Keep Vaccinating

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

DESPITE MANY studies discrediting its views, a vocal group of parents and lobbyists insists that vaccines cause autism, a disorder characterized by impaired social, emotional and communications skills. Those making the argument present heart-wrenching stories before courts and the media in the hope that someone, somewhere, will believe their theories and use them to cure their children. A recent case seems to have added fuel to their fire, but it should not dissuade parents from giving their children life-saving vaccines.

In the case, a 1 1/2 -year-old girl suffered a fever and other adverse reactions after receiving vaccine shots. Over the next few months, her brain function regressed, and she developed symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Government officials have agreed to compensate her family because, they said, the vaccines had aggravated a previously unknown underlying mitochondrial disorder, a rare condition that can deprive the brain of energy.

Anti-vaccine groups have cited the case as evidence that vaccines cause autism, despite public health officials', clinicians' and researchers' emphatic statements otherwise. For over a decade, activists have been arguing that vaccines, and particularly a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines, cause autism. This theory is largely promoted because autism symptoms usually appear around the age when children are first immunized. Since 2001, however, no vaccines (except some flu vaccines) routinely recommended for young children have been manufactured with the mercury preservative. Since then, autism rates have not slowed. Rather than abandoning their suspicions, some parents now implicate other aspects of vaccination, such as the simultaneous administering of multiple shots, another practice that researchers say is safe.

The science behind this recent case is tenuous, as there haven't been any studies that clearly prove causation between vaccines and mitochondrial disorders or between mitochondrial disorders and autism. Some researchers argue that the girl's mitochondrial disorder would have been triggered anyway by another stressor such as a common illness or fever, and may have become more severe had she contracted any of the dangerous diseases against which she was vaccinated. These diseases, after all, still afflict American children. Just last month in San Diego, a measles outbreak occurred among unvaccinated children.

Autism is a tragic disorder, but no one knows what causes it or even how to test for it biologically. Given how little is known about autism -- and the fact that no science has been able to connect it to vaccines -- parents should continue to protect their children against known, preventable risks: the deadly diseases that vaccines keep at bay.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company