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
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network