Thursday, February 12, 2015

Measles, Vaccines and Autism

By Thomas J. Sowell

The current controversy over whether parents should be forced to have their children vaccinated for measles is one of the painful signs of our times. Measles was virtually wiped out in the United States, years ago. Why the resurgence of this disease now?

The short answer is that false claims, based on other false claims, led many parents to stop getting their children vaccinated against measles.

The key false claim was that
the vaccine for measles caused an increase in autism. This claim was made in 1998 by a doctor writing in a distinguished British medical journal, so it is understandable that many parents took it seriously, and did not want to run the risk of having their child become autistic.

Fortunately, others took the claim seriously in a very different sense. They did massive studies involving half a million children in Denmark and two million children in Sweden. These studies showed that there was no higher incidence of autism among children who had been vaccinated than among children who had not been vaccinated.

Incidentally, the "evidence" on which the original claim that vaccines caused autism was based was just 12 children. But the campaign to convince the public was a masterpiece of propaganda.

The story line was that pharmaceutical companies who produced the vaccine were callously risking and sacrificing helpless children in pursuit of profit. This is the kind of dramatic stuff the media love. It never seemed to occur to the media that lawyers who were suing pharmaceutical companies had a vested interest in this story line that the media fed on to the public.

Unfortunately, it takes time to run careful scientific studies, involving vast numbers of children in different countries. That allowed the propaganda against vaccines to go on for years. Eventually, however, the results of the studies so completely discredited the claim that the measles vaccine caused autism that the medical journal which had published the article publicly repudiated it. The doctor who wrote the article had his license revoked.

By this time, however, there was a whole anti-vaccine movement, and crusading movements are seldom stopped by facts.

This was not the only false claim involved. What made that claim seem plausible was a highly publicized increase in the number of children diagnosed as being autistic or being "on the autism spectrum."

What was not so widely publicized was that the definition of "autism" had expanded over the years to include children who would never have been called autistic by the standards set up when autism was defined by its discoverer, Professor Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins medical school, back in 1943.

Professor Kanner fought against the expansion of the definition of autism but, after his death, the definition continued to expand — and the number of children who met the expanded definition greatly increased.

There were financial incentives for this expansion. Late-talking children, for example, could get government programs to pay for their treatment if they were designated as autistic or on the autism spectrum.

Despite headlines and hysteria about skyrocketing numbers of children diagnosed as autistic, the number of children who meet the original definition of autism has been relatively stable in recent years, at about one quarter of one percent of all children, according to Professor Stephen Camarata of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in his recent book, "Late-Talking Children."

It may be significant that the number of children regarded as mentally retarded has fallen by numbers similar to the rise in the number of children regarded as autistic. According to Professor Camarata, "This too suggests that changes in definitions and in diagnostic practices are contributing to the perceived 'epidemic' of autism."

Does this mean that vaccines are safe? In a categorical sense, nothing on the face of the earth is 100 percent safe — including going unvaccinated. But the claim that vaccines cause autism has been discredited by evidence.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is author of Intellectuals and Raceand Economic Facts and Fallacies.


  1. I think Thomas Sowell is far out to lunch on this one. The vaccine-autism link is a red herring. What people really want to know is: Are vaccines safe, and are we getting the full story about their safety? Autism is only a part of that. Just read the warning label on the mmr vaccine - DEATH (heard of it?) is a know possible side effect. I bet there are a lot of parents out there wishing their kid only came down with autism after receiving the vaccine. And there's a wide spectrum of brain damage that doesn't diagnostically include autism. Is a "tic" autism? What about Tourette's? Hey, maybe it's me that's crazy and I should just blindly trust the CDC. Oops!:

  2. "But the claim that vaccines cause autism has been discredited by evidence."

    This is analogous to how the claim that money printing causes inflation has been discredited by evidence. When will Sowell embrace the money printers?

  3. well who knows?

  4. The fact of the matter is that the vaccine manufacturers are exempt from product liability insurance requirements that apply to all other commercial products since 1986 vaccine act signed by Reagan. So let's see...a product that must be exempt from liabiity insurance by government fiat in order to make a profit but uses government agency recommendation to compel third party payors to cover the price for its customers and is required for entry to government school. So, yeah, something tells me that these products couldn't survive in the market well before Andrew Wakefield came along.
    what other commercial products are exempt from liabilty insurance requirements?

  5. My understanding is that Wakefield is not anti vaccine or even anti measles vaccine but that based on their research the MMR vaccine should not be administered until further studies were conducted.

    Another thing, why is the "resurgence" of the measles blamed on those that choose not to vaccinate? Considering that the rates of MMR vaccine is above 90% maybe it is the vaccine that has failed.

    Alex Z

    1. The places where measles is resurging are places where the vaccination rate is below 90%. The LA area where the Disney resurgence happened, has a particularly low vaccination rate because of all the rich, liberal, anti-gmo organic only types who fear anything that has "chemicals." Notice that only 2 or 3 of the 88 or so kids who got infected had the MMR vaccine. This is to be expected because the MMR is only 95% effective, which is why medical doctors now recommend a second round to bring the effectiveness up to 99%. But everyone else was either too young to be vaccinated or were unvaccinated children of anti-vax parents. I'm not in favor of forced vaccination as that would just be immoral, but it's a pretty darn good idea to trust your medical doctor and get vaccinated. After all, basic opportunity cost principle says that while you were spending your time learning how to run a business or how to design an automobile or whatever, you were not studying medicine, but the doctors were. They trust you to design a good car or run a successful business, you should trust them to give sound medical advice.

    2. Link please to the "2 or 3 of the 88..." Thanks!

      Here is a good article by an MD:

    3. My understanding was that the majority of measles victims at the Disneyland outbreak were adults not kids. They may be considered unvaccinated if they haven't had boosters. There are also mentioned some victims for which vaccination statys could not be documented. These also sound like adults. As far as the infants too young to be vaccinated, pre-vaccines, these presumably breastfed infants would have had immunity from their mothers who would have had natural immunity.

      Yes, please listen to dr millers podcast with lew. I have natural immunity and vaccinated my kids whoare all adult now and unprotected therefore they are now vulnerable to more serious complications than if they had just gotten the measles and my daughters have no natural immunity to pass on to their infants during their most vulnerable phase of life.

    4. I also believe someone who worked with Wakefield fought the charges against him and won. Wakefield didn't because he didn't have the money.

  6. Ryan, while the medical community is awesome and wonderful in many ways, I disagree that we should trust doctors on vaccination. Most doctors do not study or research. They read and or are told conclusions that are endorsed by the main stream medical institution that are part of the crony capitol establishment that has stifled prosperity and freedom. Most doctors do not know what is in these vaccines and the risks associated with them, especially to the very young. Measles in particular is not worth the risk of vaccination. As the other commenter has eluded to, we may be better off dealing with the infection as children developing a more robust immunity.

    For the most part I don't blame the practitioner. They are very busy and have a job to do. They rely on the medical establishment. That's part of the problem. Gary North just posted an article about his wife battle with CFS illustrating how this establishment not only had no answers but persecutes those that do.

    When doctors told me that taking drugs for the rest of my life was the only answer to hypothyroidism I did my own research. Through life style changes I have become symptom free.

    When a sub dermal test for TB was interpreted as positive. It was recommended that I take antibiotic for many months. After some research I concluded that the test was misinterpreted and did not take the antibiotics. Antibiotics are just that, anti biotic and should not be taken unless necessary. That was about 15 years ago and I have not developed TB.

    Health is too important to just trust your doctor.

    Alex Z.