The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘MMR

Autism no fraud, but controversial study declared false

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Autism’s biggest firestorm refuses to cede its flames, as The Associated Press reports an analysis of the now-discredited study linking vaccines to autism published by Andrew Wakefield was based on doctored information on how the children were involved.

Brian Deer, a British journalist who made the discovery, learned that five of the 12 children in Wakefield’s study had documented developmental problems prior to receiving an MMR vaccine, which Wakefield claimed was the cause of autism in children and led to panic among parents of autistic children. Deer also noticed that all cases were misrepresented after comparing data from the children’s medical records and their parents.

As you may have guessed, a huge reaction among the autism community has erupted following the report. Wakefield’s dishonesty ruling last year, from the General Medical Council, was the first bombshell that brought pause to the belief of a link between vaccines and autism. In fact, 2010 was a significant year in terms of addressing the controversy with vaccine safety. While the study is no longer considered credible, immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella haven’t fully recovered from their lows of the late 1990s, and outbreaks of diseases once thought to be eradicated have cropped up where immunization rates decreased.

However, this scientific debate persists because of emotionally charged reactions from both sides as they attempt to one-up each other to prove their argument is more valid. Fear of the unknown remains a powerful catalyst as humans often worry about things not necessarily within their control, which is one reason why this debate remains autism’s spotlight controversy. Naturally, it’s a perfect story for reporters to follow up because its energy level remains high. I’ll discuss one story that gauges the reaction from supporters of Wakefield’s study tomorrow.

By the way, you’ve just read my first blog post of 2011. After taking a hiatus to focus on other assignments, I’ve returned to continue discussing autism in the news and what it means for the news. 2010 was a big year for the Autistic Journalist, where daily hits increased from 4 in 2009 to 20 in 2010. For you mathematicians, that’s a 400% increase. Yeah, not much, but increased syndication in 2010 helped spread the word about The Autistic Journalist, and I want to thank readers for their continued support. I’m no expert, but I will not rest in my goal to go beyond the surface in exploring autism and its news coverage. 2011 will be an even bigger ride than 2010.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Photo by Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images

For that power can influence a large segment of the population. British doctor Andrew Wakefield, the origin of the anti-vaccine movement by suggesting MMR vaccines played a role in developing autism spectrum disorder in children, was accused of dishonesty and irresponsibility last week by the General Medical Council.

The Guardian’s story (UK news outlet) reports the GMC accusing Wakefield of conducting unnecessary and invasive tests on children after receiving conditional approval for his hypothesis from the Royal Free committee. The article lists other ethical violations conducted by Wakefield, including tests and procedures that were unnecessary for the study subjects’ health and failing to include details of his studies, such as funding. The GMC will make a ruling in April. If Wakefield is found guilty of professional misconduct, his medical license could be stripped.

We’ve already seen the damage caused by supposed the MMR vaccine/autism link, despite several major studies proving the contrary. Wakefield’s theory caused a sudden drop in MMR vaccinations in the United Kingdom and a mumps outbreak soon followed. West of the Atlantic, faces of the cure autism movement, including Jenny McCarthy, voice concerns about vaccinations causing autism. Before you brand these people idiots, it’s perfectly healthy to express skepticism in the face of presented evidence (the global warming bombshell during the December Copenhagen summit reminded us of the shortcuts people take to fit their argument). As I mentioned last summer when I talked about a Jenny McCarthy profile article, skepticism makes sure the science is right.

Is it surprising Wakefield’s ruling drew many protesters who still support him? When you apply the skepticism argument, hardly. The ruling came 12 years after Wakefield first proposed a link, which left a lot of time to get a movement behind him. Complicating the message is the timing of the MMR vaccine. The shot is administered around 18 months of age for a child, which is also the time symptoms of autism begin to appear in children. With an indisputable cause nowhere in sight, parents or relatives who don’t fully process the situation often point fingers at the most recent event in the timeline, which is very likely MMR or another vaccine. Parents concerned about immunizations often claim their children were developing normally until they received a shot, even though no link has been established.

In the short-term, the story got some press in local and national outlets in the United States, but I don’t see a major shift vacating the idea that booster shots and autism share a link. Cable news and online columns contribute to a massive harvest where viewers can pick their interests, tuning out any argument that confronts those viewpoints. Until a cause is found, I expect those behavioral patterns to appear with the anti-vaccine movement inside the autism community. However, the accusations against Wakefield also serve as proof that healthy skepticism is effective; when someone presents a theory that has little to no scientific credence, the drawing behind the theory may not be complete. Going further on the ethical road, we can point to a disease outbreak caused by a decrease in shots in the UK. If a link does exist, is saving a child from a developmental disability worth the risk of contracting a disease that is completely preventable?

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 31, 2010 at 10:45 pm