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Vaccines and Autism: Separating Fact from Fiction

Vaccines have expansively served as one of the most successful prevention methods against tens of diseases, ranging from Pneumococcal disease to Hepatitis B to COVID-19. Besides their vast applications, vaccines are proven one of the safest medical products, despite the occasional differences in side effects and severity. Nevertheless, rumors and myths have always been going around trying to put up intimidating pictures of the evils of vaccines. Some people tend to rely on their own immune systems, repudiating vaccine-derived immunity, even at the cost of falling ill with various diseases. This is clearly not the motive for parents who feel dubious about having their children vaccinated, but the adverse effects that might follow. The case of vaccines and autism, for instance, became one of the most debated controversies that dragged on for the past two decades and are still around despite extensive access to relevant information. Read on to find out more about vaccines and autism and how they are related.


The Relation between Vaccines and Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is known for several commonplace indicators, including issues with establishing social communications and repetitive or restricted behaviors and interests. Considering the variable severity of these general signs, autism may show up in various symptoms and restrict one’s life excessively or to some extent. Although the primary reasons for ASD have still remained obscure, experts have ultimately dismissed any connection between vaccines and autism. The rumors began to crank up after a fraudulent British paper that considered MMR vaccines as an impactful cause of ASD, which was succeeded by a few more (mythical) assumptions seeking to prove a relation between vaccines and autism. Nevertheless, various studies have been conducted to censure such claims. Besides, different organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.K. National Health Service, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Science, have scientifically proven that there is no relation between vaccines and autism.


The Real causes of autism

ASD usually begins before age 3 as a developmental disability and can affect kids in different ways; it might appear quite early or take up to 24 months to ooze out some symptoms. However, it is likely that it lasts throughout a person’s life, which puts one at risk of severe conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and anxiety. Despite a broad diversity of studies aiming to collect more data about the causes of ASD and its prevention routes, concrete insight into the roots of ASD is yet to be found. It is believed that a variety of biological, genetic, and environmental factors can bring about ASD, namely complications at birth, certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, being born to older parents, and having a sibling with ASD. Due to the lack of any diagnostic method for ASD, parents are usually recommended to keep account of their children’s developmental milestones or to check with pertinent specialists like child neurologists or developmental pediatricians. That said, CDC’s ongoing study on ASD called the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) is now in process and accompanies many other studies, each significantly contributing to the advancement of research on different aspects of autism and ways of tackling it. Notably, vaccination as a cause of ASD is nowhere in sight.


The Wakefield Studies: The Beginning of Serial Hoaxes

The initial factor that triggered intense public reaction was a study conducted in 1998 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues. The study was published in the Lancet—a British peer-reviewed general medical journal— and claimed a stupefying discovery about the direct relation between ASD and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. According to this study, MMR vaccines can bring about intestinal inflammation in the presence of vaccine-strain measles virus RNA in the intestines, which may trigger the development of autism. As a way of providing evidence, Wakefield picked 12 children with developmental delay, 8 of whom were coping with autism shortly after receiving the MMR vaccine. This was simultaneous with the dumbfounding emergence of a new wave of autism mainly occurring in children for which doctors had no precise explanation to provide. Despite the poignant obloquy that publicly stained the MMR vaccine and the rising doubt against vaccination afterward, Wakefield’s attempt won nothing but the label “elaborate fraud.” This controversy was later followed by multiple approved studies, such as the Cochrane Library’s review and an article in the British Medical Journal, providing scientific proof to demonstrate that there is no link between MMR vaccines and autism.   


The Activist-Promoted Movement Against Thimerosal in Vaccines

Some investigatory studies in the following years divulged that Wakefield’s findings were predetermined and intentionally manipulated—allegedly due to a request from a lawyer who paid Wakefield more than half a million dollars—which led to the retraction of Wakefield’s paper from the Lancet and the dismissal of his medical license. However, the myth of vaccines and autism allegedly became “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years,” as DK Flaherty described the situation. The follow-up controversies regarded some vaccine substances as the potential cause of autism. The first controversy began a year after Wakefield’s study and targeted thimerosal—a preservative substance used in the multi-dose vials—that contains ethylmercury and functions as a guard to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. In spite of no evidence that marked the correlation between thimerosal and autism, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Public Health Service collectively decided to omit the substance from most children’s vaccines after the activists’ pertinacity which had persuaded parents of a relation between vaccines and autism. Nevertheless, all the arguments were in vain, as autism diagnoses did not come to a halt. Notably, the multi-dose inactivated influenza vaccine is the only vaccine that still encompasses thimerosal.


Other Controversies Surrounding Vaccines and Autism

The succeeding controversies that insisted on probing links between vaccines and autism were as ill-founded as the previous ones. One pointed the finger at the aluminum salts, originally due to the dismissal of the dangers of mercury compounds and the yet-to-be-proven correlation between aluminum salts and Alzheimer’s. The other myth drew a bead on the vaccine overload, claiming the somewhat 25 shots given to kids within 15 months after birth can prompt autism. Similar to the previous three, there was no proper evidence for a link between the overload of childhood vaccines and autism, leading to a firm refusal after the efforts of the IoM and the Immunization Safety Review Committee. Additionally, a 2019 study examined approximately 660,000 children to find a relationship between vaccines and autism, which did not yield new results.


The Benefits of Vaccination

The possible risks of vaccines and medications cannot be overlooked, whether they are light symptoms like redness and swelling at the injection site or more severe allergic reactions. Some life-threatening complications, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome or seizures, have also been reported, though as rarely as they are perilous. That said, the benefits of vaccines outreach the downsides. Vaccines have considerably reduced the lurking risks of many diseases and officially eradicated two deadly illnesses: smallpox and rinderpest. Similarly, the same vaccine used as an anchor to pin down a connection between vaccines and autism has saved millions of people, especially children. According to the data at hand, the MMR vaccine has decreased the death rate of measles by 73% and of mumps by up to 99%.


A Better Herd Immunization Hanging on Global Vaccination

The dependence of our communities’ health on vaccination has always been the #1 motive for pharma companies to manufacture vaccines for different diseases and to expand the territory of public immunization. That has its roots in herd immunization, which underpins the vast importance of global vaccination. Although residents in the U.S. and many other countries receive essential vaccines for free, many regions, particularly developing countries, lack enough resources to cover the expenditures. That said, biosimilar technology has recently emerged and is taking over the market, primarily due to a significant drop in overall costs. Pharma companies such as Pfizer, Opal Biopharma (OBP), and Novartis are taking the lead in producing novel biosimilar products in order to facilitate access to requisite medications and vaccines and to accelerate the expansion of global vaccination.


Final Thoughts

The number of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses has been continually on the rise since the 1990s, making everyone, especially parents, seriously concerned with the health status of the younger generations. This phenomenon has put the medical communities under great pressure, as solidified explanations for ASD are still missing. Because of that, some people take different kinds of factors as the causes of autism, including vaccines. Nevertheless, tens of studies have offered reliable, scientific proof that there is no relation between vaccines and autism. The best way to confront vaccine-preventable diseases is to receive the necessary vaccines, preferably at the right time. And despite the controversies regarding vaccine overload impairing the immune system and causing ASD, there is no evidence to justify a correlation between vaccines and autism.

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