Amidst dangerous, pseudoscientific propaganda linking vaccines to autism, a study actually found that children suffering from autism, as well as their siblings, are actually less likely to be vaccinated.
All it takes is one bad study
Before we start discussing this new study, let's get the elephant out of the room, shall we? In 1998, a man called Andrew Wakefield published a study linking the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to cases of colitis and autism spectrum disorders. The study led to a sharp decline in vaccination rates and spurred a number of large epidemiological studies and reviews -- all of which reported no connection between vaccines and autism or colitis.
Since replicability is one of the most important pillars of science and no one could replicate Wakefield's results, this raised questions about the validity of his findings. After these questions were raised, people started looking more closely at the study itself, and that's when it all became clear.
A 2004 investigation by Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield's part. Deer passed his investigation on to the British Medical Journal, which found that his paper was essentially a fraud -- Wakefield had just falsified results to fit his desired narrative.
The British General Medical Council (GMC) also conducted an inquiry into allegations of misconduct against Wakefield and two former colleagues, finding evidence of fraudulent activities and reporting that Wakefield had simply falsified results. The Lancet, the journal in which his paper was published, issued a complete retraction. Editor-in-chief Richard Horton described it as "utterly false" and said that the journal had been "deceived".
Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register, meaning he could no longer practice as a doctor in the UK.
Since then, no other study has ever found any connection between vaccines and autism -- after all, it was just one blatantly fraudulent paper and nothing else. However, this has proven sufficient to spur a long-lasting fear of vaccines, with numerous outbreaks (including fatal cases) due to Wakefield-inspired anti-vaccine propaganda.
Let's write it out clearly: extensive research has shown that vaccines don't cause autism. Wakefield was a fraud. Anti-vaxxing is a dangerous, pseudoscientific trend that threatens the well-being of kids and adults all around the planet. There. I've said it. Now let's move on to the real science.
Now, on to the good study
To this day, you can't say vaccines and autism in the same sentence without spurring a heated debate -- and yet this study managed to find a different correlation between the two. They found that kids diagnosed with the autism spectrum disease (ASD) are significantly less likely to have been vaccinated than their counterparts.
"In this large and comprehensive study, we found that after children received an autism diagnosis, the rates of vaccination were significantly lower when compared with children of the same age who did not have an autism diagnosis," said lead author Ousseny Zerbo, PhD, postdoctoral fellow with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research.
Zerbo and his colleagues analyzed more than 3,700 children with autism spectrum disorders diagnosed by 5 years of age, and nearly 500,000 children without ASD, as well as their younger siblings. They report that 94% of children aged 7 or older without an ASD received all recommended vaccinations between 4 and 6 years of age -- compared with 82% of those with an ASD. Interestingly, this trend also carried to the siblings of children suffering from an ASD.
The study was only observational -- it didn't attempt to explore any causal relationship between the two. However, it raises a significant red flag, which will hopefully be explored in future studies. It does call for a change, promoting more dialogue between parents and doctors, and explaining that the anti-vaxx trend is just that -- a trend, without any science to back it up.
"Numerous scientific studies have reported no association between childhood vaccination and the incidence of autism spectrum disorders," said co-author Frank DeStefano, MD, MPH, Immunization Safety Office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Nonetheless, this new study suggests that many children with autism and their younger siblings are not being fully vaccinated.
"We need to better understand how to improve vaccination levels in children with autism spectrum disorder and their siblings, so they can be fully protected against vaccine-preventable diseases."
The study has been published in JAMA Pediatrics. 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.0082