In the midst of a nationwide measles outbreak tied to unvaccinated children and adults in California, the nation’s leading autism advocacy group has changed its position and now clearly states there is no link between vaccinations and autism.
“Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism,” said Rob Ring, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, in a statement posted last week on the group’s website. “The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.”
“Vaccines do not cause autism,” said Rob Ring, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, the nation’s leading autism advocacy group.
“We urge that all children be fully vaccinated,” Ring said.
The new language replaces a 2013 Autism Speaks statement that strongly encouraged parents to vaccinate their children but did not rule out an autism link. The previous statement said, in part, “it remains possible that, in rare cases, immunization may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition,” according to the publication Disability Scoop.
The change comes as public health departments across the country urge parents to vaccinate their children as measles, a highly contagious disease, continues to spread. Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but has emerged in outbreaks in more than a dozen states this year because of large numbers of unvaccinated children, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The shift brings Autism Speaks in line with decades of scientific research that have found no link between autistic symptoms, which often appear in children at age 2 or 3, and immunizations.
But the belief that there is a link has proven remarkably persistent among some parents, no matter how often it is discredited, research has found, and is cited by some as a reason why they refuse to vaccinate their children against serious and potentially fatal diseases, including measles. Statewide, nearly 17,000 kindergartners held a “personal belief exemption” that enabled them to attend school without the full regimen of vaccinations required by state law for public health.
Cindy Wilson, director of public health nursing at the Nevada County Health Department, interviewed six families in the county in 2013 about why they refused to have their children vaccinated. The county currently has the highest percentage rate of personal belief exemptions to vaccinations – 21 percent – in the state. Wilson said few families would speak to her about their reasons, but of those who did, “several of them said it – autism,” she said.
“They all seemed to have seen that the research was retracted, but they were just still not sure,” Wilson said. “They said, ‘I would be rather be safe than sorry.'”
The alleged link between vaccinations and the onset of autism took hold when the respected medical journal The Lancet published a case study, later found to be fraudulent, claiming that 12 children in England developed autism-like symptoms shortly after receiving the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.
In the wake of panic among some parents, new research studies set out to investigate the claims made by the author, Andrew Wakefield, and found no evidence for his findings. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the article, following a ruling by a British medical tribunal that Wakefield had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his research. A few months later, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license.
In 2011, the British Medical Journal went further by publishing reports by journalist Brian Deer that found Wakefield had altered the medical histories of all 12 children in the case studies to create the impression that their autism or autistic-like symptoms were caused by the vaccine. Additionally, Wakefield had been paid to create false results to benefit a lawsuit against a vaccine manufacturer, Deer’s reporting said.
Wakefield had orchestrated an “elaborate fraud,” the British Medical Journal wrote.
Some, including the Wall Street Journal, expressed hope that the British Medical Journal’s reporting would put an end to “one of the more damaging medical scares in history,” what the Journal called “the vaccines-cause-autism panic.” And the Journal chastised The Lancet for taking 12 years to retract the original article, a slowdown that had harmed the public’s faith in immunization.
But those news reports didn’t seem to have an impact on the increasing numbers of parents in California and elsewhere who refused to fully immunize their children.
In some California schools, the percentage of kindergartners who were not vaccinated against the measles in 2013-14 was below vaccination rates in the developing world. In Sudan, for instance, 85 percent of 1-year-olds were vaccinated against the measles in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. That year, 54 percent of kindergartners were immunized against measles at Bolinas-Stinson Elementary in Marin County, 70 percent at Bell Hill Academy in Grass Valley and 63 percent at Canyon Elementary in Los Angeles County.
But for the first time, the percentage of kindergartners in the state with personal belief exemptions to vaccinations dropped in 2014, with 2.5 percent of kindergartners with those exemptions, according to the California Department of Public Health. The percentage rate had been rising steadily for years, from 0.6 percent in 1994 to 3.1 percent in 2013.
The drop in 2014 occurred after a new law was enacted requiring families to meet with a health care professional before obtaining a personal belief exemption. And last week, two California lawmakers said they plan to introduce a bill to eliminate the personal belief exemption. The bill would require parents to vaccinate their children before entering school unless a child’s health is in danger.
As of Feb. 9, the number of confirmed cases of measles in California was 107, with the majority of cases tied to a December visit of a measles-infected person to two Disney theme parks in Anaheim.