3 questions answered about the so-called link between vaccinations and autism

Vaccinating our children is a topic never too far away from the headlines. Despite the HSE stating again and again that the vaccinations given to our children are proved safe before they are included in any schedule, there still lingers some doubt among a minority of parents that there could be a link between certain vaccines and conditions like autism. But is there any truth to them? 

Is there a link?

The short answer is no, there is no link between autism and vaccinations; this has been disproved again and again. The reason why it’s in the headlines is that Donald Trump has now weighed in on the argument – and we thought it was important to explain why the doubts were raised in the first place, what Trump and his allies are now saying and why there is no scientific proof to any links between vaccinations and any serious health issues.

Where does the doubt come from?

The doubts originally stemmed from a published study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who claimed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, his study was later retracted as the sample was small, the study had ethical violations by failing to obtain the necessary clearances to conduct invasive investigations on the children and the sample was selective rather than consecutive, as reported. There was later claims that Wakefield was guilty of deliberate fraud, and Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

Since Wakefield’s debunked study in 1998, there are have many bigger studies into any possible links between autism and vaccines. A study looked at the vaccination records of every child born in Denmark from 1991 to 1998 (over half a million children). During that time, 82 per cent of children born in Denmark received the MMR vaccine. The researchers found that the risk of autism was the same in immunised children and in children who had not been immunised.

Donald Trump weighs in

Case closed, right? Unfortunately the doubts still lingered – and recently that debate has been reignited thanks to the political changes in the US. Back in 2014, the now US president Donald Trump tweeted: 

And it seems that his opinion hasn’t really changed. During a primary season debate in 2015, he stated: “I am totally in favour of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. … [in which] a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back and a week later had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Now Mr Trump has appointed Robert F Kennedy Jr, a nephew of former president JFK, as chair of a commission on “vaccination safety and scientific integrity”.

“President Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” said Kennedy. “He says his opinion doesn’t matter, but science does matter. And we ought to be reading the science, and we ought to be debating the science.”

Kennedy’s theory

Kennedy has led an anti-vaccine campaign in the US, claiming that the preservative Thimerosal, or thiomersal, in vaccines can cause a number of conditions including autism. However, the US Center for Disease Control claims that Thimerosal is reduced to trace amounts in US vaccines and that at least nine studies have proven that there is no link between Thimerosal and autism. Over here, the HSE says “there is no Thiomersal in any of the vaccines used in the childhood immunisation programme in Ireland.”

So why do some parents still fear that vaccinations lead to autism?

One theory is that the first signs of issues can appear around the time of immunisations, leading some to suspect the vaccination as cause – but then there’s also some big names behind the anti-vaccination campaign. Actor Robert De Niro has offered $100,000 for anyone who can “find a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that Thimerosal is safe”. DeNiro has a son on the autism spectrum and claims his son changed “overnight” after he received the MMR vaccine. DeNiro is a supporter of Andrew Wakefield’s controversial documentary Vaxxed, which has just been released on DVD in Ireland, and claims not to be anti-vax, but pro “safe vax”.

Facts are facts

This debate is sure to rage on, but in the meantime, the facts are there: we have vaccines to protect us and our children from some potentially very serious diseases. Every single one of the diseases we are vaccinated against can kill, and it’s vital that as many of us as possible should be vaccinated in order to prevent these diseases from spreading and attacking the most vulnerable in our country. There is literally no proof that vaccinations cause autism, bowel disease or any other serious condition. Our advice? Be guided by science, not opinions and rumours.

For more on vaccinations, see the HSE website www.immunisation.ie