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The Vaccine-Autism Hoax: Why Didn’t We Know Sooner?

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When Sensationalism Threatens Your Child's Health

By Richard B. Graff, PhD, BCBA-D

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield shook the autism world by publishing research in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine (or thimerisol, a preservative used in vaccines) and autism. Wakefield's speculation received widespread media attention, and the story was sensationalized in the news, in newspapers and popular magazines, and on daytime talk shows. As with many other "fad" therapies in autism, the Internet became a hotbed of misinformation regarding this possible link. As a result, the percentage of children in Britain who received the MMR vaccine dropped (not surprisingly, the number of confirmed cases of measles skyrocketed). Parents in other countries also became very worried about having their children vaccinated. 

Many media outlets quickly jumped on the vaccine-autism bandwagon, as did some prominent autism organizations. However, many members of the scientific community viewed Wakefield's research with a healthy dose of skepticism. In 2000, both the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the scientific evidence did not support a link between receiving the MMR vaccine and developing autism. Studies conducted in other countries also found no evidence of a link. Other well-respected institutions, including the World Health Organization, also concluded that there was no evidence of a vaccine-autism link. As the evidence mounted, the British investigative reporter Brian Deer investigated the case. Over time, it became clear that there were significant problems with Wakefield's research. Ultimately, Britain's General Medical Council concluded that Wakefield had engaged in professional misconduct; they described his behavior as dishonest, irresponsible, and unethical. Ultimately, The Lancet retracted the article, and Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine in Britain. 

Given the early skepticism of many scientists, the obvious question becomes, "Why didn't the rest of us know sooner?" In my opinion, there are several factors that contributed to the persistence in the belief that the MMR vaccine caused autism:

    1. Scientists generally do not communicate well with the general public. Scientists communicate with others trained in their discipline through peer-reviewed research journals and presentations at scientific conferences. Of course, over 99 percent of the general public never see or hear this information. Scientists are not skilled at presenting information to the public in easily understood and digestible ways. These days, most people seem to be much more comfortable getting information in brief sound bites. Scientists are notoriously bad at doing this, but the media excels at it.

 

    1. Scientific discoveries are often slow. Science takes baby steps, and tries to be very thorough. However, the media typically does not find this approach "sexy" — the media tends to report on and sensationalize big findings, even when they are premature. Although science is self-correcting, in that faulty research is typically uncovered (albeit slowly), when media outlets make mistakes, they are much less likely to publicize their mistakes. 

 

    1. The general public is not particularly knowledgeable about what constitutes good science. In this case, many people equated correlation (e.g., "Soon after my son got the MMR vaccine, he was diagnosed with autism. The vaccine must have caused the autism.") with causation. Just because two events occur close to another in time does not mean that the first event caused the second one. Perhaps I should jump on the, "Students in the U.S. are falling behind students in other countries in their knowledge of science" bandwagon.

 

  1. Most of us who are parents subscribe to the belief that parents are always right, that nobody knows our child as well as we do. Even today, many parents of children with autism continue to believe that the MMR vaccine caused their child's autism-they are the parent, and no one knows their child better than they do! Thus, when parents tell us that they KNOW something about their child, we tend to believe them, even when they insist that their child was perfectly fine until they received the MMR vaccine. I still remember the day I took my son to the pediatrician because I was sure he had an ear infection. The pediatrician checked him, and said he was fine. After a long night of crying, I took him back the very next day, and he was diagnosed with an ear infection. Ha — I was right! I DID know best! Fifteen years later, I still remember that experience! What I have mostly forgotten, however, were the numerous times I took him to the pediatrician only to find that he was indeed fine! 

It is unfortunate that it took so long for the media to report on the actual facts surrounding the vaccine-autism hoax...unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising. We tend to believe what we see and what we read, and assume that the people showing us and telling us have done their homework. We also need to realize that a daytime talk-show discussion with scientists about what causes autism does not draw as large an audience as celebrities discussing how a vaccine gave their child autism, or when angry parents tell us that the pharmaceutical companies have conspired to cover up the truth. The fact is, sensationalism sells more than science. I guess this is part of why more people watch reality TV shows than MSNBC or the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. But, I guess that until I'm asked to be on Oprah, not many people will realize this. 

 

 

Richard Graff, PhD, BCBA-D, is clinical director at The New England Center for Children, Inc., in Southborough, Massachusetts, and a contributing expert to MedHelp's Autism and Asperger's Syndrome expert forum.

 

Published: February 15, 2011

 

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