A large new study — which was published just in time for National Infant Immunization Week — is being hailed as the final “nail in the coffin” of the persistent conspiracy theory that some vaccines are linked to autism.
The notion that the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) may put kids at a greater risk for autism stems from a widely discredited study from a disgraced British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. That study was retracted back in 2000, just two years after it was first published, but the damage to public health was already done: This particular conspiracy theory has become widespread in Western countries, and continues to make some parents skeptical about the safety of vaccines.
In the years since Wakefield’s initial research on the topic, several different studies have reaffirmed the safety of the recommended childhood vaccination schedule. No credible evidence has emerged that vaccines have any effect on autism rates.
Now, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has ruled out a potential vaccine-autism link even among a small group of children who are more at risk for the disorder. The review of nearly 100,000 children found that even when toddlers have an older sibling who has been placed on the autism spectrum — which means they could have a greater chance of developing autism themselves — getting the MMR shot does nothing to increase that risk.
“Even for children who are high-risk, the vaccine does not play a role,” lead author Dr. Anjali Jain told Reuters. “We don’t know what does unfortunately, but it’s not the MMR vaccine.”
While the findings are unsurprising to the scientific community, they could help put parents’ minds at ease — particularly since the new study also found that children who had an older sibling with autism were less likely to be vaccinated, suggesting that their parents are worried about the imaginary link.
However, it’s been difficult for the medical community to put this myth about the MMR vaccine to rest, despite the scientific consensus on the topic. The people who are skeptical of vaccines tend to distrust scientists’ opinions on the topic.
“Eight million studies are not going to convince people,” Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UCLA who wasn’t involved in the latest study, lamented to the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, even the spread of vaccine preventable illnesses isn’t necessarily enough to convince this population. Last month, a different study confirmed that a recent measles outbreak that sickened nearly 200 people over the course of three months was driven by anti-vaccine individuals. Researchers concluded that the rates of MMR vaccination among the infected population was far lower than the 95 percent threshold that doctors recommend. The authors of that study warned that their evidence suggests the outbreak was a “quite possibly a direct consequence of the growing anti-vaccination movement in the United States.”
The relatively newly-confirmed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — who stepped into the position at the end of last year — has launched a campaign to drive home the public health benefits of vaccination. In one video released last week, Murthy deploys the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo to help explain the safety of vaccines.