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New Study Finds No Link Between Autism And Childhood Vaccination

vaccination

A new study published today by the Journal Of The American Medical Association would seem to debunk once and for all the allegations made popular in the first decade of the 21st Century regarding a link between autism and childhood vaccines:

On the heels of a measles outbreak in California fueled by vaccination fears that scientists call unfounded, another large study has shown no link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

The study examined insurance claims for 96,000 U.S. children born between 2001 and 2007, and found that those who received MMR vaccine didn’t develop autism at a higher rate than unvaccinated children, according to results published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. Even children who had older siblings with autism—a group considered at high risk for the disorder—didn’t have increased odds of developing autism after receiving the vaccine, compared with unvaccinated children with autistic older siblings.

“These findings indicate no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and ASD even among children already at higher risk for ASD,” the researchers wrote, using the acronym for autism spectrum disorders. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services.

A string of large studies have now debunked the theory that MMR might be linked to autism, including a 2004 review of epidemiological studies by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. Yet some parents still decline to immunize their children, a trend that has sparked scattered measles outbreaks across the U.S. and Europe in recent years.

Parents who have one child with autism are particularly reluctant to vaccinate any additional children, Anjali Jain, lead researcher on the new study, said in an interview. So the researchers decided that younger siblings of children with autism would be particularly important to focus on, she said.

“Hopefully this study is reassuring that there isn’t any additional risk from the vaccine” for such children, said Dr. Jain, a pediatrician and vice president at The Lewin Group, a health-care consulting firm in Falls Church, Va., that conducts research for clients including the U.S. government.

The study’s authors analyzed insurance claims from the Optum Research Database, which is run by a unit of insurance giant UnitedHealth Group Inc. They identified 96,000 children in the database with older siblings, and determined how many of those children and older siblings had received autism diagnoses on claims forms. They also used the claim forms to determine whether the children had received MMR vaccine, and compared autism rates in the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups as a whole, and in children with older siblings with and without autism.

Fred Volkmar, an autism expert at the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said the study benefited from a large sample size and “well done analyses.” In an email, he said he hoped the study would “contribute to putting to rest the myth that immunizations cause autism!”

Much of the popular hysteria linking autism and vaccinations, of course, can be linked to a paper that was published in 1998 in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet. That report’s principal author, Andrew Wakefield, claimed to have found a link between autism in children and the MMR vaccine commonly given as part of the regular childhood vaccination schedule. While drug companies and many epidemiologists pushed back on that report, for the better part of a decade it stood relatively strong as definitive word on the issue, and quite obviously helped to feed parent’s fears regarding autism, a condition that medical science still doesn’t fully understand. Wakefield’s study led to anti-vaccination movements that were made popular by celebrities in the United States and elsewhere, as well as by medical cranks eager to hitch their starts to anything halfway credible. Slowly but surely, though, Wakefield’s study came to be questioned by the medical community as a whole and, in 2010, Lancet eventually formally withdrew the report. Roughly a year later, it was revealed that the original study that formed the basis for the report was fraudulent. Most importantly, in the entire 17 year period since Wakefield’s study, no other researcher has ever been able to duplicate his purported results or to find any statistically significant correlation between autism and childhood vaccinations. This new JAMA study would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the movement that started with Wakefield’s study.

Sadly, this study is as unlikely to have an impact on the anti-vaccination movement as the revelations about Wakefield’s report did several years ago. If anything, statistics have seemed to indicate that the number of unvaccinated children has increased in recent years rather than declined, largely because the myths that were created from Wakefield’s report and other sources have embedded themselves into a sub-culture of sorts that lets this information be traded freely on the Internet without anyone thinking to verify its accuracy. We have even seen this anti-vaccine hysteria embed itself in our politics, with political figures such as Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump, and even a medical doctor like Rand Paul, making claims about links between vaccination and autism that quite simply do not exist. As a result, we have seen increased rates of disease like Whopping Cough, and a 20 year high in reported Measles cases despite the fact that MVeasles had been largely eradicated in the United States by the beginning of the 21st Century. So, while I’d like to think that this new study will be the final nail in the coffin of the anti-vaccination movement, the extent to which the popular delusions that fuel it have continued to live despite past evidence debunking the claims of a link do not make me optimistic.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ken says:

    Your headline, while true, would be more accurate if it said “New study – the latest in a long, undisputed list of similar studies – finds no link between autism and childhood vaccinations”

    Similar headlines:
    “New study shows earth is billions of years old”
    “New evidence confirms moon landing actually happened”

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  2. DrDaveT says:

    In 1985, my university sent me a letter telling me that I would not be allowed to register for classes the coming semester unless I could provide proof that I had been vaccinated against measles.

    Are we now maybe back to a point where such a sensible policy could be implemented by public schools? Especially if we combine it with “…and if you can’t afford a vaccination, we will provide one for free”?

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  3. Pete S says:

    I seem to remember reading about the time of the measles at Disneyland outbreak, that the risk of autism was not driving all of the anti-vaccination movement anymore. There seemed to be a lot of quotes from people who were against vaccinations because they did not like to be told what to do, protecting their freedom to risk the health of their own children and the public at large. So even if people accept and believe the conclusions of this study I would worry that it will change their excuses, not their behavior.

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  4. al-Ameda says:

    Somebody please – please – try to get the word to former “actress” Jenny McCarthy. She’s the celebrity airhead who got all these nuevo anti-vaccination advocates started on their denial trek.

    That initial f***ing study, the one that purported to find a link between vaccination and autism, has been discredited for sometime now. It’s bad enough to have to deal with non-fact based climate deniers, and now have the non-fact based vaccination opposition.

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I thought the Danish study was pretty definitive. That’s, what, a decade old?

    IIRC the Danes never used the preservative in their vaccinations that activists are blaming autism on.

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  6. Tony W says:

    @Ken:

    Similar headlines:
    “New study shows earth is billions of years old”
    “New evidence confirms moon landing actually happened”

    It’s probably time to stop throwing scientific-money at this problem. Those who deny science won’t be persuaded anyway, and there are too many better ways to use such funding to actually improve life for the rest of us.

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  7. PJ says:

    New study shows link between being an idiot and refusing to vaccinate your children.

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    @al-Ameda:

    That initial f***ing study, the one that purported to find a link between vaccination and autism, has been discredited for sometime now.

    Doesn’t matter; you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Once you’ve published lies and they get some airplay, that meme will be around forever.

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  9. Lynn says:

    The bigger reasons, as far as I can tell, include

    1) natural immunity is better
    2) vaccines haven’t really eliminated any diseases; it’s just better sanitation
    3) there’s nasty stuff in them thar vaccines … TOXINS!!!
    4) the illnesses are very rare/not very serious
    5) it’s just Big Pharma after $$$
    6) side effects from vaccines are common and serious
    7) I went to google medical school and I know best for my kids

    Plus, if your kids are vaccinated, why do you care whether I vaccinate mine or not? Guess that means they don’t work, eh? eh?

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  10. Grewgills says:

    @al-Ameda:
    The most bizarre thing about that is that McCarthy later found out that her son didn’t actually have autism.

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  11. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @al-Ameda: Yeah, but in defense of Ms. McCarthy she does have the hard evidence of her child being both autistic and vaccinated. How can you expect her to accept the evidence of multiple studies when she has her autistic son serving as permanent evidence of the predations of Big Pharma?

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  12. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Grewgills: Wow! Shoulda read further; I didn’t know that! Did she revise her theory in the wake of the new evidence?

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  13. Grewgills says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:
    There was some controversy a while back as to whether he was spectrum or Landau-Kleffner syndrome. He certainly had seizures that have probably caused some brain damage. She does admit that he no longer meets the diagnostic characteristics for autism, but insists that he was properly diagnosed with autism and still holds onto the wrong belief that it was vaccine related.
    She has done considerable damage to many children with her misguided crusade and doesn’t seem to have even the slightest bit of guilt over it.

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  14. Xavier says:

    @Grewgills: I’d like to see a study of how many children have died because of McCarthy.

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  15. Jack Sanders says:

    The witch hunt against Jenny McCarthy and any person whose child has been diagnosed with autism needs to stop. A diagnosis of autism is a life-changing event, and trying to figure out why it happened is a daunting task. I have extreme empathy for the struggles parents face, and to belittle them for questioning the merits of immunization is unfair. I’d sure as hell want to see as many studies as I could to ensure the safety of an immunization program, and there’s nothing wrong with due diligence.

    Jenny McCarthy is an easy target because of her fame. Parents are responsible for their own children. If I decide to forego immunizations for my children, I made that choice, not Jenny McCarthy. If my kids die of a disease that could have been prevented with a vaccine, shame on me. It’s my fault, not Jenny McCarthy’s. This demonization is infantile and oblique.

    The problem as I see it is that the CDC is rife with Big Pharma cross-pollination, and the vaccination schedule was wildly increased over the last 30 years. With legislation eliminating Big Pharma’s liability being sneaked into unrelated bills, they sure looked like a shady player – a very wealthy one protecting its assets as opposed to the public welfare.

    There’s no arguing the efficacy of vaccines, but it’s really hard to ignore the conflict of interest when billions in profits are at stake.

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  16. Lynn says:

    @Jack Sanders: “The witch hunt against Jenny McCarthy and any person whose child has been diagnosed with autism needs to stop. A diagnosis of autism is a life-changing event, and trying to figure out why it happened is a daunting task – ”

    The “witch hunt” is not against any person whose child has autism nor is it against McCarthy because her child may be autistic. As far as I can tell, the majority of parents with autistic kids do not blame vaccinations; rather, they realize that it’s the result of a combination of factors as-yet unidentified.

    The criticism is directed at those who rant against vaccinations and claim a connection with autism where none exists. They are causing people to forgo vaccinations that can save lives. There is similar ranting against people like Oz and the Food Babe, who promulgate inaccurate and potentially harmful information.

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  17. KM says:

    @Jack Sanders:

    The problem as I see it is that the CDC is rife with Big Pharma cross-pollination, and the vaccination schedule was wildly increased over the last 30 years.

    As it should be! Are we really expected to keep a common-as-dirt necessary medical regiment rigidly static despite technological advances solely because that’s not how it was done decades ago? When a new vaccine comes out that can prevent a child from being afflicted with a disease, are we supposed to say “Oh well, that’s nice” and keep on keeping on? Honestly, people who complain about an “increased” schedule are actually complaining their children are being covered against more diseases then less or that their kids are now not going to get diseases they themselves had to suffer through (chickenpox is a sore point apparently). How does that make any sense?

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  18. Lynn says:

    @Jack Sanders: “I’d sure as hell want to see as many studies as I could to ensure the safety of an immunization program,” — “Big Pharma cross-pollination,” — “vaccination schedule was wildly increased” — “eliminating Big Pharma’s liability” — “it’s really hard to ignore the conflict of interest when billions in profits are at stake”

    For someone who claims to support the efficacy of vaccinations, you certainly managed to get in a lot of the anti-vaccination buzzwords.

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  19. Just Me says:

    I have a child with autism.

    I’ve always seen the vaccine/autism link as very suspect. I’ve always believed genes play the largest role in autism.

    I think it is sad that over 15 years worth of research dollars has been spent on debunking this link when it could have been spent on finding real answers or helping to provide therapy or support to those diagnosed.

    I know some people who question the safety of vaccines outside the risk of autism-they get caught up in the whole “chemicals” debate. I think the success of vaccine programs in the West has allowed the anti vaxers to be idiots in relative safety because most people vaccinate their children.

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  20. Lynn says:

    @Just Me: has allowed the anti vaxers to be idiots in relative safety

    I just wanted to see it again.

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  21. John H says:

    @PJ:

    If only this were true. It would be easier to deal with those who are just ignorant or slow on the uptake, but believers exist in all the different categories we lump people into. RFK Jr is not a dummy, but he is a believer. Oz isn’t stupid, but he falls for the cognitive errors that we all experience. If well educated people with solid scientific training can fall for the nonsense, how can we be so harsh on ordinary folk? And it’s not just pseudo-science that attracts uncritical and credulous opinions. The political beliefs discussed here are solid proof of that. It takes a very strong commitment to use the rigorous version of critical examination on our beliefs, and to overturn them when the evidence weighs against them. Modelling the world is baked into us, and we don’t change our models easily.

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  22. Lynn says:

    @John H: It takes a very strong commitment to use the rigorous version of critical examination on our beliefs, and to overturn them when the evidence weighs against them. Modelling the world is baked into us, and we don’t change our models easily.

    Very true — so, what do you suppose makes one person examine his or her beliefs and another not?

    My bias is that it has a lot to do with needing to feel in control. Do you remember the furor that erupted when a study suggested tht some significant percentage of cancers were due simply to chance? Many people, imo, will simply go with whatever model helps them maintain tht illusion of control.

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  23. KM says:

    @Lynn:

    They are causing people to forgo vaccinations that can save lives. There is similar ranting against people like Oz and the Food Babe, who promulgate inaccurate and potentially harmful information.

    Precisely – she’s being held accountable for the lies she tells. If Jenny went around telling parents lead is natural and they should totally let kids eat it since a old discredited report said lack of lead paint leads to brain damage, would people like Jack Sanders complain about witch hunts? Sure the parent that actually follows the advice needs to be held accountable but stopping the source of the bad info is key in keeping it from happening again.

    Stupid speaks to stupid on a deeply personal level that reason will never budge and celebrities have a power in our culture doctors will never be able to match. She was wrong, she knows she’s wrong (her kid’s not autistic so there goes her anecdote!) so it’s not unreasonable at all to expect her to retract her story. She hasn’t because its gone past “facts” and into Orwellian “bellyfeel” territory. That cannot go unchallenged when lives are at stake.

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  24. KM says:

    @Just Me:

    I’ve always seen the vaccine/autism link as very suspect. I’ve always believed genes play the largest role in autism.

    I agree that genetic irregularities will end up being the culprit. What’s interesting about this instance is how personally parents seem to take it when that idea is presented, specifically when the possibility of inheriting it comes up. Nobody gets pissed when you point out that Tay–Sachs disease is genetic in nature and thus can pass from carrier parent to child; try posting that on a thread and see what catches on fire. Nobody wants to talk about how parent’s genes (damaged through aging conception, chemicals, modern living, mutation or just bad luck) might be the reason their darling is the way they are so they lash out and blame anything they can. It’s morbidly fascinating to watch the mental gymnastics needed to deny any chance they might be the source but it’s evil Big Pharma or them know-it-all know-nothing doctors that to blame. If that’s the case, it’s not the parent’s fault any more then it would be the fault of the Tay-Sachs parent. Life dealt them a bad hand is all.

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  25. John H says:

    @Lynn:

    I think that’s getting the cart before the horse. The model exists prior to the event, and the event is analyzed in it’s context. That allows for a quick and uncritical analysis to confirm the pre-existing model, which is always favored, and conflicting evidence to be discounted without much thought. In this case, the need for control is baked into the model and the extent of the randomness of some cancers is rejected. Pretty much what you wrote, but I’m less convinced that much choice or examination actually occurs.

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  26. Grewgills says:

    @John H:

    RFK Jr is not a dummy, but he is a believer. Oz isn’t stupid, but he falls for the cognitive errors that we all experience.

    I don’t know about RFK Jr, but Oz is a charlatan that knows better.

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  27. Liberal Capitalist says:

    So, really, the challenge is this…

    In our wonderful culture, (ie: ‘Meruca, f@ck yeah!), we seem to have a core problem: that intelligence and knowledge somehow correlates with wealth, fame or beauty.

    Sadly, in most cases, no, not at all.

    We have still not gotten to the point where we can acknowledge this. And with the primary transfer of knowledge being “infotainment”, it will continue to get worse.

    .

    Brawndo anyone? It’s got electrolytes.

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  28. Lynn says:

    @John H: Pretty much what you wrote, but I’m less convinced that much choice or examination actually occurs.”

    I don’t think ANY choice or examination occurs. I think it’s simply a knee-jerk reaction, based on a strongly-held but unrecognized need to be in control, to have predictability.

    When I was in graduate school, I volunteered with a rape crisis center. We were always told to tell the women (almost all women) we worked with tht what was done to them was not their fault. In later years, doing more long-term work with survivors, I came to realize that some of them had a need to hang on to a sense of responsibility. After all, if they were responsible, they could figure out what they had done wrong and not do it again. They would be safe. If they had not caused it, however, it might happen again.

    I see much the same dynamic happening about health issues and have known of people who spent time in “therapy” figuring out why they “chose to” have cancer. Resolve that inner conflict, and there will be no more cancer.

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  29. KM says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    U.S. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho in 2016!! He’d fit right in :)

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  30. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Lynn:

    My bias is that it has a lot to do with needing to feel in control.

    When I was teaching students to write research papers, one the things that I used to remind my students of was that philosophers, theologians, and academicians (including their English teacher) seemed to have difficulty answering questions with the phrase “I don’t know.” I always suspect that control is the issue there,

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  31. Just Me says:

    KM

    I see a strong genetic component because there are diagnosed children on the spectrum from both sides of the family and when listening to family stories about my great grandfather many of the eccentrices seem to point to him being on the spectrum (clearly no diagnosis but there are a lot of signs that he would be diagnosed if living today).

    I’ve read some interesting studies-two are still in the research phase that link maternal illness to raised incidents of diagnosis (hypothesis is that illness in he mother triggers the genes that cause autism). It’s interesting mostly because I had a really awful sinus infection in my third trimester.

    But if I’m getting on a main causes of autism train it’s going to be the genes one.

    Also, the UK and places in Europe have some pretty adamant anti vaxers-many bought the bad study that linked MMR to autism with the whole foods/anti chemical adherents thrown in.

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