he was in no way cured. He is a wonderfully eccentric, smart and interesting guy, but he is on the spectrum and he always will be.

  3. Your experiences and views are a very close fit to my own.

    In my case I carry the ‘Bipolar I’ label and what was once the Asperger’s Syndrome label and like you I also cop the list of pejoratives that go with them. (And have had lots of difficulty holding down regular jobs and maintaining social relationships).

    Yet I definitely see them as gifts – except that a gift is something given to you. Bipolar and ASD are me – at least in part.

    I’m quite a fan of Ms Grandin too.

    Regarding Van de Water’s research, it should be emphasised that she was looking at foetal exposure to maternal antibodies, not immune response in those with ASD per se. So it doesn’t follow that challenges to the immune system of the (potential) sufferer are linked to the development of the disease.

    The epidemiological research into the MMR autism link has included some truly massive retrospective observational studies, so unless they really messed it up any link between MMR and autism must be so incredibly trivial as to enable it to be dismissed for all practical purposes.

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