What can Asthma & Autism tell us about Science and the Media?

Do Vaccinations Cause Autism?

This is a hotly debated question. I can’t tell you which side of this argument is right or wrong. However, this debate provides a clear demonstration showing how easily societal beliefs can be shaped by powerful special interests and a sensationalizing media.

Perhaps the most recognized link between vaccinations and autism was developed in a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield published in 1998. The results received widespread media coverage warning of a new scientifically proven danger to our health. Environmental organizations added to public fear with warnings that many vaccinations have a preservative using trace amounts of mercury.

Due in no small part to the media coverage generated by the Wakefield study, many parents around the globe stopped vaccinating their children against easily preventable, deadly diseases. Who could blame them?

Twelve years after the sensationalized warnings first appeared, medical journals around the globe apologized for publishing the Wakefield study calling it “the most appalling catalog and litany of some of the most terrible behavior in any research…” It turns out Dr. Wakefield’s study involved only 12 children and 5 of those children had been previously diagnosed with behavioral problems. Timelines in the study were also manipulated to show a cause-and-effect relationship. What is even more troubling—two years prior to his study, Dr. Wakefield joined the payroll of a law firm hoping to sue the vaccine industry. One year prior to releasing the study, Dr. Wakefield filed a patent for a new vaccine to replace the old vaccine.

By all appearances, the Wakefield study was a horrific fraud, but the damage was done. The results have been tragic. Measles outbreaks are reoccurring with a vengeance. Every year 242,000 children die from this easily preventable disease. From 2005 to 2010 in New York and Connecticut, the number of unvaccinated children doubled. During the same time period, the number of unprotected children in New Jersey increased seven fold. In California, whooping cough has returned to levels not seen since 1958. In July 2013 and again in early 2015, major newspapers carried front-page articles regarding deadly measles outbreaks.

Our reaction environmental warnings based on “independent” medical research often does far more harm than good.