One of the most popular claims in the anti-vaccination literature is that vaccines (usually the MMR vaccine) are linked to autism1. One reason that this claim remains popular is that there is one study2 that anti-vaccine advocates use to “support” their claim. This study examined 12 patients and suggested that there might be a connection between the MMR vaccine and a bowel obstruction from which they suffered. The authors of the study then speculated this bowel obstruction could cause a loss in nutritional absorption in the small intestine, which could lead to developmental disorders such as autism. Of course, any study that even hints of such a connection should be taken seriously, but the tiny sample of patients certainly cast doubt on the conclusions. Thus, larger studies were implemented to determine if, indeed, there was a link between the MMR vaccine and bowel disorders or autism. As discussed elsewhere on this site subsequent large-scale studies showed absolutely no link.
In the medical community, those studies put the case to rest. However, anti-vaccination advocates will not discuss the results of these large-scale studies and instead continue to hype the claims of the original small study that was published in 1998. Well, Dr. Simon Murch, one of the authors of that study has finally had enough. In a letter to the editor published in the Lancet, Dr. Murch stated:3
“There is now unequivocal evidence that MMR is not a risk factor for autism – this statement is not spin or medical conspiracy, but reflects an unprecedented volume of medical study on a worldwide basis.”
Why did Murch come forward to denounce his own study? There seem to be two reasons. First, he recognizes that because of the effectiveness of anti-vaccine propaganda, the vaccination rates in the UK (where he resides) have reached a low of 84%. This means that measles is being reestablished in the UK and that deadly epidemics are possible this winter. Perhaps he feels somewhat responsible for this, despite the fact that he is not to blame. Only those who misuse his research are to blame. His study hinted at a possible problem. It is good scientific procedure to publish the study so as to encourage further research. However, now that the subsequent research overwhelmingly shows that his initial conclusion was wrong, it is also good science to admit that and move on.
There seems to be a second reason. Dr. Murch is a medical doctor and, as such, cares for his patients. He is astonished at how the parents of his patients completely ignore medical science when it comes to their own children. In his words:
“We’ve seen well over 300 children with autism, and even in cases where there is clearly a genetic cause of autism or when there were problems manifesting in the first year, parents are still fixated on MMR,” he said. “It’s a natural human reaction. They want something to blame for such a tragic event.”4
It is time for the anti-vaccination advocates to come clean. When one of the authors of the only study to which they can point clearly says that the study was wrong, it is time to stop referencing the study. Of course, given the track record of the anti-vaccination movement, I doubt that this will happen!
1. See, for example, (Think Twice)
2. Wakefield AJ, et al., “Ileal lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and regressive developmental disorder in children.” Lancet, 351:637-41, 1998.
3. Murch, S., “Separating Inflammation from Speculation in Autism” Lancet 362:1498, 2003
Dr. Wile is not a medical doctor. He is a nuclear chemist. As a result, he does not dispense medical advice. He simply educates the public about scientific issues. Please consult a board-certified medical doctor before making any medical decisions for yourself or your family.