I recently saw a trailer for a new film called Wretches & Jabberers, which documents the efforts of two men with autism to increase public awareness and understanding of this disorder. It premieres tonight across the nation as part of the “100 Cities. One Night for Autism” fundraising event.
Autism is a developmental disorder that typically appears during the first years of life. It is characterized by problems in communication, behavior, and social interaction. Many children with autism learn to talk much later than their peers, if they learn to talk at all. They may have difficulty interacting with other people, such as being unable to start or continue a conversation. They may also exhibit unusual behavioral traits, like repeated hand-flapping and body rocking, or an overwhelming need for routine.
The number of children diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed over the last thirty years. As many as one in every 110 children in the US today have some sort of autism, compared with just one in 1000 a generation ago. A recent survey done in South Korea even found that one of every 38 children in that country may have autism, a rate three-times that of current US estimates.
The increase in rates of autism is partly a result of improved diagnosis, but there is solid evidence that the actual percentage of children with autism is increasing. Autism has become a pandemic problem, and one that is under-diagnosed globally.
We still don’t know what causes autism. It may be genetic, it may relate to the age of the parents, it may be caused by exposure to chemicals like pesticides in the womb, or a combination of these factors. What we do know, however, is that vaccines don’t cause autism, despite the fact that the onset of symptoms is associated with the timing of pediatric vaccinations.
The idea that vaccines cause autism has been heavily promoted by experts like Jenny McCarthy, actress and former Playboy Playmate, and have caused childhood vaccination rates to plummet. As a result, outbreaks of measles and whopping cough have become common, and dozens have died from otherwise preventable childhood diseases.
The purported connection between vaccinations and autism was first reported in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield published a study in which he reported a link between vaccines and autism in twelve British children. It turns out, however, that Wakefield falsified his data, altering patient histories and laboratory results in order to create the appearance of an vaccine-autism link.
Despite this, and despite numerous studies showing absolutely no association between vaccines and autism, the myth persists. Just this week, anti-vaccine activists held a press conference to report that children who have been compensated by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program — also called the Vaccine Court, a no-fault program for helping people who are injured after receiving certain vaccines — are far more likely to be diagnosed with autism than the US population as a whole.
These activists claim that a new study, published this week in the Pace Environmental Law Review, provides “evidence that is indisputable that there is a link between autism and vaccines”. The authors of this study include an attorney who represents clients before the Vaccine Court and three other anti-vaccinationists. Not one is a statistician or an epidemiologist. If they were, they would know — as students in any first-year statistics class can tell you — that correlation does not imply causation. That children compensated by the Vaccine Court have higher rates of autism is probably due to the fact that the parents of children with autism are more likely to seek compensation from the Court, itself a direct result of the vaccine-autism myth.
Autism is indeed a serious problem, and one that seems to be spreading. We need to invest more money into studying the causes of autism and in developing new treatments. So, I want to encourage you to attend the screening of Wretches & Jabberers. I want to encourage you to donate your time or your money to organizations like the Autism Society of America. But most of all, I want to encourage you not to buy into the vaccine-autism myth.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on May 12, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website.]