The nail in the coffin for autism vaccine myth

Australian scientists hope that a Danish study released this week will finally put the myth of a link between MMR vaccines an autism to bed.

The study, which looked at all Danish kids born between 1999 and 2010; more than half a million in total, found no increase in the risk of autism in vaccinated kids, even in those with other autism risk factors.

“Among other things, we have looked at children with autistic siblings, because we know that they have an increased risk of developing autism themselves,” said lead author Anders Hviid from the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen.

An enduring criticism of previous work had been that it failed to examine subgroups of children considered to be at a high risk for autism. The study directly examined this concern and is the latest in a long line of research to show no link between vaccines and autism. It also showed no link and no clustering of autism cases following vaccination.

Putting the myth to bed once and for all

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris from the University of Auckland said she hoped this study put to bed the notion that MMR might trigger autism in susceptible subgroups of children.

“The coffin is both nailed and superglued shut then hermetically sealed,” she said.

The findings were also welcomed by Australian experts including Professor Ian Fraser AC, from the University of Queensland, one of the co-developers of the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer.

“It should further reassure parents and prospective parents that MMR vaccination is safe,” he said.

Despite several studies over the past 20 years repeating this finding, the vaccine-autism link persists in the anti-vaxxer movement.

Dr Katie Flanagan, from the University of Tasmania hoped the study would mean researchers can now “get on with the important goal of eradicating this deadly disease once and for all.”

People will cling to false beliefs in face of evidence

But an accompanying editorial by Dr Saad Ome from Emory University warns that evidence probably won’t be enough to convince some, a concern shared by some Australian scientists:

“Sadly, there will still be those who cling to conspiracy theories or coincidental evidence that confirms their fears or suspicions,” said Dr James Donnelly, a researcher in Psychology at Southern Cross University.

Social media continues to be one way that vaccine myths endure and spread and the Director of the Australian National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Professor Kristine Macartney encouraged worried parents to instead seek advice from reliable sources and qualified health professionals.

Dr Ome suggests doctors advising patients should also take a page from the ‘Debunking Handbook’ developed by Australian researchers, John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. The Handbook includes some simple steps to debunking misinformation including limiting mentions of the myth itself, focusing on a few key facts and presenting an alternative explanation.

“Continuing to evaluate the MMR-autism myth when it has already been thoroughly debunked, will come at the expense of not pursuing other important research to better understand and prevent autism,” said Professor Macartney

You can read the full expert reaction here

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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