The publication of Andrew Wakefield’s now debunked research that linked vaccinations as a cause for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 1998 brought with it a flurry of questions and inquiries into the safety of vaccines. Since then those questions have been answered. There is no link between vaccines and ASD. However people continue to believe in this debunked causation theory while ignoring more recent research that shows other environmental factors to be much more suspect.
Countless advocacy groups and research institution have studied any correlation between vaccines and autism, and the results disprove causation. Despite lack of scientific data, parental fears regarding the discredited claims have caused more parents to opt their children out of recommended vaccination schedules. The resulting increase in the number of unvaccinated individuals has come to pose a significant threat to public health. In the past several years Minnesota has seen several outbreaks of diseases that were preventable via vaccinations, including Rochester’s pertussis outbreak in 2015 and the measles outbreak cases in St. Paul and St. Cloud in 2017.
Media coverage often false or misleading
False and misleading media coverage regarding vaccine safety adds to the problem. For several years news coverage on the topic has included politicians, celebrities, radio broadcasters, television talk shows, movies, bloggers, and even some medical professionals who have all contributed to the narrative. Much of the claims made are not founded on scientific evidence, nor the result of research by families and caregivers, largely because some long-term definitive research only became available recently.
One of the significant misconceptions is that toxic levels of mercury are present in the measles, mumps & rubella (MMR) vaccine. Mercury is found naturally in the environment in two forms, and it is often emitted by burning coal, via mining processes, and in discarded waste such as old light bulbs, batteries, and thermometers. Every hour 11 pounds of mercury is released into the environment. Bacteria breaks it down into toxic methyl mercury, where it seeps into the ground and into water supplies and is absorbed by plant life and ingested by animals, which in turns finds its way into human food sources. Methyl mercury is highly toxic and takes the human body a long time to break down and flush from our blood streams.
The second type of mercury is ethyl mercury, which is less toxic and produced in labs as an ingredient for thimerosal, a preservative that was originally used in trace amounts in vaccines. It was removed from all vaccines given to children age six by 2007. Despite the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines and the EPA’s stricter regulations in regard to environmental mercury contamination sources, the number of children diagnosed with ASD annually continues to skyrocket. Currently 1 out of every 42 children in Minnesota is diagnosed within the spectrum. Yet the public continues to be outraged and terrified by nonexistent mercury in childhood vaccines, which distracts from other suspected risk factors to which recent research points.
A wealth of new data
This past year a wealth of new scientific findings emerged regarding environmental factors and their correlation to ASD. Unfortunately, even though these findings could lead to legitimate therapeutic methods or even potential preventive measures, they have received very little media attention. This is perhaps because the phrase “environmental factor” is often misconstrued to focus solely on ecology or wildlife biology. This is inaccurate. Anything that produces a biological or behavioral response that is non-genetic is considered an environmental factor. This includes dietary habits and olfactory senses.
Another misunderstanding is the difference between a “cause” and a “risk factor.” A cause is something that directly leads to a disease or condition, while a risk factor merely increases the odds of contracting it. There is currently no known cause for autism spectrum disorder. However, recent research indicates that it is probably a combination of genetics and environmental factors that contribute to an ASD diagnosis. Recent research points to factors such as pregnancy complications, maternal obesity, severe viral infections and the ages of the parents as likely risk factors. A thorough analysis of these studies can be found in the 2016 Annual Review of Public Health.
It is unfortunate and increasingly dangerous that although serious researchers have moved beyond a refuted vaccine theory to focus on more promising avenues of ASD research, many in the media and non-medical community remain fixated on it. With every penny and empty rhetorical phrase spent on dead ends and wild goose chases we are losing ground and failing families who deserve real and helpful answers. It’s time to refocus on true answers for the autism community.
Noah McCourt is executive director of the Minnesota Disability Justice Network. He is the former policy director of the Minnesota Autism Council. He was appointed to the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities by Gov. Mark Dayton and served until 2019.
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