No, vaccinations do not cause autism

Alanna Carlson | Columnist

Childhood vaccinations have been a hot topic in the public sphere for at least a couple decades, but the recent measles outbreak in Washington state has brought the conversation to the forefront of many discussions, especially for those of us who live in Washington. According to the Washington State Department of Health, at time of writing, the outbreak in Washington state alone has reached 52 confirmed cases since the start of the year—and it’s only February.

Roughly 20 years ago, measles was declared eliminated as a major health problem. And yet for the past several years, the number of measles outbreaks in the United States has skyrocketed, with 667 confirmed cases in 2014 alone—the most in over a decade—according to numbers reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to those same numbers, there were 79 confirmed cases of measles nationwide in January of this year alone. If that rate stays constant for the rest of the year, 2019 have the most confirmed cases of measles in two decades at 948 cases by the end of the year.

The large majority of this is, of course, completely preventable. There is a relatively affordable and accessible solution to the increased measles outbreaks of the past several years. That solution is the MMR vaccine. But this option only works in preventing outbreaks if the overwhelming majority of a given population has the vaccine. According to the New York Times, “epidemiologists generally consider the threshold for preventing public measles outbreaks to be a vaccination rate of 93 percent or higher.” Despite this, every state in the U.S. allows parents to refuse vaccinations for their children for medical or religious reasons, and Washington state is one of 17 states that also allow parents to refuse vaccination of their children for “unspecified personal or philosophical reasons,” according to the New York Times.

One of the major “personal reasons” that many parents choose not to vaccinate their children is due to the widely debunked theory that vaccines cause autism. This theory is utter nonsense, made popular by a study by Andrew Wakefield and associates which included a small handful of autistic children and gave no substantial statistics to back up its claims. The study, originally published in Lancet, was later disavowed by almost every author and withdrawn from the journal, according to the New York Times. Since that farce of a medical study, there have been innumerable larger and more reliable studies that have found no link between vaccinations and autism. And yet there is a substantial cohort of people who persist in believing that vaccines will somehow magically make their children autistic, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Not only is the idea that vaccines cause autism completely untrue, the reasoning behind refusing to vaccinate one’s children on the off-chance that it might cause autism is also fundamentally flawed. Let’s assume for a moment that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism in a small portion of children who receive them. Even if that were true—which, again, there is ample evidence that it is not—is having an autistic child really better than having a severely crippled or even dead child? Many of the diseases that have been eradicated by vaccines are deadly. Smallpox, polio, and measles are all examples of diseases that are potentially deadly or permanently debilitating for young children. All three of these diseases have seem troubling resurgence in the past several years, according to the WHO and the CDC. Are we really so afraid of mental illness as a society that we would rather risk the actual lives of our children than have autistic children?

Very young infants, who are unable to receive most vaccinations, are especially at risk during large outbreaks like the measles epidemic in Washington state. Some children are immunocompromised and cannot receive vaccines. When parents refuse to vaccinate their children for “personal reasons,” they are putting not just their own children at risk, but the lives of innumerable other children as well. Vaccines protect our society, and the excuse that they might cause autism is both scientifically unfounded and morally unsound. It is time to start requiring parents to vaccinate their children.