Vaccine Linked to Autism?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Link dismissed between MMR vaccine and autism.

WebMD Feature Eric Gallup was a normally developing 15-month-old toddler living in Parsippany, New Jersey, when his parents took him for his first measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination in 1986. Shortly after he was vaccinated, they noticed changes in his behavior and ability to communicate. In 1989 he was diagnosed with autism.

Unlike the vast majority of MMR-vaccinated children, Eric had a serious reaction to the vaccine, his parents say. The Gallups are not alone in their belief that the MMR vaccine led to their child's autism. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, parents are pushing for research into a possible link between autism and childhood vaccination.

Autism, a developmental disability, is characterized by problems in social interaction and communication and by the need for sameness or repetition in behavior. It is usually identified in toddlers and is diagnosed more frequently in boys than in girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The cause of autism remains a mystery, with most scientists believing that it may be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Barbara Loe Fisher, the parent of an autistic child and co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, believes that some cases of what she terms the "regressive" form of autism may be linked to the MMR vaccine. She says regressive autism is characterized by a sudden developmental downturn in a child who had previously been developing normally. The National Vaccine Information Center is a nonprofit educational organization in Vienna, Virginia, established by parents whose children were injured or died following vaccination.

Fisher's belief is based on the research of Paul Shattock, OBE, a biochemist-pharmacist who is founder of the Autism Research Unit at the University of Sunderland, England, and is also a parent of an autistic child. It is also based on the research of a few other scientists who believe there may be a correlation between autism and MMR vaccination.

What Does the Medical Establishment Believe?

The CDC, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Working Party on MMR Vaccine of the United Kingdom's Committee on the Safety of Medicines have dismissed any correlation of MMR vaccination to autism as baseless. However, the CDC is currently conducting a study in metropolitan Atlanta to evaluate any possible association between the vaccination and autism. Results are expected some time this year.

Parents Point to Research

Many parents, such as Fisher and Shattock, who maintain that they witnessed sudden, unmistakable physical and emotional deterioration in their children following MMR vaccination, point to a small body of research showing certain immunological and neurological irregularities in many autistic children that may be linked to MMR.

A number of studies published in the past few years point to a connection between autoimmune reactions and autism. In one study, published in the February 1998 issue of the Lancet, Andrew Wakefield, FRCS, of Royal Free Hospital in London, and colleagues found evidence of a possible connection between autism and the measles virus found in the bowels of autistic children.

Wakefield and Shattock hypothesize that the combination of the three live viruses in the MMR could overload the immature immune systems of some toddlers who have some unknown genetic or immunological predisposition to this, leading to neurological and gastrointestinal problems.

The Danger in Not Vaccinating

A team of researchers at Children's Hospital of Newark, New Jersey, has consistently found high levels of immunological irregularities in autistic patients, some of whom have responded well to intensive treatment with immune globulin, a preparation made from the blood plasma of human donors. This information was presented at a National Institutes of Health meeting on autism in September 1997.

However, Tina Zecca, M.D., and Donatella Graffino, M.D., who were a part of this team, say that even given this research, they would still vaccinate their children because they believe the benefits of the MMR vaccination outweigh any potential risks. "These childhood diseases are serious, with potentially grave neurological complications, including encephalitis," says Zecca.

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain that can lead to death. According to the CDC, measles can lead to seizures, brain damage, and death; mumps can cause hearing loss and meningitis (infection of the brain and spinal cord coverings); and rubella can cause birth defects and cause pregnant women to lose their babies.

"The jury is still out," says Fisher. "Until more evidence is gathered, we won't know whether or not a connection exists." Until more is understood about possible risk factors for adverse reactions to the MMR vaccine, Fisher urges parents to first give their child's physician a full family history, including information about any neurological or autoimmune diseases, such as thyroid disease, arthritis, or diabetes.

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