Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism
They don’t. Full stop.
Our story starts with a study.
Well, not a study exactly. A study implies scientific legitimacy. It implies rigor, knowledge, intent on behalf of the investigators. Studies are done when scientists decide that there is a real question and put their minds to the test trying to figure out the answer. Twenty years’ on, after retractions, proof of fraud, the rescinding of medical licenses and more, it is perhaps more appropriate to call the ‘study’ a loose collection of anecdotes that were tied together only by the now-disgraced man who told them.
But I digress.
Almost two decades ago, the Lancet published a paper that has become the most infamous piece of scientific fraud in our times. A small group of children with autism underwent unnecessary medical procedures that appeared to reveal that microbes in their gut corresponded with a vaccination that they had been given years previously. At the time, autism was one of the scarier diagnoses for parents to hear — knowing that your child is going to forever be a person you struggle to understand is never easy. And most everyone gets vaccinated.
People were terrified.
The response was massive. Researchers leapt into action to see whether the results of this paper were true. Hundreds of studies were done the world over, involving literally millions of children, to see whether there was any association whatsoever between autism and routine childhood immunizations.
It turned out, of course, that there was no connection. Even if we didn’t have proof of fraud, we have incredibly good data on the side-effects of vaccination. About 1 in a million people immunized with a routine vaccine — the ones on the schedule — will experience a serious side-effect. Usually anaphylaxis, although other problems do sometimes crop up.
So why has a major news source decided to tell people that “ Aluminium in vaccines may cause autism”?
Aluminium is a Big Scary Chemical in the world of anti-vaccination rhetoric. It’s been accused of causing everything from Alzheimer’s to autism, despite the fact that the levels of aluminium in vaccines are well below those found in baby formula and human breast milk.
And, of course, the evidence shows that the aluminium in vaccines is in no way related to neurological damage of any kind.
This hasn’t stopped a group of people with a history of doing “research” from conducting a study into a possible aluminium-autism link. From the studies I’ve linked above, you’d expect it to be a huge, stunningly well-controlled study. Tens of millions of dollars over decades, all spent making sure that when they published their results they could be confident that they had the right answer. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, after all, and we have decades of enormous studies showing that vaccines are safe and that the tiny amount of aluminium in them has no negative effect whatsoever.
Sadly, that’s not what these people did.
Their paper took samples from the brains of deceased people who had been diagnosed with autism, and looked at the levels of aluminium in them. They used two different methods of testing for aluminium levels, and found what they described as “pathologically” high amounts.
Basically, they looked at some brain tissue in a lab, and from there concluded that vaccines caused autism.
I’m not going to pick through this paper and tell you why it’s nonsense. There have already been many excellent breakdowns like this one by Skeptical Raptor. But even without the many, many issues that make this piece of research worthless for answering serious scientific questions, it’s completely inadequate at telling us anything about vaccines at all.
This study had nothing whatsoever to do with vaccination.
Finding aluminium in the brains of autistic people in a lab doesn’t say anything about vaccines. There are hundreds of environmental exposures to aluminium — remember, breast milk and baby formula — so it could’ve come from anywhere. And what about a control group? If you don’t compare autistic people to the general population, you can’t know whether we all have aluminium in our brains or if it’s just people with autism.
I could go on.
What we do know, what has been demonstrated over and over again in hundreds of studies and millions of children, is that vaccines do not cause autism.
Which makes the media fuss about this study disturbing to behold.
This study had literally nothing to do with vaccines. Nothing whatsoever. More than that, it proved nothing about aluminium and autism. All we know is that a small group of people may have had some deposits of aluminium in their brain. The paper itself made no claims whatsoever that it proved that aluminium was causing harm — that was left to the interviews in the Daily Mail.
If no one had poured fuel onto this fire, it would’ve died away silently and with good grace. Someone instead decided to spread the anti-vaccination message far and wide, despite the strong evidence that it is wrong.
So no, there is no new evidence that vaccines might cause autism. There isn’t even new evidence that aluminium is bad for you. All there is is slides in a lab that prove nothing at all except for the gullibility of some journalists.
Two decades on, and our story is still going. The damage caused by that original Lancet paper has spread, with vaccination rates slowing their upward climb in many places across the world. Children who could’ve lived their lives in peace are instead getting sick and — tragically — sometimes dying, because parents are terrified.
Terrified by stories just like the one published in the Daily Mail.
Parents are just trying to do their best to keep their children safe. But headlines like this drive them away from effective medical help like nothing else.
Bottom line? Vaccines are safe and effective. We have evidence from the world over that vaccines do enormous good and very little harm.
Get vaccinated. Stay safe. Don’t die from measles or polio.
And please, please, talk to your doctor about scary stories like this. Just because people who should know better choose to give a voice to cranks spreading fear doesn’t mean you, or your children, should suffer.
You can now get your regular Health Nerd updates on the Sensationalist Science podcast — check out this recent episode on whether solvent exposure in pregnancy is causing autism in children:
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