My great-uncle David died of the measles. I never met him; he was six months old when he succumbed to the disease in the early 1900s. I know of him through the stories my grandmother told me: that after the death of her only son, my great-grandmother declared the house to be evil and told my great-grandfather they had to move. So the family left their hovel in the East End of London and moved to the equally poor East London neighborhood of Hoxton, where they found a new home near a canal that their friends dubbed “the seaside.”
Nobody in my grandmother’s generation had the benefit of measles vaccines, but we do. Even so, outbreaks of measles are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control: in the first four months of 2014, more cases of measles were reported in the United States—129 in total—than in the equivalent first four-month period of any year since 1996. Fifty-eight of the measles patients were in California; most were either unvaccinated or “had no vaccination documentation available.”
The CDC calls measles “a highly contagious, acute viral illness that can lead to severe complications and death.” Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in 1963, 400 to 500 Americans died of measles every year and hundreds of thousands more were infected annually. In 1998, however, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a now-debunked paper in The Lancet linking eight cases of autism to the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). The paper was retracted in February 2010, and later that year Britain’s General Medical Council found Wakefield “guilty of serious professional misconduct” and erased his name from the medical register. Unfortunately, many people still believe there is a link.
A new, major meta-analysis of 10 epidemiological studies should put this belief to rest for good. Guy Eslick, associate professor of surgery and cancer epidemiology at the University of Sydney in Australia, and his colleagues analyzed five cohort studies (in which a group of people are followed over time, to determine the incidence or mortality from a specific disease) and five case-control studies (in which a group of subjects with a specific disease are matched with a set without it). The first set of studies involved 1,256,407 children, and the second set followed 9,920 children. All 10 studies, deemed to be “of sound methodology,” looked at the relationship between vaccination and disorders on the autistic spectrum.
“The idea of conducting this meta-analysis came from watching two documentaries,” Eslick wrote to me via email. “The first was a Frontline episode called ‘The Vaccine War,’ and the second was a documentary, shown on [Australia’s] SBS television, called ‘Jabbed.’
These shows highlighted the effect of the anti-vaccination movement and the varied opinions about the “link” between vaccines and autism. I thought for sure that someone would have pooled all the data to see exactly what the relationship is between vaccines and autism, but there was nothing! So, the opportunity was there to see what the evidence was and to hopefully put to rest all the opinions and produce some factual data, and that’s what we did.
The results, in a nutshell: the meta-analysis of the 10 studies “has found no evidence for the link between vaccination and the subsequent risk of developing autism or autism spectrum disorder,” the authors write. Similarly, there was no association between the administration of multiple vaccines (MMR) and autism, and no association between thimerosal (a mercury-containing preservative now removed or reduced “to trace amounts” from virtually all childhood vaccines, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and the development of autism or ASD. The authors therefore advocate “the continuation of immunization programs according to national guidelines.”
Eslick said he hopes doubters will now realize that evidence does not support a relationship between vaccination and autism or autism spectrum disorder. But, he added, “Of course there will be people who won’t change their minds about this link, and perhaps no data, no matter how convincing will ever change their minds.”