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The Complicated History of Vaccines and Autism

Updated: Feb 4

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" Blog Series - Slice #14



Well, here we are in a new year, and we are off to an amazing start with the creation and distribution of the two vaccines for COVID-19 which are the Pfizer and the Moderna. This is tremendous history that we have made as a country, especially those who work with medicine. However, what good is a vaccine, if the majority do not feel safe enough to take it? Keep in mind, these vaccines were not made in a lengthy period that would have taken a couple of years, these vaccines were made at warp speed in a matter of months. That information alone is enough to make anyone skeptical about taking the COVID-19 vaccine, which is exactly what Dr. Anthony Fauci feared the most when it came to the creation of the vaccine. In an article titled Anthony Fauci Reveals His Biggest COVID Vaccine Fear, Fauci revealed his worries about people not trusting the credibility of the COVID-19 vaccine by simply stating, “My primary biggest fear is that a substantial proportion of the people will be hesitant to get vaccinated. I think there are going to be many people who don't want to get vaccinated right away.” Now, if the average individual is skeptical about getting vaccinated for COVID-19, think about the parents of individuals who have autism, think about the individuals who have autism themselves, imagine how they must feel. After all, there is a complicated history between vaccines and the autism community, and it goes deeper than the vaccine for COVID-19.

According to a website called historyofvaccines.org, the simple factor of people’s hesitation towards vaccines, can easily be represented by one question: Do Vaccines Cause Autism? The history of that question goes far back to the early 90s, when according to U.S. CDC, they simply made the statement that for children born in 1992, “…about 1 in 150 would be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” In the same article, it was reported that children born in 2004, “…about 1 in 68 children would receive an ASD diagnosis.” Vaccines have been put into question along with other possible factors for autism such as genetic predisposition, advanced parental age, and other environmental factors. On the website, the official year of when vaccines were the debatable cause for autism was in 1995 when it states, “In 1995, a group of British researchers published a cohort study in the Lancet showing that individuals who had been vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) were more likely to have bowel disease than individuals who had not received MMR.” In the same article, it was reported three years later that evidence had been given by Wakefield in the Lancet for his claims when it states, “In 1998, Wakefield, along with 12 co-authors, published a case series study in the Lancet claiming that they found evidence, in many of the 12 cases they studied, of measles virus in the digestive systems of children who had exhibited autism symptoms after MMR vaccination.” Twelve years later in 2004, Dr. Richard Horton of the Lancet stated in television interviews that Wakefield’s research for vaccines and autism were “fatally flawed”. The paper was eventually retracted in 2010, and in that same year, Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine by Britain’s General Medical Council due to his callous disregard for children during his research. Finally, on January 6, 2011, a report was made published in the BMJ by a British Journalist name Brian Deer. In this report, Deer spoke with the parents of children retracted from Wakefield’s study, and was able to find evidence that Wakefield committed research fraud by falsifying information about children’s conditions. In expressive detail, the article states, “Deer reported that while the paper claimed that eight of the study’s twelve children showed either gastrointestinal or autism-like symptoms days after vaccination, records instead show that at most two children experienced these symptoms in this time frame. Additionally, while the paper claimed that all twelve of the children were “previously normal” before vaccination with MMR, at least two had developmental delays that were noted in their records before the vaccination took place.” This information given by Brian Deer, made this a landmark moment in vaccine history. Other hypotheses such as the usage of Thimerosal, have been made about many other vaccines that might be the cause of autism, but none were proven to have any association with autism. Scientists and medical experts are for the most part satisfied with the conclusion that no vaccine connects with the development of autism, yet critics still debate the issue.

In conclusion, the credibility of COVID-19 vaccines are understandably questionable not just for the speed of its creation, but for the dark history that vaccines have had in general, especially in the autism community. I can not decide for you on whether or not you should take the vaccine, but what I can do is remind you that medicine is not perfect, but it is all we have to medically treat any sicknesses that exist now as well as any sicknesses that have yet to come.

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