It's rare in science and science writing to make definitive statements, particularly about causation. We like to add what I call "wishy washy" words like "may" and "probably" and "perhaps." So when scientists or science writers make definitive statements like "vaccines don't cause autism" and "vaccines save lives," it's because we have overwhelming evidence to back it up.
But 25 percent of parents in a recent University of Michigan poll agreed with the statement "some vaccines cause autism in healthy children" and 11.5 percent have refused at least one vaccination for their child. This is worrisome.
The now-discredited link between autism and vaccines was proposed by British scientist Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 paper in the Lancet. No one was ever able to reproduce the results of that study, and the paper has since been retracted by the journal. A recently concluded investigation of Wakefield found that he had conducted unapproved and unnecessary tests on children and even paid children at his son's birthday party for providing blood samples. Wakefield has since resigned from the autism center he began in Texas.
Other studies that have examined childhood vaccines and autism have failed to find any link. When the Institute of Medicine reviewed the issue six years ago, they concluded "the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism" and recommended "a public health response that fully supports an array of vaccine safety activities."
No one should die from a preventable disease like measles or pertussis, but they do, even here in the United States, when parents choose to leave their children unvaccinated.
Vaccines work. They don't cause autism. Now, perhaps, scientists can spend their resources on figuring out what does instead of wasting them on a debunked theory.
( For more information on vaccines, read A Brief History and How Vaccines Work, Success Stories and A History of Vaccine Backlash from our Vaccine Week coverage last year.)