Is There A Link Between Vaccination And Autism – A Misconception That Spread Like Wildfire

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In 1964, Marshall McLuhan told us “the medium is the message.” [1] McLuhan went on to say “this is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium − that is, of any extension of ourselves − result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”[2] Stated otherwise, “we can know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes − often unnoticed and non-obvious changes − that they effect (message.)”[3] Little did McLuhan know or appreciate that a now ubiquitous extension of ourselves, the internet, would feed a growing 21st century public health challenge.  

In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet featured an article that linked colitis and autism spectrum disorders to vaccinations with the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Subsequent review proved the article to be fraudulent. Its author, Andrew Wakefield, had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence and had broken other ethical codes. The Lancet withdrew the article and Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was revoked. Despite the scientific refuting of this piece, its impact continues to be felt in resistance to immunizations. Fueled by the Internet, immunization rates declined. Once the statement “vaccines cause autism” is out there, no amount of evidence seems capable of countering this misconception.

There is a perverse irony in people in highly developed nations refusing vaccines. Aggressive immunization campaigns are a priority in the developing world. Consider a statement from the American Red Cross’s Measles & Rubella Initiative web site: “Measles is one of the most contagious diseases ever known and is an important cause of death and disability among young children worldwide. Rubella can cause severe birth defects.” In 2012, measles caused an estimated 122,000 deaths worldwide.CDC- vaccination

Despite this, some decline to be vaccinated or, perhaps worse, have their children immunized. The United States recorded a total of 288 confirmed measles cases in the first half of 2014. None of these proved to be fatal, but there is no guarantee this will continue to be the case. Rubella is a particular threat to pregnant women, especially during the first trimester. Infection can result in miscarriages, stillbirths and Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), an array of birth defects that can include cataracts, hearing loss, mental retardation and congenital heart defects.

There is a common belief that these typical childhood diseases are “no big deal.” This cavalier attitude can have significant repercussions. Consider another formerly common childhood disease, pertussis, also known as whooping cough. During 2012, 48,277 cases of pertussis were reported to CDC, including 20 pertussis-related deaths. The majority of deaths occurred among infants younger than 3 months of age. The parents of an infant deceased from a preventable disease will undoubtedly attest that this is, indeed, a “big deal.”

The study of more than a million children provides compelling evidence that there is no link between immunizations and autism. It also paradoxically reinforces the conviction of anti-vaccine advocates. Selective science is a dangerous game. While childhood diseases have been largely eliminated in the Americas, they persist in other parts of the world. Global travel can bring a remote disease home. A vaccine can produce an adverse reaction in 1 out of 100,000 instances. In comparison, 3 in every 1000 cases of measles will be fatal (i.e. 300 out of 100,000). One in 2400 who contract whooping cough will die (42 out of 100,000). The odds speak for themselves.  

[1] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New

[2] Ibid.

[3] Federman, M. (2004, July 23).  What is the Meaning of the Medium is the 

Don Donahue

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