The last week of April marks an interesting intersection in time. April is World Autism Month. The last week of April is also World Immunization Week. For many years now, there’s been a raging debate over the link between autism and vaccinations.
Robust, healthy debate is a core element of any strong society, but lately, this particular debate has become decidedly unhealthy. Though the evidence weighs strongly in favour of vaccines, the anti-vaccination movement uses compelling emotional arguments and the power of social media very well. The results are alarming, with parents increasingly opting out of safe and effective immunization for their children, fearing they might develop autism.
For context, in February of 1998, a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield co-authored a paper in The Lancet claiming to find a connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine commonly used around the world.
Wakefield’s claims have since been thoroughly debunked by researchers worldwide. The paper was retracted by The Lancet, and Wakefield banned by the U.K.’s General Medical Council (GMC) from practicing medicine. The GMC report ruled that Wakefield was “dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard” for children.
For me, this issue is very personal. In April 1998, just a couple of months after the publication of Wakefield’s study, my son Jaden was diagnosed with autism at age two-and-a-half. Like many parents receiving the news, his mother and I were desperate for answers. Jaden’s challenges were profound and seemed to have arisen suddenly. We wanted an explanation, and Wakefield’s research provided one, especially since Jaden had experienced a persistent fever in the hours after his first MMR shot a year earlier.
When our daughter, Jenae, was born in 1999, we were divided on how to deal with vaccines for both kids. Their mom wanted to wait. I disagreed, but still had my own questions. Like all parents, we wanted to do the right thing, and the Wakefield study, still thought to be credible then, made it harder to know just what that right thing was.
In the end, we delayed vaccinations for both kids. Jenae received hers five years ago. And, as a happy result of conversations about my research for this article, we’ve looked into Jaden’s measles immunity and discovered that he needs one more shot, which he’ll get in the coming weeks.
We’re sharing our story now because it needs to be told. The significant noise created by a vocal minority is drowning out actual evidence that parents need as they sincerely try to make the best decisions they can for their kids.
Experts are united on this. The Canadian Paediatric Society states that “the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. has an entire page on its website under the unequivocal headline “Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.”
There’s a rock-solid evidence base of major studies from around the world, involving millions of children. One 2015 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at over 95,000 children with older siblings, concluding that there is “no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and ASD.”
This week, the world’s top autism researchers are in Montreal for the 2019 International Society for Autism Research meeting. The meeting chair is Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto. Regarding autism, Dr. Anagnostou says, “There are many areas where we don’t have all the answers yet. However, this is not such an area. There is a very large body of research that has found no link between vaccines and autism.”
She continues, emphatically, “We’ve spent a lot of time and money researching a question we already know the answer to, because the public is worried. Research funding is limited. It’s important that we focus now on the many questions that still need answering.”
We must also understand some crucial facts about the life-saving benefits of vaccines.
Consider smallpox, thankfully something we don’t worry about today. Yet in 1966, there were more than 10 million cases worldwide and two million deaths in 43 countries. Just 11 years later, in 1977, the last known natural case of smallpox appeared in Somalia. It was eradicated, thanks to the systematic implementation of a science-based, global vaccination program.
Another tremendous success story is that of the fight against polio. In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 cases in more than 125 countries. That year, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed. Thirty-one years later, over three billion children have been vaccinated and polio is nearly wiped out, endemic in only three countries — Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2018, there were just 33 cases worldwide, with advocates like Rotary International and Global Citizen (who encouraged me to write this piece) working with international leaders to finish the job.
In the case of measles, widespread immunization has driven a dramatic decrease in global mortality, down 80 per cent from approximately 545,000 deaths, mostly children, in 2000. It’s estimated that measles vaccination has saved more than 20 million lives in the past 20 years. However, this month, the World Health Organization reported that measles cases worldwide have quadrupled in 2019, with experts underscoring that this is partly due to the concerning spread of misinformation.
The next time you feel anxious about the state of our global health systems based on something you saw online, remember this fact: in 1955, global life expectancy was under 50 years. Today, it’s over 70 years. We must never stop striving to improve global health outcomes, but the data shows we are doing a lot of things right.
Finally, to parents, if you’ve heard or read things that have made you hesitant to vaccinate your kids, I totally understand. I’ve been there. But I’ve taken a hard look at the facts. I’ve spoken to the experts. And I no longer have those doubts. Vaccines do not cause autism. They have, however, saved hundreds of millions of lives worldwide. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear.
Mike Lake is the member of Parliament for Edmonton-Wetaskiwin.