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Autism and the MMR Vaccine

Gregory Lawton, MD, Pediatrician
The Chester County Hospital

Published: April 14, 2008

The parents of the 12-month-old boy in my office look anxiously at one another. The father says, "We are concerned about autism and don't want to get the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine."

Such statements were once heard infrequently in my pediatric practice. Now I hear it several times a month. The sad fact is that the cause of autism - a developmental decline in social and communication skills first noted during the second and third years and persisting for life - continues to elude medical science. The frustration experienced by physicians and autism researchers is dwarfed in every way by the daily experiences of parents of children with autism.

The history of the autism/MMR controversy stems from a 1998 British study involving 12 patients and purporting causation between MMR and autism. In response, a group of Danish researchers in 1999 evaluated 537,303 children after their parents elected to vaccinate or not vaccinate with the MMR. The results demonstrated that the risk of autism occurring in the MMR vaccinated group was no different from the unvaccinated group.

When I tell parents about this study, they often pause. After all, the results of nearly any study or survey that involves enough people to fill Citizen's Bank Park twelve times certainly trumps a study with barely enough people to fill a single row. Many parents will reference a conversation with a friend, a website, or a segment on a talk show that spoke of a link between autism and MMR. In the absence of a certain cause, the scapegoat of the MMR vaccine has filled the void.

I can't argue with the pain and frustration of caring for a child with autism. I can only empathize and work to secure services that will improve the outcome. However, empathizing with their situation is not the same as accepting their explanation for their situation. It is akin to jailing the wrong individual - an innocent inmate is no longer a contributing member to society while the real criminal remains on the loose.

Before the MMR vaccine, rubella affected approximately 20,000 children in the United States. The disease, still common in other areas of the world, causes blindness, deafness, heart defects or mental retardation. In 2005, only 11 US cases of rubella were reported. Measles killed 450 children in the US each year before the vaccine was distributed. Today, most outbreaks occur in groups that have elected not to vaccinate their children. San Diego saw such an outbreak in February, when 12 children fell ill; none had received the MMR vaccine.

"What did you do with your kids?" the parents ask, after we have discussed the facts, studies and fears. I tell them that my children have received the recommended vaccines. I say it without airs or arrogance. I care for children, and I want them to be healthy - and that goes for those I see at work, as well at home.

This article was published as part of the Daily Local News Medical Column series which appears every Monday. It has been reprinted by permission of the Daily Local News.

Last Updated: 7/27/2009