Chili’s schedules autism fundraiser, draws fire over vaccine issue. Chili’s cancels fundraiser, draws fire.

Chili’s is in the hot seat.

It began when the restaurant chain agreed to a fundraiser for National Autism Association, which has drawn controversy because of its (discredited) claim of a connection between autism and vaccinations.

The restaurant agreed to donate 10 percent of a day’s proceeds on Monday to the group.

Suddenly it was immersed in a vaccination controversy.

Hundreds took to the Chili’s Facebook page. Some threatened a boycott if Chili’s went ahead with the fundraiser. Others came on to support the autism group.

In response, Chili’s canceled the fundraiser.

On Monday, Chili’s updated its statement:

While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests. … We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism.

A Chili’s spokesman said in an e-mail to CNNMoney: “The intent of this fundraiser was not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism.”

Despite the absence of evidence linking vaccines to autism, the National Autism Association’s Web site states, “Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions.” The organization states its findings are based on “parent reports” — fueling a decade-old debate. Many early vaccine opponents based their beliefs on a 1998 study later declared fraudulent, CNN reported. Michele Bachmann then resurrected the alleged connection in 2011 when she was running for the Republican presidential nomination.

An estimated 1 in 88 children has some form of autism, according to government researchers. That’s a 78-percent increase from a decade ago, CNN reported.

But experts, including the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree there’s no evidence for the connection.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed no link between the number of vaccine antigens and the risk of autism. An antigen is a substance in a vaccine that produces antibodies to protect the body. NPR reported the CDC compared vaccine histories and medical records of about 250 children who had autism with those of 750 who did not.

And a more recent study, in New England Journal of Medicine last month, suggests autism begins in the womb when certain brain cells fail to mature, Bloomberg reported.

The issue now, some argue, is not whether vaccinated children are more prone to autism but whether unvaccinated children pose health risks to others.

Last year, researchers confirmed that a 2010 whooping cough outbreak in California was spread by children whose parents applied for non-medical exemptions to school vaccinations. The same year, Texas’s Eagle Mountain International Church, which had been against vaccinations, reported 21 cases of measles. Following the outbreak, it held vaccination clinics.

Nevertheless, the debate continues. Social media commenters told Chili’s that vaccinations led to their children’s autism.

One said they “are not necessarily arguing against completely safe and necessary vaccinations, they are against using toxic vaccines and over vaccinating for unnecessary reasons.”

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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