Yet another study has debunked the notion that vaccines cause autism. Late last month, a committee of 18 highly respected doctors, professors, legal experts and epidemiologists empanelled by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies and articles and found "no links between immunization and . . . autism."
As the Chairwoman of the panel, Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, put it, "The M.M.R. [Measles-Mumps-Rubella] vaccine doesn’t cause autism, and the evidence is overwhelming that it doesn't."
But for some reason, parents are increasingly skipping or delaying shots for their children. Government officials everywhere from New York to Idaho have reported that refusals to immunize are becoming more common.
This trend is deeply disturbing. Simply put, vaccines save lives. By failing to inoculate their kids, parents are allowing junk science to put the health of their children -- as well as the health of those around them -- at risk.
Unfortunately, the mythical link between vaccines and autism has proved remarkably resilient. And it's all because of one measly 1998 study from British doctor Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield claimed that thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury sometimes present in vaccines, caused autism in the 12 cases he studied.
In the 13 years since, Wakefield has been discredited over and over. He's been stripped of his license to practice medicine for making up the facts at the core of his study. And myriad organizations -- including The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Food and Drug Administration -- have concluded that there's no evidence linking vaccination and autism.
But no amount of proof seems to be able to put the myth to rest. "I think this report says that the science is inadequate," said Sallie Bernard, the head of a group that contends that vaccines and autism are linked.
Another self-described autism advocate wrote of this most recent IOM review, "I myself feel bludgeoned by reports of the definitive safety of vaccines. Trouble is, the more they say it, the less I believe it."
That tortured logic speaks for itself.
The irony is that the persistence of the autism-vaccine theory has scientists chasing their tails, wasting valuable time, money, and brainpower on lawsuits and public relations that would be better spent finding the real cause of autism.
The CDC has tried to dispel concerns about the alleged autism link for years. In 1999, the CDC and other public health agencies recommended that thimerosal be removed from all vaccines as a precautionary measure. Vaccines were reformulated; since March 2001, they've been thimerosal-free.
If thimerosal caused autism -- as Wakefield contended -- then you'd expect the incidence of the disorder to decrease. But it's only increased in the past decade.
And yet vaccines still get the blame.
Doctors consider immunization one of the most powerful weapons in our public health arsenal. Thankfully, despite the bleating of misinformed activists, vaccination rates are increasing -- albeit slightly. Fresh statistics from the CDC indicate that after a dip in 2009, the national vaccination rate for toddlers is rising again to about 90 percent.
But there are pockets of the country where the news isn't so good. Twenty states, including California, which suffered an outbreak of whooping cough last year, allow parents to bypass vaccination requirements when registering their children for school because of their personal beliefs. In the past decade, the number of California parents choosing to exercise this exemption has tripled.
In Santa Cruz County, near San Francisco, almost 1 in 10 kids will go to school without their vaccinations this year. At several schools, more than half of students are unvaccinated. In 2005 and 2006, the County’s Health Services Agency surveyed the families choosing the exemption and found that they were overwhelmingly college-educated, white, insured, and affluent.
Perhaps willful disregard for science is a luxury good.
Anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy once said, "I do believe sadly it's going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe."
Unfortunately, the former may be coming true -- even as science has already proven the latter. The United States is on track this year to have the most reported measles cases in a decade, and three states have reported major outbreaks of whooping cough in the past two years. Amazingly, both diseases can be prevented -- and even eradicated entirely -- with a simple shot.
Yet children continue to be at risk because of an urban legend seemingly immune to modern science. The public health is far too valuable to be threatened by such myths.
Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Taube Fellow in Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The Truth About Obamacare (Regnery 2010).