7 August 2013

MMR and Autism

Mumps may cause sterility and deafness.
Measles may cause brain damage and death.
(Artiklu bil-Malti: It-Tilqima tal-MMR u l-Awtiżmu)

Several parents asked me about this article on the MMR vaccine and autism. There is no new information in the article but of course it scares parents by its false and wild claims.

The results of Dr Wakefield's study (involving 12 children, published in 1998) were not reproduced by other independent scientists. On the contrary several large studies have not shown that there is a causative link between MMR and autism. Dr Wakefield is not a victim as portrayed in the article but the culprit responsible for so much misinformation and fear that has left so many children at risk of serious complications from mumps and measles.

The ruling by the court in Italy in 2012 relied partly on Wakefield's fraudulent study. It did not prove that the vaccine caused autism in the individual case involved, but only that it could reasonably be the cause ('potrebbe ragionevolmente essere'). The fact that the boy developed signs of autism after he received the vaccine certainly does not necessarily imply that the vaccine was the cause.

Since autism often presents in the second year of life (which happens to be the time when the first dose of MMR is administered) there were and there will be similar cases where the vaccine will be blamed for the disorder.

However two events may follow each other without having a cause and effect relationship. Some children will develop the first signs of autism following an infection, a head injury or travel abroad - but that does not mean that any of those events cause autism. The relationship is purely coincidental.

Sadly about 1 in 100 children will develop autism (mostly in the second year of life) whether or not they are given the MMR vaccine. There is no association between MMR and the development of autism. This fact has been conclusively proved over and over again by several scientific studies involving hundreds of thousands of children in different countries.

Parents worry when they read articles such as the one above, and I fully sympathise with them. As a parent and as a paediatrician I hope that I can reassure you about the vaccine safety and encourage you to protect your children by giving them the MMR vaccine as recommended by the health authorities all over the world.

Further reading:

1. Statement by Maltese Paediatric Associatiaon
2, Autism Speaks
3. MMR Vaccine - NHS website
4. It-Tilqima tal-MMR u l-Awtiżmu

Updated 18 November 2013 (adds link to MPA statement)