Good investigative reporting may finally debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

For years now, both individual researchers and respected scientific organizations such as the Institute of Medicine have tried to refute a persistent myth — that childhood vaccines cause autism.

The myth began after a small study published in 1998 in the Lancet by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues at Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London suggested that childhood vaccines might cause some cases of autism. Although the study involved only 12 children, the paper ignited a contentious debate about the safety of childhood vaccines that has continued ever since.

After independent scientists repeatedly challenged the veracity of the 1998 paper, many of Wakefield’s coauthors withdrew their names from the publication. The Lancet finally retracted the entire study last year. Even so, the vaccine-autism myth has been hard to debunk. In spite of scientific evidence to the contrary, some parents continue to worry that childhood vaccines increase autism risk — or in some cases believe that a vaccine caused a child’s autism.

Now British journalist Brian Deer may finally put the matter to rest. An experienced investigative reporter, he tracked down and interviewed the original participants in Wakefield’s study. He also compared medical records with what was published in the 1998 study. It turns out that Wakefield wasn’t just misinterpreting data — he was making much of it up.

For a tour de force of reporting, read Deer’s article, published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) and available free online.

In an editorial that accompanies Deer’s report, the BMJ editors call the Wakefield paper for what it is: Fraud. As they write,

“Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.”

The blogosphere has erupted with commentary. The Wall St. Journal blog and WebMD provide good overviews. Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview also weighs in, citing the story as one more reminder of why it’s important that reporters always question medical findings before promoting them at face value. And for a really tart (yet on-target) summary of the whole matter, read this entry by the Respectful Insolence blogger.

So where does this leave us, in terms of understanding autism? Unfortunately, it remains unclear what causes autism, but most risk factors are rooted in heredity rather than the environment. When one identical twin develops autism, then 82% to 92% of the time the other one (who shares the same genes) will also develop the disorder. The concordance rate drops to 10% or less in fraternal twins, who share only some genes.

There is no cure for autism, but early interventions — mainly educational and psychosocial — take advantage of the developing brain’s ability to change in response to experience. As such, early interventions may help improve a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

For more information about what really may underlie autism and how to help a child with this disorder:

Autism Society of America

Autism Speaks

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network


  1. Kimberly

    I’m sorry but, where are your sources? I don’t believe saying “This is a GOOD article, with THOROUGH investigation. It debunks ONE MAN’S article who made stuff up [like we’re doing now]. Thus, there MUST be no link betwixt the two” proves anything whatsoever. It’s more and more of the same statement. ONE study was retracted, among thousands. There’s a reason why this idea has remained afloat.

    Let me guess, your paycheck comes from a big pharma, right? Or your vacation packages among other expensive gifts?

  2. Kathy Silverstein

    I think far too much attention and energy is being paid to debunking this Wakefield study. It is not as if this study wa the only evidence ever that vaccines cause autism. You can debunk it all you want, but you are still never going to “put to bed” the debate over whether or not vaccines cause autism.

    Scientific evidence or not, I have heard of too much ancedotal evidence to dismiss the vaccine theory. So many thousands of stories of kids who started to regress right after their shots, or who get very sick after their shots and then started to regress. Too many to ignore. It is possible that some people are genetically susceptible to the levels of vaccines we are giving them, and some are not. It does not mean all vaccines are bad. It just means for some people, they are.

    Meanwhile, I hope that people can see that saying some vaccines are dangerous to some people does not mean we have to say all vaccines are dangerous to all people.

  3. Autism Awareness

    While this debate will go on forever whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, in the mean time we can help children with autism to progress and can even recover by employing strategies such as early intervention,providing extensive therapies such as ABA, biomedical, RDI and several other treatments.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  4. Craig Kendall

    I have to believe that heredity and some environmental factors come into play. But I am glad that, at least, poor parents are not pulling their hair out and punishing themselves for giving their children vaccinations when they were small. It is bad enough having a child with autism but feeling like you were the cause of it because you vaccinated your child makes it almost too much to bear. There is a great article that speaks to the sadness that parents have about this whole issue of vaccines, Conquer any Feelings of Guilt You May Have. I only hope we can put this behind us once and for all.

  5. Susi Irawati

    Between boy and girl, why is autism happen mostly in boys? Thanks You

  6. Eric Rowland

    So, what would you say is the cause of autism? Certainly, not heredity, as I never knew of anyone suffering from it prior to the sixties (I am 76 years old and was raised in a big city). Surely, if it tended to be hereditary I would have encountered sufferers somewhere along the line?
    The fact that vaccines can contain mercury and aluminium (Thimerosal) might not have anything to do with it, I suppose?

    • Ann MacDonald
      Ann MacDonald

      Dear Mr. Rowland,

      Thanks for writing. The short answer is: we don’t know what the cause of autism spectrum disorders. Genetic changes — sometimes very subtle but cumulative in their damage — account for more than 90% of the risk, according to studies in twins.

      I hope we find out what the cause is, and more important, a way to treat these often devastating conditions.

  7. Adrian Meli

    Very glad Harvard put this out as I am not sure how many people realize the original autism study was so small. The idea that vaccines could cause autism has traveled very far and wide. I had no idea, however, that the original study had fabrications in it. Great post Anne. – Adrian Meli

    [edited by a moderator]

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