The “link” between vaccinations and autism has a long, sad and lethal history. The inverted commas are there because, causally, there is no link; it exists only in the minds of activists and distraught parents and, for years, elements of the media.
But despite this, since 1998, when Andrew Wakefield first proposed that the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) jab might cause autism, the idea that vaccinating your child could damage its brain has persisted – with sometimes tragic results. In South Wales last week it was reported that 60 children have been hospitalised after a serious measles outbreak, almost certainly the result of poor vaccination uptake.
Last week the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released the results of a study which put to rest the last claim of the anti-vaccination brigade: that multi-vaccination jabs such as MMR overload the child’s immune system. The study, which examined 1,000 children who had had their jabs, either all together or spread out over several months, found that the children who had autistic-spectrum disorders were no more likely to have had more jabs, or a more concentrated programme of them, than those who did not. “Our study found no relationship with the number of vaccine antigens received and overall ASD [Autistic Spectrum Disorder]” the study’s lead author, Frank de Stefano, said.
Of course, this hasn’t satisfied the “anti-vaxers”; one, writing on the website Age of Autism, claimed that “The [CDC] study is to science what the movie Ishtar [a notorious box-office flop] was to cinema.”
According to a small, but vociferous, part of the population, vaccines do cause autism, and to hell with the evidence. If the fact that there was no sudden increase in autism in Britain after the introduction of the MMR in 1988 (as several studies have shown) didn’t convince them, then the CDC study has no chance. What’s far more worrying than the hard core of campaigners is the large number of parents who, after years of reading headlines linking the two, are understandably concerned about vaccinating their children.
A 2011 American survey found that more than one in five people still thought that vaccines can cause autism; another found that 10 per cent of parents delay or refuse vaccination for their children for that reason. Things are no better here: at the height of the scare, in the early 2000s, vaccination levels in Britain dropped to just 73 per cent.
Dr Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Pharma, who has written extensively about autism and vaccination, says: “Health scares are like toothpaste: once they’re out, it’s very hard to get them back in the tube. They catch fire fast, because they’re so seductive to journalists. And they don’t go away, because once you’ve planted fear and doubt in the mind, people become almost superstitious. Even doctors I know feel worried about MMR, knowing it’s irrational.”
Reason has, slowly, recovered – last year, British vaccination rates reached 91 per cent – but that is still well below the 95 per cent required for “herd immunity”, which would stop the diseases spreading even to the unvaccinated. Since vaccination does not always work, and since some immunologically compromised children cannot be safely vaccinated, these low uptake levels still threaten lives, even of children whose parents would choose to vaccinate them.
This is a genuine threat. In 1998, pre-Wakefield, there were just 56 cases of measles in Britain. In 2008 there were 1,348. In 2006 a child died of the disease for the first time since 1992; another died two years later – casualties of the MMR hysteria. Before the introduction of the vaccine in 1988, about half a million children caught the disease every year in this country and around 100 died: in about one in 1,000 cases, measles leads to encephalitis, a swelling of the brain, which can lead to blindness, deafness or brain damage, and sometimes death. The virus also causes pneumonia.
Last week in Swansea, the grim results of years of vaccine fear were displayed. Measles had been on the rise in the city and its surrounding areas for years, but a sudden outbreak has led to nearly 600 cases, with 60 children in hospital from pneumonia and dehydration. Along with the rest of Britain, Swansea’s vaccination levels plummeted; now, ironically, they are among the highest in the country, above the magic 95 per cent mark. There were reports this weekend that parents had been queuing up to get their children vaccinated. But that doesn’t help the last cohort of children, now toddlers or school-age, who remain at risk of the disease.
It seems that the worst of the hysteria is over now, and vaccination levels are slowly getting back up to where they need to be. In a few years, all being well, measles may be as rare as it ever was in Britain. But because of this unnecessary scare, hundreds of children’s lives have been put at risk, and, as Goldacre says, we are ignoring real problems because of it: “These infantile conspiracy theories distract from genuine substantive problems in medicine; the fact that we still allow drug companies to hide data is absurd. These complex stories are neglected, while everyone charges around for years on end getting hysterical about vaccines.”