January 9th, 2007

p53

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.

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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.)
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