Autism and Vaccine Awareness day

By Jillian Correira

Flickr/Thompson Rivers

The Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month in April since the 1970s. Autism is a developmental disease which manifests itself in various ways during the first three years of a child’s life, and affects their ability to communicate with others. Autism is diagnosed on a “spectrum,” meaning multiple children with autism will have it to varying degrees of severity.

Regardless of rumors, there is no single known cause for autism. It is widely accepted, however, that it relates to “abnormalities in brain structure or function,” according to the Autism Society. There is also no single known gene that causes autism, but explored theories of origin include heredity, genetics and other medical issues.

Doctors and scientists also continue to research environmental causes and effects of autism, including toxins like mercury, which could harm a person with the disease more significantly than those without it.

But the causes of autism remain somewhat mysterious, which means there is space for wild speculation and theories. One of the most pervasive rumors of the last 15 years has been that vaccines cause, or in some way are, related to the development of autism. Not only is this a false assumption, but dangerous to those with the affliction, especially children, and based entirely on a fallacious medical publication.

In the late 1990s, a paper was published in the medical journal, The Lancet, claiming the MMR vaccine — used to cure measles, mumps and rubella — could possibly cause Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). And despite the fact that this scholarly article has been disproven, about 18 percent of Americans are convinced the shot does cause autism, and another 30 percent are not sure.

Because of this, some parents choose not to vaccinate their children, especially from ages one to two. Their fear comes from the belief that too many vaccines at once, and at such a young age, will somehow trigger an ASD. But according to the Journal of Pediatrics, this isn’t so.

Thimerosal, used as a preservative in many childhood vaccines, had been studied particularly closely in regards to its possible stimulation of ASDs, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And even though a link between this ingredient and autism was never found, it was removed completely or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines, excluding a type of flu shot (for which there is an alternative) in 2001.

Though all of these facts are immediately available for most people to find, the myth still circulates. I blame this, in part, on celebrity exposure. In 2007, actress and model Jenny McCarthy announced her belief in the vaccine theory ever since her son was diagnosed with autism three years earlier.

I’m sure Jenny McCarthy genuinely believes vaccines cause autism. But as a person of public interest, she must also genuinely believe that her words will influence hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, people who will take that word and interpret it as fact.

To illustrate this, according to a survey of parents by the University of Michigan, 24 percent place “some trust” in celebrities like McCarthy for their opinions on vaccines. That is 24 percent  too many. And probably to McCarthy’s dissatisfaction, a website exists using her name, the Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which tallies the number of vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths from 2007 on.

Though the website is cryptic, it does highlight the real danger of the anti-vaccination movement: the lack of concern for what happens to children if they are not properly immunized, especially as babies. These shots exist for a reason: to keep children healthy and disease-free while their immune system is still fragile and under-developed. Refusing vaccinations means you’re putting other children at risk for catching an illness your child might contract, especially in schools.

Many vaccine-opposing parents are under the impression that their child is not at risk because some of the diseases for which they’re being immunized, like rubella and polio, aren’t as common as they used to be. And while this demonstrates the effectiveness of vaccines, it does not mean an outbreak won’t happen in the future.

Millions of people travel in and out of the country each day carrying unknown contagions with them, meaning a vaccine-preventable disease could spread at any time. Over the last decade, pertussis (whooping cough) has reemerged, when it was thought to have been eliminated in the United States.

In 2008, the World Health Organization estimated that 1.5 million deaths in children under the age of five were due to vaccine-preventable diseases. That represents 17 percent of global total mortality in children under five.

This number could be drastically reduced if more parents chose to ignore the absurdity of rumors connecting vaccinations with autism and other developmental disorders. Vaccines are safe, and until proven otherwise, it is unnecessary for parents to willingly deny them to their children.

Jillian Correira is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]