Autism Awareness
    Again, Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism
    By Massimo Pigliucci | June 30th 2009 11:45 AM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary


    View Massimo's Profile
    The evidence is in. The scientific community has reached a clear consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism. There is no controversy.” So begins an in-depth discussion of the vaccines-cause-autism nonsense penned by “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall in a recent issue of eSkeptic. It is a must read for any thinking person who has been baffled by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and her unconscionable sponsors, boyfriend Jim Carrey (who bankrolls McCarthy’s dangerous ignorance) and Oprah Winfrey (who provides McCarthy with television time so that she can endanger the lives of even more children).

    The SkepDoc helpfully traces the history of this pseudoscientific tale, dividing it into three acts.

    The original claim came from a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, proposing that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine may cause autism because 8 of 10 autistic children he had examined seemed to have developed their autistic symptoms immediately after having been vaccinated, according to their parents.

    If this sounds like pretty flimsy evidence, it is: the paper was eventually retracted by the journal and by most of Wakefield’s co-authors. It turned out that the doctor did not use any controls at all, ignored negative virological studies that had disproved his thesis even before the publication of the paper, had undisclosed financial conflicts of interest in the matter (he was paid by the lawyers of some of the families whose children he used in his research), and had violated ethical rules of conduct (he bought blood by bribing the children at a birthday party).

    Moreover, Wakefield’s findings could not be replicated by other studies, so you’d think that would be the end of the story. Nope: the bastard — once charged by the British General Medical Council with professional misconduct — simply moved to the United States, where he is happily making money by working in an autism clinic. As a result of Wakefield’s unconscionable “study”, vaccination rates in the UK dropped, cases of measles went up, and children died.

    Pseudoscience can kill.

    Phase two of the craze, according to Dr. Hall, can be traced back to legislation passed (also in 1998) with the aim of reducing the total amount of mercury that children get through the thimerosal that was used in vaccinations. The intention was good, though it turns out that the dangerous form of mercury is methylmercury, not the ethylmercury found in vaccines. Accordingly, the law was not prompted by any published research or serious assessment conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Instead, two mothers (!!) conducted their own “research” and claimed that the symptoms of autism are identical to those induced by mercury poisoning. As Hall points out, this is simply false, period. At any rate, thimerosal was eliminated from vaccines in 1999. You would therefore expect the rate of autism to have gone significantly down as a result, if the hypothesis of a causal link were somehow correct.

    It didn’t, in fact, it went up.

    Moreover, a dangerous cottage industry of people selling crackpot remedies against mercury poisoning has emerged, with quacks like Mark and David Geier selling a method that amounts to a very painful process of chemical castration for the hefty sum of $5000-6000 a month.

    Pseudoscience can hurt, badly.

    The third phase of this saga identified by Hall is the one that has seen the above-mentioned McCarthy and Winfrey involved, among others, and it is the even broader (and even less substantiated) claim that all vaccines produced by “Big Pharma” are harmful and are causing an epidemic of autism.

    McCarthy has an autistic child, and of course she is absolutely convinced that her motherly instincts trump science. She apparently realizes the dire consequences of what she is doing, if somewhat dimly. Here is a quote by McCarthy from the eSkeptic article: “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit.”

    The problem is, of course, that current vaccines are in fact as safe as vaccines are going to be, and the dangers are only in Miss McCarthy’s deranged mind. (Incidentally, there seems to be a reliable claim that McCarthy’s son developed autistic symptoms before he was vaccinated, thereby putting in question either the mother’s “instincts” or her good faith.)

    Pseudoscience can make you a celebrity, the health of the children be damned.

    Dr. Hall very appropriately quotes Jonathan Swift in the context of this discussion: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after.” That, of course, is true for the lies of pseudoscience as much as for those of politics (which was Swift’s main concern). What is astounding and deeply disturbing to me is that America seems to be enthralled with this manufactured controversy about science: a substantial portion of the public is convinced that vaccines are bad, while scientists agree that they are as safe as they can be; half of the public thinks that global warming is a myth, while the overwhelming majority of competent scientists keep telling us that we are in dire straits that are getting more and more dire; and of course more than half of Americans reject evolution, despite the fact that the theory has been accepted in science since the end of the 19th century.

    There is no simple solution to this problem, though these “controversies” are making the American population more ignorant (evolution), sick (vaccines) and environmentally unconscionable (global warming) than ever. Scientists and science educators need to do their part to counter this nonsense, of course.

    But celebrities like Carey and Winfrey ought to stop promoting bullshit because they are sleeping with a nutcase or out of a misplaced sense of wanting to help others from the dangerous depths of sheer ignorance. And of course the public at large has a duty to society to be informed and attempt to make the best decisions based on the most reliable sources of evidence.

    The information is out there, people, just use your brains.


    Well, if vaccines didn't cause his autism then how can you explain his recovery thanks to a "gluten-free, casein-free diet, vitamin supplementation, detox of metals, and anti-fungals for yeast overgrowth"?  Huh, smarty scientists??

    And she wonders why the CDC hasn't consulted her.
    Well, if vaccines didn't cause his autism then how can you explain his recovery
    thanks to a "gluten-free, casein-free diet, vitamin supplementation,
    detox of metals, and anti-fungals for yeast overgrowth"?  Huh, smarty

    Via vaccines causing a predominately&somewhat permanent Th1->Th2 shift in the immune system, which makes the immune system more likely to overreact to toxins&allergens. Getting rid of toxins&the like may help, but it's the shift in the immune system that's the problem. (see

    Just a hunch.
    How would diet, chelation, vitamins, or anti-fungals affect your postulated mechanism?  Most of the articles I have read attributing any of a wide variety of "environmental illnesses" to a "Th1->Th2 shift" reflect a rather incomplete understanding of how the immune system works.  While Th1/Th2 balance is important in the immune system, like toxins, karma, chi, etc., this appears to be latched onto in certain segments of the population as yet another "universal" cause of disease. 
    Immune response to a pathogen or toxin is determined by more than just the pathogen or toxin, as it also involves signaling cytokines, which involves other mechanisms like innate immunity, genetic predisposition, etc. Under various circumstances, a bacteria can mask as a viral infection, producing a viral immune response, or vice-versa. For a fascinating example see

    If the Th2 response is over-reactive, it's not necessarily b/c there are a lot of toxins in your body. That is, it's not a question of "balancing" your immune response just right, whatever that might mean. Instead, like an allergy, it's over-reacting to something, that thing likely setting off a cascade of events leading to a Th2 response. If it's just over-reactive to one thing, it's probably not much more than an allergy,&avoidance if possible is best; if it's over-reactive to lots of things, then there's probably something wrong with the immune system.

    Separate cause&effect. If someone is allergic to nuts, a peanut causes an allergic response in them; but a peanut doesn't cause nut allergies (ie, the condition). Likewise, in someone w/autism, toxins may cause autistic symptoms; but they don't cause the autism. The mechanism involved likely involves a unique cascade of events in the immune&blood systems in response to an array of toxins/pathogens which create benigh reactions in normal people.

    The role of vaccines in all this is speculative, but the notion is that in the wrong people at the wrong time they may turn on some of these innate Th2 switches (or turn on switches which turn on swtiches). At the least, I'd be surprised if we find out that the immune system in general does *not* play a role in autism.
    Interesting new press release on research regarding the effect of staph infections on the innate immune system:

    Relating to autism/vaccines, the idea seems to be that long-lasting reactions to infections involve both the Th1&the Th2 response in many people.
    vaccine, bisphenol pthalates shift to th2 immune system --. Neuronal pruning is a th1 based function.
    reason have asd is that with th2 shifted immune system , you have less apoptosis during neuronal pruning and end up with too many neurons in PFC and with that comes overconnected neurons and some form of ASD. The rational person would want to try corticosteroid shots in early ASD to shift back to TH1 immune system and reinstitue proper neuronal pruning/apoptosis. The vaccine is but the last domino in asd as it causes th2 shift , but just a drop in the bucket.......big players are bisphenols which have generational effects similar to DES, phthalates and similar chemicals used in plastics. When ya drink bisphenol, ya put your GRANDKIDS at risk for asd as well as your own future kids. The vaccine is just the last drop of water to cause the dam to break kind of situation. just fyi

    According to Jenny McArthur as reported by CNN (thanks to Hank for the link):
    Recently, England and Ireland reported that autism is affecting one in 58 individuals.

    According to the UK's National Autistic Society:
    The indication from recent studies is that the figures cannot be precisely fixed, but it appears that a prevalence rate of around 1 in 100 is a best estimate of the prevalence in children.
    No prevalence studies have ever been carried out on adults.
    Who are you going to believe, McArthur fans?  Well, Jenny of course, I mean, mothers know best, at least that's what Ma Barker always said.

    Great Article, Massimo!
    This article is a rehash of a cheap shot strategy to close down discussion of possible vaccine autism connections by tying any such issues to the actress and concerned mother Jenny McCarthy, insulting her and anyone who posits a possible vaccine autism connection. Like the other articles making the rounds this one ignore the commentary of other sources such as Dr. Bernadine Healy, a vaccine program supporter and former head of the NIH, who points out that the existing epidemiological studies are not specific enough to rule out a possible vaccine autism connection amongst vulnerable population subsets.

    Like Dr. Healy Dr. Julie Gerberding , until recently a head of the CDC has also said that studies of existing vaccinated and unvaccinated groups should be done to compare autism rates in the two populations. Those latter remarks are echoed by Dr. Duane Alexander, Director since 1986 of the National Institutes of Child Health and Development. Dr. Jon Poling is a NEUROLOGIST and father of an autistic child who brought an autism vaccine complaint on her behalf. The government settled the complaint in her favor. A simiilar result was achieved in the Banks case.

    The unscientific strategy of insulting those with whom you disagree which you have employed in this article has not stop autism vaccine discussions. It has not worked to address parental or professional concerns about the impacts on the neurological development of children who receive multiple injections of various chemical and biological substances directly into their bloodstream. Feel free to continue with the insults if you must but it will not achieve the result you seek, a difficult result to achieve in a democracy which values free expression.

    This article is a rehash of a cheap shot strategy to close down discussion of possible vaccine autism connections

    Not as I see it.  It is a targeted criticism of a woman who is using her fame to take cheap and uninformed shots at the very many medical professionals who don't agree with her.

    The truth is disseminated across the web if anyone cares to look.  The UK's legal aid board, a body set up to fund access to justice for poor people, paid some millions of pounds to fund Andrew Wakefield and his lawyers to carry out a biased and prejudicial study.  Ten of Wakefield's co-authors have specifically reversed - not just withdrawn - their support for the paper that first linked vaccines to autism.  His lab worker has claimed that results were faked.

    None of which proves that there is no link.  It only shows that, if there is a link, it has yet to be established.  Any scientist discussing a possible autism-vaccine connection will suggest scientific methods which have yet to be tried and will be open to discussion.  A scientist will not pull numbers out of a hat to support their theory, as Jenny McArthur has done - see my comment, above.

    Any scientist who proposes to carry out a proper study is to be applauded.
    See, e.g.

    Patrick, the opening comment says that the "evidence is in". Then focuses on Jenny McCarthy. The truth is that there are many health and research professionals who are of the view that the evidence DISproving a link is not conclusive, that there are further studies that should be done. The fact is that the government has settled cases which favor the plaintiffs in vaccine court before they could result in a court ruling with the attendant publicity they would attract, (Poling, Banks to name two).

    An article which declares the evidence conclusive and then supports that declaration by mocking a celebrity advocate for the contrary view while ignoring very credible dissenting views from the research and health care communities is disingenuous.

    This strategy is not unique to this particular discussion. Dr. Paul Offit has led this campaign of trivializing dissenting opinions, his words have been quoted and his lead followed, by many major publications and media outlets. The strategy is counterproductive and does not build public confidence in the safety of vaccines.

    Jim Myres
    Just my opinion

    I have a son that has Autism (kid #8 of 8, 5 boys 3 girls).

    Maybe emotions would not run so high if earlier views of autism were different.  If you go back thirty years or more autism was not any better understood then than it is now.  Unfortunately some professionals felt that autism was a matter of disipline, and the parents were to blame. 

    Our son is twenty-five years old, and there was always some guilt that maybe we did something wrong.  We have discussed and researched the vaccine theory, my wife is an RN and I am a pharmacist, we have read the literature.  

    We sincerely believe as parents and professionally recognize that vaccines are not the problem or the solution.   

    Jim Myres
    Steve Davis
    I saw a documentary years ago about a woman, autistic, raised on a cattle ranch, who had dificulty functioning due to anxiety, who noticed that cattle put in a crush with movement totally restricted, immediately calmed down. She tried it herself, can't remember if it was in the crush or something she manufactured, and experienced immediate relief. It might be that anxiety is one of the main drivers.
    Her name is Temple Grandin. She is one of the most famous autism activists. She is very open-minded about the vaccine-autism controversy. I respect the fact that she doesn't automatically blame vaccines or anything else, just because of coincidence.

    Excellent article. I despair at the stupidity of public discourse - medieval superstitions. Don't we teach these people anything in schools?

    I truly don’t understand all the engery and focus spent on attacking vaccines when most parents of severely autistic kids or adults (as seen on You Tube under autism self injury or severe autism) are just trying to survive the day. What good is it to continue ruminating about vaccines? If you don’t believe in them, fine, don’t get them for your children, but spend the engery you have on HELPING your children instead of going nuts over vaccinations...and by the way, isn't it now known that McCarthy's kid never even had real autism? He had febrile seizures that led to a temporary developmental delay..and then when treated with anti convulsants, he slowly recovered...It was never autism, according to some experts

    I understand that autism is not caused by vaccines. In much the same way, sulfur allergy is not caused by sulfur, (it is triggered by sulfur.) So Explain: A normally functioning child is given a vaccine, and immediately stops talking, turns inward, and loses all the social skills he has learned in three years. He says not a single word for 12 years. Then at 15, he goes through an absurd therapy designed to remove heavy metals from his body. He begins talking again.

    All scientists say is that this is a coincidence. Yet it happens much more frequently than anyone expects. I personally know three children this has happened to, out of a sample size of five.

    Unless science has an answer for this, then you are all just a bunch of witch doctors, staring at your navels and barking at the moon. I am sick of your theories, and I am sick of studies that avoid the issue.

    Several studies have already shown that children who take tylenol with the MMR vaccine are eight times more likely to be diagnosed with autism, and yet doctors still recommend tylenol with the MMR vaccine. Pitiful. Pathetic. Evil. Even if this is a pre-existing condition, the doctors are supposed to be treating it, not ignoring it.

    It is easy to pick on McCarthy and Carrey because they are nitwits. The article does not mention Dr. Jacquelyn McCandless or the dozens of other doctors who have supported bits and pieces of Wakefield's work with peer-reviewed studies. Until you stop knocking down straw men, you should stop spreading your own ignorance.

    you may find this interesting ---read an article on pubmed that WNT canoniacal signaling pathway dysregulation may contribute to several brain disorders , one being autism . Here is another bit of information ,Acetaminophen(tylenol) causes a downregulation of WNT signalling systems in multiple cell types.......I dont know if this helps ---you can find it on pubmed. asd is really multifactorial , but who would have thought WNT signalling pathways would have had anything to do with it ?. i dont know if tylenol downregulates the canoniacal or noncanoniacal WNT pathways... so may or may not be of help.

    Gerhard Adam
    However, it merits further investigation whether dysregulation of the Wnt/b-catenin pathway contributes to autism.
    However, this is in conjunction with VPA (Valproic Acid) and its use in treating epilepsy and migraines.

    It would be helpful when citing publications that you provide a link. 
    ...who would have thought WNT signalling pathways would have had anything to do with it...
    I don't believe there's any conclusive evidence that they are related.
    Mundus vult decipi
    There is so much speculation about mmr and autism, however the facts about the measles are well known. It is not a mild childhood illness.1 in 15 children who get measles will go on to develop pneumonia. 1 in 1000 will develop encephalitis. For every 10 who develop encephalitis, one will die, and 4 will have permanent brain damage.About 1 in 100,000 will develop fatal brain degeneration. As for the vaccination, 1 in 10 will have discomfort, local inflamation or fever. 1 in 20 may get a rash which is non infectious. 1 in 1 million may develop encephalitis. Please do not cease immunising your children. Measles is a deadly disease.

    Before vaccines, measles killed 8 million children in the world each year. In the united states, diptheria killed 15, 000 a year and whooping cough killed 8,000. I'd really hate to see these numbers come back if people continue to refuse the life safing vaccines that prevent them. There is always risk with medicine. Are you not going to drive your car because of the chance of a fatal accident? Are you going to refuse chemotherapy cause it kills the good and bad cells, but it might let you live?

    I dont know how you can get away from the TH2 shifting issue as it relates to impaired neuronal pruning.. Vaccines save lives , yes. Bisphenol shifts immune systems and has epigenetic effects that are transgenerational and bare the bulk of the blame. ASD have morphological facial features as well as other morphological features. When a child is born and these morphological changes are seen , why not delay the vaccine for 1 year and and go with a much less aggressive one for that kid ...we will still maintain heard immunity , so no loss , also no bishphenols for that kid , and if shows signs of asd, then give the kid some medicine to shift to TH1 immune system....would there be any harm in that? when some mom says she cured asd in her kid w/ herbs diet etc, be my guess what ever she did caused a shifting of the immune system toward the TH1 side of things.... and for those who argue that the immune system cannot be shifted enough to matter , look at the data on gulf war syndrome , not all , but many of those guys ended up with a permenently TH2 shifted immune system..... seems at least checking the newborn who has asd morphological features for a TH2 shifted immune system at birth would be a very logical way to sort out who is at most risk for further TH2 shifting from bisphenol(and other toxins) and who will get pushed over the edge with an early aggressive vaccine scheudule......thats where we need to do the studies.

    and yea , ASD is extremely complex , but i think we do every one a favor when we look with a logical eye at what people, moms,scientists, and Mds are doing and saying that may have made a difference and then study what could have happened to cause that , and not just spout government dogma that vaccines are gods gift and could never hurt. and assume the mom screaming into the phone on NPR radio science friday is crazy. or dismiss outright that what some mom did with diet / herbs/nutriceuticals helped her asd kid...Answers are found in signal transduction pathways.
    Every process has a mechanism , and we ,with our big fancy degrees, should be looking into those, with a scientifically innocent mind and leave our ego at home.

    Gerhard Adam
    ...and that's precisely where some studies are being done.

    ...not just spout government dogma that vaccines are gods gift and could never hurt...
    Statements like this, don't help.  To suggest that advocating vaccines is a government dogma issue denies the science and the studies that accompany it.  Risks have always been identified with vaccines, and there's even a process whereby reactions are reported and tracked.  However, to suggest that everyone is simply behaving as an automaton with respect to vaccines is simply wrong.
    Mundus vult decipi