Day By Day

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Collapse of Scientific Authority (cont.) -- Immunization and Autism

Theodore Dalrymple [Anthony Daniels] reports on a medical scare that wasn't.
A British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper in The Lancet suggesting that [Maurice] Hilleman’s combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine was responsible for the development of childhood autism. The paper was very bad science, even had it been honestly reported; but Wakefield neglected to mention that the majority of his cases were sent to him by a litigation lawyer who hoped for a legal bonanza. The paper, however, had its effect, both in Britain and the United States; immunization rates declined.

It is hardly surprising that parents who have an autistic child should seek an explanation for it; and it is a natural human tendency to suppose that if event B followed hard upon event A, then event A caused event B. A number of parents observed the first signs of autism in their children soon after immunization with MMR vaccine, and therefore proved only too receptive to Wakefield’s ill-founded hypothesis.

Not long after the hypothesis was laid to rest by research in several countries, which showed no connection between immunization with MMR vaccine and autism, another, similar hypothesis sprouted: that the mercury-containing thimerosal, included in vaccines to prevent bacterial contamination, was responsible for the development of autism. This hypothesis likewise wound up disproved; but on the principle that there is no smoke without fire, many people are now skeptical about childhood immunization, even with epidemiological evidence in its favor. And medically unproblematic childhood survival is now so normal that we forget what part immunization against common and often deadly diseases has played in bringing it about.

Read it here.

I remember hearing this immunization/autism scare being eagerly broadcast on both TV and radio, and the general thrust of the charges was that big corporations and government officials were conspiring to hide the truth from the public. Don Imus, at the prodding of his hysterical wife, devoted a huge amount of time to these charges.

In an advertising-saturated culture in which spin is everything it is quite natural and sometimes appropriate to assume that you are being lied to, and most people routinely make that assumption with regard to all official sources of information. But as Dr. Daniels points out, pervasive skepticism and a willingness to believe the worst is ultimately a dysfunctional stance because it can lead to such things as a refusal to have children immunized against harmful and potentially fatal diseases.