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Is There a Relationship Between Vaccines and Autism?

The relationship between vaccines and autism is a complicated mix of theory and fact. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neural disorder that affects behavior and interaction abilities, and has no known cause. Some popular theories have linked vaccines and autism, but no widely-accepted medical or scientific studies have confirmed this relationship.

The relationship between vaccines and autism was first explored in a 1998 medical study performed by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British researcher. According to Wakefield, his study showed evidence that children quickly developed bowel inflammation and behavioral symptoms after receiving the standard MMR vaccination, a triple-dose vaccine that guards against measles, mumps and rubella. While the study could not confirm a causal relationship between vaccines and autism, Wakefield touted the idea that the three viruses used in the vaccine could cause an immune system overload and somehow relate to a sudden onset of autism. Wakefield did not advocate abandoning vaccines, but did recommend separating the triple dose into single doses spread over three years.

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The results of Wakefield's study were instantly controversial in the medical research community. Similar studies were performed and found absolutely no connection between vaccines and autism. Subsequent investigation of the original study found evidence that Wakefield and his colleagues had violated medical ethics and conduct rules throughout the trial process. In 2010, the General Medical Counsel (GMC) of the United Kingdom ordered Wakefield's name stricken from the medical register, finding him guilty of serious misconduct violations. Additionally, the medical journal that published the original study expunged the results.

Despite being highly controversial since its inception, the relationship between vaccines and autism is still highly regarded and respected by many outside the medical profession. Some parents of autistic children, notably actress Jenny McCarthy, have publicly stated that their children began to display symptoms of autism immediately after vaccination. Public endorsements such as this lead to the rise of an anti-vaccine movement that touted reducing or refusing the normal vaccines given to children.

Since autism has no clear cause, it is not unreasonable that concerned parents would seek answers based on alternative theories, such as the studies performed by Dr. Wakefield. With the rise of the Internet, it is now easier than ever to find and discuss theories such as the link between vaccines and autism. While there are many upsides to online support and discussion communities, it can easily lead to a confusion between verified fact and passionately believed theory. Parents, naturally concerned about protecting the health and well-being of their children, might have difficulty distinguishing the touted theories of a vaccine/autism link from the multitude of medical studies that assert no link between the two.

In May of 2010, the United State's Court of Federal Claims ruled against parents seeking damages for autism caused by a vaccine preservative called thimerosol. According to the court's decision, the plaintiffs were unable to show any link between thimerosol and the onset of autism. Despite this decision, many highly-respected medical studies that find no link between vaccines and autism, and the removal of Dr. Wakefield's study from medical journals, many still believe a link exists.

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