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I was on Facebook earlier this week and came across a posting from a cousin of mine. She had just given birth to an adorable baby boy and was posting about the recent anti-vaccination comments from businesses man and former crank presidential candidate Donald Trump, and wanted thoughts from other parents on it. Trump’s comments happened to coincide with Autism Awareness Day, of course making his rant all the more inflammatory. He trotted out all the tired anti-vaccine rants, rehashing old arguments that have been debunked by science.

Because I was concerned that my new baby cousin would have to face the consequences of such irresponsible (and morally reprehensible) nonsense, I wrote a short letter to the mother in hopes of putting her fears to rest. I can include all of the relevant evidence here, whereas I could not on Facebook, and hopefully some of you could use this (or something similar) to handle anti-vaccine encounters. Feel free to send this letter in part or in full to any other parents you know who may be concerned, and If you have any success, or other questions, please send me an email a sciencebasedlife@gmail.com to let me know.

An Open Letter

Hello ________,

I understand that you are troubled about the confusion surrounding vaccines and autism. As I want nothing more than for your child to be safe and for you to know all the relevant science on this issue, I have outlined the case for continued vaccination below. Please let me know if you have any questions or need clarification on any issues.

First and foremost it is important to know that not one single study has ever found the supposed link between vaccines and autism. In fact, over 1000 studies have now concluded the exact opposite.

Second, it is unfortunate for our pattern-seeking minds that the onset of the symptoms of autism coincide with some of the vaccinations children are scheduled to receive. This is merely poor timing. When studies actually examine this similarity in timing between noticing autism symptoms and getting a scheduled vaccine, any supposed link disappears. Parents often give anecdotes about having a child vaccinated and then afterwards seeing symptoms consistent with a neurological disorder. However, since there is no proven link, this is merely a causal linkage that we assume (and a sad coincidence). Regrettably, these unproven anecdotes are powerful enough to sway many people.

Third, the study that touched off this whole notion of vaccines causing autism was paid for by a company that wanted to sell a rival vaccine (a massive conflict of interest), only studied 8 children (not enough children to be able to generalize), used unethical data collection methods (taking blood samples at a child’s birthday party), was retracted from the journal it was published in, resulted in the researcher losing his medical license, and is widely considered one of the most horrendous examples of medical fraud in history.

Fourth, many anti-vaccine advocates believe that the preservatives in vaccines are causing the observed increase in autism diagnoses. The preservative in question (Thimerosal) did in fact contain trace amounts of mercury, but not enough to cause any neurological damage (you eat more mercury in one tuna sandwich). Furthermore, this preservative was removed from all nearly vaccines in 2000 (though it was never proven to be harmful). This is important to note because many anti-vaccine advocates believe that autism rates are increasing because of this preservative. However, because the preservative is no longer in vaccines and autism diagnoses continue to increase, this argument falls flat.

Fifth, many anti-vaccine advocates believe that there is some sort of “autism epidemic.” This is apparently supported by the increased rates of autism from 1 in 110 to 1 in 88 (as reported recently by the CDC). However this increase is largely explained by the new standards for autism diagnoses and screening procedures, as well as increased autism awareness on behalf of parents. Doctors have widened the criteria for what is considered an autism spectrum disorder (a class of disorders ranging from autism to Asperger’s Syndrome), meaning that more children are being diagnosed than in previous years. Parents are now more aware of autistic symptoms in their children thanks to autism awareness campaigns, also increasing diagnoses. Again, because these increases do not line up with the presence of supposedly “toxic” preservatives, this argument linking vaccines and autism too does not hold up.

Finally, other science on the issue is resolved. We do not give children too many vaccines, we do not give them too soon, and there is no evidence that has ever suggested a link between vaccines and autism or any other neurological disorder.

Because of all the fear surrounding vaccines, unsupported anecdotes frighten parents into not vaccinating their children. This has led to breakouts of preventable childhood diseases all over the world, from mumps and measles to whooping cough and polio. Vaccination could not be more important to the health of your child. Getting vaccinated contributes to “herd immunity,” meaning that if enough of the population is vaccinated, a virus will not have enough hosts to infect even those who are not vaccinated. When vaccine rates for a population fall below a certain percentage, these diseases begin to come back (For example, 10 infants in California died in 2010 as a result of whooping cough, a completely preventable disease). Because of the undue concern about vaccines, herd immunity is dropping and these terrible diseases are returning.

In conclusion, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause autism. That idea is the outcropping of causally confused anecdotes and poorly aimed parental fears (however legitimate). In any case I strongly encourage all children to get vaccinated (adults too, to contribute to herd immunity and to prevent spreading disease to unvaccinated adults and children).

There is a reason why a majority of our children live past reproductive age, and it has quite a bit to do with vaccines.


Additional Resources

Informational Resources on Vaccines and Autism

Busting 9 Vaccination Myths with Science!

New Report Finds Little Evidence for Any Adverse Effects from Vaccines

Also, in case you are wondering, my cousin has decided to vaccinate her child. Science win!