Jan. 19 2011 10:24 AM

There's no reason to believe vaccines cause autism

Jenny McCarthy

This being our special alternative Health Issue and all, we’ll use this space to comment on an alternative-health viewpoint of a rather dubious nature: Autism is linked to vaccinations.

This past week, The Huffington Post published a commentary by Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity model who’s become an anti-vaccination activist, defending a 1998 study conducted by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that has been revealed to be fraudulent. The study used 12 families to show a link between MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism, but it was officially retracted last year. Yet, McCarthy continues to defend it and its author, who, according to a Jan. 5 investigative story in the British Medical Journal, had not only misrepresented medical records, but also was working with a law firm to sue vaccine manufacturers and officials at a medical school to market three different products related to vaccines.

Far be it for us to criticize parents like McCarthy— whose son is either autistic or a sufferer of Landau- Kleffner syndrome, a severe neurological disorder— who grapple daily with one of the most truly awful childhood conditions known to humankind. To the extent that McCarthy has prompted parents of young children to learn more about vaccinations, she should be applauded; however, she’s likely done greater harm than good. Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams went so far in a Jan. 6 Salon.com piece as to refer to her as a public-health “menace”—such is the concern that McCarthy may be contributing to the spread of preventable diseases among children.

The fear of vaccines centers on thimerosal, a mercury compound that’s been used in vaccines as a preservative. The Centers for Disease Control supports a conclusion reached by the Institute of Medicine—that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.” To be on the safe side, thimerosal was removed in 2001 from most vaccines recommended for children younger than 6 years old. A flu vaccine is a notable exception, but the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Studies recommended in 2004 that children between 6 and 23 months old get an inactivated flu vaccine because the benefits outweigh any risks from thimerosal exposure.

Recent outbreaks of whooping cough, mumps and measles—highly contagious diseases and very dangerous in the youngest children— underscore the importance of vaccinations. The CDC reported last September that the rate of MMR vaccinations declined between 2008 and 2009, which is alarming to public-health officials.

Dr. James Ochi, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist, told us this week in an e-mail that if parents bring up vaccines and autism, “I gently tell them about the children I’ve seen dying of vaccine-preventable diseases in Uganda and Cambodia on my medical mission trips. You don’t have to see too many of these little ones in agony to understand the benefit vaccines have given us in the developed world.”

None of this is to say that there aren’t downsides to vaccines. For example, some doctors worry about the impact on a child’s immune system of multiple vaccinations all at once, so, they opt to spread vaccinations out over time.

This editorial is the result of relatively cursory research—hardly exhaustive. We don’t presume to be experts on the topic by any means. Therefore, if you remain concerned about vaccines and autism (or other side effects), do your own research. But be discerning, and be particularly wary of internet quackery. Trace factual claims back to their sources. Then, run what you’ve learned by your doctor. Then, to be safe, run it by a friend’s doctor. Everyone knows someone who knows a doctor or two. Find those doctors and run what you’ve learned by them, too. Second, third and fourth opinions are better than just one.

This concludes our detour from the usual editorial on political matters. We hope you get something out of our first-ever alternative Health Issue. Our special section—covering everything from medicinal marijuana to therapeutic hugging—begins on Page 9.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.