Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lancet Retracts Study That Started Autism-Vaccine Movement.

At Science Progress, Chris Mooney writes that the British medical journal Lancethas retracted a 1998 study it published that kicked off a movement against vaccinations for children. The paper showed that MMR (measels, mumps, rubella) vaccine could cause intestinal problems. This finding was extrapolated into conjecture that the vaccine (and others) could also cause other behavioral disorders. Mooney writes:

The 1998 paper hit the British public like a thunderclap, triggering a decline in use of the MMR vaccine as well as a resurgence of the measles. It was the opening shot in the vaccine-autism controversy that still rages today (albeit in varied forms, not all of which still focus on the MMR vaccine). But the credibility of Wakefield’s work has since taken a steady stream of hits, culminating in this last devastating blow.

That steady stream includes a number of studies that undermined Wakefield’s findings, including a debunking series in The Times of London, and 10 of the 12 co-authors of the original study backing away from it in 2004. Mooney explains why systematically disproving Wakefield’s study has done nothing to quell the anti-vaccine fury:

Let’s pause for a moment here. We’re talking about a single, small study—on just 12 children—that stirred a mass anti-vaccine movement and a trend away from vaccination that threatens public health in some wealthy counties. Already, you should be wondering how it could be possible to build so much upon such a slender reed. But if you then consider the subsequent fate of the study, and the scandal that has attended it, a reasonable person would surely conclude that the original scare about the MMR vaccine and autism had no serious foundation whatsoever.

Here’s the thing, though. It seems obvious to all recent commentators—myself included—that the latest Wakefield news will have virtually no impact on Wakefield’s passionate followers, the anti-vaccine ideologues in the UK and United States who have long cheered him on, and will continue to do so. If anything, it will probably only make them still stronger in their convictions.

Following its original efflorescence in 1998, modern vaccine skepticism has taken many other forms than a focus on the MMR vaccine. In the United States, there has probably been much more concern about the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which used to be in many vaccines (however, thimerosal has long since been removed from most vaccines, and autism rates have not dropped). The movement is much bigger than Wakefield; but the continuing allegiance to Wakefield, despite all that has occurred, shows that we’re really dealing with something very irrational here, what Michael Specter calls “denialism.”

Mooney, co-author of the book Unscientific America: How Unscientific Theory Threatens Our Future, cites the primary causes of “denialism” as the “remote and haughty” medical industry and “conspiracy theory thinking.”

To this list I would also add our inability as a society to discern sound scientific reasoning from junk or pseudo-science. As we’ve struggled to keep intelligent design out of schools, to promote scientific education and the teaching of critical thought, and work to curtail the media’s overzealous touting of the outrageous, our foundational knowledge of scientific practice has woefully suffered.

The mother of an autistic child understandably needs someone to blame. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccine movement has curtailed search for the real cause of autism in order to promote purveyors of junk science.

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