At a time when measles outbreaks are developing among groups of unvaccinated children, notably in New York, Texas, and Washington State, a new and large study published this week found no association between the MMR vaccine and autism: a reason often cited by nervous parents for rejecting the vaccine, known as MMR because it protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.
The newly published research reaffirms what’s long been largely accepted by the medical community, and it echoes the findings of the 2002 study by members of the same scientific team about the vaccine.
The findings of the most recent study emerged at a time when suspicion is again mounting over the safety of vaccines: a suspicion that’s long been festering at the far edges of the web and on mainstream media outlets such as Amazon, Facebook, and Pinterest. Many of these companies have begun taking steps in recent weeks to remove anti-vaccine propaganda, but some are saying they could do more. On Monday, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kyle E. Yasuda, wrote to the people in charge of Google, Facebook, and Pinterest, asking them to take further action in “an urgent request to work together to combat the dangerous spread of vaccine misinformation online.”
In definitive language, the researchers, who conducted the study on 657,461 Danish children born between 1999 and 2010, asserted in the Annals of Internal Medicine: “The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.”
The researchers further subgrouped the children according to other vaccinations, and whether or not they had a sibling(s) with autism.
Over time, 6,517 of the children received a diagnosis of autism. But it’s important to note that the researchers found no proportional incidence of autism between vaccinated and unvaccinated children. This conclusion echoes the findings in their 2002 study of 537,303 Danish children, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Noting that measles outbreaks are becoming increasingly commonplace in the United States as well as Europe, Dr. Hviid said:
U.S. researchers concluded that even a 5 percent reduction in vaccination coverage would triple measles cases, with significant health economic costs. A main reason that parents avoid or are concerned about childhood vaccinations has been the perceived link to autism.
The results of his study, he asserted, offered both reassurance and reliable data confirming that no such link exists.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Saad B. Omer, researcher of public health at Emory University, and Dr. Inci Yildirim at the Emory School of Medicine, both noted that it’s been nearly a decade since the small, flawed study that set off alarms about a possible link between the vaccine and autism has been debunked and retracted. Yet important resources are being consistently poured into studies such as this one, which serves only to reaffirm what science has already widely accepted as fact.
“In an ideal world,” they wrote, “vaccine safety research would be conducted only to evaluate scientifically grounded hypotheses, not in response to the conspiracy du jour.”
They also said that doctors and public health officials need to firmly label the association “a myth.”
“Debunking a myth is tricky,” said Dr. Sean T. O’Leary, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado at Denver. When you repeat the myth, he said, “you risk reinforcing it. All that parents remember about your complicated explanation about why vaccines don’t cause autism is that they’re somehow linked. So pediatricians should focus on the diseases we’re trying to prevent and if you have to address a myth, be clear that’s exactly what it is.”
Dr. O’Leary, who researches vaccine delivery challenges, pointed out that particularly because clinicians are pressed for time, it’s important to be able to have solid information and resources for parents who want to look further into the issue.
“It can be hard for parents to sort out what’s real and what’s not,” he said.