SCIENCE

Vaccines & Autism: Controversy Persists, But Why?

The vaccine-autism controversy has been brewing ever since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous 1998 paper in The Lancet. Fourteen years later, the study has been retracted and scientists have had no luck finding a legitimate link between childhood vaccinations and autism. Yet, the debate rages on.

Why does over 20 percent of the population still think that vaccines cause autism? And what happens when parents act on their fears, refusing to inoculate their own children against dangerous diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella?

To learn more, I spoke with Seth Mnookin, lecturer in MIT's graduate program in science writing and author of "The Panic Virus" To hear what he had to say, watch the video above and/or click the link below. And don't forget to weigh in by leaving your comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me.

JENNY MCCARTHY: Evan was diagnosed with autism in 2005. Without a doubt in my mind, I believe vaccinations triggered Evan's autism.

SETH MNOOKIN: Vaccines do not cause autism.

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone, Cara Santa Maria here. And that's Seth Mnookin. He's a lecturer in MIT's graduate program in science writing and the author of "The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy." I asked Seth to chat with me about why this is still a controversial subject, even though there's not a shred of legitimate evidence linking vaccines with autism. First, we talked about Andrew Wakefield, author of the infamous 1998 paper published in The Lancet, which described 12 children who showed symptoms of autism sometime after receiving a vaccine to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella infection.

SM: It was an atrocious paper, it was called, almost the minute it was published, the worst paper The Lancet has ever published. And we've since learned a lot of things that were wrong that we didn’t even know at the time in 1998, like the fact that Wakefield was receiving research money from a law firm that was working with parents who were interested in suing vaccine manufacturers, like the fact that Wakefield had taken out a patent for an alternative measles vaccine several months before the paper was published. But what I think is kind of interesting is, forget all of that, it’s insane to make population-wide conclusions on a 12-person case series. And you know sometimes if I’m talking to a group of people and this comes up, I’ll count off 12 people and say, ‘and based on that case series I’m going to go ahead and conclude that population is 90 percent female or everyone is over the age of 50,’ or whatever.

CSM: The media played a large role in spreading misinformation about vaccines and autism following the publication of Wakefield's study. Although The Lancet officially retracted the paper in 2010, the controversy still persists to this day. In fact, just last year, 21.4 percent of respondents in the Thomson-Reuters NPR Health Poll said they believe that vaccines can cause autism. It doesn't help that well-known figures like Jenny McCarthy continue to spread anti-vaccine rhetoric. There's even a website called JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com. It claims that even though she's not directly responsible for the thousands of preventable illnesses and hundreds of preventable deaths since 2007, if her campaign against vaccination caused even one preventable death, that's one too many.

SM: Once you introduce misinformation into a society, it then lives on its own. And, it’s, as we’ve seen with vaccines, it’s impossible to unscare someone. Once an idea is planted in your mind, especially about your children, you can’t just then sort of wipe the board clean, ‘oh it turns out that actually ignore everything we were saying.’

CSM: But we have to learn to wipe the board clean, because there's no scientific evidence linking vaccines with autism. None. If I left dinner last night and it started to rain, would I avoid that restaurant in the future, fearing that every time I ate there, it would influence the weather? Of course not! Autism symptoms commonly appear in children soon after they're old enough to get vaccinated. This doesn't mean they're connected. And those who refuse to see this may be less likely to vaccinate their own children, putting them at risk of infection. And if their kids don't get sick, sometimes they see this as proof positive that vaccines aren't necessary. But what they don't know is that the reason their kids aren't getting sick is because all the kids around them are vaccinated. It's called herd immunity, but it's only so effective.

SM: I compared it once to like a herd of buffalo, kind of encircling their weakest members to ensure that they don’t get picked off by predators. So when you have enough members of a population protected or who have immunity against a given disease, that disease can’t get a toehold in the community. So you know take measles, which has a 90 percent infection rate, and if you were in a community where there was 95 percent immunity and then you had a traveler from Africa or Europe come over infected with measles, there would be a good chance that you could contain that because it’s going to be hard for measles to spread from person to person because there just aren’t those vectors.

JM: Take a look around. I believe science was wrong yet again. [cheering]

CSM: Do you know someone who still sees a link between vaccines and autism, even though no link exists? Reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, Talk Nerdy To Me!

See all Talk Nerdy to Me posts.
Like Cara Santa Maria on Facebook.
Follow Cara Santa Maria on Twitter.

CONVERSATIONS