While it only took a minute or two to lift my chin off the floor, mouth agape as I watched last week’s political debate on TV, it took a few days (and at least one restless night) for the skull-versus-wall blemish on my forehead to finally disappear. The words uttered about vaccines and autism by one false expert who knows very little, and two medical doctors who should know better, were utterly devoid of truth and reason — two traits we should all hope to see in any presidential candidate. It was another example of reality being twisted just enough to sow doubt one more time about vaccine safety among worried mothers and fathers conversing on social media online, with other parents in the street, and around the water coolers at work. It should go without saying (but, alas, it won’t) that the beliefs regarding vaccines and autism of these three misinformed gentlemen should disqualify them from serious consideration for the highest office in the land, as much as anyone who denies the fact that Earth is round, evolution happens, or human-caused global warming leading to climate change is real.
The three poseurs repeated three oft-repeated and thoroughly debunked myths about vaccines that we’ve covered many times before on The PediaBlog. The first myth — that vaccines cause autism — originated from a tiny 1997 British study that has long-ago been withdrawn, its author discredited and relieved of his medical license. Multiple evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies, done carefully over many years, involving hundreds of thousands of children from around the world, all conclude the same thing: vaccines don’t cause autism. Here is what the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network had to say after the debate:
While no link exists between autism and vaccines, of greater concern is the willingness of those who promote this theory to suggest that exposing children to deadly diseases would be a better outcome than an autistic child. Vaccinations do not cause autism – but the use of autism as a means of scaring parents from safeguarding their children from life-threatening illness demonstrates the depths of prejudice and fear that still surrounds our disability. Autism is not caused by vaccines – and Autistic Americans deserve better than a political rhetoric that suggests that we would be better off dead than disabled.
Stated more succinctly, this from Autism Speaks:
As for the issue of vaccines, over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.
Dylan Matthews, a writer who lives and thrives on the autism spectrum, takes exception to the insidious bigotry of “vaccine denialists”:
What parents who believe in the MMR vaccine-autism link, and don’t vaccinate as a consequence, are effectively saying is, “We’re willing to increase our child’s risk of death and serious illness in order to reduce their risk of getting autism.”
[S]ome of us on the autism spectrum don’t view ourselves as deeply broken. We don’t think we’d be better off dead. We think that we have a natural, and in many ways valuable, difference in how our brains work, and don’t want to give that up. Obviously, people who have difficulty living independently or communicating should receive help. But implying that their lives, or any of our lives, are so awful that parents should be willing to put their kids in danger in order to prevent them from becoming like us is deeply, deeply offensive.
Matthews tackles a second debunked myth: that “autism has become an epidemic”:
Also, just as a factual matter, autism isn’t an epidemic. There’s precious little evidence that more people are on the autism spectrum than ever before.
Autism isn’t an epidemic.
Over the last three decades, the diagnostic criteria for autism has changed, permitting more children with fewer symptoms onto the spectrum (and, as a positive result, allowing them better access to life-changing developmental and social services at an earlier age):
The 1980 [DSM-III] manual only listed “infantile autism” and “childhood onset pervasive development disorder,” effectively limiting diagnoses to children or adult who are severely disabled, perhaps needing constant supervision or care. But by including Asperger’s, [1994’s] DSM-IV opened the door for highly verbal children and adults of normal IQ to receive autism spectrum diagnoses as well. What’s more, there’s evidence that Asperger’s and other autism diagnoses have substituted for other intellectual disability diagnoses, which would also register as an “increase in autism” without actually representing an increase in the number of people with these symptoms.
Just as disturbing is the candidates’ embrace of the “too many too soon” myth, which relies on the logical fallacy to incorrectly conclude that little children are too small, and their immune systems too fragile, to receive vaccines safely according to the current immunization schedule. This schedule, established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), is based on scientific evidence from multiple studies demonstrating effectiveness and safety. It’s not something that’s just made up. Studies show that infants have robust immune systems, which is a good thing; children are exposed to thousands, of unique antigens every single day. The number of antigens in all the vaccines combined for the whole schedule of childhood immunizations? 150.
Spreading out or delaying the administration of childhood vaccines may sound logical, but that practice, which is contrary to a gold standard of medical care, is misguided, leaving infants and children, and all their vulnerable contacts, in danger. Besides, vaccines are already spread out over the first 18 months of life! As this previous PediaBlog post and accompanying video demonstrates, it is a myth that too many vaccines are given to children at too young an age. And this myth, like all the others embraced by those three gullible and pandering presidential candidates, has been debunked over and over again.
To paraphrase one president from the past: “Those dogs won’t hunt.”