Blog | Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Do vaccines cause autism? A victory for science

Ohio made national news twice in one week, and the Cuyahoga River wasn't even on fire.

Cuyahoga River Flats by laszlo-photo via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseFirst, President Barack Obama and his entourage flew here to headline the conference, Winning the Future Forum for Small Business, when he addressed small business leaders. He referred to the "reinvention of Cleveland," a term that suggests we are experiencing a renaissance here, an event that most of us are unaware of. In any event, when a president flies in, it offers an opportunity to think, particularly if you are held hostage on the highway awaiting the presidential motorcade. Then, you can ponder how late you will be for your destination.

Education, one of my preferred issues, also made headlines. A Mount Vernon, Ohio teacher was accused of infecting his curriculum with creationism, among other allegations which readers can discover with a single click after a Google search. Ohioans follow the creationism issue closely and pride ourselves on being more enlightened than many spirited evangelists from the Sunflower State who tried to convince us a few years back to accept "intelligent design" in the classroom. Their design was both intelligent and transparent. "Teach the controversy," they argued. However, acknowledging that a controversy existed would provide them with a victory. There is no controversy. Creationism and its repackaged cousin intelligent design are not science and cannot be permitted to masquerade as such.

Science won a victory in Washington, D.C. recently. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that folks who claim injury from a vaccine may not sue the manufacturers and must rely upon the vaccine compensation system, called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation System (VICP), that was designed 25 years ago. The 6 to 2 vote suggests that this was not a close legal call. The case before the court involved parents who alleged that a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine caused permanent developmental deficits and seizures in their child. They sued first in state court and then in federal court when the special vaccine tribunal, referenced above, ruled that they did not prove that the DPT vaccine caused the injury.

The VCIP, or "vaccine court" system, is an excellent institution that serves everyone's interest. This court has special knowledge and expertise in vaccinations, much more so than would a jury of one's peers have in an ordinary trial. If this court is persuaded that a claim meets their burden of proof, then compensation is speedily awarded. Granted, these petitioners may not strike lottery gold, as they might in traditional civil litigation, but they will be promptly and fairly compensated. More importantly, this system protects vaccine manufacturers from defending a deluge of annual lawsuits from folks who are convinced that their products have harmed them or their kids. Although I believe that most of these claims are sincere, the vast majority of them are unfounded. They are based on emotion and fueled by a vocal minority of anti-vaccine enthusiasts who try hard to transform anecdotes and vignettes into science.

We all are aware of a belief that measles vaccine can cause or worsen autism. This has been a wrenching issue for many families who are convinced that measles (MMR vaccine) or other vaccines caused their children to develop this serious illness. These anecdotes have been widely reported in the press and generate understandable sympathy from the public. Sympathy, however, is not science. At this point, there is no scientific evidence that any vaccine causes autism, a finding that has been upheld by the VICP repeatedly.

While every vaccine, including measles, has potential side-effects, these are rare events. Health experts strongly advise that risks of harm from routine vaccinations are much less than the risks of not having immunity to various communicable diseases.

Autism is a mysterious and serious illness. We all hope that medical research will lead to understanding the cause of this disease and to effective treatments. So far, the verdict on the measles vaccine in the case of MMR vs Autism is not guilty.

Who says there is only bad news coming from the nation's capital? The judicial branch of government performed superbly in this instance. We owe much gratitude to our founding fathers, who so intelligently designed our government.

This post by Michael Kirsch, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.