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The Dangerous Delusion about Vaccines and Autism

A Magician in the Lab

James Randi

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.2, March/April 2017

Hello again! I begin my joyful return to the pages of the “Magazine for Science and Reason” at the age of eighty-eight. Yes, I’ve slowed down in some ways but have embraced medical science enthusiastically, as it permits me to continue well past the average life span attained by the average male. Our esteemed editor Ken Frazier has set limits on how much I write in this new column for the Skeptical Inquirer, but not upon what subjects I may choose to pontificate. Joy! Here goes. . . .

What follows here is about one very important subject of my next book—my eleventh—A Magician in the Laboratory, already written and seeking publication. If there is one major concern that has taken my attention as a skeptic and served to inspire this book, it is the persistent and currently very popular delusion that tries to connect the process of childhood vaccination with the dreaded condition known as autism. I’ve personally known two families plagued with autism.

Andrew Wakefield

The most erroneous and damaging misunderstanding about this condition started in 1998, when a British researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published in the prominent medical journal The Lancet a paper claiming that there was a connection between the use of MMR—a multi-purpose immunization vaccine used against measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles)—and the onset of autism in children. This is simply not true. MMR has been found to be a very effective prophylactic measure, and since the 1970s, well over 500 million doses have been successfully administered worldwide in some sixty countries.

Wakefield received $780,000 for his consulting services on that project. . . .

Then, in 2010, that Lancet paper by Wakefield was officially retracted upon the discovery of serious overlooked basic flaws in his protocol and the unethically close connection between the author of the paper and the industrial agencies that had financed his work. That, however, did little to assuage the fears of some parents who were by then very convinced that the MMR vaccine had caused their children to become crippled by autism. Part of that parental reluctance to accept the findings may well have been that several investigators postulated that autism might really be the result of hereditary factors, a possibility that those parents understandably preferred not to face.

The symptoms of this still-mysterious condition are highly variable and appear in different degrees in different individuals. My own personal and extended experience with autistic children occurred when, following a direct request from the University of Syracuse, I looked into the farce known as “Facilitated Communication” (FC). The resulting experience was most unpleasant, with little cooperation being offered me by those administering this blatant quackery.

FC consists of the “facilitator”—most often a young woman—holding the hand of an autistic child with the child’s index finger extended, hovering over a computer keyboard, and guiding that finger while pressing it against selected keys so as to spell out messages that are said to originate from the child. Wrong. That child seldom even looks toward the keyboard, is often wriggling, kicking, and looking away, or even dozing off, though the facilitator’s attention is seen to be very concentrated, often looking ahead to the next letter of the word being spelled out! Consult the subject under Facilitated Communication on the Internet, and you will see this farce as I’ve just described it. The staff at Syracuse had actually come to believe that these children might be using telepathy, and had called me in to find out if that might be the correct solution!

Please understand: most autistic kids have problems establishing eye-to-eye contact and will display bizarre facial expressions and strange body postures. They seem unable or unwilling to share enjoyment or interests with others, and they do not relate to the discomfort of others. About half of them do not speak well, using wails or repetitive loud noises or words to express themselves. They have very poor skills at maintaining communication, and often exhibit echolalia (seizing upon a verbal phrase or expression that captures their attention and repeating it endlessly). Some will choose a shiny object or a bright light and fixate on it. Others will constantly rock their bodies and/or flap their hands. As for the degrees of these behavior patterns they exhibit, I found that it varied from extreme—wild shouting and damaging bouts of flailing with arms and legs—to gentle, distant, and almost acceptable demeanors and attitudes.

The Lancet found that Dr. Wakefield had changed and misreported results in his research. Medical documents and subsequent interviews with witnesses have since established that he manipulated patients’ data, thereby triggering fears that use of the MMR triple vaccine was linked to the condition. They found that the families of eight out of twelve children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism and said that problems came on within a few days of the injection. However, as confirmed by evidence presented to the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), most of the twelve children’s ailments as described in The Lancet differed substantially from their hospital and medical records. Though the research paper had claimed that autistic symptoms were detected within days of the injection, thus implying a temporal connection, in only one case did records suggest that this was true, and in many of the other cases, pertinent medical concerns about MMR had been raised before the children had even been vaccinated! After the publication, rates of inoculation fell dangerously low, from 92 percent to below 80 percent.

Populations acquire what’s known as “herd immunity” from diseases such as measles—as well as from mumps and rubella—when more than 95 percent of the local population has been vaccinated because the percentage of carriers of such infectious diseases is thereby kept below a sustainable spread ratio. Early in 2010, official figures showed that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported that year compared with only fifty-six back in 1998. Two children died of the disease.

Even before The Lancet’s withdrawal of the paper, ten of Wakefield’s coauthors had their names removed from authorship.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of course shares (along with parents and many others) great concern about the number of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and is still trying to understand what causes autism, how it can be prevented, and how it can be recognized and treated as early as possible. Estimates are that one in 120 of eight-year-olds had ASD, then in 2012 that figure had jumped to about one in eighty-eight, an estimate which is higher than estimates from the early 1990s. This is a seriously frightening figure.A preservative, thimerosal, used in vaccines has induced much terror from the uninformed. It’s a compound that contains the element mercury—you know, the liquid metal that you played with in chemistry class, those little silver beads. Yes, mercury can be poisonous, but only when consumed or combined into a compound. Consider: common table salt is sodium chloride—chemical formula NaCl—which we all consume every day, but sodium all by itself is a soft silvery metal that converts into a very highly caustic and poisonous compound when it comes into contact with water, yet it’s 100 percent safe—as salt. Chemically, thimerosal is C9H9HgNaO2S, a far more complicated compound.

There are two very different types of mercury in compounds that you should know about. These are methyl­mercury (CH3Hg) and ethylmercury (C2H5Hg), and they are quite distinct from one another. Mercury itself is found everywhere in the Earth’s crust, air, soil, and water. Certain types of bacteria in the environment can change natural mercury into the methylmercury variety, which can be very toxic to humans, but thimerosal contains the very different form of mercury—ethyl­mercury—which is broken down and excreted from the body rapidly after being administered, so the type of mercury found in the influenza vaccine is far less likely to accumulate in the body and cause harm. A very, very tiny amount of thimerosal serves to preserve vaccines to avoid the possible growth of bacteria and fungi in case they get into the vaccine—which could occur when a syringe needle enters a vial just as the vaccine is being prepared for administration. Contamination by certain germs in a vaccine could cause severe local reactions, serious illness, or even death.

Be assured, the vaccine preservative thimerosal has a proven track record of being very safe. The most common side effects can be very minor reactions such as redness and swelling at the injection site. Research does not show any link between (a) thimerosal in vaccines and (b) autism. In any case, use of thimerosal was discontinued in childhood vaccines in 2001, yet recent reports of autism have gone up dramatically, which is quite the opposite of what would be expected if thimerosal caused autism. Also, the MMR vaccine—specifically blamed for autism by the uninformed, remember—does not, and never did, contain thimerosal, nor did vaccines for varicella (chickenpox), inactivated polio (IPV), and pneumococcal conjugate (a meningitis source), ever contain thimerosal.

Anti-vaxxers—those who embrace the misguided notion that vaccines administered to children are a major public health threat and/or that this practice causes autism—are misguided people who are generally well-intentioned but still badly mistaken. They may mean well, and in fact many have autistic children themselves, a fact that may have prompted them to become involved in the controversy. But if they are successful in preaching their fears, many, many children will die of totally preventable diseases. As I mentioned earlier, we’re already seeing a comeback of measles due to drops in vaccination rates. This is no far-flung future; these terrible consequences of antiscientific nonsense are happening to us right now. For most in the medical community, this issue is now closed.

But why do so many people continue to believe that there is a link, despite the overwhelming evidence? The answer is something that has more credibility than the best scientific study: personal experience. Here we encounter a basic error in logic that folks often make. Many parents came to believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism because the symptoms of autism appeared shortly after the child received a vaccination. On a psychological level, that assumption and connection seems to make sense, but on a logical level, it is a clear and common fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc—“[It happened] after this, therefore because of this.”

I trust that my reader can understand my concern over this MMR farce, and I offer encouragement to concerned parents. Louis Pasteur’s vaccines have saved countless lives all over the world and hopefully will continue to do so.

James Randi

James Randi's photo

James “The Amazing” Randi is a magician, investigator of psychic claims, author (Flim-Flam!, The Faith Healers, The Mask of Nostradamus, The Magic of Uri Geller), and the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He was a founding fellow of CSICOP. This article is based on a special presentation on investigating psychics he gave at the Fifth World Skeptics Congress, Abano Terme, Italy, October 8—10, 2004.