Research has soundly disproved the alleged connection, yet fears about vaccines continue to be a major risk to public health.
From the June 2009 issue, published online May 6, 2009
Vaccines do not cause autism. That was the ruling in each of three critical test cases handed down on February 12 by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. After a decade of speculation, argument, and analysis—often filled with vitriol on both sides—the court specifically denied any link between the combination of the MMR vaccine and vaccines with thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) and the spectrum of disorders associated with autism. But these rulings, though seemingly definitive, have done little to quell the angry debate, which has severe implications for American public health.
The idea that there is something wrong with our vaccines—that they have poisoned a generation of kids, driving an “epidemic” of autism—continues to be everywhere: on cable news, in celebrity magazines, on blogs, and in health news stories. It has had a particularly strong life on the Internet, including the heavily trafficked Huffington Post, and in pop culture, where it is supported by actors including Charlie Sheen and Jim Carrey, former Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy, and numerous others. Despite repeated rejection by the scientific community, it has spawned a movement, led to thousands of legal claims, and even triggered occasional harassment and threats against scientists whose research appears to discredit it.
You can see where the emotion and sentiment come from. Autism can be a terrible condition, devastating to families. It can leave parents not only aggrieved but desperate to find any cure, any salvation. Medical services and behavioral therapy for severely autistic children can cost more than $100,000 a year, and these children often exhibit extremely difficult behavior. Moreover, the incidence of autism is apparently rising rapidly. Today one in every 150 children has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum; 20 years ago that statistic was one in 10,000. “Put yourself in the shoes of these parents,” says journalist David Kirby, whose best-selling 2005 book, Evidence of Harm, dramatized the vaccine-autism movement. “They have perfectly normal kids who are walking and happy and everything—and then they regress.” The irony is that vaccine skepticism—not the vaccines themselves—is now looking like the true public-health threat.