Oct 23 2007

Vaccines and Autism

The latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer features a cover article on vaccines and autism by yours truly. I have written quite a bit about this issue over the last year on this blog, and the article is a good compilation of everything I have written, and brings the reader up to date on this issue.

But of course the world of print media grinds much more slowly that the blogosphere. I wrote the article about three months ago and already there have been developments in the vaccines and autism story. As I wrote about in September, a large study conducted by the CDC was published and showed that use of thimerosal does not correlate with any adverse neurological outcome. The study did not look at autism specifically, but at a long list of neurological symptoms. A similar study looking at thimerosal and autism is under way and should be published next year. The mercury militia, true to form, completely misrepresented this negative study, claiming against the evidence that it showed a correlation.

Also since writing the article Jenny McCarthy has been making the rounds promoting her new book in which she claims that her mommy instinct trumps scientific evidence. She has a son with autism and has embraced the woo without reservation. Orac has done a find job, as usual, of exposing her nonsense, and the folly of Oprah and others who uncritically promote her. McCarthy is very confused on this issue, and the nature of science and evidence in general, but she has celebrity and she is using her celebrity to spread fear mongering and misinformation. Unfortunately it is a familiar formula: ignorance + celebrity = harm.

Another development is the increasing use of the religious exemption by parents to avoid giving their children vaccines, even though their decisions are not based upon faith but rather upon false fears about vaccines. Parents who have bought the mercury militia and Jenny McCarthy pseudoscience are exploiting the laws in some states regarding religious exemptions, essentially lying about their faith, in order to subvert mandatory vaccinations. In so doing they are not only putting their own children at risk but others as well. Vaccine efficacy is partly dependent upon herd immunity – that there are not enough susceptible hosts for a germ to spread. If enough people forgo the vaccine, infectious diseases can spread, including to those with weak immune systems or those for whom the vaccine was not adequate to provide protection.

In the article I wrote about the Autism Omnibus – the federal court that is hearing the first 9 test cases of claims that vaccines caused autism. There is no decision yet from the three special masters, judges appointed to hear the cases. We should hear something by early next year, however.

The story of false fears about the safety of vaccines is far from over. There is a dedicated and vocal group of anti-vaccination ideologues that are working to undermine the vaccine program. They are immune to reason and evidence. Theirs is an ideological crusade. Science bloggers, however, are on the case. We are the self-appointed watchdogs on pseudoscientific malfeasance. So stay tuned as we expose the nonsense as it occurs.

Meanwhile, pick up the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. You can find it in most bookstores, or off the SI website. Despite the proliferation of skeptical writing (an outstanding development I have been happy to both watch and participate in) SI remains must reading for any self-respecting skeptic.

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