Several weeks ago, I was sent a link for a “business” offering stem cells for autism, purportedly to reduce stimming, end meltdowns, reduce aggression and improve clarity of mind and speech. Their website defined autism as a devastating disease linked to vaccine injury and heavy metals. A highlighted video titled “How adult stem cells can help autism” showed numerous reviews from parents applauding the “success” of the treatment. In the midst of the technicalities and in fine print was this statement “We are not suggesting that adult stem cell therapy is a cure for autism, nor can we promise or guarantee results.”
That seems contradictory! However, as a parent seeing the most extreme manifestations of autism in your child, you will grasp at any straw that offered hope and you might want to believe the headline and ignore the details, which I did four years ago when my son was diagnosed. At this time, there was extensive hype created by Jenny Mc Carthy who claimed vaccines caused her son’s autism and supported by her then boyfriend, Jim Carrey.
In retrospect, taking medical advice from Jenny probably wasn’t on my top ten list of smartest decisions but I was desperate. I didn’t understand autism or where to get information and together they sold a convincing story. Fortunately, I’m one of the most cynical and suspicious people you will ever meet. While I initially felt there was some degree of truth to the “autism / vaccine” link, I started reading more and was baffled. How could I Google and get such opposing views all from seemingly reputable sources? Which side of the story was true? Instead of continuing to research “do vaccines cause autism?”, I decided to change my approach and started looking into where and when was the autism / vaccine link discovered?
The change in perspective altered findings dramatically. Here’s what I found… in 1998, The Lancet, a reputable and established peer-reviewed medical journal, published research by a doctor named Andrew Wakefield supporting a link between the MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism. Questions started being raised when other researchers were unable to reproduce the findings or prove the original hypothesis. In 2004, an investigation identified financial conflicts of interest with the original research, as well as skewed and exaggerated results to support the hypothesis. It was also discovered that Wakefield did not have required ethical approval for the testing he conducted. By 2010, further investigations proved that Wakefield was dishonest and irresponsible in his research. He lost his medical license for deliberate falsification and The Lancet issued a retraction.
The damage was done and an anti-vaccination movement was created. Parents were deliberately deciding to not vaccinate for diseases that were almost completely eradicated. A huge part of this movement is the argument that if other children are immunised, non-vaccinated children would be safe. To understand why this is a very dangerous viewpoint, you need to understand the concept of herd immunity. There are people who CANNOT be vaccinated – because they are too young, or ill, or have a compromised immune system where vaccinations could be a risk. Herd immunity aims to protect those individuals but is dependent on the vaccinated population being as large as possible. When the vaccinated population starts to wane, as happening nowadays, herd immunity decreases.
Before the measles vaccination program in the United States in the mid-1960s, there were 3-4 million cases each year, with approximately 450 annual deaths, 48,000 hospitalizations, 7000 cases of seizures and 1000 cases of permanent brain damage or deafness. In 2000, the US was declared free of measles with only 911 cases in the following 10 years. However, between 2014 and 2015, there were two major outbreaks and 542 cases were reported, 90% of those in unvaccinated individuals. Worldwide, no other vaccine-preventable disease causes as many deaths despite the proven fact that life-threatening adverse reactions occur in less than one per million vaccinations.
Look out for a continuation of this blog post very soon where I’ll discuss my views on how the anti-vax movement has affected resources for autism and the impact on families.
This is the original version of the article written for Care Parenting for publication in the Trinidad Guardian
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