Autism Expert Agrees: It’s Time to Shift the Focus Off of Vaccines
As the Chief Science Officer at the Autism Science Foundation, and an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Rutgers University, Alycia Halladay, PhD, is concerned about the distraction that vaccines have become in the world of autism research.
Almost a decade ago, a small and now discredited study on vaccines and autism helped Andrew Wakefield gain worldwide notoriety and opened the flood gates of worry for parents around the world. Parents had long since relied on vaccines to protect their children from dangerous preventable diseases, but as these diseases became less apparent, vaccine safety was thrown into question along with a concern over the rising rates of autism.
Today, most people recognize that there is no credible evidence of any link between vaccines and autism. And yet, the vaccine-autism myth continues to be a topic of concern among parents and the focus of much of mainstream media.
Could it be that the vaccine-autism myth is so intrinsically woven into today’s social narrative that we just can’t let it go?
In an article written for STAT news, Dr. Hallady eloquently refutes the vaccine-autism myth and goes a crucial step further by offering readers a glimpse of the promising research on the true causes of autism. She also expresses deep concern that because the media continues to keep the vaccine-autism conversation alive, the public is missing out on important scientific discoveries that are being made in the world of autism research.
During the last year or so, there has been a steady drumbeat of media coverage about autism and vaccines. Politicians, celebrities, the presidential election, film festivals, and mythical conspiracies all contributed to mainstream news and media story lines on the false link between vaccines and autism. Many of them had nothing to do with real science, nor were they the result of research findings that helped families.
But during the same period, a dozen new scientific findings were published on legitimate environmental factors, including toxic chemicals, maternal infection during pregnancy, and chronic stress. These rarely made headlines, with the media spotlight remaining on the myth. Yet knowledge and understanding of these real environmental factors could lead to actual therapies or ways to prevent the debilitating symptoms of autism.
Dr. Halladay’s article clarifies the often misunderstood concern about autism and “environmental factors”. She explains the difference between a “risk” and a “cause” and states that as of today, no single environmental factor has met the criteria for being a cause of autism. However, the latest scientific discoveries do suggest that “environmental factors appear to work together, or interact with genes, to lead to autism”. Below are few examples of the environmental factors she notes as having been linked to autism:
- Exposure to the anti-epileptic drug valproic acid during pregnancy
- Older age of the mother or father
- High levels of air pollution during pregnancy. This association has been subjected to a systematic review and withstood scientific rigor. Genes control this association.
- Extreme illness or infection during pregnancy, including severe reactions to bacterial and viral infections (some of which can be prevented through vaccination)
- Obesity during pregnancy, premature birth, and complications during birth, likely as the result of interactions with genes
Exposure to these factors elevates a child’s risk of developing autism anywhere between two and four times. An exhaustive review of these factors was just published in the Annual Review of Public Health.
Of course, no discussion of vaccines and autism would be complete without exploring the issue of mercury. Dr. Halladay laments the ongoing claims that mercury in vaccines may be the culprit for the increase in autism, particularly since ethyl mercury (also known as thimerosal) has not only been removed from nearly all childhood vaccines, but has also been exonerated as a potential cause based on an abundance of scientific evidence.
Dr. Halladay concludes her piece with a passionate plea. As someone who has dedicated her life to studying autism, she wants the media and the public to move on from the vaccine-autism conversation so that we can focus on real autism research:
Researchers and advocacy organizations have moved on from the vaccine-autism story line to focus on issues that truly affect families, such as understanding the real causes of autism, finding ways to diagnose it earlier, developing more effective treatments, and offering better access to those treatments. With every minute wasted talking about the autism-vaccine myth and every dollar spent on researching this dead end, we are losing ground and failing families who deserve real answers on the causes of autism and more help for their loved ones.
It is our hope that her message will be echoed by researchers, advocacy organizations and the general public, and that our readers will recognize the value of sharing this article with legislators and the media in order to educate them on their role in helping to change the narrative.
We are at a pivotal moment in time. It would be foolish and wasteful to spend precious resources rehashing a myth that we can confidently put behind us. Now is the time to focus on the real scientific discoveries that will lead to determinants of environmental risk factors for autism and beneficial treatments for families impacted by autism. As advocates for children, it is incumbent upon all of us to support the science that will lead to better health for all children.