Anti-vaxxer lie finally exposed
A MAJOR new study has revealed no link between autism and a childhood vaccine used by millions - but researchers fear myths spread by anti-vaxxers over decades means the "conspiracy" will be impossible to defeat.
A supposed link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine has caused angst for years and has fuelled claims by anti-vaxxers the vaccine - which is widely used in Australia and throughout the world - was unsafe.
This has led to a slower uptake in the vaccine than doctors would like and has contributed to the explosion of the anti-vaxxer movement.
A major Danish study published today shows the MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism, trigger autism in susceptible children and isn't linked with clustering of autism cases following vaccination.
MMR vaccine requires two doses and protects against the three diseases. Its use has led to a dramatic fall in rates of measles in Western countries.
The nationwide study, by researchers from Copenhagen's Statens Serum Institute, looked at all Danish children born between 1999 and 2010; more than half a million in total.
US and Australian experts has been quick to embrace the findings - and they all worry that even this study won't be enough to finally smash the myth that MMR can cause autism.
"In an ideal world, vaccine safety research would be conducted only to evaluate scientifically grounded hypotheses, not in response to the conspiracy du jour. In reality, hypotheses propagated by vaccine sceptics can affect public confidence in vaccines.," wrote Dr Saad Omer and Dr Inci Yildirim of the Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta.
That had obvious challenges, and led to questions about how much time and energy should now be spent on trying to convince people the vaccine was safe.
"Continuing to evaluate the MMR-autism hypothesis might come at the expense of not pursuing some of the more promising leads. Even in the face of substantial and increasing evidence against an MMR-autism association, the discussion around the potential link has contributed to vaccine hesitancy.
"Therefore, generating evidence on MMR vaccine safety may be useful but is certainly not sufficient. It has been said that we now live in a 'fact-resistant' world where data have limited persuasive value."
Professor Katie Flanagan, an infectious diseases and clinical professor at the University of Tasmania, said all studies since a controversial Lancet article by a discredited UK doctor, Andrew Wakefield, had failed to find a link between autism and MMR.
Mr Wakefield, the former British doctor and researcher, birthed the modern anti-vaccination movement with widely discredited research, which was withdrawn by The Lancet medical journal and renounced by its co-authors, The Independent reported.
His medical licence was revoked in 2010.
"The (Wakefield) paper was subsequently withdrawn but the damage had been done. An increase in vaccine hesitancy and refusal since then has been associated with repeated outbreaks of measles in industrialised countries in recent years, including Australia, with cases doubling in Europe in the last year."
Dr Flanagan said the latest study was the "largest study yet" to try and finally banish the supposed link.
"Perhaps it is time to finally lay to rest the false information that MMR causes autism and get on with the important goal of eradicating this deadly disease once and for all," he said.
Dr Hannah Kirk, of Monash University, welcomed the news, but noted it was more time and money spent on refuting conspiracy theories.
"Although it is fantastic to see another high-quality study refute the myth of an autism and MMR vaccine link, it is disappointing that substantial research efforts, time and funds have to continue to be directed toward disproving something that we already know to be incorrect; rather than investigating more accurate causes of autism."
But some experts believed not everyone would be convinced.
"Sadly, there will still be those who cling to conspiracy theories or coincidental evidence that confirms their fears or suspicions. The scientific method is not always applied perfectly and not all findings tell the whole story but it is the best tool we have for testing our guesses about how things work," said Dr James F. Donnelly, a lecturer at Southern Cross University.
"Helping parents and the general public become informed consumers of research findings as they advocate for children is a key role for academics and clinicians across all healthcare disciplines."