The Autism Fallacy Regarding Vaccines

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Vaccines have undeniably aided in the eradication of many infectious diseases. However, recently eradicated viruses have resurfaced as a result of the growing number of parents who fail to vaccinate their autistic children. While there have been questions about vaccine safety, it was not until Andrew Wakefield’s publication in 1998 that anti-immunization sentiment became widespread (Ahearn 47; Plotkin, Gerber, & Offit 457). Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues suggested a connection between vaccination and the disease. Despite subsequent studies refuting the claims, the coincidence between immunization schedules and the onset of autistic symptoms, the plurality of vaccines and their manufacturers, and some of them containing mercury compounds have enhanced the widespread propaganda. The opinion that vaccines cause autism, and, therefore, any child immunized having a likelihood of contracting the disorder, has shaped public opinion and relegated scientific findings over the issue. As a result, education and awareness campaigns will address the structural and systemic influences to the anti-vaccine rhetoric, thereby improving compliance among parents previously in opposition.

Although a lot of propaganda is peddled that vaccines cause autism, existing scientific research has proven a lack of causality between the practice and the disorder (Ahearn 46; Plotkin et al. 457). Andrew Wakefield’s publication, which triggered the anti-vaccine rhetoric, has long been refuted and recalled from The Lancet, the journal that published his paper. Plotkin et al. (457) assert that Wakefield and colleagues conducted a self-referred cohort study, which lacked a control group to arrive at the interpretations and conclusions made regarding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The lack of control subjects, as observed by many researchers, points to the floppiness of his findings and conclusions. Ahearn (46) puts across similar observations and highlights that only controlled studies could favorably outline a cause-effect relationship between the research variables. The fact that environmental control was lacking in the study warrants the rejections of the inferences altogether. Therefore, vaccines do not cause autism.

In as much as Andrew Wakefield published and defended his findings, the circumstances of the research process were questionable. Ahearn (46) notes that Wakefield involved himself in many unethical practices during the research. A statement by Britain’s General Medical Council (GMC) regards him as an irresponsible, dishonest, and unethical person who failed to recognize and uphold the interests of the autistic children he studied (Ahearn 47). The presence of elements of dishonesty and unethical conduct renders the research process as null and void, including the findings and inferences are drawn from it. Ahearn (47) also reveals monetary motivations to the study, since it targeted vaccine manufacturers for litigations over autism-related adverse reactions. These disclosures imply that Wakefield was not only unscrupulous but also calculating. As a result, these disclosures warrant the dismissal of the vaccine-autism fallacy.

Besides, other studies investigating the same problem in similar settings have yielded different results. Ahearn (47) reports of a study carried out by D’Souza and company evaluating the same vaccine hypothesis. Although it was a replica of the one carried out by Wakefield and his colleagues, it utilized a larger sample of children with autism (54) and developed ones (34). Their findings revealed that neither of the groups of children manifested any evidence of measles virus, nor variations in the antibodies produced. Apparently, both autistic children and those with typical development have similar responses to the MMR vaccines, and the fallacy of causality was lacking. A confirmatory study was carried out by Afzal and colleagues and produced similar results (Ahearn 47). The two studies are among the many other studies that have opposed the causality between vaccines and autistic disorders. Plotkin et al. (458-9) highlight that studies carried out in Canada, US and Europe, have negated the vaccines involvement in autism. As a result, the available research does not only evidentially rejects the hypothesis, but have also shown the impossibility of the causal link between vaccines and the disorders. This clearly indicates that the propaganda is unfounded.

Notwithstanding the above scientific information, there is no direct biological explanation to connect vaccine use to autism. ASD is a biological disorder affecting the brain, and because of this effect, it leads to various developmental anomalies and behavioral deficits (Plotkin 457). Andrew Wakefield had hypothesized that the MMR vaccine results in the release of non-permeable peptides following inflammatory reactions to the active principles in the formulation, which, in turn, enter the brain and cause autistic symptoms. For this to occur, a biological plausibility needs to be established. The brain has a barrier that disallows the entry of undesirable substances. However, the encephalopathic peptides, as Wakefield alludes, have unhindered ability to reach the brain. Because of this reality, his hypothesis may seem credible; hence, confirming the pathogenesis in autism. Nonetheless, Plotkin et al. (457-459) report numerous studies that have found no involvement between the vaccine administration and the predated gastrointestinal inflammation, which facilitates associated release of encephalopathic peptides. Since these studies have found no cases of chronic gut inflammation preceding the release of the said peptides, the biological plausibility, as earlier suggested by Wakefield is invalid.

In spite of the many scientific findings revealing that the anti-vaccine hypothesis is baseless and invalid, the number of parents refusing involvement in immunization appears to grow. Chatterjee (135) observes that parental refusal claims have since risen since Andrew Wakefield’s publication. In a study conducted by Smith et al. (136-142) involving the 2009 National Immunization Survey data, their findings show that 8.2% of the respondents refused to vaccinate their children, 25.8% delayed, while 5.8 % delayed and refused altogether. From this observations, approximately 14% of the 11,206 respondents refused immunization requests. That figure has risen off late and is becoming alarming, given that previously eradicated infections are becoming problematic. Therefore, it is important to enquire the reasons for the soaring noncompliance to vaccination despite already debunked propaganda relating to this issue.

Reflecting on the earlier mentioned statistics, parents refuse to immunize their children for many reasons, despite proven scientific information rejecting Andrew Wakefield’s hypothesis. Part of the recent proliferations on the anti-vaccine rhetoric relates to the onset of autism among children. According to Plotkin et al. (458), the disorder manifests by the age of two years, thereby coinciding with the administration of the MMR vaccine. As Chatterjee (134) observes, many parents are using this hypothesis to deny vaccinating their children because they have seen other parents elsewhere reporting almost immediate or delayed symptoms of the disorder upon administration of the formulation. Considering that the illness is fatal, many parents fear to raise autistic children because its possibility can be prevented by immunization program avoidance. However, despite no causality between the high occurrences of the disorder and vaccination, parents draw the erroneous conclusion of attribution. As a result, proper education and awareness campaigns remain the best available approach to pro-vaccination campaigns.

Apart from the coincidence between vaccine administration and the onset of autism, some of the ingredients have been touted to predispose children to autism. Chatterjee (134) and Plotkin et al. (458) observe that the MMR vaccine contains thimerosal, which is a mercury-containing preservative. Since thimerosal is an antibacterial agent, its inclusion in the manufactured product protects the active principles from degradation by possibly existing bacteria. The integration of mercury agents is alarming, given that it is a heavy metal and can cross into the brain to cause neuronal dysfunctions and subsequent mental and behavior responses. The possibility of mentally deranged and behaviorally deficient children understandably concerns parents, who would rather halt the administration than see the possibility of exposing their children to the harmful effects of mercury (Chatterjee 134). These misgivings were further magnified when the Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended the withdrawal of mercury-related products from vaccines and other consumables. Given such suggestions, parental fears over vaccines were confirmed; hence, affirming their stand against vaccines. However, Plotkin et al. (458) note that several descriptive and observational studies have failed to ascertain the biological plausibility of thimerosal in the pathogenesis of autism. They failed to determine the attribution of the ingredient exposure and the occurrence of the disorder. Again, adequate education and awareness campaigns that target factual information will be crucial in the pro-vaccine uptake.

Besides the reasons mentioned above, the growing number of vaccine products and manufacturers have motivated some parents to avoid vaccinating their children. Chatterjee (135) and Plotkin et al. (459) note that parents are becoming relaxed to immunize their children because they believe that safety and quality parameters, which are ideal for any medical product, may not be sufficiently addressed by the government. Because of this possibility, the production of vaccines that predispose children to autoimmune disorders characteristic of autism-associated symptoms may be possible. However, Chatterjee (135) dismisses such precepts as flawed and scientifically baseless, since quality parameters are strictly checked before releasing the product into the market. On the issue of too many vaccines overwhelming the already young children’s immune systems, Plotkin et al. (459) contend that the infants’ immune system can mount a vast array of protective responses that conservatively protect them from the immunized infections. Furthermore, the concept of autism as a non-immune mediated disease dismisses the speculations over the involvement of a weak immune system in its pathogenesis. Therefore, imparting this knowledge in a structured awareness form will reduce some of these misconceptions and facilitate vaccine acceptance.

Conclusion

Vaccines are essential in the eradication of infections. However, anti-vaccine campaigns and propaganda threaten the resurgence of previously eliminated and deadly infections. Scientific studies have demonstrated a lack of causality between vaccines and autism. Descriptive and observational research have been exploited, and findings validly dismiss the vaccine hypothesis in the pathogenesis of the disorder. Nonetheless, these revelations seem unconvincing enough to parents who continue to propagate the anti-vaccine rhetoric. Their reasons stem from the coincidental probability between vaccine administration and the onset of autistic symptoms, the integration of mercury products in the formulations, and the plurality of the products and their manufacturers. Therefore, public education and awareness campaigns will delineate the misconceptions and facilitate parental vaccine acceptance.

Works Cited

Ahearn, William H. “What every behavior analyst should know about the “MMR causes Autism” hypothesis.” Behavior Analysis in Practice 3.1 (2010): 46-50. Internet Resource.

Chatterjee, Archana. Vaccinophobia and Vaccine Controversies of the 21st Century. New York, NY: Springer, 2013. Internet resource.

Plotkin, Stanley, Jeffrey S. Gerber, and Paul A. Offit. “Vaccines and autism: A tale of shifting hypotheses.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 48.4 (2009): 456-461. Internet Resource.

Smith, Philip, J., Sharon G. Humiston, Edgar K. Marcuse, Zhen Zhao, Christina G. Dorrell, Cynthia Howes, and Beth Hibbs. “Parental delay or refusal of vaccine doses, childhood vaccination coverage at 24 months of age, and the health belief model.” Public Health Reports 126.Suppl 2 (2011): 135-146. Internet Resource.

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