Published in the Loudoun Independent on April 24, 2010

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D


Founder and Director, Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services

An impressive and large scale study published in the April issue of the journal, Pediatrics, has reported that one in four parents believe that some vaccines cause autism.  While the majority of concerned parents don’t let their fears impact their decision to vaccinate, many do.  In 2008, unvaccinated children contributed to measles outbreaks across several States including, Arizona, California, Illinois, New York and Washington.  The outbreak was very concerning to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inasmuch as 140 children became ill and measles can ultimately be deadly.

The fallacy that vaccinations cause autism originated out of a poorly done 1998 British research study, which was later retracted by the medical journal.  The panel investigating the 1998 study found the author to be unethical and dishonest in his reporting, and the study is no longer accepted by the medical and scientific community.  No other research study to date has found a link between vaccinations and autism; however, anecdotal reporting abounds with the strong belief by many that environmental factors can exacerbate or even cause the condition.

Why then do 25 percent of parents today conclude that there is a link between vaccines and autism when empirical studies have not found one?  I believe the controversy results from the drastic increase in diagnoses of autism in recent years without any definitive answers to why this is.  Today, the CDC reports an autism prevalence rate of 1 in every one hundred and fifty children (or 160 per 10, 000), and more recent research findings suggest that number to be a conservative one.  Males are reportedly about four times more likely than females to receive a diagnosis of autism.

The important question to whether there is indeed an increase in the prevalence of autism or if we are just diagnosing the condition better today remains unanswered.  Autism in now understood as a disorder across a spectrum involving severity, so diagnosing is getting more accurate.  For instance, twenty years ago researchers and clinicians weren’t separating out low functioning autism from high functioning autism or mental retardation like they are today.  Impairments in functioning were understood more globally.  And, the many other developmental conditions were also not considered at the time (e.g., executive functioning disorder or sensory processing disorder).  This is not to say that environmental factors don’t play a role in autism, it’s just that nothing yet has been substantiated in the research to support that position.

Within the autism movement itself, leading advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks promote vaccinations.  Moreover, throughout the Country, and right here in Northern Virginia, most pediatricians take a very hard line on vaccinations.  Some local pediatricians will not even accept your child as a new patient if you do not adhere to their recommended vaccination regime.  In Loudoun County, there are now even minimum immunization requirements for entry into school and day care that can no longer be challenged.  Moreover, immunization requirements are now mandated by the Code of Virginia, §22.1-271.2, Loudoun County School Board Policy, §8-51, and the Virginia Department of Health.

The message here then is to vaccinate your child, as there simply is no solid evidence that should otherwise lead a parent to avoid vaccinations and risk protection from life-threatening illnesses.