Controversy Over Vaccinations and Autism

By: Debby Hoffer

Vaccinations and autism, is there a link? This puzzling question has caused much controversy within the medical community. Parents of autistic children have also been asking questions, prompting medical research to try and determine if vaccines are either safe or dangerous. This interesting history demonstrates the dedication of both parents and doctors all over the world who are concerned about the well-being of every child.

What is Thimerosal?

Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used widely in vaccines from 1930 to 1999 to prevent bacterial growth. In the beginning, thimerosal was not much of a concern as the level of mercury per vaccination was considered harmless. As the vaccine regimen changed and increased from one vaccination in the 1940’s to seventeen vaccinations given between birth and age five, thimerosal, became a genuine concern. Committees of the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency conducted studies with the possibility in mind that the increase in required vaccinations actually led to higher mercury levels which surpassed the EPA’s federal safety guidelines regarding safe mercury levels. Although no definite medical link was made to autism and the preservative thimerosal, in July 1999, the FDA recommended that manufacturers remove it from all vaccinations. This startling recommendation was the starting point of many conflicting medical studies.

Conflicting Medical Reports Fuel the Controversy

Conflicting medical reports have fueled the controversy. The Center for Disease Control, which regulates childhood vaccinations, led a study that was published in the November 2003 issue of the American Journal of Pediatrics. This study concluded there were “ no consistent significant associations between thimerosal containing vaccines (TCVs) and neurodevelopment outcomes.”

However, some doctors disagree and have studied vaccination trails only to see more prevalent autism rates where child vaccinations containing thimerosal have been distributed. In a letter to the editor in the March 2004 issue of the American Journal of Pediatrics, Mark R. Geier and David A. Geier point out three specific studies that correlate a link between the vaccine preservative thimerosal and autism. They state that “Evaluation of children with autistic spectrum disorders in comparison to normal matched control children has shown that autistic children retain abnormally high concentrations of mercury from such sources as thimerosal-containing childhood vaccines.” They go on to explain that children who develop autism have a genetic make-up that “causes them to have a decreased ability to excrete mercury.” This build up of mercury in the brain can lead to problems in the functioning and development of the brain. The authors go on to point out that “Thimerosal has been shown and conceded by authors from the Food and Drug Administration to cross the blood brain barrier and placental barrier resulting in considerable concentrations of mercury in the brain.” Their conclusions are discussed and questioned in a response by Paul Offit and Rita Jew. A link to the original article and these letters is given below.

Another study regarding the safety of the MMR shot conducted by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in The Lancet Medical Journal in 1998. Dr. Wakefield’s research led many people to believe that there may be a connection between autism, bowel disease and the MMR shot. On July 17, 2007, the Associated Press released a story regarding Dr. Wakefield and the fact that his study has been discredited. Dr. Wakefield is also facing misconduct allegations regarding questionable research methods. In a statement by Dr. Philip Minor, head of virology at Britain’s National Institutes of Biological Standards and Control, the MMR shot was referred to as “One of the safest, best-studied vaccines.” The London Daily Herald, through the Associated Press, also reported that “Doctors warn that the MMR controversy has led many parents to the underestimate the dangers of the diseases” that the MMR shot prevents. The majority of the medical community stands behind the fact that it is extremely important that each child be fully immunized against disease.

The Cause of Autism, Still a Mystery

One reason that the cause of autism is still a mystery to the medical community is that its onset often occurs in the very early years of life. During this critical time, there are many environmental and developmental factors that come into play. Autism is also a condition that affects the chemicals of the brain and the brain’s ability to transmit instructions to the body. Although research advances have been made, doctors are still undecided on what factors actually cause the onset of autism. There is no medically recognized proof that vaccines are directly related to the condition of autism.

Consult With a Pediatrician

Before your child receives a vaccination it is important to consult with a pediatrician regarding any concerns you may have. The general medical community has concluded that not having vaccinations and risking disease is very dangerous to a child’s well-being. Childhood vaccinations prevent diseases which can be very traumatic and cause disability, developmental delay, and even death.

Keep Vaccination Records and Diary

Every child should be immunized and many immunizations are required by law before a child can enter pre-school or day care. It is important for each parent to keep a record of their child’s vaccinations. Most states provide a vaccination record that you should take to each doctor’s visit during both baby and toddler years. It is also wise to keep a diary of your child’s developmental milestones. Should you notice any significant delays or changes in your child’s progression, be sure to consult your pediatrician as soon as possible.

In any case, be reassured that vaccinations are safe and necessary for a child’s well-being. After a vaccination, a child may experience mild pain and swelling at the injection site. Tylenol or ibuprophen can relieve this mild discomfort. Be sure to follow proper dosing instructions and consult your doctor if any more serious reactions occur. Cuddling your child after a vaccination is also important to communicate love and security. Through your touch, a child can begin to recognize that you, the parent, have they’re best interest at heart.

A brief summary regarding the history of childhood vaccinations and the FDA and CDC research and conclusions on childhood vaccinations

American Journal of Pediatrics / article and letters to the editor on the studies about childhood vaccinations and autism.

Information regarding state policies on childhood vaccinations .