April 1st, 2010

Ruling that MMR vaccines don’t cause autism cements research

A March 12 ruling by special masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims favored the many controlled studies around the world finding no casual relationship between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination (MMR) and the autism found in one out of 110 children in the United States. It’s expected that the ruling will further incite parents of the diagnosed to fight harder, that the shot caused their children’s illness.

“The frustration on the part of all families who continue to seek answers is very real and for the families who continue to believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism, this ruling will cause additional frustration” says Susan M. Wilczynski, Ph.D., BCBA, senior vice president of autism services for the May Institute and executive director of the National Autism Center. Wilczynski is also a licensed psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst. “It also underscores the critical need for more rigorous research to identify the cause of autism.”

The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) – casually known as “vaccine court” – was created under Rep. Richard Burton’s (R-IN) 1986 National Vaccine Injury Act. Begun in 1988 and amended in 2005, VICP gives voice to parents who believe their children’s autism is connected with vaccines.

Most recently, three families filed cases that were among some 5,000 claiming that the MMR vaccine – which contains a preservative called thimerosal that contains mercury – caused their children’s disorder. A ruling by VICP was made Feb. 11 in favor of research; a second ruling came in March supported the same.

According to Wilczynski, there are a few reasons for autism vaccine causation theories. In 1998, British researcher and surgeon Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet suggesting a possible relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. In February 2010, The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s article, citing dishonesty and the violation of basic research ethics rules, but it took more than a decade for his work to be discredited, during which time many families believed in the study’s validity.

Additionally, children on the spectrum aren’t routinely diagnosed until after they are 18-24 months old, when autism symptoms are more obvious. “This is also the age at which children receive the MMR vaccine,” says Wilczynski. “Because these two events often occur around the same time in a child’s life, some families assume that the vaccine causes autism instead of recognizing the two events are merely correlated.”

But the saving grace for parents with autistic children may lie in giving up the proverbial ghost. If money and resources stop funneling into re-proving what researchers have already found, more can go toward better programs to help the diagnosed or help find the true cause of the disorder.

“There are many families and stakeholders, who have long held that there is no casual relationship between autism and vaccines,” says Wilczynski, who notes that some facts are widely known such as the autism incidence rate continues to dramatically rise; that effective evidence-based treatments are in fact available; and that early intervention can lead to a child’s long-term success and improvements in everyday life.

“For them, this ruling will help shift the focus to other critical areas of need, including the availability of effective services for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” says Wilczynski. “To meet this need, more research must be conducted to identify both the most appropriate treatments and the best strategies for training professionals to deliver those treatments with the technical precision required.” That, says Wilczynski, will help individuals to reach their full potential.

According to a policy brief issued by Autism Speaks, an evidence-based advocacy group dedicated to facilitating global research into causes, treatment and an eventual cure for autism, the proven benefits of vaccinating a child to protect them against serious diseases outweighs the hypothesized risk that vaccinations might cause autism. But the organization’s position reminds that a “lack of a relationship between vaccines and autism in large population studies does not mean that there cannot be any relationship in some individual instances.”

“It remains scientifically plausible that the challenge to the immune system resulting from a vaccine (or other immunological challenges) could, in susceptible individuals, have adverse consequences for the developing brain,” notes Geri Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer of Autism Speaks, on the site. “Recent studies point to a role of immune abnormalities in the biology of autism, raising questions about the effects of the immune challenges, including those associated with vaccinations. Autism Speaks is funding research that is focused on these questions.”

By Jennifer E Chase

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