Jenny McCarthy believes that, after being vaccinated, she could see a “regression” in her son. More specifically, she claims to have witnessed his regression into autism. Because of this, she cries that vaccines are unsafe, that too many are given too close together, and that these vaccines contain dangerous chemicals. Many other believe something similar. McCarthy also believes that her son was “cured” of his autism due to alternative therapies. In fact, there are a myriad of so-called alternative therapies and cures for autism out there, just like there are for numerous other illnesses. Some of these have some sort of ties to science, while others are pure hokum. Conventional medicine, however, maintains that autism has no cure, but there are treatments that may minimize the effects of autism. They also state that vaccines, and their current schedule are safe. So, what are the risks? What does science say about these cures? And what should a parent do with regards to vaccination?
Jenny McCarthy alleges that the current vaccination schedule is unsafe, mainly because of the number of vaccinations given in a short amount of time. The CDC, who are charged with a major role in dealing with many of the diseases we vaccinate against, state that not only are the vaccines themselves safe, so is the current schedule with which they are given. (CDC) They go on to state that vaccines are tested together to ensure that they are safe to give in one sitting. In addition, they all go through normal rigorous testing like many other medications. Giving these vaccinations together has been shown, time and time again, to be safe. A director at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia states that, “No vaccine can be put onto the schedule unless there is data showing it doesn’t interfere with the other vaccines’ (effectiveness) or safety.” He goes on to say that when parents make up there own vaccine schedule, they are “making something up that hasn’t been tested” and cannot be sure that it will be safe or effective. (Haelle) There are risks of minor reactions, like fevers and febrile seizures, but these are an infrequent occurrence and not a long-term risk. Beyond that, giving these vaccinations together is better for the parents and the child in the sense that it means fewer office visits and shots, a savings in money and tears. (CDC) The current schedule also provides some protection. One study found that delaying a certain vaccine, the risks of developing a febrile seizure doubles. (Haelle) In addition, a 2010 study out of the University of Louisville also found that children who had their vaccinations delayed faired no better on cognitive and behavioral tests as 7-10 years of age. (Haelle)
That is not to say that vaccines are risk free. Any vaccine has the potential to cause side effects, just as many medications do. Most of the time, these side effects are minor, such as a fever or soreness at the injection site, headache, nausea, or swelling. (CDC) However, in very rare circumstances, more serious issues can arise. Some of these serious complications may include deafness, seizures, coma, and death. These are seen in less than 0.03% of cases (and often even less frequently), and in some of the most serious issues, like coma and death, happen so rarely that it cannot actually be linked to the vaccine itself. (CDC) One thing that has never been proven, despite wide study, is that vaccinations cause autism. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, no connection has been found between autism and vaccination. (Mayo)
While some of these possible, but unlikely risks, may be terrifying, they pale in comparison to the risks taken when vaccination is skipped. It’s true that, statistically speaking, the chances of getting a disease for which vaccination is available are very low. However, some of these diseases are making a comeback now that vaccination is less common than it once was. This is an especially real possibility with the ever increasing number of people we see coming to this country from nations where vaccination is less common, either as immigrants or as tourists. While many today do not understand the reality of diseases like measles or polio, that does not mean that these diseases are harmless. Measles, for example, can lead to pneumonia in about 5% of cases. This pneumonia is the leading cause of death from measles in young people. In addition, about 0.1% of children will experience seizure and possible brain damage, with roughly 0.15% of children dying due to measles. (CDC) Sever complications from polio can include meningitis in about 4% of cases, and paralysis in 0.5% of cases. (CDC) Beyond this, many places require vaccination for children to attend school or participate in certain activities. Not vaccinating these children can lead to them missing out on important social interaction and social development. Children stand the potential to suffer greatly when they remain unvaccinated.
Jenny McCarthy also claims to have seen her child’s autism “cured” thanks to some unconventional medicine. While conventional medicine views autism as a disease that can be managed with therapies designed to mitigate some of the more challenging issues encountered by autistic individuals, some believe that autism can be cured. Some advocate for special diets, such as a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Others advocate for methods of removing heavy metals from the body, through a process known as chelation. Many others may be seen, as well.
A casein-free, gluten-free diet entails removing certain elements from the child’s diet. Casein is a protein found in milk, and this diet requires that all milk and milk by-products be removed from the diet. Gluten is a protein found in grains, and it must be removed as part of this diet. (Golnik) Dr. Hoecker of the Mayo Clinic definitively states that there is no evidence to support the use of a diet as a treatment for autism. He states that diets such as this can have a detrimental effect on growing children, as it can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Instead, he suggests that parents speak with a physician about treatment plans, as well as a dietician to develop an adequate meal plan. (Hoecker)
Chelation therapy is a legitimate treatment for removing heavy metals from patients in cases of poisoning. Specific drugs are used that bind to these heavy metals, allowing them to be flushed from the body. It is, however, important to note that this process can also remove essential electrolytes like calcium, which can have dangerous effects on the heart and brain. This therapy is based on the idea that autism is caused by mercury found in vaccines. The logic is that removing this mercury will cure the autism. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that mercury poisoning causes autism. (Novella) Dr. Hoecker weighs in again, stating that not only is there no evidence to support the use of chelation in autism, but that it can be very dangerous. (Hoecker)
The conventional treatment for autism consists of a combination of behavioral and educational programs. These do not claim to cure autism, but instead attempt to mitigate the disease and prepare those afflicted to live productive lives. Applied Behavior Analysis has a large amount of evidence supporting its effectiveness. It consists of encouraging positive behaviors and reducing negative ones, typically by teaching a more appropriate skill. This has been shown to lead to large gains with intensive work in young children. Developmental models are another approach. These focus on meeting the child at their level and building on their current strengths to construct new skills. There are also Relationship-based models that use the parents to focus on relationships and create a desire to live in a changing world. A combination of some of these is quite common. (Golnik)
In the end, from the public health perspective, the answer should be clear. Autism afflicts roughly 1 in 68 children, to varying degrees. (CDC) These children may have a harder life, but not one that compares to the potential harm caused by diseases like measles and polio. It would seem that our society has decided that a mental disability is more fearful than a disease with the very real potential to severely injure, or kill, our children. While there may be a rush to condemn vaccination based on very suspect science, we must not forget the terror that these other diseases have brought. While smallpox is considered to be eradicated now, it was a horrible disease. Now, we have no reason to fear it. And that is thanks to vaccination. Today, I have no reason to be concerned about illnesses like polio and measles, because I was vaccinated. In truth, most unvaccinated children in the US have little to fear from these diseases because the majority are vaccinated, and herd immunity protects them. Without vaccination, however, the strength of that immunity dwindles. Vaccination works, to put it simply. Using the MMR vaccine as a reference, a single dose provides immunity in about 93% of people. With a second dose, that rises to 97%. (CDC) While that is not 100%, thanks to herd immunity, the remaining 3% are still well protected. Without requiring vaccinations, those 3% will always run the risk of falling ill through no fault of their own. Public health seeks to protect the greatest number of people, and vaccination is the way to do just that.
In the end, autism is a terrible disease. However, there is no legitimate science to suggest that it is tied to vaccinations. Our vaccines have been carefully studied, and tested. The schedule used to administer them has been as well. That is not to say that it could not be safer, but varying from it offers no benefit. Instead, it can cause harm. And, if your child happens to be autistic, there will be a myriad of treatment options. However, it is important to educate yourself about them. Special diets and treatments like chelation may offer hope, but they lack scientific support. They also can pose great risks. Behavioral therapy may not offer a sexy cure, but studies have shown that it can offer great benefits. In the end, autism is a disease that cannot be cured, but rather managed. And there is not evidence to support a link between vaccines in autism. And even if there was, quiet honestly, how is autism worse that death? Through vaccination, there is no increased risk of autism, but there is decreased risk of other terrible diseases, not only for those vaccinated, but for all.