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What Is the Vaccine/Autism Controversy About?

The Vaccine/Autism Debate Is Complex and Confusing

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Updated November 18, 2009

What Is the Vaccine/Autism Controversy About?
Photo: Peter Cope / Getty Images
What is the "vaccines and autism" controversy all about? At this point in history, there is no easy answer to that question. In fact, there is no single "vaccines and autism" controversy at all. While it may appear that the only question being asked is "Do vaccines cause autism?" there are at least a dozen discrete issues under debate.

The questions that make up the controversies swirling around vaccines and autism are themselves complex, and virtually all of them can be argued from at least two sides (and have been). These questions relate not just to the cause or causes of autism, but also to the contents of different vaccines, the implementation schedule of different vaccines, the possible significance of various reactions to vaccines, the significance of a single settled case in the federal Vaccine Court, and the intentions and connections of a range of government officials, researchers, lawyers, journalists, actors, and individual families.

Here are just a few of the questions that have rolled themselves together into the "Vaccine and Autism Debate:"

  • Did thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in many vaccines until 2001 (when all routinely recommended vaccines for young children became either thimerosal free or nearly so), actually cause a rise in cases of autism?
  • Did the measles virus, introduced into children's bodies at approximately 15 months of age through the Mumps Measles Rubella (MMR) vaccine, cause inflammation which led to a rise in cases of autism?
  • Did the rise in the number of standard vaccinations in general, because they include of a variety of potentially toxic elements, cause a variety of reactions which variously led to a rise in cases of autism (and other neurological disorders)?
  • Is there any legitimate (meaning scientifically validated) evidence that unvaccinated children are less likely to be autistic than vaccinated children?
  • Based on the Vaccine Court case which awarded a large settlement to the family of Hannah Poling, are children with autism actually children with a mitochondrial disorder which is set off by typical vaccine reactions?
  • Did various government agencies, such as the CDC and NIH, knowingly and deliberately urge pediatricians to vaccinate infants with the intent to cause harm?
  • Even if they did not actually intend to cause harm, did these agencies connive with big pharmaceutical agencies to hide evidence of harm caused by vaccines?
  • Is there an incentive for lawyers to represent families claiming vaccine injury, since the Vaccine Court underwrites the cost of legal counsel for families filing claims? If so, are lawyers pressing families to file suits even if the suits are unlikely to win?
  • Is there an incentive for journalists and media personalities to take on vaccines as a cause, since the issue has become a major focus of television, radio and Internet outlets? And by the same token, are those few doctors who are best known for their anti-vaccine advocacy actually campaigning for the public good -- or are they in it for the fame and money?
  • Is the CDC deliberately choosing to avoid certain types of vaccine-related studies because they fear the outcomes, or have they legitimately researched the subject extensively enough to claim that the outcomes have already been made clear?
Obviously, despite some media presentations, there is no one "autism/vaccine debate." For parents new to autism (or worried about autism), ask your pediatrician about vaccines and discuss any specific concerns you have about allergies, pre-existing illness, or a history of autism. You should also be sure that you fully understand the positive benefits of vaccinations that protect against severely harmful diseases that can clearly harm your child.

When choosing to do research on your own, it is important to know not just what has been said, but who is saying it. There are passionate and influential spokespeople on each side of the issues listed above. Not all of their research is of equal quality, however, so it’s important to go beyond the media headlines and books based on opinions or single experiences and look for credible, well-designed research studies.

As you begin your research, these resources can help you understand some of the facts:

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorders
  4. Autism 101
  5. Autism Basics: FAQs
  6. Vaccines - Introduction to the Vaccine-Autism Debate -

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