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Measles vaccine falsely accused

Arthur Caplan Special to Newsday

Every few months I get a call from a very distraught parent. They want to know whether they should have their child immunized against measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR.

They have heard or read on the Web that there is a link between the MMR shot and autism, a terrible brain disorder that, in its most severe form, makes it next to impossible to communicate with your child.

I am not a pediatrician, or even a practicing physician, so I tell these parents to talk to their doctors. But, I must confess that I do tell them that I had my son vaccinated and would not hesitate to do so again.

The parents are right to be concerned about autism. The condition is on the rise in the United States. In the past 10 years the rate of kids diagnosed with autism has gone up about 15 percent every year — an almost unheard-of brain disease epidemic.

But parents panicked about autism are wrong to be concerned about the MMR vaccine as the cause of this terrible explosion. Whatever is causing the surge in autism, getting vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) is not it.

Why would anyone blame the vaccination for the autism epidemic? The answer is that in 1998 a study appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet that found that in 12 children with autism, eight of them seemed to have shown signs of the disease after getting an MMR shot.

That report set off a scare that led to many parents in Britain and the United States deciding not to get their infants vaccinated.

This balking at the MMR vaccine was followed by a massive measles outbreak. Prime Minister Tony Blair urged parents to keep vaccinating their kids, but — citing family privacy — strangely refused to say if his own son had gotten the shot. He had to be shamed by the British tabloid media into admitting in 2001 that the child had been vaccinated.

What is certain is that the fear the 1998 research paper inspired led to outbreaks of mumps and whooping cough, as well as measles, in Britain and the United States that could have been prevented by vaccination.

This past March, 10 of the 13 authors of The Lancet report retracted what they wrote six years ago. The 10 said that the data in their original paper did not support the conclusion that the vaccine was to blame for autism.

Getting the retraction was not easy. It took a chorus of other studies arguing that the link was not there. These included a 2002 comprehensive British study and a thorough report shortly thereafter by the U.S. National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine to get the authors to admit that their paper was fundamentally wrong.

So, given all the harm and worry that the original paper spawned, why did it make it into print in the first place? Well, partly because, even though it only involved a handful of kids, it seemed to find an association that might be important, and the media took this little study and turned it into many a headline.

And, perhaps in part, the authors were led to see more than the data implied because the main author was getting money from lawyers in Britain to see whether there was any basis for lawsuits by parents of kids with autism against vaccine manufacturers — money that he did not disclose to the editors of The Lancet.

The moral of this story is very clear. Everyone, the media, primary-care physicians, medical journal editors and parents need to be very careful about how early reports about medical risk are handled.

It should take more than one small study to get us to stop drinking coffee, holding a cell phone to our heads, eating french fries or avoid getting our kids effective vaccinations.

It is hard to prove what really works in medicine. It should not be easy to throw those things that really do work, like MMR vaccination, away.

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