By Ruslan Fomenko
Misinformation spreads like a wildfire, and even if extinguished, it often leaves considerable damage in its wake. Although this statement can be applied to many recent events, one that comes to mind is the erroneous assumption that vaccines cause autism. This unfortunate misconception caused a lot of problems in terms of fear of vaccines and in terms of public health.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield is the author of the study published in 1998 which sparked the fear that vaccines may have serious and long lasting side effects. Particularly, Dr. Wakefield’s conclusions pointed to vaccines as the reason behind the uprise in Autism cases. However, scientific research has clear guidelines which require adherence in order to ensure the validity of the study, and Dr. Wakefield clearly did not follow them (fig. 1). The research had several problems, which included but were not limited to lack of reliable statistics and confusing correlation with causation. Dr. Wakefield’s controversial conclusions spread, causing mass panic about the false dangers of vaccines that still linger today. As a result, it became a popular and trendy choice to avoid vaccines, with many popular figures like Jenny McCarthy further fueling the fire by providing their support for the anti-vaccine cause.
Figure 1. Source: https://images.medicaldaily.com/sites/medicaldaily.com/files/styles/full_breakpoints_theme_medicaldaily_desktop_1x/public/2014/07/23/autism-rumors-ran-rampant-throughout-world-why.JPG
The truth is that vaccines are perfectly safe and cause no side effects, with the exception of minor and perfectly normal ones like tenderness at the injection site or a short term fever. Dr. Wakefield’s disastrous study was discredited in 2012, when a meta-analysis of more than 14 million children showed no evidence of association between autism and vaccines. A more recent study conducted in 2015 analyzed the possible link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, and yet again found no association between the MMR vaccine and the cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Figure 2. Source: https://www.eufic.org/en/understanding-science/article/correlation-vs.-causation-infographic
Correlation shouldn’t be confused with causation: respectively, one implies that two events occur simultaneously with no relation to each other, while the other implies that one causes another. In this case the correlation between increased vaccine use and and unrelated, yet also increased ASD diagnosis is what caused the confusion. Ultimately, it is our duty to prevent further damage done by misinformation and erroneous research, and use evidence based science to rekindle people’s faith in vaccination.
About the author -- Ruslan Fomenko is a recent graduate of the M.S. in Biomedical Sciences at Larkin University College of Biomedical Sciences. Ruslan is also a Research Assistant - Intern in the RIPL_Effect Research Team under the mentorship of principal investigator, Dr. Félix E. Rivera-Mariani.
Jain A, Marshall J, Buikema A, Bancroft T, Kelly JP, Newschaffer CJ. Autism Occurrence by MMR Vaccine Status Among US Children With Older Siblings With and Without Autism. JAMA. 2015;313(15):1534–1540. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.3077