A major shift in the autism debate occurred this week when the highly reputable medical journal The Lancet withdrew the 1998 study that linked the disorder to vaccinations. The study, led by Andrew Wakefield, has been viewed as the cornerstone research for those parents and activists who believe inoculations can cause or spur on autism in children.
But last week, when a judgment by Britain's General Medical Council was made against Andrew Wakefield, ruling that he used "callous disregard" for the children who participated in the study and calling his methodology "unethical," his credibility and the theories that have fueled a league of activists took a big hit.
The Lancet stated decisively, "We fully retract this paper from the published record."
The publishers are not alone in dismissing the research or Wakefield himself. In fact, ten of the thirteen co-authors of that 1998 study wrote a "retraction of interpretation" in 2004.
Still, there will be those who continue to defend Wakefield and the research that has been called into question. The study suggested that there may be a link between the MMR triple-vaccination that helps prevent measles, mumps, and rubella and the development of autism. This spurred a trend among parents in the United States, England, Canada, and New Zealand to opt out or reduce the number of vaccinations their children were given. The impact continued with the rise of measles in some areas and much debate about whether or not vaccines are healthy for young children.
I will break here to point out that I personally have a lot of trouble with the anti-vaccination movement (and if you haven't read Shine staffer Annette Cardwell's post on feeling duped by it, I highly recommend that you do). I fully support research and funding directed to find a cure for autism. Families who are caring for children with autism or any other spectrum disorder clearly have to find the strategies, therapies, and support that best suits their kids, their lives, and their beliefs. I respect that. But I also believe that the scare tactics some people in the anti-vaccination movement have used can be dangerous to many children who are at risk for developing diseases that can be prevented with the medical resources we now have.
But what is even scarier to me is that some of these arguments are based upon a study that has been ruled questionable and unethical after a two-and-a-half year hearing. Wakefield is now being called to task for things that make me shudder as a parent -- performing colonoscopies and spinal taps on kids without having proper ethics approval as well as collecting blood samples from children at his son's birthday party in exchange for a few dollars.
As if that wasn't horrible enough, Wakefield went on to present his findings in what is now deemed an irresponsible and dishonest manner. The 1998 study originated by observing the conditions of twelve children aged three to ten who had spontaneously developed bowel disease and loss of communication and other developmental skills.
This news follows on the heels of new findings published in the journal Pediatrics, reporting that there is no scientific evidence that digestive disorders are more predominant in children with autism and no proof that special diets are effective in treating autism.
Actor Jenny McCarthy, one of the strongest voices in alternative autism treatment, sounded off on this news, saying that she believes doctors need to pay more attention to the anecdotal evidence parents are privy to and that different tactics work for each child. In the case of her child, McCarthy believes vaccines triggered eight-year old Evan's autism. McCarthy, supported by her partner Jim Carrey, has been adamant that a gluten-free diet and supplements have helped her son recover. She once described his "biomedical treatment" as healing a "vaccine injury".
What concerns me most is that this one study -- one that is now under much fire, and rightly so -- has created a culture or at least a sub-culture that has insisted that vaccines ARE the cause of autism. So much time, attention, and energy has gone into fiercely debating that point when what it seems we need is funding, further study, and scientific evidence to really explore both the anecdotes and the other theories still hanging out there.
If the 2007 stats still stand, one out of every 150 children in the United States have autism or a closely related disorder. It's time to step far away from Andrew Wakefield and his one unscrupulous interpretation done 12 years ago for ethical, promising ways to help the children and families coping with autism and lower than number in future generations. It's time for some real, reliable research and information.
How does the news of the judgment against Andrew Wakefield and The Lancet's retraction of the 1998 study impact your thoughts on autism?
What do you have to say to Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, and others who have spoken out on autism?
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[photo credit: Getty Images]