My Personal Reflections on Discredited Link Between Vaccines and Autism
Yesterday Health Day News reported that The Lancet, an international medical journal, had retracted a study originally published in 1998 which had been led by researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield. This particular study had far reaching implications as it linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (the MMR) to the development of autism in children. If you are a parent who has a child with autism you are most likely familiar with the name of Doctor Wakefield and his theory that the MMR vaccine somehow causes autism. My son is now fourteen so by the time I heard about this study, my son had already had this shot and had been diagnosed with autism.
I was a witness to this controversy from the beginning and watched it rage out of control until parents were attempting to sue their child's pediatrician or the vaccine companies themselves. The time and cost of such litigation was astronomical. In 2003 the British Medical Journal reported that legal aid funds were no longer forthcoming for parents in England wishing to sue based on the claim that the MMR shots had caused their child's autism. This decision was based upon the lack of any research to support a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Another casualty in this war about vaccines has been the health of children. Many parents were frightened by Wakefield's research and declined to vaccinate their children. As a result we are now seeing a resurgence of measles, once thought to be eradicated. This medical news report states: "It is now thought that 2 to 3 per cent of American school children are under-vaccinated because their parents are opting out on principle." In England there are reports of hospitalizations and even deaths caused by this resurgence of measles.
It cannot be disputed that there has been a cost in time, money, personal anxiety and fear, and the health of our children due to this vaccine controversy. So what can we learn from this?
As I mentioned previously, I was a witness from the beginning to the "vaccine wars" as some people dub this controversy. I had joined many on-line support groups after my son was diagnosed with autism. And one theme kept coming up over and over again. There were many parents who were looking for a cause for their child's autism or special needs. If you think the vaccine controversy is limited just to autism, think again. There are organizations out there who are linking the vaccines to things like asthma and ADHD as well.
When I first heard about the scares of the MMR vaccine I must admit, I felt frightened. Many parents were telling these stories about how their children became physically ill and/or regressed after having their shots. Many of these people were my friends and acquaintances on-line. All of a sudden these support groups became a place of hostility and divisions were created between "believers" and "non-believers." The whole vaccine controversy became more akin to a religious crusade. Logic and research was thrown out the window. Facts became less important than emotions. As a result I felt more and more helpless. If I chose to cast doubt in either direction I was considered a potential threat or even an enemy to a cause. As I write this now, I feel tremendous anxiety of offending people who still fervently believe that the MMR vaccine had hurt their child. All I can say is that I believe that they believe. No words, logic, or research will sway some individuals from what they feel happened to their child.
I remember talking to a neighbor of mine who just had a baby. She knew about my son's autism and she showed me some news article about the MMR controversy and she asked me in all earnestness if she should vaccinate her baby. She wanted to know if I felt the vaccine had caused my son's autism. It was then that I knew that this fear was not limited to autism circles. This had now become a mainstream source of anxiety. Then there was the time that I was at the playground with my son. A dad approached me and asked me if my son had autism. When I said yes he then proceeded to tell me that it was probably caused by the MMR shot. It was becoming more and more of the norm to accept that the MMR was a cause of autism than it was to question it.
There was a point in all of this where I wanted to scream out, "I don't know why my kid has autism! I just want to help him NOW!" Any and every support group I went to, the parents only seemed to want to talk about one of two subjects, cures or causes. After years of hearing these theories I became overly saturated with the topic of autism. I simply didn't want to hear any more about it. For several years I stopped going to support groups entirely. I didn't want to waste any more time reading about potential causes or cures. These topics did no good for my mental health or for my journey towards acceptance. Time is so very valuable. I wanted to spend it with my son, not talking about causes. My son is not a cause or a crusade. He is a little boy who needs me.
Every parent who has a child with ADHD, autism, or other special needs will always be faced with the decision of where to place their energy and time. There is heart break when you find that your child must live with lifelong challenges. You may feel angry. You may feel helpless. You may ask the eternal question of "why?" Even if we someday do know why, it doesn't take away the fact that your child has the condition or disorder that they have right now. Time only goes one way, forward. You can't go back. I will leave the scientists with the responsibility of figuring out the causes. As the serenity prayer so eloquently states:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
I don't know the cause of my son's autism. I have no control over causes or cures. But I can love and teach my son to the very best of my ability. I can accept my son and the challenges we face together. I can experience the joy and gratitude inherent in a lifetime journey of parenting a very special boy. And no amount of research on causes will ever change that.