Why the Latest Facebook Vaccine Rumor Is 100-Percent Wrong

A post about the supposed "link" between vaccines and autism has gone viral. Here's why you need to ignore it.

A new -- and dangerous -- rumor has gone viral on Facebook claiming that courts have "quietly confirmed" a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism. If you're too busy to read the article, here's the bottom line: It's 100-percent wrong.

"Numerous studies have shown that vaccines don’t cause autism," says American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Alanna Levine, M.D., a pediatrician in Orangeburg, New York. "But the emotional fear is still present. I don't blame families for being afraid and asking questions, but the science is so clear."

The supposed MMR/autism "link" dates back to 1998. An obscure British medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield wrote a paper in the British medical journal The Lancet asserting a link between MMR and autism. In 12 children.

Flash forward to 2013. Andrew Wakefield? His hypothesis is one of the most thoroughly, carefully, extensively disproven in the history of science.

His original paper was not only wrong, it was fraudulent. He was found to have lied and fabricated data. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper. ("It's almost unheard of to have an article withdrawn from a journal," says Dr. Levine.) Andrew Wakefield is now barred from practicing medicine in Great Britain.

The latest claim is based on an Italian court, and the American program to compensate medical victims of vaccine side effects. The Italian court ordered compensation to a family based on the evidence of -- wait for it -- Andrew Wakefield, plus an author with a miracle autism cure. This particular Italian court is apparently known for rulings that aren’t based on science, according to the investigative blog Skeptical Raptors as well as reporter Emily Willingham in Forbes.com. It once sent a geologist to jail for six years for manslaughter because he wasn’t able to give adequate advance notice that an earthquake was going to happen. (Never mind that we don't have the science to predict earthquakes fast enough to get everyone out of the way quickly.)

The American "court" is also problematic. It's not actually a public court, but a special no-fault system developed by the government to compensate victims of serious vaccine side effects. In two cases, children who may have autism (the files are not public) have been compensated. But because the case is sealed, the medical cause of the injury hasn’t been revealed. One possible cause is encephalitis, an incredibly rare side effect from the MMR vaccine that can cause brain swelling; it occurs in approximately one child for every million children who get an MMR vaccine. Unlike autism, this is a possible (if highly remote) side effect, so it’s a reasonable cause for compensation.

It’s not just that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Extensive scientific research has failed to find any evidence that any vaccine -- or any combination of vaccines -- contributes to autism. According to Dr. Levine, many parents of children with autism realize that this particular hypothesis isn’t helping. "My patients with autism don’t blame the vaccine for it," says Dr. Levine.

"I have a handful of parents who are nervous about vaccines," says Dr. Levine. "We work with them to help them feel comfortable." If requested, she'll provide single vaccinations rather than a combination when that's possible. (It’s not possible with MMR.) "My goal is to get every child vaccinated according to schedule. I want families to feel good about vaccinating their children, not to feel that I am forcing them to do it."

Meanwhile, preventable measles, mumps and rubella -- and all the other vaccine-preventable diseases -- can do great harm. In the U.S., before widespread vaccination, mumps alone infected 200,000 children a year, left thousands with complications (such as deafness), and killed 20 or 30 children a year. Today in Wales, where Wakefield's ideas have taken root, more than a thousand unvaccinated children have gotten measles, a disease that lands one in 10 in the hospital, and can kill. These sick children may be the true legacy of Wakefield’s fraud.

"Vaccines," says Dr. Levine, "are one of the greatest medical advances of all time. They have prevented countless numbers of deaths -- and suffering -- in children and adults."

Bob Barnett is a health journalist and editor in New York City. Follow him on Twitter and Google +.

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