With the recent outbreak of measles across the United States, the rationale for parents choosing not to immunize their children has become a hot topic. The notion that the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism is not new. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a paper describing 8 children who supposedly developed autism within 1 month of receiving the MMR vaccine. Published in the prominent journal, The Lancet, the paper was later retracted because it was deemed fraudulent and it misrepresented the data. In 2002, Wakefield and colleagues published a second paper again purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was also critically flawed and its results called into question. Nevertheless, opponents of immunization use these studies as proof that vaccines cause autism while disregarding the entire body of evidence that shows no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia does an excellent job of summarizing all of these studies in its online Vaccine Education Center.
The bottom line is that measles, which could be eradicated with vaccination, present a widespread threat to population health, making it imperative for parents, as citizens, to make wise healthcare decisions for themselves and their families. We want those decisions to be based on good science, rooted in evidence, and not mired in myths. As the current measles outbreak demonstrates, bad science leads people to make decisions that can place us all at unnecessary risk for severe and sometimes fatal infections.