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Immunizations and Autism: Is there a relationship between them?
September 22, 2010
At birth, infants have protection against some diseases through both antibodies that pass through the placenta from mother to child and from breastfeeding. However, this protection is only temporary—therefore doctors utilize immunizations. Immunizations use small amounts of killed or weakened microorganisms that cause certain diseases to prompt the immune system to fight off the infection. This prompts the body recognize the disease so that it can fight off the disease if it were to reappear later. The vaccines work on 85-99% of cases, and include four types: attenuated (weakened) live viruses, killed (inactivated) viruses or bacteria, toxoid, and conjugate. (http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/immunizations/vaccine.html) Immunization is considered to be one of the greatest triumphs of public health, preventing approximately 10.5 million diseases each year and saving three million lives around the world. The immunizations have successfully eradicated smallpox and nearly eliminated polio, measles, pertussis, diphtheria, and Hib. (http://www.ecbt.org/advocates/immunizationsuccess.cfm)
Autism, discovered by psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943, is a developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. The disorder affects 1 in 150 children, and usually emerges within the first three years of life. Autism is known as a “Spectrum Disorder,” due to the fact that it affects every person differently (Viejo, 2008). But, some of the most common symptoms include delayed speaking, repetitive use of language and mannerisms, little eye contact, lack of interest in relationships with peers, lessened desire to play, and fixation on parts of objects. (http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_home)
Immunizations, though beneficial to your health, have been linked to the causations of autism. The MMR vaccine causes an antibody response that inflames the gut to increase the chance that toxic substances seep into the blood, whereas Thimerosal—organic Mercury—contains a compound that could affect brain development. Both the MMR vaccine and Thimerosal have been linked to the causes of Autism. Though most vaccines have been free of Thimerosal since 1999, parents have been reluctant to immunize their children with Thimerosal, posing potential health risks. However, they feel as though the risks outweigh the benefits. Others feel that these immunizations are necessary to prevent the spreading of very threatening and sometimes deadly illnesses (De los Reyes, 2010).
Immunization Increases Autism Risk
One theory about the possible correlation between immunizations and autism is that children with slowly maturing immune systems develop autism when given too many immunizations at one time, especially when the immunizations contain Thimerosal. In the well-known case of Hannah Poling, a child who was speaking 20 words at the age of 19 months and appeared to be developing normally was diagnosed with autism immediately after receiving nine immunizations at one time. She lost her words, eye contact, and demonstrated repetitive and withdrawn behavior. After further research, psychologists concluded that Hannah had a pre-existing mitochondrial disorder that the vaccines aggravated, resulting in brain damage triggering autism. Even so, specialists question whether the disorder developed before or simultaneously with the autism. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s family decided to pursue their case in court in 2008, eventually winning compensation for the damages. (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1721109,00.html)
A similar case involves Evan McCarthy, the son of celebrity Jenny McCarthy. Evan began his life as a vivacious child who made eye contact and smiled frequently. But the MMR vaccine stripped him of his personality. As heart breaking as it was for Jenny to see her child transform so suddenly, she is not against vaccinations. She argues that we need a safer vaccine schedule, since some children cannot handle as many vaccinations as others at such a young age. When Oprah contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the McCarthy case, they responded, “We are currently conducting additional studies to further determine what role, if any, Thimerosal in vaccines may play in the development of autism. It is important to remember, vaccines protect and save lives. Vaccines protect infants, children and adults from the unnecessary harm and premature death caused by vaccine-preventable diseases.” As shown by this response, it appears that there is a definite possibility that Thimerosal is related to autism. Doctors still feel that these risks are small in comparison to the threats of the diseases that immunizations prevent. (http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Mothers-Battle-Autism/5#slide)
Bradstreet (2003) executed a case control study in which he treated autistic children with a mercury detoxifier called dimercaptosuccinic acid. Following the detoxification, Bradstreet compared the urine of autistic children with the control group and found significantly higher levels of mercury in the urine of the autistic children. This supported previous findings of an efflux problem of mercury in autistic children, explaining the link between Thimerosal and autism. Soon after, James (2006) performed multiple studies on autistic children, finding that a problem with their glutathione production leaves them susceptible to brain damage from toxic substances and heavy metals such as mercury. In conclusion, an efflux problem combined with this susceptibility could be the explanation for the link between immunizations and autism.
No Link Between Immunization and Autism
Andrew Wakefield, the infamous British researcher, was the first to form the connection between the MMR vaccination and autism. In his 1998 study published by the British paper The Lancet, Wakefield claimed that in a case study of 12 children who received the MMR vaccine, 8 developed autism. He suggested that the vaccine caused intestinal inflammation, which triggered the onset of autism. Since then, 10 of the 12 authors of the study withdrew their support, along with the AAP, NIH, CDC, WHO. Then in 2004, The Lancet retracted the study for dishonesty. (http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home/publications/news/news-now/clinical-care-research/20100210lancet-retracts.html)
Rates of MMR vaccination in London have not increased since 1988, yet diagnoses of autism have been increasing since 1979. In addition, the average age of diagnosis for autism is the same in MMR vaccinated children and non-vaccinated children. (http://www.thechildrenshospital.org/wellness/info/news/36030.aspx) To support this research, Hviid (2003) compared children in Denmark who were vaccinated with Thimerosal to those vaccinated without it, and found that the risk of autism was the same for both groups. Similarly, Mrozek-Budzyn, Kieltyka, and Majewska (2009) performed a case-control study in Poland, in which they studied 96 children with autism and 192 children whom they matched to those that were autistic. They were matched to the autistic children by their birth year, sex, and physician. After studying the children via questionnaires and vaccination histories, the researchers found that the risk for autism was lower for the children who received the MMR vaccine than for those who had not been vaccinated.
The Effects of the Controversy
The Fear of Parents
Emily C. de los Reyes (2009) found that immunization rates dropped to 80%, placing children and society as a whole at risk for contracting potentially deadly diseases. As a result, 131 cases of Measles were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US during the first 7 months of 2008—the highest outbreak of the disease since 1996. Luthy, Beckstrand, and Callister (2010) investigated the decrease in rates of immunization in a group of parents from Utah. 86 parents of under-immunized children took a survey about their concerns and the advice that they would give to friends and family about immunizations. Unsurprisingly, the results showed concerns about autism, overloading the fragile immune systems of children, and other possible reactions to the vaccines. The parents felt the risks were too great, and did not consider the immunizations to be necessary. This study illustrates how, on a broader scale, concerns about the possible dangers of vaccinations are most likely a major source of the extremely low vaccination rate and increased disease incidence.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Because it is more common for parents to know an autistic child than anyone with one of the diseases immunizations attempt to prevent, it becomes difficult to justify the risks involved with the vaccines. Many doctors explain that the increased rate of autism is due to a greater awareness and broader definition of the disorder. Even though there is plenty of evidence against any association between vaccinations and autism, a single case study is not very strong proof. Many parents rightfully question whether or not the benefits of immunizations outweigh the risks, especially when the media brings cases such as Hannah Poling and Evan McCarthy to parents’ attention. Significant research is necessary to assess a child’s pre-existing conditions in order to prevent a possible aggravation by a vaccination. In addition, because the immune systems of infants are still developing and each could react differently to vaccinations, precautions should be taken through a limited number and slower schedule of vaccines. However, immunizations protect us against deadly diseases, and eliminating them is not an option.
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