Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

MMR does not cause autism!

I've been annoyed for a long time about the MMR autism scare. Well, annoyed is an understatement; I'm between furious and thoroughly discouraged about humanity at the combination of scientific ignorance and sensationalism which has created a "controversy" where none should exist. The artificial controversy is not just a matter of academic interest, it has serious medical consequences. It has led to an epidemiologically significant proportion of parents refusing to let their children be vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, which means these diseases are becoming prevalent again. That means children are at risk of permanent disability and death from a cause which is almost completely preventable.

I can't do anything about this, not even on the small scale where my actions would have any effect anyway. Because the story has been presented as a controversy, anything I might say about the topic is taken as taking one side in a polarized debate. There are plenty of people who feel equally passionately that MMR might cause autism, so people can pick either view based on who has the strongest arguments or the most emotive rhetoric. But the prevalence of the wrong view here is lethal.

Just this week, I was following links from LJ to news stories, and I learned that the whole idea of link between the triple vaccine and autism was invented by unscrupulous lawyers. It's not only that the original study which showed possible evidence of a link was over-hyped to a ridiculous point, because people don't understand about sample sizes. It's that the original study was fabricated, because the charlatan calling himself a scientist was paid to generate data that would be favourable to the legal case so people could make money by suing health providers.

I'd heard rumours about the payments before, but I'd interpreted it charitably as someone who had a particular pet theory and was willing to take money from whomever would provide it to pursue an unpopular hypothesis. But now it seems the unspeakable scum who "funded" the original "study" even went as far as paying the referees to accept a weak paper. So, not just one person but quite a number of people were willing to pervert legal justice, and scientific integrity, and expose the whole population, especially children, to unnecessary and potentially lethal risk. In effect, they were willing to kill. And for what? Not for career advancement, not for self-aggrandisement, not even because of getting overly attached to the first interpretation of preliminary data (though I think the prime culprit probably had those bad motivations as well), but for money.

I suppose one advantage of this thoroughly nasty business is that it might be obvious enough to make people belatedly wake up and realize they have no reason to be scared of the MMR vaccine. If the causing autism thing was obviously faked, and the people behind the fake are obviously, melodramatically evil, that's perhaps easier to grasp than the idea that the original data possibly suggested a link but later, more detailed analysis showed that the evidence doesn't stand up. With all the controversy and its wide-ranging legal and medical rammifications, the absence of a measurable link between the vaccine and autism has been demonstrated more thoroughly than just about any other attempt to prove a negative in all of scientific history. It's a pity that so much research effort has gone into refuting something which should never have seen the light of day in the first place, but it is absolutely and convincingly refuted.

One part of the problem is that detailed scientific evidence against the original shock story isn't headline-grabbing. It's much more romantic to believe in a few brave souls fighting against the evil medical establishment to protect children from the nasty vaccine, than to appreciate that the original data doesn't hold up to scrutiny. But if it was all fabricated in the first place, by vile scum who care more about financial gain than human life, it's understandable and not at all surprising that subsequent work showed it was baseless.

So, a combination of scientific forgery and unscrupulous media reporting led to a lot of people believing that being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella simultaneously would cause autism. As a result, about 1 in 5 of the children who would otherwise have been vaccinated in the last ten years have not been vaccinated. This means that the population immunity is below the critical threshold; unfortunately, this means that even those who are vaccinated are at increased risk because no vaccine is perfect, so you need a big enough proportion of the population to be vaccinated so that the disease can't spread. At least one child has died of measles in that time; maybe he would have died anyway, but no child in the UK died of measles in the decade before the controversy broke.

I think the problem goes deeper than just people holding false beliefs about the vaccine, though. Part of the issue is that people think that measles, mumps and rubella are just minor ailments that lead to nothing worse than feeling miserable for a few days, whereas autism is this big horrible scary thing. I think it's important to emphasize that autism is neither infectious nor lethal, unlike measles and mumps. And that in turn is part of the stigma against mental illness and intellectual disability, which leads to horrors like this. (Thanks to rho, for making me despair of humanity even more than when I started writing this post.)
Tags: rant

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