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Vaccines and Autism: Why simple explanations may not be the most accurate

The CDC has reported that as of February 18th, the recent measles outbreak has increased to 141 cases found in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, three new measles cases have been confirmed in Las Vegas in connection with the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. The CDC links the outbreak to a segment of the population which includes families who have delayed or refused to vaccinate their children. Many feel that vaccination rates have declined due to people drawing conclusions that lack scientific evidence from the ongoing autism/vaccination movement.

The most seductive argument for a link between vaccines and autism is timing.  Some parents claimed to have noticed changes in their children shortly after they were vaccinated. Children seemed to be developing normally, then would suddenly lose social and language skills — a condition called “regressive” autism. Parents often assume the cause of this regression is from some type of environmental toxin and look to vaccines as the contributing factor because they often occur at the same time.

Most medical experts argue that this is probably a coincidence: The first symptoms of autism tend to appear around the same time that the MMR shot is administered, ages 12-15 months. While timing is important in assessment of causation, it is only one of nine criteria used by scientists in evaluating whether an exposure is causally related to an injury or illness.

The symptoms of autism generally appear early in childhood development, by 12 months to 18 months of age. Symptoms include:

  • Problems with eye contact
  • Lack of response to his or her name
  • Problems following another person’s gaze or pointed finger to an object (or “joint attention”)
  • Poor skills in pretend play and imitation
  • Problems with nonverbal communication

It is natural for people to link the timing of vaccines to the manifestation of autism symptoms due to the concept of Perception of Hazard.  Parents act on their fears of environmental hazards, refusing to vaccinate their children against serious, highly contagious diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. It is generally expected that perception of hazard may cause one to over-report symptoms and seek associations when they believe that their health, or their child’s health, has been threatened.  In part, the perception that vaccines are linked to autism persists because people do not fully understand the science. Although several studies and reviewers have debunked the 1998 Wakefield study people still cling to the notion that there is a causal link between vaccines and autism. Fueled in part by parents needing to know what causes autism, people seek to make connections to concurrent events and make assumptions that lack scientific support. People are naturally anxious to find answers to what is understandably viewed as an urgent problem.

As Stephen Hawking once said, “Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations.” Unfortunately, sometimes simple explanations are complicated to discover. Causation Analysis is the process scientists use to evaluate the potential link between an event or exposure and possibly, an adverse health issue.

For questions about causation analysis or other public health issues, contact the experts at Cogency at solutions@cogencyteam.com. Cogency is best suited to assist you with this and other potential disease outbreaks because our team of physicians and public health professionals conduct extensive outbreak investigations, causation assessments and have vast experience diagnosing hard to detect environmental issues, and infectious disease exposures. 

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